Eggless Chickens don’t Require Extraordinary Evidence: Or, The Problem with ECREE!

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In discussions about fine-tuning or the resurrection of Jesus, it’s often claimed that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (ECREE). Is this claim true? A few months ago the BBC website  covered an uncanny and singular event in Sri Lanka, where  a hen gave birth to a chick without an egg. Here’s what the report said,

 Instead of passing out of the hen’s body and being incubated outside, the egg was incubated in the hen for 21 days and then hatched inside the hen.

Surely this counts as an extraordinary claim, but did it require extraordinary evidence? According to the report,

PR Yapa, the chief veterinary officer of Welimada, where it took place, examined the hen’s carcass. He found that the fertilised egg had developed within the hen’s reproductive system, but stayed inside the hen’s body until it hatched.

How might an ‘eggless chick sceptic’ respond?

This is an interesting story, but what are we take make of the claim that it is factual, that a hen gave birth to a chick without an egg? Who ever heard of such a thing? All our experience shows that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. At the very least, it is incredibly improbable. So this really is an extraordinary claim and, of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

So how good is the evidence? Pretty shoddy if you ask me. One very short report on the BBC website. Well, there are some other links, but I’m pretty sure if you follow them up you’ll find that they’re all based on the same single source. So it all depends on the testimony of one person, the chief veterinary officer of Welimada. Where? If he was a leading veterinary scientist at Cambridge University and the birth had been observed in lab conditions, we might have to take it seriously. And he didn’t actually observe the birth at all it seems, never mind under lab conditions. Furthermore, he’s a government veterinary officer so who knows what his motives are. There are plenty of possible explanations that don’t require believing the story.

So we have this weak evidence on one side and against it the evidence of all past experience as well as an understanding of how nature works. You believe the story if you want to, I’ll stick with science and reason.

Despite our sceptic’s concerns, it seems to me that very modest evidence is sufficient to make the claim credible. If my life depended on it I’d certainly want to check it out more, but on the very limited evidence available to me, I’d be inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Why? Not because the evidence is as extraordinary as the claim itself. However, this is the sort of evidence that I’d expect if the claim is true and not at all what I’d expect if it the claim is false. This is sufficient to outweigh its initial improbability.[1] So here we have an extraordinary claim requiring no more than very modest evidence.

Now atheistic sceptics might respond, “OK, we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt. But only because Dr Welimada was able to give a plausible naturalistic explanation for the event! The problem with theistic explanations for fine-tuning, or the evidence for the resurrection, is that they don’t provide a naturalistic explanation.”

However, this is just question begging. It assumes that every plausible story must fit into a reasonable naturalistic worldview. That’s exactly the point we are debating. The question is: what kind of evidence is required to support an extraordinary claim? And the answer is that there is no good reason to think that the evidence would need to be extraordinary in the same sense as the claim itself. Suppose someone thinks the claim that God exists is extraordinary. Even so, this claim can be supported by widely acknowledged facts about our universe such as the fine-tuning of physical constants. The reason for this is that such fine-tuning is the kind of thing we’d expect if there is a God, but not at all what we’d expect in an atheistic universe.

Similarly, when it comes to the extraordinary claim that Jesus rose from the dead, there is no reason to think that well-supported and widely accepted historical facts would not suffice. There is nothing extraordinary about an empty tomb or reports of a post-mortem appearance! The point is that while the evidence is just as we’d expect if the resurrection took place, it is very poorly accounted for by naturalistic hypotheses.[2] Extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence.



[1] Of course, a lot here depends on what ‘extraordinary’ means. If the term is just used to mean any evidence that outweighs the initial improbability, there isn’t much of a problem with ECREE. But that isn’t what proponents of ECREE usually mean and it doesn’t seem like the right way to use the term ‘extraordinary’ since sometimes fairly modest evidence can do the job as in the present case.

[2] For more on this topic and evidence more generally, see Tim McGrew, ‘Evidence’ in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology (Routledge, 2010), a version of which can be found at http://homepages.wmich.edu/~mcgrew/Evidence.htm

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