Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

In my last post, I said I would look at William Lane Craig’s consideration of a common skeptical slogan, which is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (henceforth, ‘ECREE’). I suspect Craig has frequently encountered skeptics who misuse it, and given that in Reasonable Faith he is arming Christians with apologetic arguments, it makes sense for him to deal with these misunderstandings. In Chapter 6, he deals with some interpretations of ECREE, finally writing:

“What the skeptic seems to be saying by his slogan is that in order to believe rationally in a miraculous event, you must have an enormous amount of evidence.” (p. 273)

I agree with Craig that this interpretation of ECREE is incorrect, but there is still a correct interpretation of it, which I think remains useful. Note, I am not saying that Craig does not point this out. Before dealing with incorrect understandings of it, he writes:

“The only plausible sense in which the slogan is true is that in order to establish the occurrence of an event which has a very low intrinsic probability, then the evidence would also have to have a very low intrinsic probability…” (p. 273)

But he does sometimes give the impression that he rejects the slogan wholesale. Consider what he writes about an argument made by Stephen Law:

“This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.” (LINK)

In a 2008 debate with Keith Parsons, Craig also said, regarding ECREE:

“This is a watchword of the free thought movement today that I always hear repeated. But when I think about it, I can think of almost no justification for that principle. I do not think it is true that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” (My transcript, approximately 40 minutes into the debate, during Craig’s first rebuttal)

He also points out that it doesn’t take extraordinary evidence to show that someone is alive or dead, and that to demonstrate that Jesus resurrected, all it would take is evidence that he was dead, and evidence that he was alive (after he was dead). This is, in a way, correct, but at the same time, I don’t see how this isn’t the sort of extraordinary evidence a more viable interpretation of ECREE demands (if that evidence is too improbable on our background evidence if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead). So, while I can say that Craig treated ECREE charitably in Reasonable Faith by pointing out its strongest interpretation, he, at the very least, does not seem to think skeptics generally mean it this way (which could easily be true).

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