Many people talk as if all you need to do to refute a position is simply deny it or say anything at all in reply to it. Such talk is too loose. Monty Python taught that “argument is not just contradiction” or denial. Even if you go beyond denial and say something in reply, not every response is a refutation.
For example, suppose a theist argues, “God exists, because nothing else could explain the existence of the Universe.” An atheist cannot refute that argument simply by saying “No, God does not exist” or “I do not believe in God” or “That’s stupid.” The same goes for the other side.
If an atheist argues, “Evil exists, so God does not,” a theist cannot refute that argument simply by saying “God does exist” or “I believe in God” or “That’s silly.” These simple responses are not refutations.
To refute an argument, you need to give an adequate reason to doubt that argument. We saw that some arguments give reasons that justify belief in their conclusions, whereas other arguments give reasons that explain phenomena. In contrast, refutations give reasons to doubt other arguments.
Thus, refutation is a new purpose of arguments in addition to justification and explanation. The reasons supplied by refutations are reasons to doubt rather than reasons to believe.
To refute a theist’s argument that God exists, atheists do not have to show that God does not exist.
All atheists need is an adequate reason to doubt that the theist’s argument provides enough reason to believe that God does exist. Similarly, theists can refute an atheist’s argument against God without giving any reason to believe that God does exist.
All the theist needs is an adequate reason to doubt that the atheist’s argument shows that God does not exist. Refutation can lead to doubt and suspension of belief in both directions.
Many people who refute arguments do go on to deny those arguments’ conclusions. That additional move results in part from the discomfort of admitting, “I don’t know.” Many atheists who refute arguments for God conclude that God does not exist, partly because they do not want to end up as a wishy-washy agnostic.
For similar reasons, many theists who refute arguments against God jump to the conclusion that God exists. That additional claim does not, however, follow from the refutation alone. All that the refutation by itself supports is doubt, not belief“, not belief.
What does it mean to doubt an argument? It means simply to doubt that the argument gives enough reason to believe its conclusion. This doubt can be directed at different parts of the argument.
According to our definition of arguments, an argument includes premises and a conclusion and presents the premises as a reason for the conclusion, so a refutation has three main targets to aim at.
First, refutations can give reasons to doubt one or more premises. Second, refutations can give reasons to doubt the conclusion. Third, refutations can give reasons to doubt that the premises provide adequate support for the conclusion. We will survey these forms of refutation in turn.
Excerpt From: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.”