Recently the prominent online atheist Matt Dillahunty has been defending his longstanding assertion that “claims are not evidence.” He often uses this phrase to argue against miracles like the Resurrection by saying there is no evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, only claims that Jesus rose from the dead, and those claims by themselves aren’t evidence.
To show what’s wrong with Dillahunty’s argument, we need to understand what a “claim” is and what “evidence” is.
First, evidence is anything that makes a statement more likely to be true. Evidence is not the same as proof. Proof makes it unreasonable to deny a statement; evidence simply makes a statement more likely to be true, but the statement could still be denied. In courtrooms the prosecution and the defense will argue over the same evidence, since the evidence by itself doesn’t prove who is right—it just supports one interpretation of the facts over another interpretation.
Similarly, individual pieces of evidence for Christ’s resurrection can support other hypotheses than the resurrection. The empty tomb supports the theory that the apostles were frauds or that the body was stolen, and the post-mortem appearances support the hallucination theory; but when all the evidence is taken together, only one theory makes the most sense of it all, since an empty tomb doesn’t fit with the disciples merely hallucinating.
Now, if Dillahunty were only saying claims are not proof, or that merely claiming something happened doesn’t always prove it happened, then he’s right. People make false claims. But people also make true claims and—here’s what’s important—the claims themselves are what lead us to believe a statement is true, which means they are evidence. And in some cases, the convergence of claims even rises to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
For example, if three strangers in a public park all independently went to the police and claimed Smith indecently exposed himself, most people would consider that as proof Smith committed the crime even without other evidence to confirm this unique event happened, like surveillance footage. That’s why we can make a case for something like Christ’s resurrection based on claims from people like Paul who saw the risen Jesus and the Gospel authors who knew the disciples. Corroborating claims from sources that have nothing to gain and everything to lose from lying become powerful evidence that an event happened.
Dillahunty makes another mistake when he conflates claims with propositions as if they are the same thing. A proposition is a statement that can be true or false. Here are a few propositions: Donald Trump won the 2016 election. Hilary Clinton won the 2016 election. Rick Astley won the 2016 election. A square circle won the 2016 election.
In fact, there are an infinite number of propositions and only a tiny portion are true. Just because something can be the case doesn’t mean it is the case. If that is what Dillahunty means when he says claims aren’t evidence, then I agree with him. You need evidence to show a proposition is true before you can justifiably believe it is true. But one piece of evidence for a proposition being true is simply that a person says the proposition is true, or they “make a claim.”
Consider the proposition, “My father has a headache.” There are a ton of medical propositions about my father, nearly all of which are false, like “My father has gigantism/dwarfism/etc.” But if my dad tells me “I have a headache” then that is a claim about reality. It’s an assertion that a certain proposition is true and so it serves as evidence that the proposition “My father has a headache” is true.
Dillahunty himself accepts transgender ideology so, in this case, the mere claim made by a man he is a woman is not just evidence the man is a woman, it is proof that only a bigot would deny!
Let’s summarize. Evidence isn’t always proof, but it does make something more likely to be true. A proposition, or what can be the case, doesn’t make it more likely that it is the case since there are infinite propositions. But when a person asserts a proposition is true, or he makes a claim, that is evidence for the proposition. It might be bad evidence, it might be irrefutable evidence, but it’s evidence that needs to be judged on its own merits and not dismissed through faulty epistemologies like “claims are not evidence.”
For more on Dillahunty’s argument, check out my recent episode of the Counsel of Trent podcast on the subject.