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How to Become a Really Good PAIN IN THE ASSA Critical Thinker's Guide TO ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
By Christopher DiCarlo
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 Christopher DiCarlo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA IS FOR ARGUMENT
What comes to mind when you think of the word argument? Do you think about images or sounds of people arguing or angrily yelling at one another? Does the term conjure up images of individuals embroiled in heated screaming matches? Or do you think of Monty Python sketches? In a now-famous skit shown in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Michael Palin looks through the doorway of an office and asks John Cleese the question: "Is this the right room for an argument?" Cleese responds, "I've told you once." Palin says, "No, you haven't." Cleese: "Yes, I have." Palin: "When?" Cleese: "Just now." Palin: "No, you didn't." Cleese: "Yes, I did." And so on. If we came across such people, we might think they were arguing or engaged in a dispute and could not come to an agreement. But neither is presenting an argument at all. In fact, all they are doing is disagreeing by contradicting each other's assertions without putting forth reasons that support either side—something Palin points out during their bickering, to which, of course, Cleese simply responds: "Yes, I did."
When it comes to critical thinking, an argument is actually a good thing. An argument is the way you put together or structure your ideas, opinions, or beliefs so that people will better understand what it is you're trying to say. People may not agree with what you have to say, but if you phrase your ideas in the form of arguments, you will stand a far greater chance of being understood. If others do the same, you will have a greater likelihood of understanding why they believe or think or have a certain opinion about a particular topic. So when you hear the term argument in critical thinking, think about the structure of your ideas. You will learn to structure your ideas so that they are in the form of arguments, and you will stand a far greater likelihood of being understood.
So what is an argument? An argument is made up of two things: the point you believe and the reasons why you believe it. Therefore, any and all arguments must have a main point and reasons that support it. In informal logic, critical thinking, and reasoning and argumentation, these two parts of an argument are called: the conclusion and the premises. To have an argument, you need at least one premise and one conclusion:
Premise(s) + Conclusion = Argument
Your conclusion is the point you wish to make, for example, George W. Bush was the greatest president in US history; the New York Yankees are the greatest team in all of baseball; abortion should be legal; capital punishment should be abolished, and so on. Whatever your opinions, beliefs, ideas, or understandings, you need to realize that unless you can formulate them into arguments, you have nothing more than unjustified opinions. Avoid being caught in such a circumstance because it demonstrates weakness in your ability to focus your thoughts and articulate or discuss your ideas in an intelligent manner.
WHY AN ARGUMENT IS LIKE A HOUSE
When it comes to arguments, you need to think of a house (see fig. 1.1). A house is generally made up of three basic parts: the roof, the walls, and the foundation. This is similar to the structure of all arguments. For all arguments have a roof (the conclusion), walls (your premises), and a foundation (your assumptions).
For your roof to be secured safely over your head, you need to make sure your walls are sturdy; and for your walls to be sturdy, your foundation must be solid. The same is true for your ideas when you place them into the form of arguments. The stronger your foundation or assumptions, the greater the support provided to your walls or premises/reasons to help maintain your roof or conclusion. The stronger your house is, the more difficult it is to knock down and the better it can weather an attack and stand against the tremors of criticism to which all arguments are prone. You want to make sure that your arguments are sound and strong, and I'm going to show you how to do this in a number of easy-to-follow steps. Let's look at the following example:
Suppose John says, "I think Lady Gaga is a great performer because she attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, she pushes the boundaries of societal norms, and she brings vitality to the pop music scene."
What is the overall point that John is trying to make? It can be found in the first sentence: Lady Gaga is a great performer (see fig. 1.2).
When considering the structure of John's argument, whether you agree or disagree with his conclusion is beside the point. How is John's argument like a house? We now know what John's roof is. But why does he believe this? John has provided three reasons or premises that act as supports to his conclusion:
1. Lady Gaga attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.
2. She pushes the boundaries of societal norms.
3. She brings vitality to the pop music scene.
Each one of these premises has underlying foundations or assumptions. To what degree these assumptions support the premises requires us to do some homework. What does the first premise, that she attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, assume? It assumes that the school is highly regarded or recognized and that those who attend it are fairly talented individuals who wish to become more accomplished actors, dancers, musicians, producers, and so forth. We are to accept, then, that Stefani Germanotta, years before she took her stage name, Lady Gaga, was talented enough in a number of areas that deal with musical and theatrical performance art to be accepted into a fairly prestigious university. Such a history means that the school will be more exclusive and difficult to get into; its programs will be more demanding, with highly specialized and qualified instructors; and it has gained a reputation for producing talented individuals. These assumptions are implied as being good criteria by which to measure the talent of individuals who attend such a school. This in no way guarantees that one will like the music of Lady Gaga; it is merely one premise that states a reason why John believes she is a good performer. The second wall, or premise, that supports John's conclusion is that Lady Gaga pushes the boundaries of societal norms. Is this a satisfactory criterion for measuring the greatness of a performer? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. What are the assumptions behind John's premise? John believes pushing societal norms does, in some ways, contribute to making a person a great performer. In and of itself, pushing societal norms does not guarantee this. For example, I could push societal norms by torturing kittens or walking naked in public. But such acts are simply cruel and unappealing and in no way guarantee that my performance would be great. So pushing societal norms, by itself, is not enough to guarantee that one is a great performer. In terms of Lady Gaga's pushing of societal norms, however, her elaborate costumes, original lyrics, and unpredictable on- and off-stage behavior may add to her status as a pop icon. But by itself, pushing societal norms is not a strong premise to support John's conclusion. His third premise, that Lady Gaga brings vitality to the pop music scene is apparently true. But this would depend to some degree on what John means by "vitality." John's underlying assumption here is that bringing vitality to the pop music scene is a good thing. For the most part, we could agree. After all, Lady Gaga does turn heads with her on- and offstage antics and behavior. So John's first premise seems to be strong; his second premise is his weakest but could become stronger with further support; and his third premise could be considered acceptable. This is a fairly simple argument. That means that the premises are fairly straightforward and lead directly to the conclusion. However, once we ask John about his underlying assumptions, we will see a much more complex argument with many more premises (or walls) added, which will help support his overall conclusion. Remember, we do not have to agree with a person's argument for it to be sound and well structured. Simple disagreement does not, by itself, bring down an argument. (Cleese: "Yes, it does." Palin: Oh, shut up!") To dismantle an argument requires careful consideration and critical analysis.
A is for Argument. And when you need to put your ideas into a coherent format, think of a house.
DEDUCTIVE AND INDUCTIVE REASONING
In everyday reasoning and discussion, we generally use two types of argumentation: deductive and inductive. These forms of reasoning give us two unique types of arguments. Your first experience with deductive reasoning may have come from reading Sherlock Holmes novels, watching CSI, Law & Order, or House, or even playing a classic board game like Clue (see fig. 1.3).
Deductive reasoning involves coming to conclusions after looking at information or evidence in a certain way and seeing specific patterns within the evidence that lead inevitably to a conclusion ("Colonel Mustard did it with a lead pipe in the library!"). If you have ever played Clue, you know that once the murder has been solved, it cannot be otherwise. So it's not as though it was Colonel Mustard, but it really didn't take place in the library, and the victim actually slipped and hit his head. When the murder is solved, it has to be a specific character, with a particular object, in a particular room. In fact, it cannot be otherwise. This is because the conclusion (in this case, the murderer) is guaranteed by the premises (or evidence) that led to it. Deductive reasoning guarantees the conclusion of an argument. In other words, the conclusion must necessarily follow from the premises. Using this type of reasoning is a very powerful tool because it is impossible for the conclusion not to follow from the premises. The conclusion is a lock, a done deal, a slam dunk, if you will. Consider the following example:
At a city meeting, the master of ceremonies, Father Flanagan, was informed that the guest of honor, Senator Robert Jones, would be arriving late. To kill time, so to speak, the good father began telling a story of how, when he became a priest, his very first confession was from a man who confessed to murdering his wife for the insurance money and making it look like an accident. Father Flanagan admitted that he was somewhat overwhelmed by the magnitude of this, his first confession. Shortly thereafter, Senator Jones arrived and, after apologizing for his tardiness, decided to lighten things up a bit by letting the crowd in on a little secret: "Father Flanagan does not know this," said Senator Jones, "but I was his very first confession."
What conclusion can be drawn from these premises? Is it that Senator Jones killed his wife and made it look like an accident? We just saw how, in deductive reasoning, if the premises of an argument are true, the conclusion must be true as well. This is called logical validity. What we know about Father Flanagan and Senator Jones is that if what the priest says is true and if what the senator says is true, then we must conclude that Robert Jones murdered his wife. The conclusion is guaranteed by the truth of the premises. There could be exceptions to this, of course. Senator Jones may have been lying in the confessional in order to give the priest a difficult first confession. Or Father Flanagan may have misremembered the day's events, and the murderer was actually his third confession. But if we do some investigating and find out that, indeed, Senator Jones's wife died at some time before the confession, and Senator Jones did receive a large settlement from his insurance company, the physical evidence could support the logical evidence given by both Father Flanagan and Senator Jones—and witnessed by a room full of people. We can see how deductive reasoning works so well in this example because of a man who devoted much of his life to developing proper forms of deductive arguments: Aristotle.
A BIT OF HISTORY ON DEDUCTION
Back in the days of the ancient Greek philosophers (around 2,300 years ago), Aristotle was concerned with the way in which people were arguing about various ideas (see fig. 1.4).
Some people—the Sophists—would brag that they could make the worse case sound the better using tricks of rhetoric, argumentation, and reasoning to bamboozle, confuse, or otherwise hoodwink people into believing what they had to say. Today, we call such people lawyers or politicians. I'm just kidding. Or maybe I'm not.
In any case, Aristotle decided it was time to develop a rigorous methodology to logic so that people would be able to empower themselves with these tools, and then they would know when others were trying to mislead them. So he set out a number of argumentative structures that are called syllogisms. These syllogisms are universal patterns of deductive logic, and any argument that fits into one of these patterns will possess a conclusion guaranteed by the premises which precede or support it. We will look at some of these patterns set forth by Aristotle and others because they are very important to the way in which we put together our ideas and talk about important issues in the world.
Deductive reasoning allows us to know that a conclusion must follow from the premises. As in the game of Clue, it's not as though the conclusion might or could or possibly will follow from the premises. In deductive arguments, the conclusion definitely, absolutely follows from the premises. This is where things get interesting, because Aristotle's treatment of deductive logic is based on the very structure of the argument itself. So at this point, content is secondary. Usually, when we have discussions with people, it is the content we are most interested in, for example, whether we are for or against abortion, capital punishment, or same-sex marriage. Aristotle begins instead with the structure of an argument and is interested with the formal or structural relationships between the premises and the conclusion. So we're going to look at a number of the structures or forms of arguments that Aristotle developed. Any argument or part of an argument that can be put into one of these forms is considered acceptable because it satisfies specific conditions that guarantee logical validity—meaning that the conclusion must follow from the preceding premises.
We have been tossing around the idea of the conclusion being guaranteed by the premises, but what does this really mean? Generally speaking, it's very similar to arithmetic or mathematics. If you multiply the number 7 by the number 5, you will correctly arrive at the answer: 35. But this is true only if you know what 7 means, if you know what 5 means, f you know the principles behind multiplication, and if you know what "=" means. If you do, then you will realize that all these symbols taken together produce the inevitable conclusion 35. In logic, deductive reasoning guarantees the conclusion from the premises in much the same way as the answer in a mathematical equation is guaranteed.
FORMS OF DEDUCTIVE ARGUMENTS (VALID)
You may not always be able to structure your arguments into these types of forms, but if various parts of your arguments take on these forms, then at least you will know that your arguments (or parts of them) are deductively valid. The content of arguments is something we consider later on when we look at evidence and fallacies. But for right now, let's stay focused on the structure of arguments.
Modus Ponens (Affirming the Antecedent)
(1) If A, then B. (1) If you build it, he will come. (2) A. (2) You build it. Therefore, B. Therefore, he will come.
Excerpted from How to Become a Really Good PAIN IN THE ASS by Christopher DiCarlo Copyright © 2011 by Christopher DiCarlo. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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