Michael Horner's Blog

    Truth Does Not Come in Degrees, but Confidence Does

    Written by allan.self

    In a recent debate on God’s existence the atheist side claimed they had no idea what I meant when I said my three arguments for God are probabilistic in nature. In my last post,  I explained how the arguments were presented in the form known as ‘inference to the best explanation’, which means there can be alternative explanations, but one must choose the best one. This is one sense in which the arguments were probabilistic.

    These three arguments can also be presented in a deductive format though, which I did in the debate as a summary of each argument. For example:

    1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

    2. The universe began to exist.

    3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

    Let me share what I teach my Intro to Philosophy class about the characteristics of a good deductive argument:

    What makes for a sound deductive argument? The answer is: true premises and valid logic. An argument is sound if the premises of the argument are true and the conclusion follows from the premises by the logical rules of inference. If these two conditions are met, then the conclusion of the argument is guaranteed to be true.

    However, to be a good argument, an argument must be more than just sound. If the premises of an argument are true, but we have no evidence for the truth of those premises, then the argument will not be a good one….in the absence of any evidence for its premises it won’t, or at least shouldn’t, convince anyone.1

    There is a difference between the truth value of a premise and the confidence we might have in the truth of the premise. The truth value of a premise cannot come in degrees. The premise is either true or not. But our confidence in the truth of the premise may be relative to the evidence that we have in support of the premise, which means one’s confidence in the truth of a premise can come in degrees.

    The premises have to have some sort of epistemic warrant for us in order for a sound argument to be a good one.2 As long as a premise is more plausible than its negation, then one should believe it rather than its negation, and so it may serve as a premise in a good argument. So 100% confidence in the truth of the premises is not required. We may have an 80% confidence in a premise for example. This means that our confidence in the truth of the conclusion will also not be 100% even though the truth value of the conclusion is true.
    Again, these three arguments both in the deductive format and the inference to the best explanation format can be seen to be probabilistic in nature in that the conclusion, although true, is not necessarily known with 100% certainty or absolutely without doubt. Nevertheless, that does not mean they are not both sound and good arguments.

    My description of our arguments as probabilistic in no way means the conclusions are less than true, nor that they are only possibilities. Dillahunty’s characterization of the conclusions of these arguments as “there could possibly be a god,” is not accurate.

    When DiCarlo dropped the pen he was trying to show that we can be very confident that the pen will fall to the table. I’m sure Dillahunty wouldn’t just say “possibly the pen will fall.” The conclusion that the pen will fall is the result of an inductive argument that, although it cannot provide absolute certainty, does provide a high degree of probability for the conclusion that the pen will fall.  When one claims that he has arguments that show that it is highly probable that God exists, he does not mean that he has reservations about God’s existence anymore than you would claim to have reservations about a pen dropping from a hand to a table.

    In the debate our opponents’ strategy was to assert that the theist has to prove his case absolutely without doubt. This allows the atheist to just throw out alternative possibilities which they then see as enough to defeat the theistic arguments. But possibilities come cheap! Against probabilistic arguments like we provided, the atheist must show that their alternative possibilities are more likely true than the theistic conclusion.

    Arguments based on a standard of ‘balance of probabilities’ can be good arguments. As I argued in my last post, one doesn’t need certainty in order to have knowledge. The cumulative effect of our three arguments is the conclusion that God exists. There are no degrees of truth. Either God exists or he doesn’t. There is no middle ground. But our confidence in that conclusion is partially based on the quality of the evidence in support of the premises in the arguments. When one compares the plausibility of the premises in our three arguments to the plausibility of their negations, it seems clear to me that we have three strong arguments for the conclusion God exists that clearly outweigh the alternative possibilities.

    Question: Would you agree that most of our knowledge is probabilistic in nature?

    1. Criteria for a Good Argument, Q & A #171, Reasonable Faith Website, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/apologetics-arguments
    2. Ibid

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