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Project Logicality: Argumentation’s Basic Assumptions


An argument is a connected series of statement...

An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. (Photo credit: harold.lloyd)

This is the second re-release in my Project Logicality series, and it was posted in its original form in April of 2011. I’ve corrected and re-written this and reposted it here, hopefully clearer and to the point. May all your arguments be rational and all your disputes be resolved. ~ Troythulu

We persuade others through our arguments, to get them to accept the statements and claims we make as likely true of their own free choice, justified on the basis of the reasons we give rather than prove them absolutely. Argumentation contributes to healthy discussion and debate, to let those so arguing find common ground, and to make easier a willingness to compromise.

People argue daily, though seldom with skill, and in my view, argumentation as a well-honed tool of a functional democratic republic is needed more than ever with the increasing decay of social discourse, political polarization and interpersonal conflicts that ever more are seen as irreconcilable.

In this post, I’ll describe the basic assumptions and basic conditions that go into any attempt at constructive argument, and before I do, I’ll note as before that good argument is intellectual in force, not coercive or deceptive. It is an ethical means of influencing others, limiting their freedom of action without imposing on their freedom of will.

First, argument is carried out under conditions of uncertainty: We generally don’t argue about things we think certain, though that doesn’t prevent us from talking about them.

We argue about things because we think it important enough to convince others of them, and things may well turn out to be otherwise. If things were absolutely self-evident, they would be so to all, and there would be no need to convince anyone of them.

These differences may be implied and apparent to an analyst, concealed in the context of an argument, or explicit, obvious to an audience. Bear in mind that even the concept of certainty can depend on the audience addressed and the assumptions they bring to the table as to what it means.

Second, Argumentation must consider the needs of an audience. people argue about things that matter to them, attempting to resolve what they think are conflicting positions that cannot simply be settled by any non-argumentative means; appealing to common knowledge, or widely-shared empirical methods; things they consider to be non-trivial, matters important enough to need resolution.

This is not to pander to their biases, or to say that one claim is just as good as any other, it’s just that in being ethical, we must consider what is likely to persuade a given audience as if they were exercising their critical judgment on the merits of the arguments we give, and the soundness of the justifications we offer for our claims.

The audience is the final judge of whether an argument is strong or weak, justified or not, assenting to it if it is strong or justified, rejecting it if not.

Third, argumentation is both adversarial and cooperative. we make choices in arguments, choices in what arguments to select, and how to arrange and present them, based upon the audience we are addressing.

The adversarial components of argumentation help the rigor of the discussion; they help us avoid hasty generalizations; they reduce omission of important details. Skilled arguers seek first to find common ground which is itself the bedrock upon which they can meaningfully discuss their disagreement. Ultimately, these enhance our confidence of the outcome, a confidence pending better arguments to be made in future.

Fourth, argumentation involves restrained partisanship. It requires a cooperative effort between arguer and audience, despite the contentiousness often associated with everyday argument.

Arguers must share a common system of terms, assumptions, and meanings. This allows resolution of the dispute, and is needed to permit any meaningful argument at all.

Fifth, and finally, argument involves elements of risk. This is the risk of losing the argument, the risk of being shown wrong, the risk of having to alter one’s views and position, and in either case the emotional disruption of wounding one’s self-esteem or losing face with others.

But the cooperative aspect of argument means that in willingly accepting these risks, each arguer is respecting the rights and personhood of the other, and in so doing, claiming that same privilege of respect from the other for him or herself.

I think that these are good situational benchmarks, and are the optimal conditions, I would argue even necessary conditions, under which can be made any serious attempt to argue constructively, for the purpose of reaching the best possible conclusions given the means at hand.

 

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Why I get my science from scientists and not #FauxNews…


I feel up to blogging for this morning, and during this day and the next I’ll be reading up on SF approaches to zero-point energy production for a friend of mine, which should be fun.

*waves at @Ravenpenny*

Especially important in looking into zero-point energy is avoiding any use of blatant pseudoscience from so called “free energy” machine sellers…

Rubber science is acceptable within the context of fiction, implausible technological quackery is NOT!

So far, I’ve got two reference pages out of five candidates in separate browser tags. The other three candidate pages are all crank sites, with obvious red flags. I won’t sully my reputation, such as that is as a relative no-name in the skeptical community, by using those last as sources.

This raises a question…

Out of the arguments of both proponents and critics of any claim, how do I decide which claimant is more credible?

There are a set of steps I use that make for a useful start of any inquiry, and I’ll put these into three groups of related questions:

  • First: Which side in a given controversy, genuine or manufactroversy, commits the fewest logical fallacies? Which side has the most valid or cogent arguments and makes the fewest errors in reasoning? Once these are compared and an answer obtained, I then choose the side with the best arguments and go to step two. Remember though, to take care to see fallacious arguments that are actually there, and not the result of wishful seeing. And so…
  • Secondly: Which side has the better factual support for their claims. Do their respective claims add up under adequate fact-checking using reliable sources? Do credible sources support or reject the claims made? Which sources have the better track-record and reputation as a valid and reliable? Next…
  • Thirdly: Related to the second, but worth it’s own step: Which factual statements, when checked, even if and when true, are actually relevant to the claims and counterclaims made? Does the alleged factual support of a given claim actually have anything to do with it?

These three points are a basic rundown of the steps I use.

Answering these questions on science and science-relevant news are one reason I tend to support climate scientists over so-called climate sceptics, and professional biologists over the various species of creationists found online and in religion and politics.

They are the reason that I tend to give more credence to the statements of astronomers than I do astrologers, Physicists and psychologists more than psychic claimants, chemists over alchemists, and neuroscientists over phrenologists.

These questions are the reasons I don’t get my science from clergymen, religious apologists, allegedly fair and balanced media outlets, politicians or radio talk-show propagandists.

Those are not what I would call credible sources.

I get my science from scientists, and science-writers with a real background in the field, thank you, not preachers, partisan bloggers, or people who loudly decry government and taxation while also running for public office so they can get paid a rather handsome salary, with kickbacks and bribes paid by lobbyists, otherwise funded by my taxes.

Course Review: Argumentation – the Study of Effective Reasoning


This course from the Teaching Company, taught by Northwestern University professor David Zarefsky, has long been one of my favorites where home study is concerned and life situation, tuition, textbook, and travel expenses make de facto college study cost-prohibitive.

This set of twenty-four thirty-minute lectures, in a set of four DVDs, is a good introduction to both the fundamentals and finer points of argumentation, the use of reason to gain the willing adherence of an audience to whatever case you wish to argue.

Of course, the point made in the very first lecture is that far from being mere bickering and quarreling, far better than a verbal fight, argumentation is not about these things, but the noble art of negotiation and deliberation by the process of offering reasons, acceptable and sound ones, for the claims we make.

This course, as Zarefsky tells you from the start, is not about winning more arguments with your spouse, convincing an atheist that God exists, nor about convincing a theist that there is no god.

There’s a selection of suggested textbooks for the course, though I’ve found the lectures will do perfectly fine on their own with the study guide booklet that is included. For my own purposes, I’ve gotten some of the textbooks because of the usefulness of delving deeper into the subject matter, and I have taken written drafts of study notes from each lecture on the most important points of the lessons.

Some criticisms, otherwise I’m a poor critic, but I’ll keep it constructive:

Zarefsky uses many examples and illustrations of the main points of each lecture, and most of these are helpful, though some are a bit overused and a couple of times I had to improvise once I got his point by coming up with my own.

In one lecture, (#13, Reasoning from Parts to Whole) he uses hypothetical emails from Teaching Company customers to clarify a discussion of arguing from general to specific and from specific to general and how either can be inductive or deductive. Once was sure I got it, I translated it into a discussion of generalizing and classifying about sand-worn stones found on a beach, used in an old post of mine (Here).

All in all though, Professor Zarefsky’s a top-notch instructor, and I would be very pleased to study under him as a classroom environment teacher now that I’m used to his style.

The course as a whole is extremely information-dense, and that’s a good thing, though it’s spaced out nicely in the format of the twenty-four lessons it’s recorded in. I recommend having a pen and note book or the digital equivalent handy while watching or listening to these — there’s a lot to take in, even as spaced out as they are, and you may want to get the more subtle but vital points of each lesson as well as the well-illustrated ones.

I recommend this course for anyone interested in developing their skill in rational deliberation and decision-making in a world where we are all too often divided and polarized in our positions, a world in which the climate of debate is poisoned by the forces of unreason and dogmatic bullheadedness.

Nonbelief without Evidence Needs no Justification


An artist's conception of 79 Ceti b (min mass ...

An artist’s conception of 79 Ceti b (min mass ~0.26 M J ), an exoplanet with a mass less than Saturn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I sometimes come across someone who takes much exception to my nonbelief in their pet claim, or confuses it with a denial of their claim, or thinks I’m infringing on their right to believe by expressing my views on the subject when asked. If one doesn’t like the answer, one should not ask the question.

Well, given the notorious lack of evidence for most odd claims one will come across, I’m of the view that provisional nonbelief of a claim, any claim unsupported by real evidence, any evidence admissible in science, at the least a court of law, needs no justification.

My particular approach to knowledge is one in which reason and experience work together to build a tentative, continuously updated view of the world. This means that I place a premium on accepting claims as true if I have reasons to accept them, if some sort of valid, demonstrable evidence, direct or indirect, supports the claim.

My rules of rational engagement do not require me to prove anyone’s beliefs wrong, since that is not my aim. This is because I’m not the claimant, and the burden of proof falls squarely on the shoulders of the one making the knowledge claim, not the critic.

That’s not just a pronouncement from the chair, as with many questionable claims, but simply the way science works.

Consider — The rules of science are there for a reason, and were not just thrown together arbitrarily — they are the way they are because they allow science to be as effective and reliable as it is.

What’s my basis for knowing this? Seven years spent informally educating myself on the nature, purpose, process and history of science, formal symbolic logic and argumentation theory, and a good layman’s understanding of the psychology of belief, all of these gained from the work and writings of professionals in their respective fields.

I’m still learning all these and more, and will continue doing so until my death.

I will not debate anyone lacking the integrity to abide by basic standards of logic and intellectual honesty. People are certainly welcome to their cozy beliefs, but failure to abide by the ethics of good argument will get you ignored; persistent disregard will win ridicule, in the most tongue-in-cheek, civil manner deserved by the claimant.

My nonbelief in The Great Cosmic Dragon of the Metallic Hydrogen Seas of Jupiter™ needs no justification; I’ve obviously just made it up, so I’ve no reason at all to believe it exists.

Perhaps there is a giant alien sea monster of titanic proportions and cosmic origin living on Jupiter at this moment, but as it currently stands, no evidence points to that conclusion — no reason exists for anyone to justifiably say it is real.

The idea would quite rightly not be taken seriously by astrobiologists or astronomers who specialize in the study of gas giant planets or hypothetical life-forms on other worlds.

It would be surprising if I turn out to be wrong about this, but it would not shake the foundations of my world.

I could be wrong about Xulleus the Bunny God — He Who Nibbles Annoyingly at the Center of the Universe. Perhaps such a strange, irritating, and disgustingly cute being does exist, but I’ve no reason to believe he does, and no need to justify the fact that I don’t believe.

Regarding religious belief and nonbelief of other religions on the part of believers:

Does a Christian feel any need to fully justify a nonbelief in Indra or Quetzalcoatl or Shiva or Weng Chiang?

I think not.

Does a Hindu think it’s important to have rigorous logical proofs for supporting a nonbelief in Thor, the Dagda, or Zeus?

I don’t think that’s the case either.

Do Muslims feel it necessary to have a rock-solid defense of their nonbelief in Marduk, Kadaklan, or Freya?

The quick answer: No.

Do Scientologists think it matters to have an airtight, knockdown argument refuting the reality of Cthulhu or Ishtar?

Hardly.

Most religions don’t give much thought to the gods of others, except to dismiss them out of hand, or with some fundamentalist sects, consider them ‘real’ entities, but (lesser) evil beings in disguise.

Fear is as good a motivator as faith, and they often feed on each other.

The most rigorous standards of proof are demanded of and by believers for the gods of other religions, and the position of those with no religion, but typically I’ve noticed that one’s own religion always gets a free pass.

Interesting double standard there.

I could be wrong. You could be wrong. We could all be wrong. But if I’m wrong, I want to be SHOWN wrong.

Historically, most of the criticisms of any religious belief system have come from outside the belief system, most of the defense of any religion has come from those with a powerful vested interest in supporting it from within.

Yes, some traditions do encourage debate on certain matters within the faith, but by far, questioning the fundamental tenets of the religion is frowned upon, sometimes severely, sometimes fatally — the price for heresy in powerful, entrenched religions is high, sometimes involving excommunication, imprisonment, torture, and/or execution.

Even in the 21st century. It all depends on where you live.

Science, on the other hand, is intensely self-critical, with the proponents of any idea vigorously debating their findings with their colleagues and rivals in the same field; not a good environment to foster groupthink and ‘hide the data’ conspiracies.

Science is a fiercely competitive free market of ideas, and open to anyone willing to abide by its rules of logic and evidence.

The rules of science must be obeyed if its practice is to work well, but they do not have to obey themselves.

Religious apologetics and indoctrination have been around as long as religions themselves have, for many thousands of years, while science communication and education are relatively recent, and science itself only a few hundred years in a recognizable form.

Religious apologetics, like religion itself, is a lucrative and influentual industry, undertaken by those with a strong vested interest to defend the faith on the part of powerful and often ancient organized religious bodies.

In contrast, science communication and education are often poorly funded and struggle against attempts to politicize them by entrenched legislative bodies, wealthy corporations, think tanks, tireless, well-funded lobbyists, and clergy antagonistic to the findings of science and their implications.

Presently, there’s still no consensus on a metaphysically certain justification of science, and neither it nor its methods are true or false in any logical sense, but I’ll issue a challenge here:

Show me something, anything that works better, more reliably, more effectively, more efficiently, and I’ll switch my advocacy and support to that. But I’ll be up front: I’m not holding my breath…

…for by the time someone does come up with something better, I’m of the strong suspicion that I’ll be long since dead. I’m also of the strong suspicion that it will bear some resemblance in output if not methods to what we currently call science, only more so.

Prove me wrong.

Talotaa frang.

(Last Update: 3:30 AM, 2013/06/19 — Grammatical Corrections/Meaning Unchanged)

Why the Quest for Certain Knowledge Fails


In the past, I’ve mentioned that the attempts over history to find an utterly unshakeable basis for human knowledge have failed, but I’ve not dealt in enough details as to why…

I will not attempt to demonstrate this claim’s ultimate grounding — that would be impossible without assuming the very thing it aims to demonstrate. It would also miss the point…

…that final grounding for useful working knowledge is, I am convinced, impossible by any means currently known outside of pure logic and mathematics and their conventions, theorems, and axioms.

I am equally convinced that it is unnecessary.

I am confident that there is no such grounding without question-begging or circularity, even with formal reasoning as useful and internally consistent as any given system of it may be.

This applies to any item of knowledge up to and including the conclusions and claims of deductive reasoning, long considered the queen of the logics and the pinnacle of rationality, until the 20th century held to be the ultimate model to which all argumentation should aspire.

Also, it has long been a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that the existence of God may be demostrated by unaided reason, the basis of much questionable and spurious argument by Christian apologists and others who try to use reason as the mere handmaiden of faith.

I’m confident that this particular dogma is mistaken, for it involves erroneous assumptions about the nature and proper role of the very logic it attempts to elevate.

There is the Problem of induction, of course, and I won’t dispute this.

Inductive reasoning assumes the regularity of nature, that the future can be predicted on the basis of the past — that the future will be like the past because it has so far always been so — that induction will work because it always has.

This is using induction to justify itself, clearly circular, but this is not really a problem if we bite the bullet and use it anyway as long as long as it continues to do useful work in furthering our understanding of the world.

Regarding contingent matters of fact, those we’ve discovered and will very likely continue to, this is both reliable and effective in adding to our knowledge, even without formal grounding on first principles.

But induction makes no claims at anything but pragmatic justification, no claims of absolute logical self-evidence.

To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, “It works, bitches.” And until it no longer works, or something better comes along, we are fully warrented, even if without metaphysical certitude, in continuing to use it.

Deductive reasoning is not without its problems either, for its property of logical validity is not a substitute for truth, and there is a sense in which it too is fundamentally circular and question begging.

It’s certainty is conditional, and still fallible. We must test such arguments for formal or semantic validity and even that does not guarantee the truth of our statements.

All that validity does is preserve whatever truth is already in the premises through to the conclusion of an argument.

What truth we start with, we end up with…

If the premises are true, and the logic valid, then the truth of the conclusion is automatic — within the formal system used, and different logics have different uses — and the conclusion thus follows as true.

I’ll grant that. But that’s as far as it goes. Such conventions may work, but they could be otherwise.

Deductive reasoning suffers from the fact that we do not always start from true premises in our arguments, though it would be nice if we did.

It also suffers from the fact that in only preserving the truth of the premises, it cannot tell us anything new.

The conclusion can never go beyond what the premises say. Formal reasoning can only rearrange what information is already contained in the premises, not lead us to novel claims.

Statements may be abstract, even counterfactual. They need have no real-world referrent. Just plug in whatever term or statement is needed into a variable, and stipulate our constants and logical operators.

We continue to use the axioms and conventions of logic and mathematics, not because they really are self-evidently, necessarily true, but because they work, and therefore remain the rules of the game.

Other systems of geometry, and other systems of logic exist, and these use different axioms that could be otherwise.

Note the differences between Euclidean geometry and other, perfectly self-consistent types of non-Euclidean geometry, where the angles of a triangle do not necessarily add up to 180 degrees, and in which the shortest path between two points may be a geodesic curve, not a straight line.

Such alternative systems can be just as accurately descriptive of parts of the world as the standard ones, and other systems of formal reasoning, such as Quantum logic, Three-valued logic, Modal logics, and Fuzzy logic, all just as effective and useful despite each using different rules.

Even the concept of validity is limited, and we know that it is, as a look at the Paradoxes of entailment will show.

A tautology or contradiction may be trivially valid by the formal definition, however inadequate or unconvincing as argument, despite either being necessarily true or false, in all possible situations.

Validity as a concept is useful despite its limits. Even without ensuring that we work from true premises, it is useful to all those with even a passing concern for truth.

Clearly, we need the Law of Noncontradition and validity as rules in logic, even with limits.

So despite the flaws of validity, we do not yet know of an alternative definition that produces a useful, consistent logic. We must make due with what we have so far as we know no other way.

Not so with inductive reasoning, which while not being truth preserving or strictly valid, as admittedly important that is, allows us to go beyond the premises and discover new things, even with only a degree of probability, even without certain justification on first principles. The premises of induction are gained by observation and experimentation, but not only that, through all our experience of the world.

I don’t claim that the natural sciences are the only way of understanding the world, merely that they are one of the best we have at uncovering the secrets of nature. We need the social sciences as well, for a balanced view of reality, ourselves as well as the world, culture as well as nature.

I do claim, though, that the best way to see if an idea is useful is to try it out, to test it and see if it works or not. Science does this remarkably well, as our powerful technologies show, even without final certitude in it’s own grounding, and even if that were the case.

This is why ideas that cannot be tested, either verified if particular claims or falsified if general claims, are not useful and why such ideas are not scientific, much less actually knowable.

This is why my view is that much of classical theology and metaphysics are fundamentally flawed, untestable even in principle, and so nonsense. Problems that cannot by their very nature be solved are not real problems.

All human claims to knowledge, even supernatural claims, are first gained through the senses, including our initial knowledge of religious teachings, via sight and hearing, via secondhand experience, reading from and listening to others tell us about these things.

Sensory experience, firsthand or secondhand, in some form, appears to constitute the vast bulk of our learning.

Any further knowledge, insight, or understanding we have later, including our private, personal experiences, are colored by and gained after our fundamental learning via our senses.

I’m convinced that the best foundation for our knowledge rests on experience, made using whatever means are at hand, the strength of our premises resting on their closeness to how things really are, and our reasoning the best currently available.

In building a cogent, solid, reliable, however imperfect but perfectible foundation for our knowledge, I know of no other way, without invoking the evident chimera of absolute understanding as a better standard for human knowledge.

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