Monday, December 27, 2010

Timothy McGrew on ECREE


Tim wrote: Here's what I wrote about it in the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Epistemology, for which I wrote the entry on "Evidence". 
Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence
Another common slogan, also popularized by Sagan, is that Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Much depends, of course, on what counts as extraordinary, both in a claim and in evidence. It cannot be simply that a claim is unprecedented. At a certain level of detail, almost any claim is unprecedented; but this does not necessarily mean that it requires evidence out of the ordinary to establish it. Consider this claim: “Aunt Matilda won a game of Scrabble Thursday night with a score of 438 while sipping a cup of mint tea.” Each successive modifying phrase renders the claim less likely to have occurred before; yet there is nothing particularly unbelievable about the claim, and the evidence of a single credible eyewitness might well persuade us that it is true.
The case is more difficult with respect to types of events that are deemed to be improbable or rare in principle, such as miracles. It is generally agreed in such discussions that such events cannot be common and that it requires more evidence to render them credible than is required in ordinary cases. (Sherlock 1769) David Hume famously advanced the maxim that No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish (Beauchamp 2000, p. 87), which may have been the original inspiration for the slogan about extraordinary evidence. Hume appears to have thought that his maxim would place certain antecedently very improbable events beyond the reach of evidence. But as John Earman has argued (Earman 2000), an event that is antecedently extremely improbable, and in this sense extraordinary, may be rendered probable under the right evidential circumstances. The maxim is therefore less useful as a dialectical weapon than is often supposed. It may help to focus disagreements over extraordinary events, but it cannot resolve them.

33 comments:

Nick said...

ECREE is another cop-out. I consider it an extraordinary claim that God does not exist. The atheist considers it an extraordinary claim that he does. Why do I have to prove my claim but he doesn't? Why not just make it this way? "People who make claims should have reasons for believing those claims."

Walter said...

I usually see ECREE used in polemics against miracle stories, and not as an argument against the existence of any god. It's my belief that the more extraordinary the claim, the greater amount of mundane evidence is required before I can overcome my own skepticism.

Nick said...

Walter. What would constitute "extraordinary evidence" for you? How could you tell if it was extraordinary?

Walter said...

I think that ECREE should be modified to become ECREAE: extraordinary claims require an extraordinary AMOUNT of evidence.

Nick said...

Okay. How much evidence would you consider an extraordinary amount of evidence?

Victor Reppert said...

The demand for extraordinary evidence is often presented to imply that evidence coming out of the ancient world could never be sufficient. Given the nature of history, and of the ancient world, any God who wanted us to believe would have to provide contemporary evidence of his miracle-working power, not force us to rely on records from a prescientific age.

Walter said...

Okay. How much evidence would you consider an extraordinary amount of evidence?

The amount would have to be just enough to make me believe. ;)

The more outlandish the claim, the more evidence it should take before you should believe it. That just seems like sound thinking, to me. The alternative is to be overly credulous, believing everything people tell you, making you an easy mark for con artists.

SteveK said...

The problem I see, Victor, is that all evidence becomes historical once the event has taken place. Whether its ancient history or recent history - it's all the same to those that missed it.

Those former skeptics that witnessed the, at that time, contemporary event might be convinced of its truth (thus disproving the need for extraordinary evidence), but the next group of skeptics to come along - whether it be 1000 years later or 5 seconds later - will bring up the ECREE criteria again.

Nick said...

But again, that gets us into subjectivity. What counts as an outlandish claim? If you tell me, "God does not exist," I consider that an outlandish claim. If you tell me "There is a naturalistic explanation that accounts for the resurrection event and the rise of the early church," I consider that an outlandish claim.

Also, how much is enough? Do you require 100% certainty? 70%? 50%?

Hiero5ant said...

Here is a sartorial principle: Large people require large clothes. (LPRLC)

Now, there are certain very human, very understandable emotional denials of this principle in specific cases of appication. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN'T PULL OFF A SIZE SIX?!?"

But for some strange reason, no one ever rejects the LPRLC principle outright, or demands a "quantitative definition of fat" when trying on shoes. The quantity of cloth must obviously be *proportional* to the underlying subject matter. An extraordinarily tall person is only tall relative to prior data sets -- when his height is literally "out of the ordinary".

SteveK said...

Also...

If miracle events occurred so frequently as to convince all passers-by that they were miracles, then my guess is it would have the opposite effect over time. They would no longer be viewed as miracles.

These events would be so commonplace as to be viewed as strange, mysterious natural events without an explanation as to why they were occurring. Kind of like the miracle of free agency and the conscious mind. So amazing, yet so mundane.

So it appears there is a Catch-22 with miracle events. To few and some aren't convinced because of the ECREE criteria. Too many and some aren't convinced because, to them, they are weird natural events.

Bob Prokop said...

To SteveK,

That's been my big frustration in trying to have a meaningful discussion about miracles on this site for months now. A miracle is, by definition, a singularity - a non-repeatable event. Now you can either accept that one-of-a-kind events happen, or you can deny it. But which way you decide determines the outcome of the discussion, at least as far as one's self is concerned.

So the real issue is not, "Do miracles occur?", but rather, "Are all events repeatable, or are some unique?" Until you settle that, all discussion on this topic will go nowhere.

Walter said...

If you tell me "There is a naturalistic explanation that accounts for the resurrection event and the rise of the early church," I consider that an outlandish claim.

I don't consider a naturalistic explanation to be an outlandish claim. I consider the claims that there existed a first-century Jewish demigod roaming Palestine to be a little on the extraordinary side.

Victor feels that it all comes down to your "priors" as to whether certain claims seem extraordinary or not.

Nick said...

Yes. I know you don't consider that an outlandish claim. I consider with all the evidence however, that naturalistic theories I've seen are quite outlandish and since I believe I have epistemic justification for believing there is a God, then I am justified in my belief that Christ rose from the dead and since I believe that strongly enough to base my life on it, I consider contrary claims outlandish.

You consider as a skeptic of whatever shade the claim that Jesus rose from the dead to be outlandish. (Also, Jesus is not a demigod in Christian thought. If you argue against Christianity, at least argue against it as it is and not a straw man of it.)

I think Victor is correct though I wouldn't say one is a slave to one's priors. One can change one's presuppositions.

After all, you consider one claim outlandish. I consider the opposite. How shall we decide which one demands extraordinary evidence?

Walter said...

(Also, Jesus is not a demigod in Christian thought. If you argue against Christianity, at least argue against it as it is and not a straw man of it.)

There is no one version of Christianity to argue against. A unitarian Christian will have a different Christology than an Evangelical, Mormon, or Jehovah's Witness.

Nick said...

There is agreement on primary issues. The question is, does the NT teach what has been affirmed by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants historically, such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the bodily resurrection. Whether those things are true or not is a different matter. For instance, I can affirm that the Qur'an teaches that Jesus was not born of a virgin nor ever claimed to be the Son of God. That doesn't mean those claims are true. In fact, Islam could be wrong that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and the New Testament correct that he did, and he could still not be the Son of God.

However, when arguing against those of us who hold to orthodox Christological beliefs, it would be best to stick with those rather than straw men. It just gives me the impression that theology has not been studied.

Walter said...

For instance, I can affirm that the Qur'an teaches that Jesus was not born of a virgin nor ever claimed to be the Son of God.

It is my understanding that Islam does teach that Jesus was born of a virgin.


However, when arguing against those of us who hold to orthodox Christological beliefs, it would be best to stick with those rather than straw men. It just gives me the impression that theology has not been studied.


I consider demigod to be a good label for someone claimed to be both human and a deity at the same time. Perhaps you object to the fact that the term brings to mind certain pagan deities that you consider to be mythological, and you do not wish for Jesus to be classified with those obviously false gods? As far as studying Christian theology, I am pretty well familiar with orthodox belief.

Walter said...

I think Victor is correct though I wouldn't say one is a slave to one's priors. One can change one's presuppositions.

One sure can.

After all, you consider one claim outlandish. I consider the opposite. How shall we decide which one demands extraordinary evidence?

I can only tell you what evidence does not convince me: anecdotal stories coming from partisan sources fail to convince me. Habermas's minimal facts methodology comes the closest to being convincing, but it still doesn't quite convince me.

Nick said...

My bad first off. Yes. The Qur'an does affirm the virgin birth. Must have just got a bit mixed up.

Secondly, demigods were not fully human and fully divine. They were half and half and each was the product of sexual reproduction. Jesus was not.

If you want to go the route of the copycat thesis of Jesus being a copy of demigod myths like Mithra, Hercules, Dionysus, or anyone else, you'd best be prepared to back that. I just don't like demigod because it's false.

As for partisan stories, what do you expect? People who don't believe in the resurrection are going to give an account of it? Being biased doesn't mean one is wrong.

As for Habermas, what do you find lacking in him? Have you read Licona's latest book on the topic any? "The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach"?

Walter said...


If you want to go the route of the copycat thesis of Jesus being a copy of demigod myths like Mithra, Hercules, Dionysus, or anyone else, you'd best be prepared to back that.


No, I am not going that route. That is an argument plied by Jesus-mythicist's , and I tend to believe that there was a human Jesus that was later deified.

As for partisan stories, what do you expect? People who don't believe in the resurrection are going to give an account of it? Being biased doesn't mean one is wrong.

I would prefer a little better documentary evidence from hostile sources, like something being written by an unbelieving Jew or pagan living in Jerusalem around 30 CE.

As for Habermas, what do you find lacking in him?

I believe that some of his minimal "facts" can be disputed.

Have you read Licona's latest book on the topic any? "The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach"?

Not yet. I was waiting for the kindle edition to be released, and I would like to see a few skeptical reviews. Every review of the book so far has been by believers. It costs too much money to buy every new apologetic book that hits the market. Eventually I'll get around to reading it.

Nick said...

What do you expect an unbelieving Jew to say? Will an unbelieving Jew say the resurrection happened? Pagans would refer to it as nonsense, which is what I believe Tacitus did.

Do you also apply this across the board? Do you believe in what you read about Caesar or Alexander the Great only if it comes from hostile sources?

As for minimal facts, any fact can be "disputed." There are people who would dispute that we exist. The question is, is there any basis for such a dispute. Which minimal fact do you see as questionable?

Licona's book does go into greater detail on this. I do understand the concern with finances however.

Walter said...


Do you also apply this across the board? Do you believe in what you read about Caesar or Alexander the Great only if it comes from hostile sources?


Disinterested (neutral) sources are the best, but I can see where something like a resurrection would polarize an observer into taking a side. Hostile polemics written shortly after the crucifixion would add to the body of evidence for the event in question. As it stands, the only polemics written against the resurrection seem to come much later than the time of the alleged event and are just reactions to later Christian claims.

Also, I have never been told that I would spend an eternity in torment if I failed to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, so I do not agonize over whether he really did or not. My "certainty" concerning most historical events is provisional. Our view of past events is almost certainly filled with some distortions.

Nick said...

Walter: Disinterested (neutral) sources are the best, but I can see where something like a resurrection would polarize an observer into taking a side.

Reply: Correct. Most of them who didn't believe would dismiss it as nonsense not worth writing about. Especially in an age where many were illiterate and writing was much harder.

Walter: Hostile polemics written shortly after the crucifixion would add to the body of evidence for the event in question. As it stands, the only polemics written against the resurrection seem to come much later than the time of the alleged event and are just reactions to later Christian claims.

Reply: That shouldn't surprise us. This is said by someone living in a modern world where these ideas can be readily debatable thanks to the internet and originally before that thanks to the printing press. In an oral society, this would not be the case.

However, because of lack of argument against, is that to say the argument for is automatically invalid?

Walter: Also, I have never been told that I would spend an eternity in torment if I failed to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, so I do not agonize over whether he really did or not. My "certainty" concerning most historical events is provisional. Our view of past events is almost certainly filled with some distortions.

Reply: So you are applying a different historical standard then. I'm just wanting to apply the same one. I'm curious what your epistemological basis is when deciding if an event is historical or not.

Also, which of the minimal facts do you dispute? I'll name you the three Licona gives.

Christ was crucified and died.

The disciples claimed to have seen the risen Christ.

Paul, an enemy of the church, was converted after he claimed an encounter with Christ.

Walter said...

So you are applying a different historical standard then. I'm just wanting to apply the same one. I'm curious what your epistemological basis is when deciding if an event is historical or not.

I think you misunderstood what I was getting at. I do not believe we can achieve absolute certainty about events that are forever behind us in time. I do not stress over this lack of certainty in historical studies. If I were to assign a probability to Jesus' resurrection, I might currently give it a probability rating of say thirty percent. Even if you were successful in bolstering the case for the resurrection, you might get that percentage over fifty percent, making me an agnostic believer. You could never instill in me any kind of absolute certainty about an implausible event that "might" have happened 2,000 years ago.

Nick said...

In history, absolute certainty is difficult to come by. However, if it is more probable than not, I think we should believe it. I do think the resurrection is definitely in that category as I find naturalistic hypotheses just lacking and ad hoc.

However, you haven't told me which of the minimal facts you dispute.

Walter said...

Nick,
Blogger seems to have eaten my last response to you.

Oh well.

Nick said...

Walter,

Let's look at the first one, the Examiner.

First off, it has its facts wrong on the minimal facts. Habermas does his research from material dating from 1975 to the present and not 1970. To be fair, the writer does say "About 1970", but Habermas has been specific. It gives me the indication that the writer did not do his homework.

Is this an argument to prove that God exists and Jesus is divine? No. Habermas himself would tell you that. It can lead to that conclusion, but it is not an argument for that conclusion.

Thirdly, the writer says that it is not a fact that Jesus existed. At this point, I'm even greatly tempted to go no further. No one in their right mind would deny that Jesus existed. That's not me. That's Bultmann who would have told you that.

For the empty tomb, Habermas does say that this is one he says 80% of scholars agree on. However, it is far from saying it is not a fact. So the tomb is not known to us today as to its location. Big deal. Tourism wasn't something important to the ancients. The people at the time knew. That's all that matters.

Miracles are least likely? Okay. No problem with that. That does not mean impossible. The least likely outcome of playing a game of Poker is that I would get a royal flush. Does that mean I will never get one?

Also, he makes the case that we don't know who wrote the gospels and some are forgeries. This is someone who does not know the minimal facts approach. Habermas doesn't even touch the gospels in this. All three of the major facts can be attested to outside of the gospels.

Suppose we don't know who wrote the gospels. So what? That means they're ipso facto false?

Lazy thinking. On to the next.

Nick said...

Evalutating Christianity:

To begin with, Habermas would say numerous scholars believe this, therefore these are facts. I've heard him give this talk numerous times. He argues against that in fact. He says that if numerous scholars pro and con are saying this, there are good reasons for them to say it. If your opponents will grant you data, then there are good reasons for believing that data.

Also, there is no presumption of the authenticity of the Bible. In fact, Habermas will take the bare minimum position on the Bible and say Jesus rose from the dead. All you need to do to know this is listen to an MP3 of him talking sometime. Do atheists not even take the time to do this?

I have no reason to trust this writer on meta-analysis considering he links to Wikipedia as a source. At that point, I am again tempted to go no further.

Earl Doherty is excluded? For good reason. Ben Witherington has said some scathing words about him as well. That Carrier supports him is good enough reason for me to not do so. Habermas wants people with PH.D.s or the work of a PH.D.

Furthermore, if you read Habermas and Licona, they are familiar with those outside of mainstream Christianity. Goulder, Craffert, Ludemann, Vermes, etc.

As for the empty tomb being the lynch pin, I'd like to see that cited. AFAIK, he relies most on the claims of the disciples to have seen the risen Christ as does Licona in his latest.

The God of the Gaps thing is just wrong. It is not invalid to believe God acted if there is justification. If you are an arson investigator and you see an unusual fire and don't think it's natural, should I say "Well you're just looking for an arsonist of the gaps." No. You have reason to believe someone else acted. If someone comes back from the dead who made the claims Jesus did, I have reason to believe someone else acted.

As for the swoon theory, Strauss put that to death a few centuries ago and he was no friend of Christianity and was far more liberal than the Jesus Seminar.

I won't comment on Bayes Theorem as I'm untrained in it, but I do say if the author is doing research in the way I think he is, he's going to have a hard time with the McGrews.

To the last source:

Oh boy. DC. That's where I go for a laugh.

What's this? Habermas does not want to go outside the confines of the gospels?! Has he even HEARD Habermas give this talk?! Habermas makes it clear you don't need the gospels! The minimal facts approach is that of Habermas! Why the focus on N.T. Wright suddenly?

His conclusion is cognitive dissonance? Has he read any of the replies to this? He says it has not been adequately dealt with? How has it not been? What is the flaw in the arguments against it? Does he know of any psychiatrists and psychologists who would back this? Has he not learned from Erik Erikson's example about the danger of doing psychiatric history?

Really. I find this unconvincing. It seems like these people have not read or listened to Habermas, but just read or listened to things about what he says.

Nick said...

Evalutating Christianity:

To begin with, Habermas would say numerous scholars believe this, therefore these are facts. I've heard him give this talk numerous times. He argues against that in fact. He says that if numerous scholars pro and con are saying this, there are good reasons for them to say it. If your opponents will grant you data, then there are good reasons for believing that data.

Also, there is no presumption of the authenticity of the Bible. In fact, Habermas will take the bare minimum position on the Bible and say Jesus rose from the dead. All you need to do to know this is listen to an MP3 of him talking sometime. Do atheists not even take the time to do this?

I have no reason to trust this writer on meta-analysis considering he links to Wikipedia as a source. At that point, I am again tempted to go no further.

Earl Doherty is excluded? For good reason. Ben Witherington has said some scathing words about him as well. That Carrier supports him is good enough reason for me to not do so. Habermas wants people with PH.D.s or the work of a PH.D.

Furthermore, if you read Habermas and Licona, they are familiar with those outside of mainstream Christianity. Goulder, Craffert, Ludemann, Vermes, etc.

As for the empty tomb being the lynch pin, I'd like to see that cited. AFAIK, he relies most on the claims of the disciples to have seen the risen Christ as does Licona in his latest.

The God of the Gaps thing is just wrong. It is not invalid to believe God acted if there is justification. If you are an arson investigator and you see an unusual fire and don't think it's natural, should I say "Well you're just looking for an arsonist of the gaps." No. You have reason to believe someone else acted. If someone comes back from the dead who made the claims Jesus did, I have reason to believe someone else acted.

As for the swoon theory, Strauss put that to death a few centuries ago and he was no friend of Christianity and was far more liberal than the Jesus Seminar.

I won't comment on Bayes Theorem as I'm untrained in it, but I do say if the author is doing research in the way I think he is, he's going to have a hard time with the McGrews.

Nick said...

To the last source:

Oh boy. DC. That's where I go for a laugh.

What's this? Habermas does not want to go outside the confines of the gospels?! Has he even HEARD Habermas give this talk?! Habermas makes it clear you don't need the gospels! The minimal facts approach is that of Habermas! Why the focus on N.T. Wright suddenly?

His conclusion is cognitive dissonance? Has he read any of the replies to this? He says it has not been adequately dealt with? How has it not been? What is the flaw in the arguments against it? Does he know of any psychiatrists and psychologists who would back this? Has he not learned from Erik Erikson's example about the danger of doing psychiatric history?

Really. I find this unconvincing. It seems like these people have not read or listened to Habermas, but just read or listened to things about what he says.

Walter said...


What's this? Habermas does not want to go outside the confines of the gospels?! Has he even HEARD Habermas give this talk?! Habermas makes it clear you don't need the gospels! The minimal facts approach is that of Habermas!


Habermas draws his "facts" from the New Testament and early Church traditions. Skeptics do not trust these sources as reliable. His argument is packaged in such a way that if you grant his premises, then a supernatural resurrection is the only plausible conclusion. Not being a mythicist I will grant that Jesus most likely existed and probably got himself executed by the Romans on charges of sedition. I would grant that one or more of the disciples may have had visions induced by grief at Jesus' execution and cognitive dissonance that their "messiah" did not usher in the kingdom of God before Rome bagged him. Paul's conversion experience is completely uninteresting to me.

I will say again that I am not much interested in going round and round with this because I really have little desire in attempting to persuade you to abandon your faith. I believe that intelligent, rational people can end up on both sides of this fence. And since I don't believe that people who disagree with me will be doomed to an eternal hell, I am not that motivated to continue arguing with every believer that I run across.

I already assigned a thirty percent probability that the resurrection happened; am I thirty percent saved? If that figure rises to sixty or sixty-five percent, will I be sixty-five percent saved by Jesus? Do I just need a better than fifty-fifty belief to pass the evangelical entrance exam for admittance into those pearly gates?

Paul Baird said...

OK, so what is the difference between the evidence that proves the Christian God and the evidence that proves the non-Christian God or if the evidence is of equal value does that mean we can have both ?

How would you falsify the claims for a non-Christian God and if you can't does that mean that that faith is also true ?

Nick said...

Paul. The God of reason alone could be the God of any of the three Abrahamic faiths. To determine which it is one needs to go beyond what can be known by reason alone and instead look at the claims in revelation.

I believe the Christian one because I believe the evidence is more than conclusive that Christ was raised.