Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go.
This week’s entry is “argument”. This is a bit of a broad term, but is one of the most important and widely used in all of philosophy. Regardless of your philosophical orientation (Continental, Analytic, Historical) or branch of focus, you’ll not only deal with arguments, but you’ll spend quite a lot of time talking about them too. It’s the nature of the philosophical beast. We’re going back to root basics today.
We typically use the word “argument” to imply a disagreement or persuasion. While these are important pieces of the argument puzzle, a more general definition of the word indicates a more general understanding of the process of reasoning. Arguments can lead to the resolution of a dispute, of course, but they can also lead to the discovery of new ideas. Conclusions aren’t always the confirmation or denial of a hypothesis (though they sometimes are), but can also deliver surprise answers you never expected.
For more on the general nature of argumentation, see T. Edward Damer’s Attacking Faulty Reasoning, A. C. Grayling’s An Introduction to Philosophical Logic, and Paul Tidman and Howard Kahane’s Logic and Philosophy: A Modern Introduction, from which, in addition to an excellent undergraduate course on the subject, my basic knowledge of formal logic comes.
Effectively, an argument is a line of reasoning that follows premises (initial assumptions and evidence) to their conclusions. This, of course, is the best way to resolve a dispute or persuade someone of a particular conclusion, but it’s also a great way to figure out what you think, to go back and discover your own hidden assumptions by arguing back to your underlying premises, and also to discover what conclusions you unknowingly support as the logical consequences of assumptions you carry.
The best way to do this (in my opinion) is to put your thoughts into standard form, which is the form into which philosophers recast prose reasoning for the purpose of analysis and assessment. Statements are divided into premises and conclusions, and often implied premises, transitional moves, and sub-conclusions are inserted to clearly explain the flow of premises into each other, and into the conclusion. Example:
Prose: Since Suzy never lies to people she cares about, you can trust what she says.
In Standard Form:
- Given Premise: Suzy never lies to people she cares about.
- Implied: Suzy cares about you.
- Conclusion: You can probably trust what she says.
It can get much more complicated than that when you have transitional conclusions upon which the final conclusion depends, or when you’re not entirely sure where you’re heading, but the principle is the same. When I write academic papers, I spend most of my time organizing my premises to ensure that they flow naturally into each other, to eliminate redundancy, and to identify hidden, or implied premises that need more explanation.
From there, you can begin to analyze your argument. There are two major types of arguments: deductive and inductive. More nuance can be had here, but more often than not these two categories will be broadly sufficient.
A deductive argument is one in which the conclusion is explicitly contained within the premises, meaning that you need no additional assumptions or information to determine whether the conclusion is correct or not. Deductive arguments can be judged valid or invalid. A valid argument will be structurally sound, such that if you assume the truth of the premises, the conclusion must necessarily be true. Validity has nothing to do with the truth of the claims being argued except as regards their relationships to each other. There is no grey area in validity – an argument is either fully valid or fully invalid. An example of a valid, yet false, argument:
- If Suzy is a human, then she must tell the truth.
- Suzy is a human.
- Therefore, she must tell the truth.
Even though the initial premise is false (as there are many humans who do not tell the truth), the argument is still valid, because if we assume the truth of the premises, then the conclusion is inescapable. Now, if we take this valid deductive argument and give it true premises, then it becomes sound. A sound argument must have true premises and be valid in structure. A commonly used example of a sound argument:
- If Suzy is a human, then she is mortal.
- Suzy is a human.
- Therefore, Suzy is mortal.
It’s not exciting, but it’s sound. It’s important to note that not all deductive arguments with true premises – and even true conclusions – are sound, because validity is equally necessary to the equation. Example of an invalid argument with true premises and conclusions:
- If Suzy is a human, then she is mortal.
- Suzy is mortal.
- Therefore, Suzy is a human.
All of these elements, including the conclusion, are true, but because the conclusion isn’t necessarily implied solely by the given premises, the argument is not valid, and therefore, not sound. Based on the information given, Suzy could easily be some other mortal being besides a human (I hear aardvarks and water buffalo are also mortal).
Often the task of determining the soundness of an arguments premises leaves the clear, mathematical world of deductive reasoning behind as we attempt to argue for the truth of some of our initial premises. To determine whether or not our premises are true, we’ll need to make an inductive argument. An inductive argument is an argument wherein the conclusion extends beyond what is given explicitly in the premises. While inductive reasoning is a tricky beast, for now we can say that inductive arguments lead not to the necessity of their conclusions, but to the likelihood and probability of their claims. While there are definitely clear errors to be made, these are errors not of precision (as in the determination of deductive validity) but degree. Example of a weak, poorly reasoned inductive argument:
- Every man Suzy has ever seen has had a beard.
- Suzy is only a baby, and has seen about three or four men in her life.
- Therefore, Suzy believes that if a person is to be a man, then he must have a beard.
The obvious flaw here is that Suzy is working with an impossibly small sample size, and it is unlikely that she will go on in the world much longer without encountering a clean shaven or naturally clean cheeked man. Now an example of a much better reasoned, and extremely common, inductive argument:
- I love every movie made by this particular director.
- Therefore, I will love this next new movie she is directing.
Sometimes this gamble pays off – often, in fact – but occasionally we might find ourselves in for a rough surprise. I know I probably should have considered King Kong more significantly before getting my hopes up for the Hobbit movies, but even if your sample is pure, you can still have no guarantees. Inductive arguments, however strong they are, always leave room for the tiniest bit of doubt because you’re always going beyond what is internally guaranteed by the premises. No matter how likely it is that the sun will rise tomorrow, or how much evidence there is to suggest that we will be here to see it, there is ever the tiniest, slightest, remotest possibility that something might interfere with what appears to be a continuing pattern.
But of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t trust the results, because some arguments will be as strong as possible, while others will invite more doubt. Scientific theories are just falsifiable enough to allow for new evidence to invite reconsideration, while personal judgements (as when judging when to trust someone, for example) require a rather more significant leap.
In future installments of the Philosopher’s Lexicon, I will be looking at the tricky nature of inductive reasoning and the establishment of evidence and causality, but for now, it’s enough to know that most of the arguments we make fail to fit neatly into one or other finely drawn category. Often we mix deductive and inductive reasoning without realizing it, as when we persuade ourselves that our friends are trustworthy, that the news anchor is giving us all of the details, or that those three dentists really know more than that fourth one.
We tear down deductive claims on the grounds that there isn’t any empirical evidence, and reject inductive claims on the grounds that they take too great of a leap, all the while not realizing that we’re mixing categories. We accept our beliefs without examination, and relegate our carefully, yet perhaps unconsciously, considered ideas to intuition. We start with conclusions and look for ways to justify them, coming to conclusions based on preferences and accepting or rejecting the truth of evidence based on whether it fits into our established worldview.
I think having a more thorough awareness of the nature of argument and the different formats it can take can help us ward against this, so if you ever have the chance to take a course on formal logic or critical thinking, I highly recommend do. This is a case where I think the technical terminology gives us more than it costs to use.
Check back in two weeks for the next entry into The Philosopher’s Lexicon, and as always, please add what you think needs to be added, and dispute what you find objectionable. The purpose of this series is to present terms as I use them and encounter them in the wild of philosophy (meaning: at coffee shops and conferences), and as such will not be comprehensive.