This post was originally published in 2011, and since then I’ve decided to give it new life and clear up difficulties in the text. I decided to use it once for for the pilot entry of my current Project Logicality. I hope it adds to the online discussion of the virtues of reason despite the decidedly unreasonable tendencies of the human species.
What is it that I mean when I say ‘argument?’ When I use this term, I don’t mean quarrelsome bickering accompanied by yelling and screaming, nor do I mean a mere shadow of an argument where debaters try to undermine the legitimacy of each others’ position without attempting to reach a real understanding or settling anything.
When I say, “argument” I mean it in the context of any rational discussion with constructive intent, not an attempt to thwart constructive ends through fallacious means.
Here, I mean that the parties involved act to offer reasons, premises, rationales, and justifications for the statements, the claims, and the ideas that they put forth. They want others to accept these, not merely by pandering to their prejudices or appealing to their biases, nor upon the use of legal or physical force, but by winning the free assent of that audience — an audience treated as though it were in principle intelligent, educated, and capable of exercising rigorous critical judgement.
I refer to argument in the sense of modern argumentation theory, a vibrant field of study involving the making and use of messages to influence others, by appealing to their willingness to cooperate — this is essential for the conditions of a viable free society.
Any coherent social structure, especially a functioning representative democracy with a large number of people needs some means of mutual influence between its members, of and for the viability of its governing system, however imperfect its governing body in practice. Perfection in matters of human endeavor is a chimera.
Argumentation as a field of study crosses paths with three other areas of intellectual endeavor:
First, it converges with Logic, the broader study of the structures we use in all processes of reasoning — this includes formal logic, mathematical and symbolic logic where the conclusion of a valid argument is alleged to be certainly true if the premises used to support it are also true.
But argumentation concerns itself more with informal logic, the everyday reasoning we engage in within typical discussions — in which the statements we wish to support do not follow with certainty, but to a degree of probability depending on the strength of our reasons and the willingness of the audience to accept them.
In argumentation, even the very idea of certainty depends on the audience addressed.
Language is important in informal logic, because informal argumentation depends heavily on the use of language as the content of the argument. Language is more than merely decorative window-dressing for an informal argument, but an essential part of the argument’s inherent meaning. The language that an argument is cast in cannot be taken from the argument itself without rendering it sterile and empty.
Second, argumentation converges with Rhetoric, originally one of the seven Liberal Arts — it is more than just vacuous or bombastic and flowery ornamentation in speech as is commonly supposed, but in the technical sense it is the broader study of how people are influenced by messages.
It is from Rhetoric that argumentation gets the concern with the requirements of an audience — its needs, disposition, and outlook must be considered by the arguer in making their case.
Third, argumentation crosses over with dialectic, a term that many people still associate with the concept of an opposition between grand historical forces, like the opposition of capitalism and communism depicted in Marxist social theory.
This concept has a different meaning, and dates at least since the Socratic method, given in the dialogues of Plato, and others, in which fictionalized persons are seen to engage in a sort of give and take exchange of questions and answers to resolve a dispute or reveal the truth of a matter.
This sort of questioning is similar to the use of cross-examination of witnesses in modern legal courts by the prosecuting attorneys in a case to uncover inconsistencies in testimony and to reveal possibly questionable motives.
Argumentation is the meeting point of all of these fields, and with it, we can clarify our understanding of our positions, resolve disputes, reach sound decisions for collective actions we may undertake, engage in formal and often productive debates, and, with ourselves as the audience, think through personal problems we may face or get out of a rut.
Argumentation as a process of giving reasons for our claims is one of the most important abilities we have as humans, and no matter our level of education, we can all benefit from the ability to arrive at better answers to questions and make more sound decisions than we otherwise might.
Argumentation isn’t just for egghead academics: Clear thinking and having good reasons for what we believe and do are for everyone. As humans, we are not always rational, but we have a sense of reason, one that once nurtured and practiced can serve us and enfranchise us as informed, effective, and smart voters very well indeed.
I’ve strived from the start to be a fair skeptic, to see arguments as they are, to analyse and evaluate them in such a way that I see errors in reasoning, logical fallacies, only where they actually exist, and so to avoid attacking straw-person caricatures of what is being argued…to see an argument as it really is, and to attack it only on its merits, or lack of them.
But as someone diagnosed with an illness like mine, I find that the real danger is not seeing fallacies of argument where they are not, but failing to see them where they are, and this I find unsettling. It’s sometimes the case that I’ll read or hear an argument, and while a skeptic without my disorder would easily note the error, rather than to not make out the sense of a reasonable argument, I sometimes make out too much sense out of unreasonable arguments — I sometimes see valid arguments where they are not.
While my treatment plan helps substantially with the more overt forms of delusional thinking, aided to a degree with skeptical thinking, I can and sometimes do, without thinking carefully, experience a feeling of sensibility when none is actually warranted.
Sometimes, I catch myself, with a brief mental “Aha! Gotcha!” followed by a rejection of the spurious feeling of sensibleness, sometimes, though, it slips past me, and lo, I am fooled.
This means that I sometimes miss what would be obvious and glaring logical errors to others with even the same knowledge and experience as I, minus the diagnosis of course.
I’m currently expanding my understanding of logical and rhetorical fallacies, and this has been very helpful, but I know that if anything, I must learn more and train my intuitive faculties further still. There is much to learn, still much to take in.
I must always be on the lookout for my overactive intuition, and I’m engaged at reining it in, to limit its purview to — mostly at least — those things that actually do make sense once truly understood, and not misleading fallacies, deepities, and word-salad with no real meaning at all.
While I can’t ever be absolutely certain to avoid that, so what? I’m not convinced that anything in the world can be known as absolutely certain, nor needs to be absolute to count as knowledge.
That it does is a claim that I’m deeply suspicious of, and maybe that’s a good sign.
Funny thing, that, the common phrase denoting claims to absolute knowledge, “set in stone,” when it doesn’t take a scientist to know that a stone wears away with time, and even the universe has a lifespan.
There’s hope yet. And where there is hope, there is life.
When it comes to matters of size and age, especially that of the immensity of the universe, never put too much faith in your own intuitions, too much stock in your own incredulity. Trying to fit the universe into a human sense of scale will almost always come up short of reality.
We humans begin life with a distorted sense of scale, as we are not intuitively talented to handle the world of the very large nor that the very small, the world of galaxy clusters down to the world of quarks. For those, we are better served by the tools of mathematics, of Einsteinian Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
No, we are much more suited to the middle-realm of everyday existence, that readily accessible on a planetary surface to our immediate reach and perception. We have only within the last few centuries extended that to a much wider breadth than the tens of thousands of years of our (pre-)history prior.
This is only anecdotal, but when I was a kid just newly resident in my home city, my sense of scale, of distance, was seriously inaccurate. The world seemed enormously larger than it does now, and has correspondingly shrunk as I’ve aged: It at first seemed an adventure just to travel downtown to the toy store.
Going up north for the holidays seemed an unthinkable journey, almost too far away to contemplate, though as an adult, I can at least “contemplate the depths of interstellar space…” as neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has put it, even if I cannot literally visualize it with my mind’s eye.
My intuitions of scale, of time, and of…things…are less prone to fooling me now than then. I now know to watch out for occasional muck-ups, since the universe is often reluctant to conform to them.
The universe doesn’t give a crap what I can immediately imagine, understand, or believe. It is what it is.
My intuitions, expectations, and incredulity can still fool me if I let them. But I’m better than I was about seven years ago when I had the nebulous idea that some arguments were better than others. Then, I had no real understanding of logical fallacies or the psychology of belief, two things in particular I’m still an amateur about.
But through these years sevenfold and onward, I’m a bit more skilled an amateur than I was.
One of the most famous questions in logic is the Problem of Induction, the difficulty of ultimately justifying the use of inductive reasoning in the sciences, the problem being how to logically validate the conclusions we draw from it.
The main criticism is that induction invokes the uniformity of nature, and this can only be justified inductively, and in so doing, we are arguing in a circle.
First, deduction itself is also, to a degree, circular. All of formal and symbolic logic is question-begging, and this is because of the very thing that also makes it truth-preserving — whatever truth you start with will automatically follow in full to the conclusion, provided the form or meaning of the argument is valid.
This makes it impossible for a deductive conclusion to be false with solid reasoning and true premises, but it also limits it in that the conclusion cannot go beyond what the premises assume or state. It can highlight or rearrange data already in the premises, but cannot tell us anything that is not already there at least implicitly.
Seeking deduction to discover the undiscovered without data is a mistake, for formal reasoning isn’t designed to work like that. It is a misapplication of an otherwise useful and powerful tool.
This is why the unaided reason has consistently failed in the history of attempts to prove the existence of various gods to those not already convinced of this.
To discover truth, reason needs data. And it needs to admit error. We need reason and experience working as one. I do not think it overbold to say that this is how we get the vast bulk of our knowledge of the world.
But we do not know reality as it is, but through the contributions we bring to our observations via our prior beliefs, our biases, heuristics, expectations — our often flawed interpretations of reality created by our brains and central nervous systems.
That’s the reason induction is so widely used in the sciences; it can tell us new and wholly unexpected things, which deduction cannot. It can go beyond the premises, letting us chart new worlds of understanding.
Induction renders conclusions that follow probably, according to the data and the reliability of the chain of argument we use. Induction thus isn’t deductively certain because it doesn’t need to be. That’s not what it’s intended for.
There are other ways alleged to be alternative, even superior to scientific reasoning and methods in general. These include religious faith, intuition, revelation, inspiration, mystical experience, and authority to note a few.
To invoke these is to imply that conclusions arrived at by any one of them are more reliable for understanding things as they really, really are, and therefore more accurate than other means.
We can then ask the questions,
“By what criterion is this way of knowing better, more reliable, and in what way superior to method ‘X’?”
“What ultimate grounding does THIS method have that makes it more effective in gathering knowledge? How can we correctly say we KNOW it is better?”
If ANY one way of obtaining knowledge needs ultimate grounding, then they ALL do, even your personal favorites.
But maybe none of them actually do. Maybe some are just better than others when they ALL have limits.
Yes, there’s a Problem of Intuition, a Problem of Revelation, a Problem of Authority, a Problem of Faith, in fact, one for every way of knowing that one can bring to mind. All are limited, often severely so on matters of objective fact.
If you say that one way of knowing is superior to another, you are implying in the strongest sense that it is more objective, more likely to lead to knowledge than a competing method, more “truthy” in its factual content.
There’s no way to get around that, even if you openly deny the value of objectivity.
The history of human knowledge, in those areas where progress has been made, shows that the most reliable way to see if an idea works, and reliably answers our questions, is to test that idea or an implication of it against experience, and see how that matches with our expectations or not.
To try it out and see if it works as hoped.
Intuition, revelation, mystical experience, and a variety of other attempts at obtaining knowledge all have one problem. None of these alternates to rational empiricism has any way of showing its own errors, and so steering the one using it nearer to the truth.
You have no way of getting at the truth if you cannot tell if something is false.
Instead, with most of these, there is often only the subjective feeling of certainty, and as someone who has intuitive experiences frequently, I’ve learned — from experience — to not trust my feelings of subjective certainty.
It’s best to test my impressions out before giving them too much weight.
Alleged alternative ways of knowing may indeed be free from doubt, but that doesn’t make them free from error.
For each claim by an alleged authority, there is a counter-authority who says differently; every intuition has its rival somewhere, somewhen, in someone’s mind; and every revelatory experience is often mutually inconsistent with the revelations of others; every faith-claim in one religion contradicts those in another.
Without falling back on empirically testing our claims, experiences and impressions, there doesn’t seem to be any real way around the problem of justifying our claims of fact save through science.
I submit that there is no ultimate grounding in first principles for any way of knowing, but that it is also doesn’t matter.
It simply will not do to require ultimate grounding for rival means of gaining knowledge while ignoring the lack of the same for one’s own. It’s fallacious, and an illegitimate presumption to demand it when one’s own means fail the same criteria.
That won’t even get into orbit, much less onto the launchpad.
This is why I don’t need a leap of faith to accept science. It’s why I’m suspicious of my own subjective impressions. It is why I am wary of my flashes of insight. It is why I’m skeptical of authority.
But I can see for myself that science works, even when it makes and admits mistakes. Hell, because of that, time and means being available for me to look.
The title of this post comes from an autobiography by Isaac Asimov published posthumously by his widow, Janet, and brings up a topic I’ve written on very little before: My accident in 2007, about a year before I started blogging.
I was struck by a vehicle while at a crosswalk on my way to a nearby bus stop, planning to do some writing when I got home, though the collision and its several month-long period of recovery weren’t the important part — it was the change in my thinking up until then.
It was, to my perception at the time, a close brush with death — I was pretty messed-up by the accident, though after the stitches for the head injuries, the major damage was a broken arm and fractured hip, both now healed with time and physical therapy.
During my recovery, especially the first ten days of bedrest, I thought long and deeply about life and what it meant — and not once did those thoughts involve a return to anything resembling religious faith.
As I lay on the gurney in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital only moments after being struck, I was aware that this could be it, that this could be my end. But fear of death wasn’t involved — I was angry.
I was angry at this inconvenience that would set my writing project back months, angry at my not seeing the car before it struck me, and concerned about how this would affect my family.
If this was what it is like to die, then it wasn’t so bad. I just sat back and relaxed, and let the paramedics do their job. I might come out of this, I thought, or I might not. Either seemed perfectly acceptable at the time.
My several-hour stay at the hospital was touch and go, but I survived. And over the next few days I came to this:
Life’s been more than fair to me, much more, I think, than to many others who never had the fullness of existence I’ve had.
After my accident, it’s not that I fear dying anymore, though it would be a great inconvenience. There’s a lot I would like to do first, projects to complete. It would be irritating, but not frightening, to die sooner.
I don’t fear dying because I’ve no reason to believe in an afterlife, neither hoping for reward in paradise nor fearing perdition in an imagined (and as far as I’ve reason to think, imaginary) eternal torture chamber.
But even then, life has been very good to me, and I think it has a lot going for it. There is much good to be done, much to accomplish, and life is precious, made more so with my relinquishing any belief in reward or punishment to come after.
To repeat the title, it’s been a good life, and I thank all those I’ve known, friends and family, online and real-time, past and present, for making it so.
But when I’m gone, that’s it. Lights out. No more me. Anywhere.
When I’m gone, the energy content stored up in my body’s molecules will go back to their source, returning to the Earth and the Cosmos whence they came.
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but that doesn’t imply anything spiritual, not in a supernatural sense.
But it’s cool that the atoms I’m made of, which cycle in and then out of my body even now, have almost an immortality of a sort, and will eventually find their way into the bodies of new life arising long after my death. And you know what?
I think that’s kind of neat.