In other words, belief in God is far from extraordinary, so the basis for comparison that we need to label a claim “extraordinary” has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. We can’t just label all religious thinking “extraordinary claims.” Clearly belief in God is not extraordinary, as I demonstrate in the previous blog piece (but this hardly requires demonstration). The “extraordinary” is a problematic term in science. Thomas S. Kuhn argued that scientific paradigms turn over when there are too many anomalies to explain them all through the orthodox paradigm. The “normal” business of science, according to Kuhn, is that of absorbing anomalies into the paradigm. “Anomalies” are not necessarily extraordinary, but both concepts deal with departures from the expected. The atheists tend to think of this Saganian imperative in terms of dazzling wonderment. In other words, extraordinary claims are those that they find extremely hard to believe; big amazing claims that require big amazing proof. Examples I’ve seen the average atheist on message boards give would include things like God arranging the stars to spell out messages confirming the truth of Christianity, parting the red sea and so forth. These ideas are much more grandiose than Kuhn’s anomalies. Richard Dawkins seeks to argue that God is improbable on the basis of uniqueness. There is no other evidence for any sort of thing like God anywhere in our field of experience as a species. Thus God has to be improbable because we have nothing else to compare God to. Again we are dealing with the concept of the out of the ordinary. We are dealing with ideas of the unique, that which stands out. This is a good indication that scientific thinking seeks an orthodoxy that requires mutually accepted cultural constructs to from a basis of consensus. Of course scientific thinkers will stand staunchly upon the empirical “totally proven” aspects of their views. But what is really happening in science and in party lines that branch off of certain people’s monopolizing of science is that it’s a struggle of orthodoxy against revolutionaries, and the struggle revolves around accepted worldviews, which take on an aura of the sacred. Belief in God comes ready packaged in its own aura of the sacred. The battle between scientifically based skeptical empiricism vs. religious belief is a battle of religions in a sense. It’s a party line seeking to secure itself against heretics. Atheists do not have facts that prove their views; they merely have worldviews that collide with the worldviews of religious people.
Nor can the worldview remain constant by claiming “extraordinary evidence.” As has been demonstrated, there is no basis for comparison since belief in God is not a scientific question. There is no basis upon which to define “extraordinary evidence” since the term is measured by proximity to orthodoxy. In other words, what is really going to determine the extraordinary nature of a claim for a skeptic is its relation to the paradigm under which the skeptic has formed his worldview. That means that extraordinary evidence must be that evidence which, despite it’s status as an anomaly under the skeptic’s paradigm, and thus its tendency to be explained away by the paradigm, (“absorbed” to put it in Kuhn’s parlance). In other words, the atheist demand for extraordinary evidence is impossibility and cannot ever be met because it is a logical contradiction; it is evidence that does something no skeptic can ever admit evidence can do, it would convince the skeptic that his paradigm is wrong and that he must adopt a new paradigm. But the point of being a skeptic is to defend the paradigm one already works under. The skeptic is asking he impossible to begin with since changing the paradigm doesn’t result from dazzling evidence or wonderment evoking evidence, but from constant anomalies, which become so bothersome they cannot be absorbed into the accepted paradigm any longer. But particular anomalies are not going to be seen as “extraordinary” or they would not have its status as “anomaly” in the first place. Such evidence would have to supersede the normal paths that human thought uses to compile worldviews. In short, the Saganian imperative is wrong. It not only contradicts the way scientific theories come to be accepted in the world of science, but also the way the human mind works in constructing an understanding of the way the world works. Of course we have to be aware that Kuhn’s sense of the term “paradigm” and the sense in which I use it here are not the same. He’s talking about the major paradigm, or model, that guides an entire discipline: such as the concept of naturalistic cause and effect. I am talking about the type of case one might make to advance a God argument. Yet the extraordinary claims dictum would seem to violate the Kuhnian sense paradigm shift. If we think of empirical evidence for religious belief as anomalies (such as the effects of religious experience as long term and positive upon the believer) the data from experience studies might be thought of as an anomaly. Certainly any sort of claim to miracles would be anomalous.
Moreover, the dictum about extraordinary evidence is also circular reasoning. That is not necessarily true, but the application that I have seen most often is circular. The skeptic says, “this is not good evidence, it isn’t extraordinary enough.” But the believer says, “Ok here’s more.” That doesn’t apply because we know from past experience this isn’t extraordinary, its too much like the other evidence, it wasn’t extraordinary either. Therefore this evidence is not extraordinary. For example say we are arguing about miracles. The Lourdes miracles have 65 examples where the official miracle finding machine of the church says, “this is an official church miracle.” The skeptic says “only 65? That’s not extraordinary, these are just anomalies. They are just remission. Then the believer points out that there are also 4000 remarkable cases, which can’t be explained but they just missed being tagged as “official” because they lack some perfunctory piece of evidence, but there is enough evidence to say they are “remarkable.” They do say of these cases that they are “remarkable.” One would think that “extraordinary” would be the same or similar to “remarkable.” But the skeptics just say they are not extraordinary they are just like the other 65, the other 65 have been dismissed for not being enough of them therefore the 4000 should be dismissed because the original 65 aren’t extraordinary so they shouldn’t be accepted and the 4000 shouldn’t be either because they are no more amazing than the 65. All that’s really going on is the 65 are being dismissed because there aren’t enough of them, but when more are shown they are dismissed for not being amazing enough. I can’t document that exact exchange, although I have been through it many times on message boards. Lest one think this is just an anomaly of the denizens of message boards, there is an example of major scientists acting this way.
Louis Frank, Iowa Physicist discusses a theory that oceans on earth were started by very small comments, house sized comments, which over long periods of time deposit enough water from ice that they make up huge bodies of water. Frank had evidence from satellite images that the rate of bombardment by such mini-comets is about 20 per minute. Astronomers responded by basically saying “if these existed we would have seen them.” In the 1980s Clayne Yeates decided to prove Frank wrong by demonstrating the results of telescopic search. Yeates was told the editors of journals that the standard requirement for proof was two images photographed form telescope. He had the two images in the paper already. When he pointed this out to the editor of Geophysical Research Letters he was told that he had to obtain three. So the evidence isn’t strong enough because it’s a new claim that doesn’t fall in line with accepted belief, but when more evidence is provided it isn’t good enough, why? The editor doesn’t say this but it appears that the new evidence is dismissed on the basis that the old evidence wasn’t good so this isn’t either, even though more evidence was the requirement. This is perfectly in line with what Kuhn says happens; the old paradigm is challenged and thus is defended by the orthodox who maintain a party line and work to repair damage to the old paradigm. As long as the dictum about extraordinary evidence is waved about, as a standard, the bar will always be moved no matter how well the believer meets the requirements.
Marcello Truzzi has a proposal to replace the dictum; it makes a lot more sense.
In addition to recognizing and working through the issues I have raised above, we need scaled terms to deal with levels of evidence for the best of the extraordinary claims put forth by protoscientists. Scientists might well distinguish between extraordinary claims that are: suggestive, meaning interesting and worthy of attention but generally of low priority; compelling, meaning the evidence is strongly supportive and argues for assigning a higher scientific priority for greater investigation; and convincing, meaning most reasonable scientists examining the evidence would agree at least a preponderance of evidence supports the claim. Using such graded language might help us turn from our present debates, with room only for winners and losers, into dialogues between peers, all of whom should want to see science judiciously progress. We can all be winners.
The upshot of all of this is religious belief is normative for human behavior. It is not merely "normal" but "normative" meaning it sets the standard. Belief is basic to human psyche, to our understanding of the good, of meaning in life, the ultimate limits of reality, the grounding of nature and being itself, there is no way belief in God can be thought of as an extraordinary claim! We might think of it as extraordinary in the sense of being unique, like no other claim, but in that case it makes no sense to subject it to the regular canons of science as though God's presence is given in daily empirical data. Obviously the more intelligent evidential standard is that the evidence has to be fit for the claim. Fit, not dazzling, not impossible, not amazing, no beyond our ability to produce, but it has to fit the case. It has to be rational, and able to stand a prima facie burden, and it has to fit the proof attempted. The difference is that the atheist standard is Ultima facie, “all things considered” rather than “on the face of it.” The ashiest absolute proof, and that absolute proof must be furnished by just one standard, scientific empiricism. The Prima facie standard makes much more sense than does absolute proof, (1) because there cannot be absolute scientific data of questions beyond the empirical realm; (2) belief is an individual question of a personal existential nature; belief deals not merely facts about things in the universe, but about one’s place in the universe. For this reason it has to be subjective, it has to be primate, personal, by its nature it is not provable in the absolute scientific sense. There’s no use pretending that the absolute scientific umpire is the only form of knowledge. I will take this up in a latter chapter. The point here is that Prima Facie case fits the subject matter in a much more rational way. All we can ask of a world view is rational warrant anyway. World views take in too much to be demonstrated entirely from empirical data.