Swinburne on Confirmability

Professor R. G. Swinburne argued, in a note in this journal, that the confirmationist principle is false because a certain sort of statement that is obviously meaningful is nevertheless neither confirmable nor disconfirmable [‘Confirmability and Factual Meaningfulness’, Analysis, 33.3, pp. 71-6]. I criticized his counterexamples to confirmationism on the grounds that the sort of statement he considered was in fact capable of being confirmed or disconfirmed [‘Confirmability and Meaningfulness’, Analysis, 34.4, pp. 142-4]. In response to this criticism, Swinburne has offered a new counterexample to confirmationism [‘Meaningfulness without Confirmability—a Reply’, Analysis, 35.1, pp. 22-7). He suggests [p. 24] that any statement of the form p is unconfirmable:

p: Among possible claims about the pre-human past to which the best evidence ever to be obtained by man gives probability x some are true.

He allows us to substitute for ‘x’ any probability we like. 

Unfortunately, for I share Swinburne’s desire to show that a statement can be meaningful without being confirmable, statements of form p seem to be confirmable. The assertion is that some claims about the pre-human past that will have a definite given probability when the best evidence is in are true. But the more claims there are which have the degree of probability in question when the best evidence is in, the more probable it will be that at least one of them is true. And it would seem that we could get evidence in regard to how many claims are likely to meet this probability requirement. At any rate Swinburne would have to show that we can’t conceivably get such evidence in order to substantiate his claim that p is unconfirmable.

My point may be illustrated by a comparison with a game of chance that is like a lottery in all respects save that there is no guarantee that anyone will win. In the sort of game in question, although there is no guarantee that anyone will win, there is a guarantee that each person who bets will have a certain chance of winning. Now without showing that any given person will have a different chance of winning from that guaranteed, we can get evidence in regard to how likely it is that one person at least will win by getting evidence as to how many persons will buy tickets for the game. Our ticket holders are meant to be counterparts of statements having a certain probability of being true when the best evidence is in; winning is meant to be a counterpart of being true.


Swinburne on Confirmability
Author(s): R. I. Sikora
Source: Analysis, Vol. 35, No. 6 (Jun., 1975), p. 195
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Committee
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3327970