Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence (ECREE), Part 6: Is ECREE False? A Reply to Greg Koukl and Melinda Penner (continued)

(continued from Part 5)

Penner’s Third Rebuttal: A third response to the demand recognizes that very extraordinary events happen all the time if the co-occurrence of several features in a state of affairs is evaluated probabilistically.

I agree with this sentence (if “extraordinary events” means “improbable or very improbable events”), but this does not in any way undermine ECREE.

Penner also writes: “So no matter how extraordinary the event, no explanation is needed because extraordinary events happen all the time.”

I find it odd to read this comment coming from a theist like Penner. On this logic, an atheist would be perfectly justified in dismissing cosmological fine-tuning arguments for God’s existence: the apparent fine-tuning of the universe may be viewed as an extraordinary event and “no explanation is needed because extraordinary events happen all the time.” I don’t think this is what Penner has in mind.

I agree with Penner that improbable and even very improbable events happen all the time. The issue isn’t one of “explanation” so much as it is of “evidence.” Extraordinary claims do still require extraordinary evidence, since while improbable events may happen all the time, a specific event is not the same thing as the class of all improbable events. It may be the case that extraordinary events happen all the time and a specific extraordinary claim is not sufficiently supported by the evidence to be regarded as probable.

Koukl’s First Objection (which he credits to Richard Howe): Does the adjective that applies to the claim have to be the same adjective that applies to the evidence? If you have a hilarious claim, does it require hilarious evidence?

This strikes me as a very odd question. Indeed, I am tempted to accuse Koukl and Howe of criticizing a caricature of ECREE, but I am not going to do that since Koukl made his comments on the radio and I don’t have the context for Howe’s original remarks. Or maybe Koukl/Howe were just trying to be funny rather than making a serious objection. In any case, I am not aware of anyone who claims that ECREE is true or should be adopted because of some rule about syntax or symmetry whereby the adjective used in the first part of the expression must be used in the second part of the expression. I have defended ECREE here by showing that ECREE, when interpreted in a Bayesian manner, follows directly from Bayes’s Thereom, which itself follows from the axioms of the probability calculus plus the definition of conditional probability.

Koukl’s Second Objection: Determining what counts as an “extraordinary claim” and “extraordinary evidence” is entirely subjective and will depend on which worldview one holds.

As I noted in my reply to T. Kurt Jaros, it is true that the Bayesian interpretation of ECREE is inherently subjective in the sense that it depends entirely upon what a person knows and believes. So what? It does not follow that (a) there is no such thing as objective truth; or (b) there is no such thing as an objectively correct way to reason with subjective probabilities.

Koukl’s Third Objection: ECREE functions to “stack the deck” against the theist. It turns out there is going to be no evidence that is extraordinary enough to meet that challenge.

If Koukl is claiming that “there is going to be no evidence even in theory that is extraordinary enough to meet that challenge,” then this objection is false. Again, as I noted in the combox on part 5, the essay by Tim and Lydia McGrew on the resurrection of Jesus contains a lengthy defense of an argument that the combined Bayes’ factor for the various lines of evidence for the Resurrection has an explanatory power of 1044. If their argument is correct, that would certainly count as “extraordinary evidence” capable of overcoming any prior probability of 10-40 and still establishing a final probability for the Resurrection greater than 0.99999. This example proves that it is possible, at least in theory, for there to be extraordinary evidence for an extraordinary claim.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.


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