As it is Easter season, skeptic Michael Shermer has an article in appearing in Scientific American entitled, "What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?" Shermer writes that as a skeptic, there are propositions he can accept as true, such as the number of pages in a magazine, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the origin of the universe by a big bang. Unsurprisingly however, Shermer can think of nothing that would count as enough evidence for the resurrection for that particular proposition to be considered true. He claims this is due to the "principle of proportionality," something that "demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find." 1
So, Shermer has fallen back to the old canard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But what does he mean "extraordinary evidence?" The phrase sounds good, but is truly fuzzy when one thinks about it. As I've stated before, evidence is either strong or weak; categories like extraordinary don't really fit here. But it isn't as though we have no evidence. Shermer himself brings up eyewitness testimony, quickly dismissing them as possibly being superstitious or seeing "what they wanted to see." But what evidence has Shermer offered for those motivations? He's offered nothing except the claims "The principle of proportionality also means we should prefer the more probable explanation over less probable ones, which these alternatives surely are."2
Extraordinary claims don't only deal with miraclesOne problem with Shermer's use of the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" trope is he is inconsistent in using it himself. Remember I said that Shermer holds to the universe as having a beginning. But ask him who was ultimately responsible for that beginning, and Shermer dismisses the idea of God out of hand. In a previous article, he wrote, "For millennia humans simply said, ‘God did it': a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe."3
Here Shermer makes an obvious category error, one that has been brought to his attention several times in debates with Christians. Yet, he persists in believing the universe (or possibly some kind of universe-generating machine) has come into existence from nothing. But isn't this an equally extraordinary claim? If his statement "Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find" is the criteria for an extraordinary claim, then the universe beginning from nothing is surely even more extraordinary. In all of human history, there has never even once been anyone who has observed something coming into existence from nothing at all. Not once. Even quantum fluctuation/quantum foam is not nothing, for it has specific attributes and potentials. None of those 100 billion people Shermer points to will bolster his claim for an uncaused universe. Yet, he isn't skeptical about that proposition. In fact, he prefers it.
If the principle of proportionality were to be applied consistently, Shermer would have to admit that the evidence for a personal cause for the origin of the universe is much more probable than an uncaused universe popping into existence out of nothing. Is Shermer guilty of what he claims about the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus? Is he only seeing what he wants to see or perhaps superstitious or credulous? I don't think he would admit to any of these. But if Shermer's principle of proportionality fails here, then perhaps it isn't the last word on how to discern the truth for events like the resurrection, either.
2. Shermer, 2017.
3. Shermer, Michael. "Much Ado about Nothing." Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer, May 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. http://www.michaelshermer.com/2012/05/much-ado-about-nothing/.