What is NOT an Argument: Straight Talk about Critical Thinking
Written by Argumentful
Jump to section, thinking critically: why is it important to recognise non-arguments, being an alert critical thinker: recognizing types of non-argument.
Imagine this situation: in a parallel universe you are stuck in a maze, meant to stop your friends from entering a building full of zombies. There is a catch: for you to get out of the maze and connect with your friends, you have a logical quiz to solve. What does the quiz entail – you ask? You have to find the non-arguments in a text which is 20 pages long. There is another catch: you only have ten minutes to complete this task. How would you go about this?
It’s important to be able to recognise non-arguments so that you can effectively move to the essential part of a text: the argument(s) . Depending on the language, style of writing, cultural factors and type of text, you’ll find that many arguments are surrounded by supporting information, such as summaries , explanations , descriptions or disagreements . Recognizing these types of material quickly, allows you to allocate more time towards finding and analysing the argument. You might recognise the situation where your paper didn’t score as high as you’d like and your professor’s notes read something like this: “irrelevant information used” or “not enough critical analysis done on arguments”. I’m not saying that explanations, descriptions or summaries are to be ignored while analysing a text, only that the actual arguments need to be given more time and attention than other elements are. Additionally, when you choose a certain part of a text to reference, you can bring more value to your writing if your citation points toward an argument.
So what are the non-arguments and how can we find them?
Non-arguments are parts of texts that authors choose to include in order to clarify certain aspects or bring more details around specific ideas. Because they might include similar elements as arguments do, they could be confused with arguments.
Knowing the different types of non-arguments can help you be on the lookout for these.
Definition of Summary:
The summary is a brief statement or account of the most important points of a topic.
Summaries could use different words to rephrase key information which was already presented. In this case you might find them at the end of a passage, repeating information previously laid out. It is not typical for a summary to introduce any new information.
Example of Summary
Here is an example of a summary:
One of the elements which could drive confusion between summaries and arguments could be the connecting words used by both: “ therefore ”, “ as such ”, “ thus ”, “ hence ” etc. These are typically used to draw a conclusion in an argument, but can also be used in summaries. So, don’t make the mistake of assuming there is an argument just because of the presence of these phrases.
As with many rules, there is an important exception to be aware of: there is a specific type of summary which can help optimize the way you analyse academic texts, and I’m sure you’ve already come across this: the abstract .
In academic writing summaries are introduced at the beginning and are called abstracts . They contain the main argument of the paper, as well as the most important contributing reasons that support this argument. It can be very useful to glance over the abstract first, in order to pick-up the main argument made by the author. Nevertheless, for a complete analysis, you will need to go into more detail afterwards to closely examine the claims and supporting reasons given for these.
Here is an example of an abstract from an academic paper :
The conclusion of an academic paper can also be helpful: the conclusion is intended to help the reader understand why the research should matter to them after they have finished reading the paper. A conclusion is not just a summary of earlier presented points or a re-statement of the research problem but a synthesis of key points. Now you might wonder about the difference between summary and synthesis. Well, wonder no more: synthesis is the combination of components or elements to form a connected whole. The key phrase here is “connected whole”- all the points are linked logically together.
Check out this conclusion below from the same study:
So while summaries can be quite useful to re-state key points, they can also generate some confusion and be mistakenly interpreted as arguments. Be on the lookout for connecting words and don’t let them mislead you!
Definition of explanation.
It’s quite easy to mistake an explanation for an argument because sometimes it does look like an argument. They often have similar structures as arguments, containing assertions and reasons which guide the reader towards a conclusion. Not to mention that they could use the same connecting phrases as arguments do: therefore , for this reason , in consequence , etc.
So how do we discern if we’re dealing with an argument or an explanation? The secret is the intention , or the purpose : is the material trying to convince of an idea or persuade to take an action ? Then it’s an argument. Is it aiming to illustrate why or how something happens or explain the meaning of a concept, hypothesis or theory? Then it’s an explanation.
Example of Explanation
Here is an example of an explanation ( from a New York Times article ):
Definition of description.
Description is a spoken or written account of a person, object, or event.
Unlike the explanation, the description does not aim to clarify why or how something happens, rather, it just lists how something is done or what something is like.
A good example in academic writing would be one where an author describes the steps taken within an experiment, without making any judgements, interpretations or drawing any conclusions.
A useful analogy to discriminate between an explanation and a description is that of the thinking self versus the observing self: the thinking self is that part of the mind which makes judgments, interprets, tries to find explanations. The observing self is completely accepting and non-judgmental, always observing but never evaluating or examining.
The way to distinguish between a description and an argument is the same as for explanations: look at the purpose. The description’s aim is to inform and offer a wider context, not to convince or persuade.
When using descriptions in academic writing it’s a good idea to keep them factual, succinct and without judgment.
Example of Description
Here is an example of a description- what immune cells do when they encounter a pathogen (from the same article as above):
Definition of disagreement.
To be able to understand the difference between an argument and a disagreement, we need to acknowledge the different stands which are taken when two or more people debate an issue:
Position – this is a point of view but without any reasons provided
Agreement – agreeing with someone’s opinion without providing any reasons
Disagreement – disagreeing with someone’s opinion without providing any reasons
Argument – using reasons to support a point of view. Although argument may include disagreement, it is more than that, as it includes reasons for disagreement .
Example of Disagreement
Here is an example:
So there you have it: four types of material which are non-arguments. Did you find any other examples in your reading which challenged you to apply your critical thinking skills in order to separate the argument from other types of information?
Let us know in the comments.
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Logic: What is a Non-Argument?
Differentiating Arguments from Hypotheticals, Commands, Warnings, Suggestions
- Belief Systems
- Key Figures in Atheism
- M.A., Princeton University
- B.A., University of Pennsylvania
Before going further, you should first read what an argument is and why. Once you understand that, it's time to move on to take a look at some things which are not arguments because it's far too easy to mistake non-argument for legitimate arguments. Premises, propositions, and conclusions — the pieces of arguments — may usually be easy to spot. But arguments themselves aren't always so easy to spot, and very often people will offer things which they claim are arguments but are not.
Too often, you will hear something like these:
- God exists, and the Bible is true!
- Ronald Reagan was the best President we ever had!
- Global warming is a great danger to life and civilization.
None of these are arguments; instead, they are all just assertions. They could be transformed into arguments if the speaker were to offer evidence in support of their claims, but until then we don't have very much to go on. One sign that you just have a strong assertion is the use of the exclamation points.
If you see a lot of exclamation points, it's probably a very weak assertion.
Arguments vs. Hypotheticals
One common pseudo-argument or non-argument which you will probably encounter too often is the hypothetical proposition. Consider the following examples:
- If the Bible is accurate, Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Son of God .
- If you want to improve the economy, you have to lower taxes.
- If we don't act quickly, the environment will be damaged beyond repair.
These all look like arguments and, because of that, it isn't uncommon for them to be offered as if they were arguments. But they aren't: they are simply conditional statements of the if-then type. The part following the if is called the antecedent and the part following the then is called the consequent .
In none of the three cases above (#4-6) do we see any premises which would supposedly support the conclusion. If you want to try to create a genuine argument when you see such claims, you have to focus on the antecedent of the conditional and ask why it should be accepted as true. You can also ask why there is any connection between the hypothetical in the antecedent and the proposition in the consequent.
To better understand the difference between an argument and a hypothetical proposition, look at these two very similar statements:
- If today is Tuesday, tomorrow will be Wednesday.
- Because today is Tuesday, tomorrow will be Wednesday.
Both of these statements express similar ideas, but the second is an argument while the first is not. In the first, we have an if-then conditional (as you can see, sometimes the then is dropped). The author is not asking readers to make any inferences from any premises because it is not being claimed that today is, in fact, Tuesday. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but it doesn't matter.
The second statement is an argument because "today is Tuesday" is being offered as a factual premise. From this claim, it is being inferred — and we are asked to accept this inference — that tomorrow is, therefore, Wednesday. Because it is an argument, we can challenge it by questioning what today is and what day truly follows today.
Commands, Warnings, and Suggestions
Another type of pseudo-argument can be found in the following examples:
- You must do your duty to God , your Creator.
- We must stop the government from interfering with people's private property.
- People must make sure that international corporations don't get too much power.
None of these are arguments, either — in fact, they aren't even propositions. A proposition is something which can be either true or false, and an argument is something offered to establish the truth value of the proposition. But the statements above are not like that. They are commands, and cannot be true or false — they can only be wise or unwise, justified or unjustified.
Similar to commands are warnings and suggestions, which are also not arguments:
- You should take foreign language classes while at college.
Arguments vs. Explanations
Something that is sometimes confused with an argument is an explanation. Contrast the following two statements:
- I am a Democrat, so I voted for the Democratic candidate.
- She didn't vote in the Republican primary, so she must be a Democrat.
In the first statement, no argument is being offered. It is an explanation of an already-accepted truth that the speaker voted for the Democratic candidate. Statement #13, however, is a bit different — here, we are being asked to infer something ("she must be a Democrat") from a premise ("She didn't vote..."). Thus, it is an argument.
Arguments vs. Beliefs & Opinions
Statements of belief and opinion are also often presented as if they were an argument. For example:
- I think that abortion is a horrendous procedure. It violently kills a young, innocent human life and the extent of abortions in this country constitutes a new holocaust.
There is no argument here — what we have are emotive statements rather than cognitive statements. No effort is made to establish the truth of what is said nor are they being used the establish the truth of something else. They are expressions of personal feelings. There is nothing wrong with emotive statements, of course — the point is that we must understand when we are looking at emotive statements and that they are not genuine arguments.
Of course, it will be common to find arguments which have both emotive and cognitive statements. Often, the statements in #16 might be combined with other statements which would constitute an actual argument, explaining why abortion is wrong or why it should be illegal. It is important to recognize this and learn how to disengage the emotional and value claims from the logical structure of an argument.
It is easy to be distracted by language and miss what is going on, but with practice, you can avoid that. This is especially important not just when it comes to religion and politics, but especially in advertising. The entire marketing industry is dedicated to using language and symbols for the purpose of creating particular emotional and psychological responses in you, the customer.
They would rather you just spend your money than think too much about the product, and they design their advertising based on that premise. But when you learn how to set aside your emotional responses to certain words and images and get right at the logical — or illogical — heart of what is being claimed, you'll be a much better informed and prepared consumer.
- What Is the Fallacy of Accent?
- What Is Open Mindedness in Critical Thinking?
- Beliefs and Choices: Do You Choose Your Religion?
- According to Science, God Does Not Exist
- Argument From Miracles: Do Miracles Prove God Exists?
- Hypothetical Proposition
- What Does it Mean to Say "I Believe" Something Is True?
- Is Astrology a Pseudoscience?
- Types of Truths
- Fallacy of Amphiboly
- Top Conversation Killers for Atheists
- Language, Meaning, and Communication
- Leonardo Da Vinci: Renaissance Humanist, Naturalist, Artist, Scientist
- History of American Religion:1600 to 2017
- Why Don't Atheists Believe in Gods?
- 7 Reasons People Believe in God
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Differentiating arguments From Non-arguments
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash
Arguments & Claims Part 2 – Differentiating Arguments From Non-arguments
When you're reading a piece of writing or listening to speech, it's not always easy to find the argument when one's being made. First, there might not be an argument present at all. For instance, what you're reading may be a report of research findings or recent events (e.g., news sites are filled with basic reports of events). A reporting author might, for example, be conveying scientific findings that researchers had previously published in a peer-reviewed journal. In reports, the writer is providing a stream of information about recent events or findings.
A report might refer to, or even discuss at length, an argument made by someone else, but that's very different from the author making the argument themselves. Knowing precisely who's making the argument is important to your ability to evaluate the piece. For example, we wouldn't assume that a report is of poor quality because it refers to someone else's weak argument.
A story , fictional or not, also differs from an argument—like a report, however, it may contain an argument within it. For example, in a Winnie-the-Pooh story, Piglet, in conversation with Tiger, might make a claim and support it with reasons (i.e., set forth an argument). However, this wouldn't mean that the author, A. A. Milne, is making an argument—it's just part of the story. One wouldn't generally want to assume A. A. Milne made a weak argument, just because one of his characters voiced one.
There are other times when you may be reading or hearing an explanation rather than an argument. This is often substantially more difficult to distinguish, so ensure to take a minute getting your head wrapped around this difference! Whereas arguments offer reasons that something is true, explanations give reasons why something is true.
That is, in an explanation, the author is generally taking a statement as true and assuming that the audience also believes it's true. They're trying to communicate to the audience why it's true. Like this:
I have a cold because because my daughter has been sick for the past week and she passed it along to me.
My hat is sticky because my son put marmalade in it.
As you can see, the thing that is being explained (e.g., "my hat is sticky") is assumed to be true and the author is trying to explain why it's true. In an argument, by contrast, the conclusion is not assumed—rather, the author is trying to convince you that it's true. Try this: which one of the following is an argument and which is an explanation?
Dinosaurs are extinct because an astroid struck the Earth millions of years ago.
I don't see a single dinosaur when I look out my bedroom window and my Dad said there aren't any dinosaurs left on the planet. Therefore, dinosaurs are extinct.
The first one is an explanation. The author takes it as fact that dinosaurs are extinct and is providing a reason why they're extinct. The second is an argument. The author is offering evidence (though not very good evidence!) that the audience should believe dinosaurs are extinct. It's a bad argument, but it's an argument nonetheless.
There is, of course, lots of critical thinking to do when you encounter an explanation. The thing being explained (the explanandum) may not actually be true. Alternatively, there may be problems with an explanatory statement (explanans) . For instance, a proponent of unproven alternative medicines like homeopathic remedies may start with the assumption that a homeopathic treatment works and then try to explain to clients or the general public why it works. This assumption of the treatment's efficacy is problematic because there isn't good scientific evidence to support homeopathy's efficacy and there is much good reason to doubt its efficacy. Without good reason to believe the explanandum, the larger explanation doesn't have much going for it. That is, it doesn't do us much good to try to explain something that is not either (a) established fact or (b) at least quite likely to be true.
So, sometimes there is no argument—a piece of media might be doing something else entirely, like explaining something or reporting recent events. The second issue with finding an argument is that it may be quite complex and/or not be explicitly stated. This can sometimes be because an author's writing lacks clarity, but at other times the argument is developed over the course of a longer presentation or piece of writing. Sometimes the author is responsible for having made the argument hard to pin down. At other times, though, the reader just needs practice breaking down complex works.
The former possibility—poor articulation of an argument—warrants at least some negative evaluation (see section on evaluating arguments ). Perhaps the author isn't a very good writer or speaker, has put their ideas out into the world hastily, or has purposefully obscured what they're trying to say (it happens!). While those reasons clearly create communication problems, there might still be something good to take from the argument—thus, you may not want to complete dismiss the work.
However, sometimes an argument is hard to pin down despite being stated as clearly as possible. It could simply be a complex argument in its simplest form, for example.
When you want to analyze somewhat to very complex arguments, Bassham and colleagues (2019) suggest rewriting them without any superfluous content and in an organizing fashion. Realistically, however, this is rarely something you're going to do in practice (though you might be required to do so as part of a critical thinking course). Nevertheless, searching for arguments more deliberately, even when doing casual reading, can have a big payoff in terms of your understanding. Just keeping the idea of argument in mind and thinking about what the author is trying to do can help you get more out of what you read.
In short, what is the author's aim? Consider whether the piece definitely makes an argument, might be making an argument, or is doing something else entirely. Are they trying to convince you that something is true (argument)? Are the reporting something someone else has said, did, or discovered (report)? Are they trying to explain why something is true (explanation)?
One final thing to consider. Perhaps, as is often the case in short social media posts, the author is merely expressing some view they hold without presenting any reasons for their view. This is referred to as an unsupported assertion. Such as these:
There's more police brutality in places with more guns.
Men who wear hats are less trustworthy.
Extroverted people are likely to have more friends.
These are all statements or claims that could be a conclusion in an argument, but when they're stated on their own, they're just unsupported assertions. We shouldn't be swayed in one way or the other unless the author backs them up with good reasons (i.e., is making a decent argument).
If the author is indeed expressing an argument—trying to convince the audience of a conclusion with reasons (premises)—there's lots more to consider. For example, we want to know whether we should be convinced or at least swayed by the argument (i.e., is it a good argument?). Going a step further, we might want to develop our thinking on how to counter-argue if we choose to or believe that doing so is necessary.
Key Terms & Ideas
Explanation: Whereas arguments offer reasons that something is true, explanation aims to give reasons why something is true. In an explanation, the author is generally assuming that something is true and is trying to communicate why.
Explanandum: The thing to be explained in an explanation.
Explanans: The statement(s) doing the explaining in an explanation.
Report: Aims to convey information about a subject. This could involve the narration of events like a news story or personal experience. It could also involve the description of research that has been conducted, including its methodology and findings.
Unsupported assertions: a statement of belief made by a speaker or writer. Regardless of whether it is true or false, it is an unsupported assertion if the author doesn't provide supportive reasons for it. For example, if a tweet simply reads, "Justin Trudeau is a known liar," this is an unsupported assertion. If it were instead a conclusion with evidence given in support of it (regardless of whether that evidence is good or not), it would of course no longer qualify as an unsupported assertion and would instead be an argument.
In the following application, the goal is to read a short piece with an eye toward whether you're reading an argument or something else and why.
1. Carefully read the following article: " Terrible Bosses Have This One Great Silver Lining, New Study Finds " by James Dennin. Keep in mind the definitions of argument, explanation, report, and unsupported assertion as you read it.
2. This article might contain an argument, explanation, report, or unsupported assertion. It's also possible that more than one of these appears in the article, but which of those four do you feel is most reflective of the piece? Start by summarizing your sense of what this article is trying to do. Which of those four concepts do you think most closely represents what the author is trying to do with the piece? Why do you think that?
3. Can you summarize why you don't think each of the other three is not reflective of the piece? For example, if you think the author is making an unsupported assertion, write down why you think argument, explanation, and report are not reflective of the piece.
Level 3: Using Argument Forms To Test For Validity
Level 3.1: Arguments vs Non-Arguments
In everyday life, the word “argument” is often used to refer to a disagreement, or sometimes even a physical fight, between two or more people. In contrast, philosophers and logicians use the word “argument” to refer to sets of statements of a particular type.
All arguments are sets of statements, but are all sets of statements arguments? The answer to this question is “No”. Consider the following sets of statements:
“If it rains, the ground will become muddy. And if the ground becomes muddy, you will need your gumboots. Therefore, if it rains, you will need your gumboots.”
“Most of the spectators went home after half time. The home team was so dominant, that the game had become boring.”
“Clearly, your mother’s car has to be a Corolla. After all, it’s a Toyota, and all Corollas are Toyotas.”
The first and third sets of statements count as arguments, but the second set does not. To count as an argument, a set of statements must include a conclusion , a statement that is being argued for , and premises , statements that support – or give reasons to accept the truth of – the conclusion.
Consider the first set of statements again:
The conclusion that is being argued for here is:
“If it rains then the ground will become muddy.”
How do we know that this is the conclusion? The giveaway is the word “therefore” that comes right before this statement. “Therefore” is a conclusion indicator . When you see or hear the word “therefore” you know that the statement that follows will be a conclusion.
Some Commonly Occurring Conclusion Indicators
“It follows that …”
Sometimes it is the presence of conclusion indicators that gives away the fact that we are looking at an argument. Premise indicators can do a similar job. Consider again the third set of statements from above:
The conclusion of this argument is:
“Your mother’s car is a Corolla.”
How do we know that this is the conclusion? The phrase “After all …” is the giveaway. “After all …” is a premise indicator, and like all premise indicators it tells us that we have just been presented with a conclusion, and that what immediately follows will be one or more premises : i.e. one or more statements put forward in support of the conclusion that has been presented.
Some Commonly Occurring Premise Indicators
“ … since …”
“Firstly, … secondly, …”
“After all, …”
“This may be inferred / deduced / derived from the fact that …”
Consider again the second set of statements presented above:
Unlike the first and the third sets of statements, this set of statements does not contain any terms or phrases to indicate that one or more of the statements is being presented as a premise in support of one of the others, where the latter would count as a conclusion. What are we are looking at, therefore, is a set of statements that although related to one another do not constitute an argument.
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Pursuing Truth: A Guide to Critical Thinking
Chapter 2 arguments.
The fundamental tool of the critical thinker is the argument. For a good example of what we are not talking about, consider a bit from a famous sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus : 3
2.1 Identifying Arguments
People often use “argument” to refer to a dispute or quarrel between people. In critical thinking, an argument is defined as
A set of statements, one of which is the conclusion and the others are the premises.
There are three important things to remember here:
- Arguments contain statements.
- They have a conclusion.
- They have at least one premise
Arguments contain statements, or declarative sentences. Statements, unlike questions or commands, have a truth value. Statements assert that the world is a particular way; questions do not. For example, if someone asked you what you did after dinner yesterday evening, you wouldn’t accuse them of lying. When the world is the way that the statement says that it is, we say that the statement is true. If the statement is not true, it is false.
One of the statements in the argument is called the conclusion. The conclusion is the statement that is intended to be proved. Consider the following argument:
Calculus II will be no harder than Calculus I. Susan did well in Calculus I. So, Susan should do well in Calculus II.
Here the conclusion is that Susan should do well in Calculus II. The other two sentences are premises. Premises are the reasons offered for believing that the conclusion is true.
2.1.1 Standard Form
Now, to make the argument easier to evaluate, we will put it into what is called “standard form.” To put an argument in standard form, write each premise on a separate, numbered line. Draw a line underneath the last premise, the write the conclusion underneath the line.
- Calculus II will be no harder than Calculus I.
- Susan did well in Calculus I.
- Susan should do well in Calculus II.
Now that we have the argument in standard form, we can talk about premise 1, premise 2, and all clearly be referring to the same thing.
2.1.2 Indicator Words
Unfortunately, when people present arguments, they rarely put them in standard form. So, we have to decide which statement is intended to be the conclusion, and which are the premises. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the conclusion comes at the end. The conclusion is often at the beginning of the passage, but could even be in the middle. A better way to identify premises and conclusions is to look for indicator words. Indicator words are words that signal that statement following the indicator is a premise or conclusion. The example above used a common indicator word for a conclusion, ‘so.’ The other common conclusion indicator, as you can probably guess, is ‘therefore.’ This table lists the indicator words you might encounter.
Each argument will likely use only one indicator word or phrase. When the conlusion is at the end, it will generally be preceded by a conclusion indicator. Everything else, then, is a premise. When the conclusion comes at the beginning, the next sentence will usually be introduced by a premise indicator. All of the following sentences will also be premises.
For example, here’s our previous argument rewritten to use a premise indicator:
Susan should do well in Calculus II, because Calculus II will be no harder than Calculus I, and Susan did well in Calculus I.
Sometimes, an argument will contain no indicator words at all. In that case, the best thing to do is to determine which of the premises would logically follow from the others. If there is one, then it is the conclusion. Here is an example:
Spot is a mammal. All dogs are mammals, and Spot is a dog.
The first sentence logically follows from the others, so it is the conclusion. When using this method, we are forced to assume that the person giving the argument is rational and logical, which might not be true.
One thing that complicates our task of identifying arguments is that there are many passages that, although they look like arguments, are not arguments. The most common types are:
- Mere asssertions
- Conditional statements
- Loosely connected statements
Explanations can be tricky, because they often use one of our indicator words. Consider this passage:
Abraham Lincoln died because he was shot.
If this were an argument, then the conclusion would be that Abraham Lincoln died, since the other statement is introduced by a premise indicator. If this is an argument, though, it’s a strange one. Do you really think that someone would be trying to prove that Abraham Lincoln died? Surely everyone knows that he is dead. On the other hand, there might be people who don’t know how he died. This passage does not attempt to prove that something is true, but instead attempts to explain why it is true. To determine if a passage is an explanation or an argument, first find the statement that looks like the conclusion. Next, ask yourself if everyone likely already believes that statement to be true. If the answer to that question is yes, then the passage is an explanation.
Mere assertions are obviously not arguments. If a professor tells you simply that you will not get an A in her course this semester, she has not given you an argument. This is because she hasn’t given you any reasons to believe that the statement is true. If there are no premises, then there is no argument.
Conditional statements are sentences that have the form “If…, then….” A conditional statement asserts that if something is true, then something else would be true also. For example, imagine you are told, “If you have the winning lottery ticket, then you will win ten million dollars.” What is being claimed to be true, that you have the winning lottery ticket, or that you will win ten million dollars? Neither. The only thing claimed is the entire conditional. Conditionals can be premises, and they can be conclusions. They can be parts of arguments, but that cannot, on their own, be arguments themselves.
Finally, consider this passage:
I woke up this morning, then took a shower and got dressed. After breakfast, I worked on chapter 2 of the critical thinking text. I then took a break and drank some more coffee….
This might be a description of my day, but it’s not an argument. There’s nothing in the passage that plays the role of a premise or a conclusion. The passage doesn’t attempt to prove anything. Remember that arguments need a conclusion, there must be something that is the statement to be proved. Lacking that, it simply isn’t an argument, no matter how much it looks like one.
2.2 Evaluating Arguments
The first step in evaluating an argument is to determine what kind of argument it is. We initially categorize arguments as either deductive or inductive, defined roughly in terms of their goals. In deductive arguments, the truth of the premises is intended to absolutely establish the truth of the conclusion. For inductive arguments, the truth of the premises is only intended to establish the probable truth of the conclusion. We’ll focus on deductive arguments first, then examine inductive arguments in later chapters.
Once we have established that an argument is deductive, we then ask if it is valid. To say that an argument is valid is to claim that there is a very special logical relationship between the premises and the conclusion, such that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Another way to state this is
An argument is valid if and only if it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.
An argument is invalid if and only if it is not valid.
Note that claiming that an argument is valid is not the same as claiming that it has a true conclusion, nor is it to claim that the argument has true premises. Claiming that an argument is valid is claiming nothing more that the premises, if they were true , would be enough to make the conclusion true. For example, is the following argument valid or not?
- If pigs fly, then an increase in the minimum wage will be approved next term.
- An increase in the minimum wage will be approved next term.
The argument is indeed valid. If the two premises were true, then the conclusion would have to be true also. What about this argument?
- All dogs are mammals
- Spot is a mammal.
- Spot is a dog.
In this case, both of the premises are true and the conclusion is true. The question to ask, though, is whether the premises absolutely guarantee that the conclusion is true. The answer here is no. The two premises could be true and the conclusion false if Spot were a cat, whale, etc.
Neither of these arguments are good. The second fails because it is invalid. The two premises don’t prove that the conclusion is true. The first argument is valid, however. So, the premises would prove that the conclusion is true, if those premises were themselves true. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, I guess, considering what would be dropping from the sky) pigs don’t fly.
These examples give us two important ways that deductive arguments can fail. The can fail because they are invalid, or because they have at least one false premise. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, an argument can be both invalid and have a false premise.
If the argument is valid, and has all true premises, then it is a sound argument. Sound arguments always have true conclusions.
A deductively valid argument with all true premises.
Inductive arguments are never valid, since the premises only establish the probable truth of the conclusion. So, we evaluate inductive arguments according to their strength. A strong inductive argument is one in which the truth of the premises really do make the conclusion probably true. An argument is weak if the truth of the premises fail to establish the probable truth of the conclusion.
There is a significant difference between valid/invalid and strong/weak. If an argument is not valid, then it is invalid. The two categories are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. There can be no such thing as an argument being more valid than another valid argument. Validity is all or nothing. Inductive strength, however, is on a continuum. A strong inductive argument can be made stronger with the addition of another premise. More evidence can raise the probability of the conclusion. A valid argument cannot be made more valid with an additional premise. Why not? If the argument is valid, then the premises were enough to absolutely guarantee the truth of the conclusion. Adding another premise won’t give any more guarantee of truth than was already there. If it could, then the guarantee wasn’t absolute before, and the original argument wasn’t valid in the first place.
One way to prove an argument to be invalid is to use a counterexample. A counterexample is a consistent story in which the premises are true and the conclusion false. Consider the argument above:
By pointing out that Spot could have been a cat, I have told a story in which the premises are true, but the conclusion is false.
Here’s another one:
- If it is raining, then the sidewalks are wet.
- The sidewalks are wet.
- It is raining.
The sprinklers might have been on. If so, then the sidewalks would be wet, even if it weren’t raining.
Counterexamples can be very useful for demonstrating invalidity. Keep in mind, though, that validity can never be proved with the counterexample method. If the argument is valid, then it will be impossible to give a counterexample to it. If you can’t come up with a counterexample, however, that does not prove the argument to be valid. It may only mean that you’re not creative enough.
- An argument is a set of statements; one is the conclusion, the rest are premises.
- The conclusion is the statement that the argument is trying to prove.
- The premises are the reasons offered for believing the conclusion to be true.
- Explanations, conditional sentences, and mere assertions are not arguments.
- Deductive reasoning attempts to absolutely guarantee the truth of the conclusion.
- Inductive reasoning attempts to show that the conclusion is probably true.
- In a valid argument, it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.
- In an invalid argument, it is possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.
- A sound argument is valid and has all true premises.
- An inductively strong argument is one in which the truth of the premises makes the the truth of the conclusion probable.
- An inductively weak argument is one in which the truth of the premises do not make the conclusion probably true.
- A counterexample is a consistent story in which the premises of an argument are true and the conclusion is false. Counterexamples can be used to prove that arguments are deductively invalid.
( Cleese and Chapman 1980 ) . ↩︎