Argue Like A Philosopher

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There’s no doubt about it – you’ve seen them everywhere. Turn on the news, and you’ll see passionate debates between conservatives and liberals. Briefly tune in to the conversation between the two girls beside you, and you’ll notice their discussion is over which One Direction member is more talented. And of course, the amount of pointless arguments you’ll find on virtually every social media site is absurd. Left and right, you’ll find arguments between the left and the right – and what characteristic do all too many of these arguments share in common, other than the fact that they give your brain something to dwell on at night?


They’re logically fallacious.


What Is A Fallacy?


A fallacy is defined as the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning in the construction of an argument. A fallacious argument may be deceptive by appearing to be better than it really is. Fallacies are everywhere – you can see them all over the internet, where people dismiss others’ statements just because the argument proposer possesses certain undesirable – and unrelated – qualities. You can identify them in religious debates, when people assert that because you cannot prove God’s existence, he surely does not exist. And chances are, you have not only created your own fallacies, but have fallen for others’ flawed arguments as well.


It is crucial to know exactly how and how not to argue, so you can not only become a better validity judger, but also a better persuader. There are many different arguments proposed by the minute – and with those many different arguments come many different fallacies. Thus, only few of the many logical fallacies will be discussed.


There are two different types of logical fallacies: formal fallacies and informal fallacies. Formal fallacies, perhaps self-explanatory, refer to fallacies that contain a defect in form; no matter what the contents of the argument are, it will always be invalid due to faulty structure. An example of a formally fallacious argument would be affirming the consequent, in which one asserts: if x, then y. Y. Therefore, x. This fallacy is present in the following argument: If I attend school, then I am human. I am human. Therefore, I attend school. The flaw in this argument is quite conspicuous – of course, there are humans that do not attend school! X may mean y, but this does not in any way imply that y means x. This type of argument will always be invalid. In comparison, an informal fallacy is a defect in an argument, regarding its contents. The form of the argument is not flawed – and if reused with different contents, the argument might actually be valid. An example of a common informal argument would be the abusive ad hominem. The basic structure of this fallacious argument is: Person A makes claim X. There is something objectionable about person A. Therefore, claim X is false. This form of argument should only be considered fallacious if the objectionable aspect of the person is irrelevant to the claim. A person would be committing the abusive ad hominem fallacy if he were to assume a woman’s assertion that dogs are better than cats is wrong because she dropped out of high school.


There are different forms of ad hominem arguments – with the abusive form only being one of many. There is also the tu quoque argument, the ad feminam argument, and the guilt by association argument. When someone commits the tu quoque fallacy, he is asserting that because a person’s behavior doesn’t match that person’s argument, the argument must be false or worthless. For example, a woman might dismiss a man’s claim on how smoking is detrimental on the account that the man himself smokes – but although his behavior doesn’t align with his belief, doesn’t mean his belief is worthless. The ad feminam argument involves dismissing a woman’s argument solely because she is a woman. Finally, the guilt by association fallacy occurs when a person/belief is attacked because it is associated with something negative. If I were to attempt to convince you that drinking water is wrong, because the Nazis also drank water, I would be committing the guilt by association fallacy.


It is crucial to note that the term “abusive ad hominem” cannot be used interchangeably with “insult.” To call a person stupid is an insult – to accuse a person’s argument of being false because he is stupid is an abusive ad hominem argument.


Aside from the ad hominem arguments, there are many other logical fallacies. One of the many common formal fallacies is called denying the antecedent. The structure of the argument is this: If X, then Y. Not X. Therefore, not Y. For example, if you attend university, then you must be human. But just because you don’t attend university, doesn’t mean you’re not human – we know x is at least a sufficient condition for y, but that doesn’t mean it’s a necessary condition!


Another informal fallacy would be the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The structure of this argument is: X happened before Y. Therefore, X caused Y. One would be committing this fallacy if he were to assume that because he pet his cat before he became ill, petting his cat must have caused his illness.


The Structure of Arguments


In order to perfect the art of arguing and make sure you are ruled by valid reasoning, it is crucial to understand the structure of arguments. It is maintained that your beliefs should always be supported by reasons, which are called premises. Premises form the structure of your argument. They offer support for your belief, and there can be an unlimited amount of premises in an argument as long as they support the conclusion. For example, if one were to argue, “All cats drink water. Bob is a cat. Therefore, Bob drinks water,” the two statements which lead to the conclusion (that Bob drinks water) would be the premises.


There are several different categories of arguments, and likely the most familiar type is the deductive argument. For an argument to be considered deductive, the conclusion has to be true if the premises are true. The argument previously mentioned, regarding Bob, would be an example of a deductive argument – once we know that all cats drink water, and that Bob is a cat, those facts entail that Bob must drink water. When the truth of the premises must lead to the truth of the conclusion, the argument is valid – there is no way for the conclusion to be false.


With the following argument, validity is absent: All humans are mortal. Socrates is human. Therefore, Socrates was Plato’s teacher. This argument is invalid because nothing about humans being mortal, or Socrates being human, can prove that he was Plato’s teacher. Obviously, there are many mortal humans who have never taught Plato. It is quite interesting, however, that this argument actually does happen to have a true conclusion. Thus, it is important to note that validity is not the same as truth. All ‘valid’ really means is that if the premises are true, then your conclusion can’t be false. In the case of whether Socrates was Plato’s teacher, the premises are true, and the conclusion is true, but the argument is invalid nonetheless – because the premises don’t in any way prove the conclusion. It just happens to be true.


Also, you can have a perfectly valid argument and still have a false conclusion if any of your premises are false. For example: All humans are reptiles. Dan is a human. Therefore, Dan is a reptile. The argument is perfectly valid, and the reasoning is flawless – only one of the premises are flawed, because no humans are reptiles. Since Dan is not actually a reptile, the argument is not deductively sound, or free of formal flaws or defects. A sound argument is one that has true premises and valid reasoning, leading to a conclusion that is guaranteed to be true. Sound arguments should always be one’s goal.


Deductive reasoning is highly valued by philosophers – and many other important thinkers – because it is the only type of argument that can give one a certainty. Of course, it is limited, as it only works when one begins with known, true premises (which are difficult to come across). Unfortunately, deductive truths are usually incredibly obvious. They don’t tend to reveal startlingly novel information, like the fact that Dan is not a reptile, or that Socrates is mortal.


Valid deductive argument forms include the modus ponens, modus tollens, disjunctive syllogism, and hypothetical syllogism. The modus ponens argument uses this structure: if x, then y. X. Therefore, y. For example, if attending university means that I am human, then I know that if I attend university, I am human. The modus tollens argument uses this structure: if x, then y. Not y. Therefore, not x. For example, if I attend university (x), I must be human (y). I am not human. Therefore, I don’t attend university. The disjunctive syllogism uses this form: Either x or y. Not x. Therefore, y. For example: either his cerebral cortex is active, or he is dead. His cerebral cortex is inactive. Therefore, he is dead. When proposing the disjunctive syllogism argument, it is crucial to be sure that you are not committing a false dichotomy fallacy – do not assume that something is an either/or situation when there could be additional options. The hypothetical syllogism uses this structure: If x, then y. If y, then z. Therefore, if x, then z. For example, if a tumor in the pituitary gland leads to damage in the optic chiasm, and damage to the optic chiasm leads to vision problems, then a pituitary tumor leads to vision problems.


Another type of argument is the inductive argument – it is what we rely on to determine which Christmas gift would be most appropriate for our best friend, or the fastest way we can travel to school. On a daily basis, we use our inductive reasoning abilities. With the use of inductive reasoning, one comes to a conclusion that is probably true based off of premises or past experiences.

For example, there is much research that supports the knowledge that aspirin is an effective treatment for pain, like headaches. You might have personal experience with the effects of aspirin as well. If this is the case, you would likely believe that another aspirin tablet will cure your next headache, because countless aspirin tablets have cured countless headaches in the past. Likewise, if you’ve had a teacher who has given you multiple tests before, all of which were incredibly easy, you would assume that the next test would be easy as well. But it’s important to remember that, unlike deduction, where true premises mean true conclusions, true inductive premises only mean that the conclusion is likely to be true. Inductive arguments don’t provide you with certainties. Instead, they work in terms of probabilities.


Reasoning like this is incredibly useful, which is why it is used so frequently. But there’s also a problem – the future doesn’t always resemble the past, and every pattern has its outliers. So induction always has the potential to produce false results. Aspirin might not work on a severe headache. The new test might be extremely difficult.

There are times when we need to find the truth in other ways – other than induction and deduction. There are times when we must make use of abductive arguments. Abductive arguments are what we use to explain what we observe, and conclusions made by abductive arguments are simply best guesses. Suppose you tell your friend that someone has a crush on him, and his cheeks turn red. To explain why such thing occurred, you would need to utilize this form of argument. The most obvious answer seems to be that this occurred because he was embarrassed to find out about the crush. The premise is “Charlie’s cheeks turned red after I told him that Lucy had a crush on him,” and the conclusion is “Therefore, Charlie was embarrassed to learn about Lucy’s crush.” Similar to inductive arguments, abductive arguments lead to conclusions that are not guaranteed – there could always be an alternate explanation. Perhaps Charlie was eating a jalapeno, and his cheeks turned red because it was too spicy. But given your background knowledge, it seems that the previous conclusion is the most likely one. Abductive arguments are meant to take things that you know are true and provide the best explanation for why they are true. Good abductive arguments lead to conclusions that fit best with your background knowledge and are much more simple than the alternatives. Consider the principle of Occam’s Razor – the simpler solutions are likely the most correct.


So, you now know the three types of arguments – But how do philosophers use these arguments to interact with each other? Philosophers don’t argue like other people do. It isn’t the casual discussion you have with your friends about whether Nirvana is better than Green Day, or why humanistic psychology is superior to psychoanalytic psychology, which is clearly a ridiculous position to take. Philosophers hold each other to higher standards. They don’t encourage others to say, “I reject your argument because I don’t like it,” or, “That’s stupid, Green Day is amazing.” Instead, if you disagree with a point, you must have a reason to. The individuals involved in this exchange of ideas are known as interlocutors, because we have to name everything. The first individual proposes an argument, and the other interlocutor decides whether to agree with it or put forward a counterargument. Then, the first individual can decide whether to respond with a counter-counterargument. This way of exchanging ideas through conversation was popularized by Socrates, and has thus become known as the Socratic method (which is used during the Socratic Seminar). Socrates believed dialogue was the most effective way to discover truths. And it is crucial not to regard the Socratic method as something that results in a winner or loser. Instead, it should be thought of as an exercise that brings both interlocutors closer to the truth. The goal of an interlocutor should not be to win, but to find truth – so there is absolutely no reason to feel ashamed whenever someone proposes a counterargument you can’t reject. Instead, you should be grateful to your interlocutor for helping you reject false beliefs and establish stronger ones. You should feel absolutely content with “losing” an argument – as losing an argument can benefit you more than winning one. In the words of Socrates himself, “I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say something which is not true, and very willing to refute anyone else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another. For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking.” 

So, now that you know how and how not to argue, you can finally stop falling for the fallacies of your interlocutors, and prevent the construction of your own. Now, you can finally win the argument over whether Green Day is better than Nirvana – or even better, lose with new and improved beliefs.