Do extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence?

Deutsche Version: Erfordern außergewöhnliche Behauptungen außergewöhnliche Beweise?

Answering such a question proves much more difficult than many people like to think.

The famous Skeptic of parapsychology Richard Wiseman from Britain was once asked why he rejected Extrasensory Perceptions (ESP) and specifically remote viewing. His answer was very revealing:

“I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do.

“If I said that there is a red car outside my house, you would probably believe me.

“But if I said that a UFO had just landed, you’d probably want a lot more evidence.

“Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionize the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions. Right now we don’t have that evidence.”

Such an approach to anomalous phenomena is often backed up by the legendary Bayes’ theorem, according to which one can actualize the likelihood of the truth of a theory by incorporating the information conveyed by new facts.

I’m going to keep a critical examination of the related philosophy Bayesianism to future conversations.

In the second book of the Narnia series “The King Of Narnia“, the famous writer C.S. Lewis completely rejected this method. The young Lucy came into Narnia, a parallel world, after having hidden within a wardrobe. Back in the house, she ran to her siblings who utterly denied the reality of her experience.

Worried that their small sister kept holding fast on the truth of her incredible story, they searched Professor Kirke who rebuked them for not trusting Lucy. After they retorted that her claim was extraordinary, he replied:

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

That is to say, for the old wise professor, normal evidence was sufficient for vindicating the wild claim of the little girl.

At this point, I am kind of confused about both principles.

On the one hand, it is clear one should always take our background knowledge into account before evaluating a new hypothesis or theory.

On the other hand, if a set of facts is sufficient to prove an ordinary claim, I don’t see why a similar set of facts should fail to prove an extraordinary conclusion.

Let us now see some concrete examples of well-known phenomena which were rejected in the past due to their alleged extraordinariness. Saying in hindsight they weren’t extraordinary after all would be all too easy for this was the way they were perceived by scientists at that time.

The existence of meteorites was once thought to be an outlandish claim and the normal evidence was explained away in terms of purely terrestrial phenomena or witness hallucinations.

In 1923 the German geologist Alfred Wegener found normal evidence for continental drift, but failing to present a mechanism which worked, his theory was ignored and even ridiculed during decades.

The same thing could be said about ball lightnings which were often dismissed as stemming from illusions or hallucinations experienced by the witnesses.

Nowadays a similar phenomenon can be observed for the small proportion of flying objects which are truly unidentified.

If extraordinary claims demands extraordinary evidence, then UFOs (in the present) does not and continental drift, meteorites and ball lightnings did not (in the past) exist.

But if one only seeks for normal evidence, a strong case can be made that some UFOs (according to the original definition as “unidentified”) really exist. I am going to explain this in future posts.

We will also explore together the possibility that there really exists normal evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.



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On the burden of proof of the atheist

Deutsche Version: von der Beweislast des Atheisten


Paul Copan has written a great article several years ago showing that both theists and atheists have a burden of proof regarding the truth of their claims:

I’ve give additional reasons to think so on my blog under the category “Parsimony”

If you’re discussing with an atheist friend, don’t forget that aspect.



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Does the absence of evidence mean evidence of absence?

Deutsche Version: Ist das Fehlen von Beweisen der Beweis des Fehlens?

Let us consider the problem of the existence of God.

There are basically three possibilities which might be nuanced by probabilities:

  1. I know God exists (Theism)
  2. I know God does not exist (Atheism)
  3. I don’t know if God exists or not (Agnosticism)

For many people today, if we have neither evidence for nor against God’s existence, we should not only reject 1), but also 3) and be atheists.

Quite a few folks would justify that by saying that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence (a principle which will be referred to as PA).

Flying spaghetti monsters and invisible pink unicorns

They often illustrate that by quoting the infamous pink invisible unicorn (which might be lying on the ground besides you!)


Although it is very seldom well articulated, the reasoning seems to look as follows:

  1. it is certain that the pink invisible unicorn doesn’t exist
  2. if it is certain, it has to have a justification
  3. PA is the only possible justification
  4. therefore PA must be true.

This is the only way I can make sense of the manner Skeptics use such kinds of prowling monsters in public debates.

The first thing which strikes me is that it is completely absurd and hopelessly circular.

We don’t know if PA is true and want to prove it. Now we want to base our proof of PA on our certainty that there is no pink invisible unicorn. But we can only know there is no such beast if PA is true!

But PA faces a far more serious problem: in many situations it leads to quite absurd results…

Let us consider for example that I’ve invented a time-travel machine and fly with it to the ancient Greece.

I meet there an Epicurean philosopher who fervently believes in PA. During the course of our discussion, I explain to him in great details how a kangaroo looks like.


Amused, he glances at me and tells me: “since I have no evidence such a creature exists, I can be almost certain it is not real.“

Would he be justified to hold this belief?

Back to the present time: I have no evidence there is a bear-like intelligent being scratching his head at the boundary of the milky way, can I conclude there is no such being?

The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if one would expect such evidence to be out there.

But once we’ve rejected PA, what are we to do with our best invisible friend and her single pink horn?


The ground for our disbelief shouldn’t be PA, but the self-contradictory nature of the proposition.

I’m completely open to the existence of a pink unicorn somewhere in the multiverse, or of a creature invisible for our eyes, but not of a being having both features.

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Design Detection and Endless Space

Deutsche Version: Designdetektierung und endloser Raum

Design Detection and Endless Space

Intelligent Design is a controversial theory methodology aiming at identifying features of the universe bearing marks of an agency.  According to Bill Dembski and his fellow design theorists, two conditions must be present before detecting design:

a)      Complexity

b)      Specificity

Complexity is never enough for identifying a designed system: a heap of rocks randomly arranged near a mountain can have an extremely complex shape, yet it is a fully natural feature of nature.


Specificity alone is also not sufficient:  if I randomly select four letters among four hundreds and find the word “h-a-n-d” on my palm, the information is specific, but not complex enough for being the product of design.

But if I choose out forty letters and read “The son of Lothar is of divine origin”, I have good grounds for supposing it is either true, or that someone is playing a trick on me.

For establishing the validity of criterion a),  IDists  try to prove there is no way such a structure could have emerged by chance in our universe.  One obvious problem concerns the well-known ability of natural selection to give birth to extremely complex systems displaying elegant functions.

Here, I shall shove this difficulty aside and take the infinity of the universe into consideration. According to numerous models of the multiverse or the Big Crunch, many cosmologists think there are no boundaries to the space we live in.

And if this is so, each event physically possible is going to happen somewhere due to Chaos Theory and the law of the great numbers.

Frightening examples are the famous Boltzmann’s brains, which are brains which pop into existence without having first evolved.


Even if the mechanism of natural selection were very weak, as extreme proponents of Intelligent Design assert, the most complex biological structures they worship would irremediably come into being within an infinite Cosmos, without any help from an intelligent designer.



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Ockham’s razor, the Origin of the Universe and the Search for an Airtight Argument

I’m really grateful to Jonathan Pierce for the time he took to read my essay and criticize it.

From his writing, it wasn’t clear, however, if he was defending the Methodological Razor (MR) or the Epistemological Razor (ER), as I’ve defined the terms in my initial post.

Instead he chose to use the general term (OR).

At the end of his response, he wrote

This methodological approach is all that is necessary

but there would be no issue here since I’ve nothing against MR, which cannot be used as an argument showing God’s existence to be unlikely.

Therefore, I’m going to suppose Jon refers to EM henceforth since this is relevant for our disagreement concerning theism, atheism and agnosticism.

First Jonathan is right that I wasn’t careful enough concerning the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause

  2. the universe began to exist

  3. therefore the universe has a cause

It is obviously true that many cosmologists believing in Loop Quantum Cosmology, some forms of Multiverses, Big Crunch and so on and so forth are going to deny the truth of premise 2).

I wholeheartedly agree that Evangelical apologists like William Lane Craig pick and choose the data they wish, but the same can be said of atheist apologists.

My point was that many honest atheists (like Jeffrey Jay Lowder) who are quite open to the truth of 2) find that 1) is fallacious due to reasons very relevant for the present discussion.

Jonathan mentioned philosopher Kevin.T Kelly who doesn’t only prove OR to be mathematically true, but also emphasized that OR can ONLY be used as a tool for ensuring convergence towards truth (MR).

If theories A and B account equally well for the same data, and A is simpler than B, we cannot say that it’s more probable that A is true, but JUST that it is better to methodologically ASSUME that A is true to converge towards the TRUE theory X, which might be much more complex than B itself.

Professor Kelly says that assuming that (all other things being equal) the simpler theory is always the most likely “smacks of wishful thinking.”

Jon wrote that:

The problem is, OR seems to be an inductive argument used pragmatically, and so extending it in the way in which LS does to “ALWAYS” be the case appears to be extrapolating an inductive conclusion to a deductive premise.

The problem is that you need an ER to argue against the truth of theism, a MR won’t do the job. And the inductive justification of OR is only valid for a limited space, as I’m going to explain below.

In fact, ironically, this is a move which the KCA does with both opening premises of its arguments! –

Actually, popular versions of the KCA do the very same mistake as proponents of ER by assuming certain premises are true far beyond the domain where they can be empirically, inductively justified.

The main thrust of the argument appears to be that to justify OR one needs an independent, non circular way of doing it.  But this is similar to the critique of reason. One cannot justify reason without appealing to reason. True, but we do all the time, and we use it because reason works. On balance, if we can show OR to be pragmatically useful and successful, then it is at least a good rule of thumb.

This is very revealing and interesting. Jonathan is apparently ready to accept the existence of basic beliefs which are pragmatically justified. He would certainly have no problem accepting the existence of intuitive moral truths. But what about the existence of feelings and thoughts DIFFERENT from the material world they are about?

That said, I’m skeptic about the fact we ought to believe in OR (or even MR) to live consistently, there are other postulated principles which do the job quite well.

In fact, to draw further analogies with the KCA, this is precisely the move done with ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing nothing comes. This is something people like Craig claim is one of the most basic philosophical truths or intuitions. Yet it is merely an inductive observation (an erroneous one at that). One must differentiate between such approaches, between intrinsic, analytic conclusions, and inductively derived synthetic truths.

I largely agree with that, as Jeffrey Jay Lowder pointed out, such a belief is only valid within the realm it has been inductively arrived at. But ER faces the very same problem.

Next, it must be clear I didn’t mention the existence of multiverses as something violating the Epistemological or even Methodological Razor.

I used multiverses to show one cannot prove ER inductively with its absolute claims due to the fact all our observations are limited to our present universe.

Finally, Jon wrote:

This methodological approach is all that is necessary, in my view. I am not sure of the application of the epistemological approach. I think it IS an inductive, scientific tool which is more probably right given past successes and so can be applied to anything concerning the natural sciences and philosophy. It is not necessarily true, I would agree (intuitively, without having studied OR too much).

Like the principle “from nothing, nothing comes”, I see no reason to think OR can be applied to

completely unknown situations, like simulated realities.

Furthermore, as other users have pointed out, it’s true I poorly expressed myself. I meant that all things being equal, history has vindicated more complex theories.

Maybe I was wrong, and the examples of continental drift and ball lightning weren’t directly applicable to OR, but to the claim “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” as I’m going to explain in a future post.

To put it in a nutshell, if Jonathan thinks he can use ER (or even OR in general) to undermine theism, he ought to prove it is always valid. If he denies this universality, he has to explain what the exceptions are, and why some metaphysical questions could not be such exceptions.

That said, there exist other arguments against theism (like the problem of evil, religious confusion, physical confusion and so on.), but they aren’t very popular among non-philosophers.



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