Carl Sagan was famous for his aphorism, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The Sagan standard, as it has been called, is often invoked by skeptics such as John Loftus and Professor Larry Moran (see here and here). However, these skeptics fail to distinguish between two kinds of skepticism: one good, one bad.
If someone makes an extraordinary claim such as, “I saw a flying saucer land in my backyard last night,” then it is reasonable to consider the possibility that they did not see anything land in their backyard last night, as well as the possibility that they did see something land in their backyard, but it was not a flying saucer. What I intend to argue in this post is that a very high degree of skepticism is warranted with regard to the claim that what they saw was a flying saucer, but that a much lower degree of skepticism is warranted with regard to the more modest claim that they saw something, which they took to be a flying saucer.
The point I am making is that there are two different kinds of skepticism with regard to extraordinary claims: skepticism with regard to whether the claim is genuine, and skepticism with regard to whether the claim requires an extraordinary explanation. What many skeptics do is confuse these kinds of skepticism, by applying a ridiculously high standard of evidence in order to establish the bona fides of the claimant(s). What I am arguing is that we do not need extraordinary evidence in order to establish that a claim is genuine; it is sufficient if we can establish this point beyond reasonable doubt. We do, however, require extraordinary evidence in order to establish that the event which was witnessed by the claimant actually has a supernatural or paranormal explanation, as alleged.
If my friend Tom tells me that he saw a UFO land in his backyard last night, then I would naturally suspect that he was pulling my leg. But if several members of his family, as well as some friends of his whom I knew to be fine and upstanding people, swore on a stack of Bibles that theyhad seen the same thing, then I would have to believe that they weren’t lying, and that their claim was a genuine one. I would be irrationally obstinate, if I didn’t accept this fact at the outset of my investigation. The standard of evidence that would need to be satisfied here is what lawyers refer to as proof beyond reasonable doubt.
I would then proceed to consider naturalistic explanations for the sighting. The first question I’d need to answer is whether it had a subjective or an objective explanation. Could the witnesses have been hallucinating? If I were able to rule out known possible causes of mass hallucinations, such as alcohol, drugs or mass hysteria, I’d have to move on to the next question, which is whether the witnesses had experienced an optical illusion of some sort – perhaps caused by poor lighting, or freak atmospheric phenomena known to cause mirages. Physical traces left in the backyard after the sighting (e.g. burn marks on the ground) would rule out the possibility of an illusion or mirage. The third question I’d ask is whether any known physical phenomenon could account for the sighting – perhaps ball lightning, or a meteorite, for instance. But if witnesses’ accounts of the object’s appearance or pattern of descent proved incompatible with these phenomena, then I’d have to reject a physical explanation and look for an artifactual one. The fourth question I’d have to consider is whether any man-made artifact could explain the sighting – perhaps a child’s radio-controlled toy UFO, or some falling debris from a plane or satellite flying overhead, or for that matter, a top-secret military aircraft. It would be difficult to rule out all of these hypotheses, but I can certainly think of evidence that would convince me that the object seen was extra-terrestrial in origin: traces on the ground of elements not naturally found on Earth, or a star-map left behind by the visitors which contained detailed information, unknown to our astronomers. This would indeed be extraordinary evidence, and in order to satisfy myself that it was satisfactory evidence, I’d have to establish that the probability of such evidence having a human or natural source was vanishingly low. A sensible cut-off point to apply here would be Dembski’s universal probability bound.
Some skeptics may demand to know why the level of skepticism with regard to the genuineness of a claim should be any different from the level of skepticism with regard to whether the claim requires an extraordinary explanation. What these skeptics fail to appreciate is that there’s a difference between an extraordinary event and a report of an alleged extraordinary event. The fact that for thousands of years, scientists have managed to find natural explanations for the events we observe in our world suggests that we should treat extraordinary events as having a very low inherent probability of occurring. But since the maximum number of events that could have been observed in our cosmos is 10^120, then we might cautiously decide that the prior probability of an extraordinary event’s occurring should be 1 in 10^120. But it is another matter entirely with regard to reports of extraordinary events. We have no reason whatsoever to believe that such reports should be infrequent, or that only an extraordinarily small percentage of such reports should be genuine. We should, of course, be skeptical when we encounter such reports, but the vital point we need to bear in mind that a report of an extraordinary event is one thing, and the extraordinary event itself is another. In a law-governed universe, we would only expect the latter to be either extremely rare or non-existent.
What about prior probabilities?
The same kind of logic can be applied to reports of miraculous events in history, such as the Resurrection. In a forthright post titled, Is the Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Better Than Mohammed’s Miracles?, skeptic John Loftus objects that prior probability of a miraculous event such as the Resurrection is uncomputable, in principle:
Where do you get your “priors” from? Since the evidence for the resurrection cannot be established from the raw historical data alone, then you must approach said evidence from a “prior” that you cannot have yet. Chronologically, the evidence from the raw historical data must lead you to believe that your God did this particular miracle. But there are plenty of theists who do not think God raised Jesus from the dead even given their theistic faiths.
In my recent post, What evidence is, I argued that we could set a lower bound of 1 in 10^120 on the probability that a given event is supernatural:
Finally, no general hypothesis positing the existence of occult or supernatural agents should be assigned a prior probability of less than 1 in 10^120 (that’s one followed by 120 zeroes). This fraction can be considered as the “floor probability” for bizarre hypotheses of a general nature. Why? Because 10^120 has been calculated by Seth Lloyd as the number of base-level events (or elementary bit-operations) that have taken place in the history of the observable universe. Each non-bizarre (or “normal”) event can be considered as prima facie evidence against any general hypothesis appealing to occult or supernatural agents, and since the number of “normal” events occurring during the history of the observable universe is limited, the cumulative weight of the prima facie evidence against paranormal or supernatural phenomena is also limited. Using Laplace’s sunrise rule, we can say that given a very large number N of normal events and no abnormal events, the prior probability we should assign to the proposition that the next event we observe will be an abnormal one is 1/N, or in this case, 1 divided by 10^120. (Please note that I’m talking only about general hypotheses here: a more specific hypothesis, such as a madcap alien abduction scheme launched by water-people from the planet Woo-woo, will of course have a much lower antecedent probability than the general hypothesis that there are aliens of some sort, out there somewhere, who occasionally abduct humans; consequently evidence for the former hypothesis will have to be more stringent than evidence for the latter.)
In a subsequent comment, I explained the rationale for the 1 in 10^120 probability in further detail: “…[I]f we imagine embodied particle-sized intelligent beings scouring the cosmos from the moment of creation onwards, the maximum number of observations they could possibly make of naturalistic occurrences is 10^120, hence by Laplace’s sunrise argument, the prior probability they would rationally assign to a supernatural event would have to be 1 in 10^120.”
The hypothesis that Jesus was raised by a supernatural agent is a general hypothesis. (The hypothesis that the agent who raised Jesus to life was Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is a specific hypothesis, which I shall not discuss further here.) The appropriate prior probability we should assign to a report of this event being true is thus 1 in 10^120.
The mathematician Charles Babbage demonstrated how sufficiently strong eyewitness testimony could overcome this probabilistic barrier, in the early nineteenth century, as David Coppedge narrates in his highly informative essay, THE WORLD’S GREATEST CREATION SCIENTISTS From Y1K to Y2K (emphases mine – VJT):
Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (hereafter, NBT) is available online and makes for interesting reading … Most interesting is his rebuttal to the arguments of David Hume (1711-1776), the skeptical philosopher who had created quite a stir with his seemingly persuasive argument against miracles. Again, it was based on the Newtonian obsession with natural law. Hume argued that it is more probable that those claiming to have seen a miracle were either lying or deceived than that the regularity of nature had been violated. Babbage knew a lot more about the mathematics of probability than Hume. In chapter X of NBT, Babbage applied numerical values to the question, chiding Hume for his subjectivity. A quick calculation proves that if there were 99 reliable witnesses to the resurrection of a man from the dead (and I Corinthians 15:6 claims there were over 500), the probability is a trillion to one against the falsehood of their testimony, compared to the probability of one in 200 billion against anyone in the history of the world having been raised from the dead. This simple calculation shows it takes more faith to deny the miracle than to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses. Thus Babbage renders specious Hume’s assertion that the improbabiliy of a miracle could never be overcome by any number of witnesses. Apply the math, and the results do not support that claim, Babbage says: “From this it results that, provided we assume that independent witnesses can be found of whose testimony it can be stated that it is more probable that it is true than that it is false, we can always assign a number of witnesses which will, according to Hume’s argument, prove the truth of a miracle.” (Italics in original.) Babbage takes his conquest of Hume so far that by Chapter XIII, he argues that “It is more probable that any law, at the knowledge of which we have arrived by observation, shall be subject to one of those violations which, according to Hume’s definition, constitutes a miracle, than that it should not be so subjected.”
Some readers may object that Babbage has overlooked the possibility of a mass hallucination. But as Drs. Timothy and Lydia McGrew argue in their excellent essay, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, this hypothesis is at odds with the Resurrection accounts:
“[T]o explain the facts the hallucination theory would have to be invoked for more than a dozen people simultaneously (Luke 24:36-43).26 The plausibility of a collective hallucination is, for obvious reasons, inversely related to the amount of detail it involves.(27) Given the level of polymodal interactive detail reported in cases like the one in Luke 24, the probability of coincidence is vanishing. A third factor exacerbates this problem: the hallucinations would have to be not only parallel but also integrated. According to the gospels, the risen Jesus interacted with his disciples in numerous ways including eating food they gave him (Luke 24:41-43) and cooking fish for them (John 21:1-14). In such contexts, the disciples were interacting not only with Jesus but with one another, physically and verbally. The suggestion that their parallel polymodal hallucinations were seamlessly integrated is simply a non-starter, an event so improbable in natural terms that it would itself very nearly demand a supernatural explanation. Finally, these detailed, parallel, integrated hallucinations must be invoked repeatedly across a period of more than a month during which the disciples were persuaded that they repeatedly interacted with their Lord and master here on earth.
In a footnote, the authors add:
27. Rawcliffe (1959, p. 111) points out that the comparatively dissimilar hallucinatory experiences of different people “often attain a spurious similarity by a process of harmonisation”
as they recollect and discuss them. But detailed experiences full of verbal and tactile interactions both with the one seen and with other witnesses cannot be brushed aside like this.
I conclude that there is no good reason why we should not deem the testimony of a sufficiently large number of eyewitnesses to a miracle (such as the Resurrection) historically credible, if their accounts are fully integrated, in the manner described above.
Lessing’s “ugly broad ditch”
However, Loftus is not done yet. In a 2006 post titled, Lessing’s Ugly Broad Ditch, Loftus goes on quote some telling passages from the eighteenth century German scholar Gotthold Lessing, arguing that reports of miracles which are supposed to have occurred long ago can never render them certain beyond reasonable doubt:
Read and try to respond to German critic Gotthold Lessing’s (1729-1781) argument regarding miracles and history:
“Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another.” “But…I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles…[they] have to work through a medium which takes away all their force.” “Or is it invariably the case, that what I read in reputable historians is just as certain for me as what I myself experience?”
Lessing, just like G.W. Leibniz before him, distinguished between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason and wrote: Since “no historical truth can be demonstrated, then nothing can be demonstrated by means of historical truths.” That is, “the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.”
He continued: “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I. But it might still be possible that the story was founded on a mere poem of Choerilus just as the ten year siege of Troy depends on no better authority than Homer’s poetry.”
Someone might object that miracles like the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, are “more than historically certain,” because these things are told to us by “inspired historians who cannot make a mistake.” But Lessing counters that whether or not we have inspired historians is itself a historical claim, and only as certain as history allows. This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.” (“On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power,” [Lessing’s Theological Writings, (Stanford University Press, 1956, pp. 51-55)].
In the above passage, Lessing fails to distinguish between the reliability of historical testimony that some people in the first century knew Jesus and claimed to see him after His death, and the credence we should place in their factual claim that what they saw was a man Who was raised supernaturally. The former only needs to be established beyond reasonable doubt, and as the McGrews argue persuasively in their essay, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, there is an abundance of factual evidence that a large number of people claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Establishing the latter fact is much trickier, but as I argued above, all it requires is a sufficient number of witnesses and a sufficiently high degree of integration in their accounts.
In a similar vein, skeptical blogger Chris Hallquist, who goes by the name, The Uncredible Hallq, has put together a brief document, summarizing his reasons for rejecting belief in the Resurrection, titled, The “Evidence” for Jesus’ Resurrection, Debunked in One Page:
Among Evangelical Christians, it’s become popular to claim that Jesus’ resurrection can be proved with historical evidence. This is nonsense. Here’s why:
1. There is no evidence for the resurrection outside the Bible. Non-Christian historical references to Jesus don’t occur until about six decades after the time when Biblical scholars think he probably died. When these non-Christian sources refer to Jesus’ miracles, there’s no reason to see them as anything more than a report of what Christians of the time believed.
2. There is little evidence that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or based directly on eyewitness accounts. Most of what the Bible says about Jesus’ life and supposed resurrection is in the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, (a.k.a. the Gospels). But Biblical scholars now agree these books were originally anonymous, their names added later. The traditional Christian claims about who wrote them are now widely doubted by scholars.
3. This means that the Gospels can’t be trusted as evidence for miracles. Imagine someone trying to convert you to another religion based on the “proof” of the miracles worked by the religion’s founder… in the form of a handful of anonymous tracts recounting his life. Would you accept that “proof”? Of course not. Among other things, the stories could just be legends.
4.One of Paul’s letters provides evidence that a number of people claimed Jesus had appeared to them after his death. But this isn’t proof of a miracle. The passage is 1 st Corinthians 15:3-9, and most Biblical scholars agree it was really written by Paul. But again, would you accept similar evidence in favor of another religion’s miracles? The Mormon church has statements signed by several people attesting to miracles that are supposed to confirm the truth of the Book of the Mormon, but you probably won’t convert to Mormonism based on that. Also, Paul doesn’t tell us how he knows about all these appearances, so we can’t be confident his report is accurate.
5. Reports that Jesus’ disciples were martyred prove nothing. Reports of the martyrdom of Jesus’ disciples do not occur in this historical record until long after their deaths would have occurred, and accounts sometimes conflict with one another. It could be that most, even all, of these stories are legends. In any case, not only do people sometimes give up their lives for delusions, even outright charlatans have been killed for their claims. Joseph Smith was probably a charlatan, but he died at the hands of a lynch mob. So we can’t rule out deception among Jesus’ followers.
6. Claims that this or that individual couldn’t possibly have hallucinated are nonsense. Even apparently sane people hallucinate for a wide variety of reasons and under a wide variety of
circumstances. We can’t rule this out for people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus.
7. Even if there were several people in Paul’s day who would have claimed to have all seen the risen Jesus at the same time, their testimony might not have stood up to scrutiny. There have been cases where a group of children have claimed to see the Virgin Mary, and been taken seriously by adults who should have known better. In many of these cases, the children were questioned individually and their descriptions of what they saw didn’t match, suggesting deception or delusion.
8. That’s it. Part of me thinks that what I’ve said in this one page is all that needs to be said on the subject. But if you want to know how I back up these claims, you can get my book UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus. The book also includes a crash course in New Testament scholarship, discussions of faith healing and Biblical prophecy, and plenty of tidbits about the strange beliefs people have had throughout history. It’s available on Amazon, and there’s more information, including links to reviews, on my website, UncredibleHallq.net.
Hallquist is skeptical that the apostles were martyred, but as the McGrews document at length in their article, there is in fact excellent documentary evidence for the martyrdom of James son of Zebedee, James the brother of Jesus, Peter and Paul.
The McGrews provide a convincing counter to Hallquist’s point #5 in their essay:
It is sometimes urged that kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers, and Nazis were willing to give their lives for what they believed was true.22 The objection may be put more broadly. Virtually every religion has its zealous adherents who have been willing to die for what they believe; why, then, should the willingness of the apostles to die as martyrs be of special epistemic interest? The answer is that this description blurs the distinction between the willingness to die for an ideology and the willingness to die in attestation of an empirical fact.23 …
It is clear that neither kamikazes, Nazis, nor suicide bombers died to affirm the reality of something that they had seen with their eyes and their hands had handled. Thus, their deaths and the falsehood of some of their beliefs tell us nothing about the probability that a man will die to make an affirmation like that of the apostles when it is in fact false.
Finally, Hallquist’s suggestion that a mass hallucination accounts for the alleged solar miracle at Fatima founders on the fact that it was independently observed 30 miles away. The most likely natural explanation for this event, if it should turn out not to have been a supernatural event, is that it was caused by prolonged staring at the Sun. (Even that hypothesis has problems.) No optical effects are reported to have occurred in the Resurrection accounts, so Hallquist’s “explanation” is irrelevant.
Hallquist’s case against the Resurrection turns out to be epistemically flawed: he has failed to make the relevant distinctions between the evidence needed to establish that people in the first century genuinely claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, and the evidence required to render this claim believable.
Larry Moran’s epistemic oversight
A similar failure of logic can be seen in biochemist Larry Moran’s dismissive comments regarding the massive amount of documentary evidence that thousands of people in the seventeenth century claimed to have witnessed a man levitating above the ground, often for hours, and on thousands of different occasions. Moran asks: “is it more reasonable to assume that thousands of people saw St. Cupertio fly or is it more reasonable to assume that they all just imagined it, or that the second-hand reports are untrue? (italics mine – VJT)” As I showed here and here, there are thirteen volumes of of eyewitness reports. Moran is happy to suppose that these may have been forged, rather than believing in a miracle. But here, he is confusing the question of whether people claimed to have seen a man levitate with the question of whether the man they claimed to have seen levitate actually did. As we have seen, a very high degree of skepticism is warranted only with regard to the second question. Proof beyond reasonable doubt suffices for the first.
Wise words from a former skeptic
I’d like to finish today’s post with a quote, which kairosfocus kindly drew to my attention, taken from Simon Greenleaf’s Treatise on Evidence, Vol I ch 1. Greenleaf, I might add, was himself a former skeptic:
Evidence, in legal acceptation, includes all the means by which any alleged matter of fact, the truth of which is submitted to investigation, is established or disproved . . . None but mathematical truth is susceptible of that high degree of evidence, called demonstration, which excludes all possibility of error [–> Greenleaf wrote almost 100 years before Godel], and which, therefore, may reasonably be required in support of every mathematical deduction.
Matters of fact are proved by moral evidence alone; by which is meant, not only that kind of evidence which is employed on subjects connected with moral conduct, but all the evidence which is not obtained either from intuition, or from demonstration. In the ordinary affairs of life, we do not require demonstrative evidence, because it is not consistent with the nature of the subject, and to insist upon it would be unreasonable and absurd.
The most that can be affirmed of such things, is, that there is no reasonable doubt concerning them.
The true question, therefore, in trials of fact, is not whether it is possible that the testimony may be false, but, whether there is sufficient probability of its truth; that is, whether the facts are shown by competent and satisfactory evidence. Things established by competent and satisfactory evidence are said to be proved.
By competent evidence, is meant that which the very-nature of the thing to be proved requires, as the fit and appropriate proof in the particular case, such as the production of a writing, where its contents are the subject of inquiry. By satisfactory evidence, which is sometimes called sufficient evidence, is intended that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond reasonable doubt.
The circumstances which will amount to this degree of proof can never be previously defined; the only legal test of which they are susceptible, is their sufficiency to satisfy the mind and conscience of a common man; and so to convince him, that he would venture to act upon that conviction, in matters of the highest concern and importance to his own interest. [A Treatise on Evidence, Vol I, 11th edn. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1888) ch 1., sections 1 and 2. Shorter paragraphs added. (NB: Greenleaf was a founder of the modern Harvard Law School and is regarded as a founding father of the modern Anglophone school of thought on evidence, in large part on the strength of this classic work.)]
Kairosfocus sagely comments: “If the sort of selective hyperskepticism you are seeing were applied across the board science, law, courts, management and general common sense guided conduct would collapse.” Indeed.
I’d now like to throw the discussion open to readers. What do you think?