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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Mailvox: a Ninja rebuttal

Ninja Rabbit attempts to rebut:

You seem to have confused what I said about the context of a specific claim. Let's go back to my example, where I was referring to an incident in which the testomonial evidence of an "extraordinary claim" would need to be corroborated by some evidence that wouldn't otherwise need to be provided by an ordinary claim. What you said about not knowing whether the plant is actually plastic, or not knowing whether the plants are really his, is true. But I think this was a rather uncharitable interpretation of my example. Let me now explicitly add that you do in fact know that the plants belong to him and that you've seen him water them, and you may have felt them before and so you are sure that they aren't plastic. It's true that I'm "assuming information," but this is merely neccesary to prove my point by first trying to establish that the details of such a plant are known by you. The one thing that you do not know is if he specifically watered his plants yesterday. The claim that we are analyzing is the neighbor's testimony of having watered his plants yesterday. It would probably be reasonable to believe this claim, given what we know. It's not an extraordinary claim. We could demand some more evidence that he really did water them yesterday if we had some reason to be extremely skeptical but as far as the situation goes, we do not. The evidence required to convince someone an ordinary claim happened is not exhaustive or meticulous, for this would be impractical for accepting everyday claims needed to live efficiently.

Now, of course if we had also seen his neighbor feed his 50 foot three headed alien pet everyday, and he claimed to have fed his pet yesterday, it would similiarly be reasonable to believe him as you rightfully observe! But we've never seen such a pet. Indeed, the very existence of 50 foot three headed aliens is highly suspect at best. So now we have a good reason to be skeptical; this is an extraordinary claim. So this means that we can't accept the testimony right off the bat like we can with the previous one. We're going to need some further evidence that corroborates this claim.

Now let's say that we could corroborate a claim about an alien or a ghost and explain its characteristics as we can with other animals. In what sense would they be supernatural as opposed to natural? How can supernatural phenomena interact with natural onesas you say about the poltergeist? Does that mean supernatural things are made of matter? Again, what does "supernatural" mean exactly?

Even if you define an extraordinary claim as something the reciever has no "tangential knowledge" of, it wouldn't change the fact that we need to investigate that more thoroughly than a claim in which we do have "tangential knowledge." When you talk about what consitutes ordinary and extraordinary evidence, you have to take into account the type of claim. For a testimonial claim, hearing something we have reason to disbelieve, it's reasonable to evaluate the claim further before believing it. Scientific claims are more meticulous and exhaustive, so an ordinary scientific investigation would be appropriate for evaluating a supernatural claim, but so far most supernatural claims that I know of have fallen short of being established by such an investigation. And they would still raise all the problems I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

So if a person claims to be able to dribble a basketball, that would be consistent with our body of knowledge about physics so we can believe this ordinary claim without replicating it. But of course, we could ask him to demonstrate if we wanted. If a person claimed to do be able to levitate a basketball, that would not be consistent with what we know about physics, so we'd have to ask him to show us that before we can believe him, since that's pretty extraordinary as far as we know, and we need some verification that would be more exhaustive than the kind we would use to believe the first guy's claim about dribbling the basketball. So when people claim to believe in the basketball levitation without it being demonstrated, it can be considered unreasonable.

I'm not quite sure how I can spell this out much more clearly. The analogy is Ninja Rabbit's, not mine, and the problem he's posing in it is tautological. The only difference in the ease with which we are accepting the information for which we have no evidence is the fact that he posits different amounts of information provided in the two examples compared. But this is irrelevant, and as he admits, if he were to provide the same amount of information in both cases, there's no more reason to believe the person's claims about his actions in the first case despite the extraordinary nature of the second one.

A much better analogy would be to compare the claim of alien pet feeding with running into a total stranger at Home Depot, who claimed to be your neighbor and also claimed to have watered his plants - which you have never seen - the day before. This modified analogy properly separates the ordinary from the extraordinary without providing additional information to weight the comparison. And while we might find it easier to believe the stranger on the basis of his testimonial evidence, for example, asking him the color of his house or the make of the car parked in his driveway, as I pointed out before, we're only talking about an emotional ease of belief rather than factual evidence. In both cases, it comes down to nothing more than our faith in the testifier's credibility.

I am far more likely to believe a completely extraordinary claim from an individual I know to be a truthful and sane than a very ordinary claim from a proven liar who I know to be susceptible to self-delusions. But in either case, and contra the late Mr. Sagan, the evidence required to prove a claim is identical. Whether an individual claims to be able to dribble a basketball or levitate a basketball, he can't prove it without demonstrating it to us, regardless of how reasonable we might feel his claim to be. The ironic thing is that Ninja Rabbit's attempted rebuttal makes it clear that for some people, the "extraordinary claims" argument is less an insistence on requiring extraordinary evidence to accept supernatural claims as it is for an argument for accepting certain natural claims without any evidence beyond the testimonial. As for the natural vs supernatural aspect, Ninja Rabbit doesn't seem to be aware that unless he wishes to seriously argue that scientific evidence is extraordinary, he has just conceded the argument in my favor. He also seems to have forgotten that "extraordinary claims" is not concerned with what testimonial evidence is reasonable to accept in everyday life, since the entire context of the argument, as made by Carl Sagan and oft cited by atheists, is the debate surrounding science and the existence of the supernatural.

While we're on the subject of the supernatural, I should note that one agnostic wouldn't mind a few appeals being thrown in that direction on behalf of her boyfriend's father, who was badly hurt in a motorcycle accident yesterday.

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