As a Christian Apologist, I’ve been “allegedly” refuted more times than I can count. I’ll go into why I say “allegedly” in a moment. So, how did all this refuting happen to me? <gasp!> Was I in error that many times, or has every Christian teaching I’ve ever delineated been debunked? Have I been selling snake oil? “Of course you have, David Ragland!”, says the opposition.
So, dear reader, how many times have you been “allegedly” refuted by someone who disagrees with your stance on [topic x]?
Let’s consider the operative term before moving on, shall we?
Definition of refute:
1 : to prove wrong by argument or evidence : show to be false or erroneous
2 : to deny the truth or accuracy of refuted the allegations
source: “Refute.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2018
Now, from the same source we have:
“But for every study that shows acid rain is damaging frogs, another one refutes it.”
– Emily Yoffe, New York Times Magazine, 13 Dec. 1992
If we look at reference 1, we read, “to prove wrong by argument or evidence : show to be false or erroneous”. Is Yoffe then saying that the aforementioned acid rain studies are being proven ‘absolutely’ wrong by the opposition?
That is unlikely and here’s why:
When it comes to propositions, we can divide them into two categories; e.g. quantitative and qualitative. While mathematical propositions are considered quantitative, others are qualitative. So, if one wants to prove a person wrong on a mathematical sum, they only need to do the math and mathematically prove it. That is, 2 + 2 = 5 is easily “refuted” as it’s a quantitative proposition; it’s in a category that allows for such.
A qualitative proposition on the other hand, “ . . . like most of those that we meet with in conversation, in literature, in politics, and even in sciences so far as they are not treated mathematically (say, Botany and Psychology); propositions that merely tell us that something happens (as that salt dissolves in water), or that something has a certain property (as that ice is cold): as to these, it belongs to Logic to show how we may judge whether they are true, or false, or doubtful. When propositions are expressed with the universality and definiteness that belong to scientific statements, they are called laws; and laws, so far as they are not laws of quantity, are tested by the principles of Logic, if they at all admit of proof.”
Source: Read, Carveth. Logic Deductive and Inductive (Kindle Location 451). . Kindle Edition.
So, while a qualitative proposition can rarely, if ever, be proven with deductive certainty, we can at least present the evidence which leads us to make a given abductive inference. This sword cuts both ways, by the way. Just as we cannot prove a reasonable qualitative proposition ‘absolutely’, our arguments for such can only be “refuted” as outlined in reference 2 of our definition; i.e. “to deny the truth or accuracy of refuted the allegations”.
Anytime someone disagrees with us, they have to provide a very good reason for saying they’ve refuted our position. For example, have we been [proven] guilty of violating a first principle or law of logic? Moreover, the opposition can be called upon to identify their claim of refutation as (a) an absolute disproof, or (b) a mere denial of our argument as demonstrated in a counter argument. Finally, when issuing a challenge, a far more humble approach would be to say, “I have a counter argument which is disconfirming to your claims.”