reply to post by Ex_CT2
The trouble with this cheap axiom (that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof) is that absent any strict definition of what those words
mean, the phrase can be used to move the goalposts indefinitely in any argument.
I have yet to come across a satisfactory explanation of what constitutes an 'extraordinary' claim that is not either circular, or else underpinned
by some dogma.
Ordinary is relative!
Say that a tribe of aboriginals living in Papua New Guinea decides one day (perhaps on the urging of some empiricist missionary) to accept the
scientific method as the new grounds for assessing truth and falsehood in the world around them. Admittedly, they're starting from scratch, but
let's assume they give themselves over feverishly to this new idea.
The mere acceptance of empiricism does not instantly change all of their past experiences, or the way they view they world, it can only do so over
Let's say that this tribe has an ancient tradition of communing with the ancestors through shamanic rituals; asking their forefathers for blessings
and protection, and so forth. The sudden adoption of empiricism does not wipe that collective experience clean.
Now, let us say that, having adopted this new scientific attitude, the new Papua empiricists are faced with their first two claims: 1) An old woman
claims to have had a vision in which her father spoke to her, and warned her of a coming volcanic eruption. 2) A man from the next village over claims
to have seen a mechanical bird that can fly through the air.
Which claim is more extraordinary? Remember: They have no background -- no collection of already established scientific truths. But they do have their
collective experience, which includes many communions with the ancestors, and precisely zero mechanical birds.
Which claim do you think these new empiricists would judge to be the most extraordinary, and the most desirous of extraordinary proof?
As far as the empirical method goes, the course is plain enough: In the first case, they merely wait around to see if there is a volcanic eruption. In
the second, they send a team of explorers to go looking for the mechanical bird.
Let's say the volcano does erupt, and the explorers do (or claim to) see a mechanical bird. What now? Do the new Papua empiricists have reasonable
grounds to accept both claims? I should say no. Maybe they ask the Old Woman to make another prediction. Maybe they ask the explorers to spot another
But surely, by their own experiential standard, the erupting volcano is more satisfactory than the spotting of the mechanical bird, because the first
claim is of a familiar and repeated kind, whilst the second is of an unusual and solitary kind. By the skeptical axiom of extraordinary claims/proofs
they have better reason for believing in the ghost of the dead father than in the mechanical bird.
WE don't. We know better, because we have ascertained more scientific truths than these pioneer empiricists. But who's to say that some other
intelligence doesn't know even more than we do, and have an even more elaborate array of experiences to draw on then us?
The point I am making is that which claims are extraordinary and which are not is relative to the collection of scientifically ascertained facts that
we have available to us, and that is always changing and being revised. In this case, the axiom is unreliable. It is no better than confirmation bias,
as this analogy shows.
The only way out of this dilemma is to assert that extraordinary and ordinary are objective and definable according to the nature of the claim, and
the moment we say that we are denying the empirical model itself because we are maintaining that a universal and ultimately arbitrary dogma is
responsible for defining which claims are and are not extraordinary. We can only reject claims as extraordinary by appealing to a materialist (or
other) worldview which is itself metaphysical and a subject of mere belief. It is, after all, a matter or simple faith to assert that our thoughts
have any relation to reality at all whatsoever!