Everything on Earth with substance has a form. A pattern of arrangement by which we recognize it as an individual entity – a thing unto itself.
Argument is no exception.
(If, at this point in time you haven’t read the first entry in this series here I recommend you go get caught up. Don’t worry, I’ll wait…)
Before we get to the basic pattern of an argument, let’s have a brief recap/ definition of what argument is. Probably the simplest definition of what an argument is comes from S. Morris Engel’s book, With Good Reason, in which he describes an argument as:
“…A piece of reasoning in which one or more statements are offered as support for some other statement.”
Think of this, in its barest form, as an “If/ Then” proposition, wherein “if” statement A is true, “then” statement B is also true.
You’ve heard this kind of reasoning your entire life. Take a minute, think back, and I know you’ll come up with innumerable instances of it.
But this type of single stage reasoning doesn’t make for good arguments. Let’s face it, a skeptical person is going to need more than one reason to agree with any proposition.
And to be clear, the point of making an argument is to get a listener to agree with your proposition.
So, to save the day, here enters the hero of our story: Aristotle.
Aristotle, among other things, gave us a simple template for of constructing an argument:
An Aristotelian Syllogism takes the form of two statements (called premises) put forth to support/ prove a third statement (called the conclusion).
If all A = C
If all B = C
Then: all A = B
The classic example of this is:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
That last one shows up in a lot of philosophy books. I think in just about every one I’ve ever read.
You can add more premises to support the conclusion, but in its simplest form, two is all you really need.
But here’s the problem:
A syllogism is so blindingly easy to put together that often we create really fucking bad ones.
Thankfully, there are tests to see if an argument sucks out loud:
How to tell if an argument is Bullshit:
Let’s start with an example of a crap argument and see where it falls apart:
The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
The sky is blue.
Therefore, the Sun goes around the Earth.
I’ll bet you see the problem straight off.
What the hell does the sky being blue have to do with the Sun going around the Earth?
This is often the easiest bad argument to spot – an invalid one.
(People like to throw the term “invalid argument” around a lot. And those people usually don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Forget them and their ignorance. Let’s drop some knowledge.)
An invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. If the two statements given to support the third don’t add together to actually support, the argument is invalid.
Put another, positive way: A Valid argument is one where the conclusion logically follows from the premises.
The supporting statements will seem to add up to the conclusion.
This is Validity, and it is the first hurdle an argument must clear before it’s considered not to be an abject trash fire. But it’s not the last one.
An argument can be valid, but still be wrong. (Wrong, for our purposes, means Unsound.)
Let’s change the argument to something that seems more true:
The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
The Earth does not move.
Therefore, The Sun goes around the Earth.
(don’t laugh, this is some actual ancient reasoning. Human beings believed this a very long time ago, but still. Tells you something about our ability to jump to conclusions.)
So, what’s wrong with this argument?
Well, here we run into the second potential problem with an argument: it can seem reasonable, but still be wrong.
The problem with this argument is that one of the premises is false.
(We know that the Earth does move, for those of you that have forgotten Copernicus and Galileo.)
So, what we have here is an argument where the conclusion appears to follow logically from the premises, but one of the premises is patently bullshit. This is an unsound argument.
To turn that around, into positive language, a Sound argument is one where the conclusion follows logically from true premises.
Those are the two main tests of an argument. And you’ve probably guessed that the second one – soundness – is often the most difficult to discern. It is so difficult because we have to know, or be able to find out, whether the supporting statements are true, or the person making the proposition is just blowing smoke up our asses.
And this is where many arguments breakdown: the truth of the supporting statements.
When you’re building your arguments, take pains to make sure your supporting statements are true.
(True, in this instance being defined as adhering to the facts. Facts are neither true nor false, they simply are. Whether or not a statement contains facts will be the deciding factor in that statement’s truth claims.)
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably beginning to think all this argument shit is too damn hard.
It’s fairly simple and straightforward.
But it can be time consuming.
Perhaps that is the reason most people don’t actively engage in the process.
Too tired. Too busy. Too fucking lazy.
You might be one, or some combination, or all three of those things, but by now, you’re not too ignorant.
Now you know, and knowing changes you. You’re welcome.
And, if you wish to know more, well, you are on the internet. The whole world at your fingertips. Go exploring. There’s a lot to discover on this subject.
Libraries are good too. They even have helpful people who know about the books you’re looking for. And, in most cases, libraries are free. So that helps.
Next time we’ll be discussing some of the pitfalls you’ll run into when dealing with arguments. We’ll talk about arguing for the wrong reasons, arguing with the wrong people, and how to tell the difference, and we’ll briefly describe fallacies. Fallacies will probably require a whole post in itself, as to understand them, one requires examples and explanations. And there are a lot of fucking fallacies.
Ok, that may end up being one long post. I’ll figure it out when I sit down to write it.
I hope this has been some help to you.
If you have questions, put them in the comments section. I’ll do my best to answer them in some way that makes sense.
Until next time…