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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Sunday Evening Commentarium for 2013/05/26

I’m involved in a new writing project for this blog, and this post you’re reading now is an endeavor of mine to publish at least one original piece of material each week. I’ll be posting on things that annoy me, things that interest me, and things that make me go WTF??

This edition will be all those in one.

At the local game shop I went to this weekend, during a talk with friends, whose opinions on certain matters are quite divergent from mine, I was chided for giving an argument that undermined itself, allegedly for being qualified in probabilistic terms, rather than couched in certain ones.

Personally, I think that’s very strange, and even occult, that an argument about contingent matters of fact could be undermined by an admission that one could be wrong.

That sounds to me more like intellectual honesty…

What my friend sees as a weakness in argument, a lack of certitude, is being misapplied to the wrong type of argument. While he may have been thinking “deduction,” I was thinking “induction.” And inductive argument is not logically certain, either from the form or the content of an argument. Inductive argument is strong or weak instead of strictly valid or invalid.

After all, that’s what most scientific reasoning is like — concerning the more or less probable rather than the absolute and certain — at least in my experience concerning all the scientists I’ve read and have chatted with online. And I don’t think that that’s unique to just those I’ve come across.

Rhetorically, I suppose, confidence, or rather, its appearance, is an advantage. We are more often apt to lend more credence than we should to the statements of those who seem sure of themselves.

But what I know about skeptical thinking tells me that the appearance of confidence is far from a reliable indicator of competence, and may in fact show the opposite. Bluster does not equal brains.

Not just those I disagree with either, but anyone without a proven record of expertise in their field.

What undermines an argument for me is the use of language and buzzwords attempting to appeal to ideals, values, beliefs and moral judgements — emotive things — one may not share with the speaker, especially when there is no concern shown for the audience spoken to or about, the use of not just loaded language, but truly inflammatory loaded language as if to rally the troops and dismiss the enemy in one shot.

This is what I see on most political websites, especially on propaganda outlets of the far right and far left that see a lot of traffic, of which many such site owners seem inordinately proud, perhaps thinking that popularity equals accuracy, or seeking to convey that impression to their more uncritical readers.

Unfortunately for far too many people, otherwise sensible, this works. But only those already inclined to agree with the speakers or writer’s views to begin with. There’s that whole thing about confirmation bias, with a slant toward tribalism leading to political polarization and a shutdown of rational discussion through useless media shouting matches.

Add to that an ignorance of the basic concepts and principles of cogent argumentation, and you have the sad situation this country is in right now, where no one wants to talk or listen to each other. It’s a climate of toxicity, dangerous to a functioning democracy and a powerful  tool of political corruption.

Despots like it when their subjects can’t or won’t get together and talk with each other. The opposite often leads to revolutions, or fair elections, which simply will not do to oligarchs who wish to keep their ill-gotten power and gerrymandered votes.

So if there were one rhetorical fallacy that really stands out, one that I see the most of in online and real-time discussions of politics, or religious apologetics, hands down the most obvious would be be loaded language, seconded by false dilemmas, quote-mining and poisoning the well.

It’s a good idea not to assume without reason that your audience knows certain things, but don’t treat them like gullible idiots either — never cynically assume stupidity, and don’t talk down to them — underestimation is a weakness, as many a failed politician has learned when the voting process has not been improperly influenced in his favor.

The greatest sin in any argument is to ignore or insult the audience one writes or speaks to, and writing in a deliberately inflammatory manner may win one converts among those who already agree, but while useful in that regard, it just puts off everyone else, especially those outside of the rhetorical echo chamber who can see it — or hear it — for what it is.

Sunday Evening Commentarium is a regular installment posted at 6:00 PM Eastern Time each Sunday, on a question or matter bringing itself to my attention during the previous week.

Charlie Chaplin – Let Us All Unite!

Nov 27, 2012 via

mp3: //

Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 anti-fascist speech from The Great Dictator, as a song. Subscribe for more like this!

Sources used:
The Great Dictator:
The Greatest Speech Ever Made:


I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor, that’s not my business. I should like to help everyone if possible – Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich, and can provide for everyone. But we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls
Has barricaded the world with hate
We think too much and feel too little

More than machinery, we need humanity
More than cleverness, we need kindness
Without these qualities life would be violent
And all would be lost

Do not despair
The hate of men will pass
And dictators die
And the power they took from the people
Will return to the people

Let us all unite!
Let us fight for a new world
To do away with greed
Now let us fight to free the world
To fulfill that promise
Let us all unite!

Soldiers, don’t give yourselves to brutes
Men who despise you and slave you
Tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel
Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle

Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men
Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts
You are not machines
You are men

You the people have the power
To make this life free and beautiful
Let us use that power
To make this life a wonderful adventure


Post Election Day Thoughts…


Galvatron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Now that the dust is clear and I’ve no need to worry for the next couple of years or so for my country’s political future, I’m actually just a wee bit disappointed…


You see, I was rooting for Galvatron as the next world leader, as he’s got a number of good policies and sound business practices at his disposal — and lots of loyal servants scared sh*tless of him as well.


First, he takes no guff from anyone — none of that nonsense of assassination attempts and coups by ambitious lieutenants, as he simply converts into a tank, cannon, or dragon (or whatever, depending on the version,) and destroys them.


Think Starscream from the 1985 Transformers animated feature (Oh, crap — I’m showing my age…) and you get the idea — Discipline, discipline, discipline — and this underlies the core of his philosophy which is…


Order. Law. Total, complete order and control over everything (Wow! Absolutist control-freak much, Galvatron? — too bad you lost the election; I was hoping to help you betray Unicron and regain your autonomy — maybe in 2016 or so…), everywhere, and this speaks of deeply ingrained personal issues, though, but never mind, wink, wink.


Second, Galvatron’s got an frankness you don’t see in most politicians — he tells you what he’s going to do, and then does it, and that kind of honesty is very appealing to those of us rendered cynical about the American political process.


Third, and finally, his determination to get the job done when it needs to be, regardless of obstacles. Who wouldn’t want a leader who uses his immense power to conquer — er, I mean, lead — the world into a place and new age of change, into a brighter, shinier, more gleaming metal future where we can have universal access to all the spare parts we need to keep ourselves functional, and of course, useful to the Predacon cause.




I think I need to stop now — really. So there.


TED — Rory Stewart: Why democracy matters

As democracy matures around the world, people are increasingly losing trust for it. But there are those who still believe in its promise despite government corruption in emerging nations.

Here are ideas for preserving and rebuilding it by fixing the electorate and advancing democracy as an activity…and as a state of mind a wee bit closer to the ideal.

“The problem with ideology…

…is, if you’ve got an ideology, you’ve already got your mind made up. You know all the answers and that makes evidence irrelevant and arguments a waste of time. You tend to govern by assertion and attacks.”

~ Bill Clinton former president of the USA, 18th Oct 2006 , at an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress. (unsourced)

An ideology is essentially a collection of ideas, often consisting as a body of personal truth claims, knowledge and values, with values being themselves based on truth claims, claims as to what states of affairs are to be preferred over others.

While I wouldn’t put things quite the way Mr. Clinton did, it is the case that most ideologies, because of the nature of their truth claims and value beliefs, are in large part unsuited for objective inquiry into how things really are.

This applies especially to partisan political, economic, and religious ideologies, and those of other sorts whose constituent ideas do not hold up to objective scrutiny, or which contain those that, seen from outside that ideology, can be clearly seen as non-factual and even mutually inconsistent or contradictory.

There is a danger in holding our ideas too closely, and by extension, our bodies of them, and in thinking ourselves to already have the truth without an honest attempt to actually find it first.

Critical examination of ideas, especially our own, is exactly what ideologues with an agenda would much rather we not do.

Credulity, especially concerning political loyalties, sows the seeds of political manipulation. So rather than be first to point fingers and make accusations of skewed views to those who disagree with us, I think it more useful, more honest to scrutinize our own potential for bias.

Unless we want to get taken in by our own opinions, and those who cynically exploit them, it’s important to critically examine what we believe, why we believe it, what we think we know, and to be as sure as we can that we have good reasons for both, to have good “whys” for our ideas, and to make sure that our “whys” also have good reasons for them.

Metacognition, “thinking about thinking” lets us account for our motivations, our biases, our numerous cognitive and reasoning errors, though I don’t think it’s humanly possible to completely avoid them.

But briefly stepping outside of our ideological bubbles is possible when we allow ourselves the honesty and freedom to doubt, to consider and evaluate our thoughts and the evidence for our claims without reflexive rejection or uncritical acceptance.

We needn’t do this to feel intellectually superior to others or to pat ourselves on the back for being such great objective thinkers, but to exercise due care in not holding our ideas too close to our breast, to not hold them so dogmatically (and I’m not aware of any civilization whose people actually prospered from adherence to dogma and suppression of freedom of thought) that those ideas blinker us from seeing and accepting what’s demonstrably true when it disagrees with our pet prejudices and cherished notions of Truth™.

Toeing the party line because it reassures us of our own subjective and often shared sense of rightness and righteousness, and avoiding self-scrutiny because it makes us uncomfortable is dangerous.

Not all sets of ideas are equally valid or useful for reliably and effectively solving our problems, especially when those ideas involve denial of the very existence of the problems we face. The very best ideas are those that lead us to recognizing difficulties and to best let us find solutions to them.

It’s not difficult to imagine that the deceptive promotion of ignorance, fact-denial, over-dependence on authority and dogmatic thinking are only useful if one has a political axe to grind, as a means to control others and not as an attempt to seek the truth, whatever it may be.

These more often than not lead to many of us being blindsided by the new, the unusual, the anomalous, the unexpected and unknown, and this is not a situation conducive to one’s benefit, much less in a world in which we do not and cannot control absolutely everything, or worse, someone else controls us when we fall for fallacious appeals to emotion, to patriotism, to party loyalty, to our desire for security and not a careful examination of the issues.

If some want to be among the intellectually deprived and politically disenfranchised, that’s fine. They should then feel free to confuse opinion with facts, ignorance and obstinacy with virtue, partisanship with truth, but should not presume to do the same for others. Leave the rest of us to go to the stars, not back to the caves.