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.
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.
- Top 10 Fallacies of Internet Trolls (americanlivewire.com)
- Conservative media’s attacks on climate science effectively erode viewers’ belief in scientists (rawstory.com)
- 2013 SkS Weekly News Roundup #32A (skepticalscience.com)
- The Appeal to Authority (ethicalrealism.wordpress.com)
- The Prodigy Effect (ketyov.com)
- 5 Ways Right-Wing Media Make Their Fans Fear Science (alternet.org)
- Anti-science arguments: How do we respond? (newanthropocene.wordpress.com)
- Moving science communication beyond the standard argument (nrelscience.org)
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.
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.