Sunday, January 14, 2007

Better Reasoning II: Types of Arguments

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Language is one of mankind's greatest inventions. We can use language to make statements, issue commands, ask questions, offer explanations, make jokes and do a host of other things. Making arguments is only one, relatively specialised use of language, albeit a rather important one.

It is useful to be aware that there are various kinds of arguments. The different kinds of arguments each have their own special kinds of uses, strengths and weaknesses. They also need to be handled rather differently from one another. However, before looking at the kinds of arguments, a few brief words about explanations are in order.

Explanations are very similar to arguments and can easily be confused with them. The basic difference between arguments and explanations is that arguments are offered to attempt to make someone believe that something is the case, namely the conclusion. By contrast, explanations presume what they are explaining and instead provide reasons why or how it is the case. There are roughly three main kinds of explanations.

Explanations by purpose fit phenomena into a recognizable pattern, or a human purpose. For example, we may explain why we read blogs by appealing to an interest in the thoughts of others.

Explanations by meaning amplify the meanings of particular words or phrases. So, for example, someone might explain that mentations are unseeable, because they are mental actions and, generally speaking, mental things are not visible.

Finally, causal explanations offer an understanding of how and why things came to be a particular way. These are the most common kind of explanation. For example, we might explain a car crash by appealing to the fact that the driver was speeding.

Explanations can be good, or bad. A further discussion of good and bad explanations will be reserved for a later post. The important point here though is that explanations should not be confused with arguments.

Probably the most interesting and powerful kind of argument is the so-called 'Deductive Argument'. With this kind of argument, provided that the premises are true and the argument is 'good' (in a special way that will be discussed later), then the conclusions follows, with necessity. Indeed, if everything is in order with the premises and the structure of the argument, then we can be completely certain about the correctness of the conclusion. A classic deductive argument, and a 'good' one at that, is

"All whales are mammals, all mammals breath air, therefore all whales breath air."

One of the limitations of deductive arguments is that they do not provide evidence beyond what is contained in their premises. Sometimes, we need to make other kinds of inference. One of the most useful kinds of inference is made using 'Inductive Arguments'. When we make inductive inferences, we consider a number of cases of something and make an inference about future cases. This type of inference is very common in scientific reasoning. Inductive inferences are weaker than deductive inferences, as their conclusions are only probable. However, they do let us make inferences that go beyond the evidence directly presented in the premises. A classic example of an inductive argument would be

"Every crow I have ever seen has been black, so probably all crows are black."

Notice how in this case, coming across and albino crow should not be as big a surprise as it would be to come across a non-air breathing whale, in the previous example.

The final kind of argument that will be considered here will be Arguments by analogy. Sometimes it is helpful to reason about something we do not know too much about, on the basis of something else, which we are much better acquainted with. It is in circumstances such as this that we deploy arguments by analogy. As with inductive arguments, this types of reasoning only leads us to probable, or likely conclusions. An example of an argument by analogy might be

"In my car, the lever on the left operates the signal lights, hence it is likely that the left lever will operate the signals in this hire car.".

The different kinds of arguments are worth knowing about, as the way they need to be assessed varies. They are also subject to different kinds of things that can go wrong with them. These will be examined later in this series of posts. To begin with though, I will spend a little time focusing almost exclusively on deductive arguments, as these are amongst the most powerful and potentially useful.

In closing, it is also worth mentioning that the various language uses mentioned earlier can often appear mixed together in particular utterances, or passages of prose. This is why it is worth spending a little time figuring out how to distill out the actual argumentative portions, so that they can be assessed independently of the other linguistic, or declarative acts, that would otherwise be distractions. This process will be looked at presently.

The CP

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