Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence


“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

This quote was popularized by Carl Sagan, the astronomer, educator, physicist and skeptical philosopher. His quote is used by many atheists to reject the belief in God. They argue that the claim of the existence of God is so grand that any evidence to support this claim must be equally grand. In this short essay, I will explain why this statement is not only grossly subjective, but in reality the claim that there is no God is more difficult to prove than the claim that there is one.

What is an extraordinary claim?

Really, how do you define what that means? What one defines as extraordinary another might define as ordinary, and vice versa.

For example, I personally know people who consider it common-place to see visions holy men of the past. Not only do they experience these visions on a regular basis, their fellow community members also experience these apparitions. (And for the record, these are sane, educated and coherent people). For me, their experiences are extraordinary, but to them they are common-place and not even worth discussing. Conversely, I heard a story of my grandmother seeing a TV for the first time and being completely perplexed about how a man could fit inside a small box. To her, that was an extraordinary occurrence. And most some see the idea of God as well within the realm of normality.

What is an extraordinary claim, by the definition Sagan intended, is subjective from person to person.

Whose claim is more extraordinary?

The only objective way to measure whether a claim is extraordinary is by the amount of evidence required to make the claim. What the evidence consists of is inconsequential, as previously explained. Based on this objective standard, the atheist claim that there is no God requires more evidence and is therefore more extraordinary than the claim that God exists.

To understand why, consider a sample population of one million people. To make the claim that amongst them is a redheaded person, you would only need to produce a single redheaded person out of the million. This one person would be sufficient to support your claim. Conversely, if you wanted to say that there was not a single redheaded person amongst the population, the only way to verify this claim would be to check every single person amongst the million. Even a single exception would violate the claim, so one’s examination would have to be absolute.

The positive claim that a redhead exists in the population requires only a single piece of evidence. But, the negative claim that not a single redhead exists requires an examination of every single person in the population- one million pieces of evidence. Therefore, the statement “no redhead exists amongst the population” is an extraordinary claim that requires more evidence.

Now compare this to the belief in God. A believer must bring forth only a single piece of evidence for his belief in God. However, the atheist must examine every corner of the universe and personal experience claiming that God exists and conclude that they are mistaken. This is complicated by the fact that Jewish and Muslim theologians argue that God’s existence is outside of time and space, and we are incapable of examining outside of time and space. The claim of the atheist requires more evidence and is therefore the extraordinary claim.

While Sagan and other atheists used this quote to reject God, in reality, its reality goes against them.

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About Nahraf
Providing interesting insight into the world of Economics, Theology, Computer Science and Social phenomena.

7 Responses to Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

  1. This post displays a lack of knowledge of the burden of proof.

    The person making a claim is the person responsible for backing that claim up with evidence. It is not the responsibility of everyone else to find every way your claim isn’t true.

    Unless, to be consistent, you also believe in leprechauns.

  2. Nahraf says:

    NotAScientist, thanks for your comment. But unless there is a connection somewhere that I am not seeing, this post had nothing to do with the “Burden of Proof” argument. That’s a valid argument, but that’s off topic.

    I will address the Burden of Proof argument in an upcoming post…

    • “Now compare this to the belief in God. A believer must bring forth only a single piece of evidence for his belief in God. However, the atheist must examine every corner of the universe and personal experience claiming that God exists and conclude that they are mistaken.”

      That is where you misuse the burden of proof.

      You also over simplify your own argument. It isn’t easy as that.

      First, you must give evidence that anything supernatural exists. Then you must give evidence that a supernatural creator exists. Then you must give evidence for the abilities of that supernatural creator. Then you must give evidence that the supernatural creator is the specific supernatural creator you believe in.

      And ‘one piece of evidence’ is not going to cut it, assuming you want this to be rational and scientific. What we know isn’t based on a single piece of evidence. What we know is based on the accumulation of evidence over significant amounts of time and situations.

      • Nahraf says:

        Ahh, I see what you are saying. You gave a couple points at once.

        Let me give a synopsis of that burden of poof article I’m planning. The default position is not ‘There is no God’, just as the default position is not ‘There is no redhead’. The default position is ‘I do not have evidence either way’. We start from a position of neutrality, not negation. Negation is not the default, it is a claim.

        When someone says ‘There is no God’, a claim, that is a deviation from the default position. So, that claimant (the atheist) has the burden of proof upon him just as the one who believes in God (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc) has the burden of proof upon him. Their claims are opposite, but neither is the default.

        In other words, saying “There is no God” is a claim. It is NOT the default position so the burden of proof is upon the atheist as well. Connecting that to this article, the atheist’s claim is not only a deviation from the default position, it requires infinitely more evidence than the believer.

        “And ‘one piece of evidence’ is not going to cut it, assuming you want this to be rational and scientific.”

        Rational, we can all agree on. But, how do you define ‘scientific evidence’? I touched on this in my previous article on what defines ‘Empirical Evidence’. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

        “What we know isn’t based on a single piece of evidence. What we know is based on the accumulation of evidence over significant amounts of time and situations.”

        I disagree. Do you look at an apple multiple times to verify it is there? Or is a quick glance sufficient for you to believe it exists (single piece of evidence)? The threshold of acceptable evidence is different from person to person. As I said in the beginning “extraordinary evidence” is completely subjective and not a scientific test. I agree that accumulation of evidence over time is better and stronger than a single piece of evidence. But, a single piece is not automatically rejected either. Unless we question the method the evidence was obtained, a single piece of evidence is a perfectly valid test.

        Lastly:

        “First, you must give evidence that anything supernatural exists. Then you must give evidence that a supernatural creator exists. Then you must give evidence for the abilities of that supernatural creator. Then you must give evidence that the supernatural creator is the specific supernatural creator you believe in.”

        While this is completely unrelated to the topic, I do not make a distinction between the natural and supernatural. This is because I likely differ in you as to the cause of events. More on this in a future post. I do not say that God is ‘supernatural’, I say he is outside of space-time and not subject to it. If you say “prove that through empirical evidence”, anything I provided would be in time-space, and therefore by definition not be God. It would be like saying “show me the corner on a circle”. The evidence of God does not come through physical evidence, it comes through experience. See my previous article. Again, this is unrelated to the topic.

  3. “The default position is not ‘There is no God’, just as the default position is not ‘There is no redhead’. The default position is ‘I do not have evidence either way’.”

    The default position is not to believe the person making the claim without evidence to back that claim up.

    I make no claim. I only say that I don’t believe the claims of the religious. Thus, I have no burden of proof to meet.

    Some atheists may make the bold claim that there is no god. I do not. And the majority of atheists I know do not either.

    “Do you look at an apple multiple times to verify it is there?”

    The issue isn’t the existence of the apple but in verifying how accurate sight is. We do that from birth through rudimentary experimentation. And for some it fails, as they are near- or far-sighted. Or you’re referencing the verification of the existence of apples, which has so much evidence backing it up (since humans discovered that apples existed), there is no need for further evidence. These things do not exist in a bubble.

    “I do not say that God is ‘supernatural’, I say he is outside of space-time and not subject to it.”

    Then you must give evidence for anything to exist beyond space-time.

    “The evidence of God does not come through physical evidence, it comes through experience.”

    If you cannot demonstrate your evidence to anyone else, then your claim is no more valid than those made by people who claim to be abducted by aliens.

    You’ve defined your belief in a way that you think you don’t have to give evidence to back it up, because the lack of evidence serves as evidence. If you do believe that, then Carl Sagan has an invisible, intangible dragon for you to meet.

    • Nahraf says:

      Again, this conversation has strayed from the topic I wrote about. I was not talking about this point and now its breaking into multiple more unrelated points…

      “The default position is not to believe the person making the claim without evidence to back that claim up.”

      This may sound merely semantic, but it is definitely not: There is a big difference between “not accepting” and “rejecting”.

      In regression analysis, if you have insufficient evidence for a hypothesis, you say “I fail to accept the hypothesis”, not “I reject the hypothesis”. The former is saying it may be true, but I have not gained sufficient evidence to prove it, while the later is flat-out rejecting it. Why the difference? Mainly because your evidence does not prove that the hypothesis is false, only that your data does not support it. That is a profound difference.

      Case and point: If I searched in a population of 1000 people and found zero redheads, I could not say “redheads do not exist”, but only that “I failed to find a redhead”.

      Based on this logic, even if a person did a “scientific test of God” (which makes no sense, but lets overlook that for now) and found zero evidence for God, his conclusion logically could not be “There is no God”. His evidence does not show that. It must be “I fail to accept the belief in God”. This is why the atheist position is unscientific.

      You said: “Some atheists may make the bold claim that there is no god. I do not. And the majority of atheists I know do not either.”

      The vast majority of atheists I know and have read about explicitly say “There is no God”.

      As for the “default position”, I did not see your previous comment saying that the default position is to deny something. So I am going to assume you recognize the validity of that.

      Your remaining comment about trusting the eyes does not solve anything. A means of measurement can be misleading. For example, a mirage in a desert or an optical illusion. But, you have come to subjectively trust your vision. Even a single glance at an object is enough for you to trust it. I’m not criticizing you because I do the same, but recognize that its still a single piece of evidence. This shows that even a single piece of evidence can be used to support a claim.

      • Nahraf says:

        I appreciate your comments, I really do. But, we are going wayyyyy off the topic of this blog post. Lets address it rather than unrelated issues.

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