The late Carl Sagan is credited with popularizing the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. (hereinafter this will be referred to as the “EC-EE” claim) While the phrase has become the skeptic’s mantra, its original roots probably trace back to the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre –Simon LaPlace (1749-1827) who once wrote: “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness”. Regardless of its origins, the sentiment expressed in the quote has, over the last few years, become one of the bedrock critiques against ID. The notion seems to be along the lines that ID’s core claim is that only an unembodied supernatural intelligence can account for the specified complexity exhibited in biological systems, and that claim, according to the critics, is extraordinary. (Whether or not that is the core claim of ID is another matter… but we’ll leave that aside for now.)
Consider, for example, well known atheist and skeptic, Michael Shermer, who wrote in his book Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design:
Darwin’s original claim of evolution by means of natural selection was an extraordinary claim in its time, so he was required to provide extra ordinary evidence for it. He did, and evidence has continued accumulating ever since. Today, the burden of proof is on creationists and Intelligent Design advocates to provide extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claim that a supernatural being of great power and intelligence performed a supernatural act in place of or contrary to natural law. They have yet to do so.
(Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2006, pg 50)
Shermer’s intent here seems pretty clear: the claims of ID are extraordinary and as such require extraordinary evidence. We’ll come back to that in another post, but first I want to address something that Shermer did not intend to convey, but did. By juxtaposing Darwin’s claim, which was considered extraordinary in the 1800’s with ID’s claims of today (the extraorinariness of which Shermer assumes is “just obvious”), Shermer has unintentionally brought to the surface two important critiques against the EC-EE claim. The first is that what constitutes an extraordinary claim, and thereby extraordinary evidence, is quite worldview dependent (more on that in a moment); the second is that given the first critique the EC-EE claim itself is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. (more on this to follow as well).
Let us take a closer look at the first critique, that the EC-EE claim is worldview dependent. In his quote, Shermer assumes that the prevailing worldview of the mid-late 1800’s when Darwin wrote his famous tome was some form of theism and that most people, including scientists, operated on the assumption that we live in a created universe. If Shermer doesn’t think that was the case, then why say that Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis would have seemed extraordinary when he wrote it? Further, Shermer is quite convinced that in current times the tables have been turned and that most people (or at least most scientific people) operate from a naturalistic worldview so the claims of ID, as he states them, are considered extraordinary. What Shermer has shown in making these two statements is that what counts as “extraordinary” in the EC-EE claim depends completely on one’s point of view which in turn is informed by one’s worldview. For Shermer, an atheist and philosophical naturalist, the claims of ID would seem extraordinary. Other atheists, like Richard Dawkins, claim that Darwin’s idea of evolution made it possible to be “intellectually fulfilled” atheists. The claims of creationists or of ID proponents are extraordinary indeed under that worldview.
However, to a theist or a Christian, the claims of ID are not only acceptable, but pretty straightforward and uncontroversial. It is the claims of Darwinism that seems quite extraordinary to many if not most of today’s theists or Christians. From the theistic worldview the claim that the blind, purposeless forces of matter and energy interacting over eons of time through chance and/or necessity could account for the rich complexity of biological systems is the extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. For theists, if I might paraphrase Shermer’s quote above, “the burden of proof is on Darwinists to provide extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claim that the blind, purposeless forces of matter and energy interacting over eons of time through chance and/or necessity can account for the complex, specified information exhibited in biological systems. They have yet to do so.” Both Shermer’s original quote above and my paraphrase here bear equal weight under the EC-EE claim.
The upshot of this contrast between the extraordinary claims of Darwin in the 1800’s and of ID today is that the terms “extraordinary” and even “evidence” are highly worldview dependent. And that leads us to the second critique mentioned above: is the EC-EE claim itself an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence? I’m not aware of anyone who thinks the EC-EE claim is on the same order as a First Principle of reasoning, such as the Law of Non-Contradiction would be. So, exactly what is the basis for the claim? Is it something that is “just obvious”? I hardly think so, because it is difficult to determine what constitutes “extraordinary” both in terms of a claim and in terms of evidence. Extraordinary in what way, exactly? A claim may run counter to someone’s worldview, but not everyone shares the same worldview, so is it extraordinary if it only appears so to some but not others? That hardly seems a solid foundation to make the EC-EE claim universal in some sense.
Then there is the EE side of the EC-EE claim: evidence, and ‘extraordinary’ evidence at that. What makes evidence extraordinary? (for that matter, what is even meant by evidence in this context?) For an atheist, would an event so obviously counter to natural causes that no one could deny its supernatural origin be enough? I hardly think so, because from an ID perspective, atheists, who are also scientists, are confronted daily with exactly such evidence: complex, specified information replete throughout biological systems. If that were not the case, why would Dr. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA write in his book What Mad Pursuit “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” It seems here that Crick inadvertently let slip that the evidence of nature screams “design” and does so quite extraordinarily so biologists must remain vigilant against the impulse to attribute actual design. Whatever the case, the point is that what may or may not constitute “extraordinary evidence” is highly worldview dependent.
What all this boils down to is that the EC-EE claim itself is fairly indefensible and its use as an argument against ID is weak and ineffective. In another post, I’ll take up the issue of what exactly is the extraordinary claims being made and by whom. But for now, let’s discuss the (in)validity of the EC-EE claim itself.