Lessons in logic: things which are and are not arguments

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 3:32 PM

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Inspired by the same friend who sent me the study on reasoning, I am going to do a running series on logic. If nothing else, it allows me to get some value out of that education in English I finished last spring. This is the first in the series: recognizing an argument.

This is probably not a surprise, but a lot of things which masquerade as an argument and persuasion do not actually qualify as an argument. They are missing some of the essential qualities of an argument, for one reason or another. It becomes very valuable to individuals to be able to identify what an argument is, and what an argument can do, because it allows that individual to choose whether to accept the argument, rather than being persuaded via their own biases.

An argument has several central features: a factual claim or claims, followed by an inferential claim which the arguer purports to follow those factual claims.

Example: When the sun goes down, it gets colder, therefore the sun is responsible for warming the earth.

While scientifically speaking, this is low-balling it for an explanation of why it's warmer during the day than at night, it is not difficult to confirm that when the sun is down, it tends to cool off. Those are factual claims. They are factual because they contain assertions which can be verified through the actions of the listener. Notice, however, that it's possible to be wrong in the factual claims portion of the argument, as well as in the inferential claim made on those claims. I'll probably do a double handful of posts on fallacy types.

The last part of the argument above contains an inferential claim, signaled by a combination of position (inferential claims can precede factual claims, but in this case it does not), the use of a signal word, and the fact that it is a conclusion about the broad behavior of an object (the sun). The broader the claim, the more likely that the statement is an inferential claim. Broader, in this case, means containing less specific claims; the behavior of the sun toward the earth, versus the behavior of the sun at a moment in time (when it goes down) and the temperature at that point in time (when the sun goes down.) Both of these claims are interrelated, in addition to the relationship they both have with the inferential claim, and have to be to be support for the inferential claim. If the factual claims aren't related to one another, they cannot support an inferential claim.

It helps to identify common words which offset the inferential claim in arguments: thus, therefore, since, because and hence. Inferential claims are not always set off by these words, but they so frequently are that these words can be used as a quick identifier. The claims set off by those words are explicit inferential claims.

There is such a thing as implicit inferential claims. These use the broad quality of inferential claims to signal the relationship between factual and inferential claims.


Example: The cost of home computers has become more accessible to the general public as a result of technological advancements in manufacturing processes and the pace at which new advancements occur. In 1980, few people were able to own a home computer; the original cost of the Commodore Amiga 1000 was $1790, $9330 today using relative shares of the GDP from 1980 to 2010. The current cost for an average home computer is around $400, $76.80 in 1980, using the compared shares of GDP.

The inferential claim here is the first sentence, and while the factual claims which follow do not give enough information to fully support the inferential claim, they do start the process with numbers and facts which can be confirmed.

The following things, while often used as arguments, are not actual arguments: warnings, statements of belief or opinion, loosely associated statements (lacking a conclusion), report, expository passages and illustrations.

All these kinds of statements are not arguments because they lack one or both of the two qualities of an argument: an inferential statement or factual claims which purport to support the inferential claim. Because they are not arguments, they cannot be approached like arguments; you cannot evaluate a statement of belief or opinion like an argument, for instance, because it lacks facts to check.* You cannot evaluate a warning like an argument because it is not intended to state a conclusion based on factual claims, and is merely a statement of consequence. You cannot debate loosely associated statements; a claim must be made on them in order to make them capable of evaluation.

A report makes no inferential claims, merely factual ones, and an illustration makes inferential claims using factual methodology, and cannot be evaluated in that fashion.

It's worth remembering what an argument is and is not because the methodology for proving or disproving an argument cannot be used productively on non-arguments. Personally, I find it a time-saving measure to remember what framework I'm operating in, and what rules the framework contains.

* This is why there's often no point in discussions about the existence of god with a believer. You can most certainly point out the lack of factual claims, but their belief is not built on factual claims and because they aren't using the same metric, consensus is near-impossible to reach. The only way to reach it is to get them out of the framework they associate with belief.

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