Structuring Doubt

In my previous post, I wrote about the advantages that doubt can bring, even though it can make us feel uncomfortable. One can reshape this feeling into a desire for reflection and learning. In the interest of those wishing to do so, I continue this topic by giving a basic and general introduction to arguments.

In scientific debates, policy discussions and everyday life we use arguments to convince the other side that we are right. Though expressing oneself seems so natural that we rarely think of it, there is a world of difference between presenting arguments and plain arguing. In order to spend less time getting upset and more time being productive in discussions, as well as to become more informed as a listener, it is important to know just how it is that someone can show he or she is right instead of simply claiming so. This is achieved by proper argumentation.

The general structure of an argument has stayed more or less the same for millenia, and it can be found in ancient texts, such as the Socratic dialogues. There are only two necessary parts:

  1. The premise(s).
  2. The conclusion.

And the idea is that in a valid argument, the conclusion logically follows from the premises. That is to say, if my premises are:

  1. People who have a car need to buy insurance.
  2. I have a car.

Then my conclusion: “I need to buy insurance,” can be said to follow from my premises – which means the argument is valid. There’s an interesting thing that happens here, though. While in logic and mathematics it’s not really up to debate whether a conclusion genuinely follows from the premises, in other disciplines it can be a very contentious issue. This is because an argument can be valid, but not sound, and ensuring the latter is usually much more difficult. What is soundness? In short, it’s when the assumptions you make (the premises) are themselves true. So, someone questioning the soundness of the previous argument could claim that the existing law exempts them from buying insurance. Another person could question the validity of the law itself. Nevertheless, both of them could agree that the argument is valid. So, how does an “obviously” unsound but valid argument look like?

  1. There needs to be a force which keeps the Earth in orbit around the Sun.
  2. The Earth rides on top of a giant turtle which circles the Sun.

Therefore: a giant turtle is the force which keeps the Earth in orbit around the Sun. The reason you (I assume) didn’t have problems with discerning the “wrongness” of this reasoning is that you know a bit about astronomy. Just for the sake of completeness, what about a fairly obvious invalid argument?

  1. George Washington was human.
  2. George Washington was elected as the president of the United States.

Therefore: George Washington’s image appears on one-dollar banknotes. Notice that while practically everyone can accept both premises as true, the conclusion has no logical relation to them. The knowledge of validity and soundness should give you some ability to recognize the type of wrongness in future, not so obviously faulty arguments.

Obviously, if all arguments we made were as simple as these examples, our discussions would likely end much quicker. Here’s where the difficulties start. The problem with real world arguments (assuming they are made by at least somewhat-competent thinkers) is that they usually never follow this pattern. The issues we care about can be much more complex, so the overall argument can actually consist of multiple sub-arguments. People don’t write in a mechanical manner such the one presented, as it gets tiring to read and feels a bit lifeless. Authors can choose to make their exposition more fitting to their style by announcing their conclusion first, and getting to the supporting arguments later. And, of course, there’s always place for rhetorical decorations and asides in everyday language. So, in order to see the structure, you might have to search for it!

As I have mentioned, critical thinking requires active engagement. In order to learn how the argument structure is used, one has to get used to spotting it. The next time you read an article about whatever issue is currently attracting lots of attention, take the time to search out the premises and the conclusion. It might be a slow process and you might need to take notes – and that’s fine. It’s still worth doing if you value the type of doubt that serves your intellect.

For more in-depth reading, check out the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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