Informal Logic 101: How to Think and Argue Better, Part 3

Part 3: Logical Suicide and Staying on TRACK

“Without good support, not only is it a ‘bad argument’, it’s merely opinion.”  — me

Welcome back! (Or, just “Welcome!”, if this is the first part you read in this series.)

So far, we’ve been learning some fundamental ideas in what is known as “informal logic”. We looked at the three foundational laws and four logical relationships, as determined by four categorical propositions. They sound boring and maybe a little scary at first. But, they weren’t that bad, right? (Quiet in the peanut gallery!) Taking my cue from Kenneth Samples (whose book inspired this series), I decided to sidetrack just briefly, before getting into argumentation proper — or, proper argumentation.

rope noose on black backgroundAs seen in the subtitle to this post, the first matter I’d like to address is “logical suicide”. It involves the making of self-refuting, or “self-referentially absurd”, statements. It’s not that these statements are made often, but they are so ridiculous — careless, really — that it is a wonder they are made as often as they are. In essence, a self-refuting statement is one which makes a claim — philosophical or otherwise — which, when applied to the statement itself, makes it a contradiction. That is, the claim contradicts itself. Thus, it commits logical suicide.

A few simple examples:

1) “I don’t speak English.” (Obviously, if the claim was true, then it couldn’t be said in the first place. Of course, that might by the only English phrase they know, but it is still English. This also assumes that it is a direct quote and not a translation.)

2) “Only that which is proven by science is true.” (Really? Can that statement be proven by science? No, it is a philosophical claim, unprovable by science.)

3) “You should always be skeptical.” (Oh? Are you skeptical about that claim? I suppose one should ask what exactly is meant by “always” and “skeptical”.)

4) “Absolutes are never a good thing.” (Are you absolutely sure? You seem to be….)

My advice? Don’t use self-refuting statements. (Well, duh!) Be on the lookout for when others use them, too. Sometimes, they aren’t quite so straightforward or easily identified. For example, one of the positions of the postmodernist worldview is its rejection of all metanarratives (i.e., grand stories, systematic explanations of reality, worldviews). One might not realize it at first, but as Samples explains later in his book,

“This bold rejection of all metanarratives actually becomes a metanarrative itself. It’s as if postmodernism claims to be the grand story that dismisses all grand stories, or the particular worldview that rejects the very concept of worldviews.

When postmodernism attempts to eliminate ultimate claims to reality, it actually asserts an ultimate declaration. Applied back to itself, that assertion violates its own claim and thus renders this position self-referentially absurd.”

Smack! Self-refutation renders the position logically incoherent.

Let’s step back a minute and consider what we are trying to do. We want to be able to use clear reasoning when presenting or defending a case for some claim. This is also called “making an argument”. Usually, when you hear or read the term “argument”, you think of an often tense or even angry exchange of opinions and accusations. But, in logic, an “argument” simply refers to a group of statements structured to not only make a claim but provide reasons to believe the claim is true. So, there are two parts to a proper argument: 1) the “conclusion” (i.e., the claim), and 2) one or more “premises” (i.e., ideas or evidences in support of the conclusion). You can think of it like a stool, where the legs (premises) support the seat (claim); or, you may prefer a house, where the walls (premises) support the roof (claim).

People make unsupported claims all the time. On the other hand, sometimes potential premises are given, while the actual claim/conclusion is simply assumed, implied or (hopefully) understood in context. This is common, and usually fine, in normal, everyday conversation. But, it is insufficient when you want to persuade by arguing a case. You may not refer to them as such, but you really do need to state both a clear conclusion and supporting premises. Of course, as Samples notes:

3-legged stool“A good argument requires that the premises genuinely support the conclusion or entail it. This necessary connection between the premises and the conclusion is called an inferential relationship. With this proper connection established an argument is considered valid or strong. A breach in this relationship results in a breakdown or failure of the argument to prove its conclusion. The argument would then be classified as invalid or weak. Various fallacies (errors in reasoning) describe breakdowns in the all-important premise(s)/conclusion relationship….

For the conclusion of an argument to be adequately supported, all premises must be true, and the argument must employ correct reasoning in using them. In a sound or cogent argument, the premises must support the conclusion in five different ways.”

I want to highlight and restate part of what he just said, because it’s easy to get confused. A good argument must be both “sound” and “valid”. “Sound” means that the premises are true and properly utilized. That seems kind of obvious (and we’ll get to those five ways in a moment). But, that isn’t enough. In order to be “valid”, the premises also have be logically connected to the conclusion.

Samples (influenced by T. Edward Damer’s book Attacking Faulty Reasoning) developed a nice acronym as a mnemonic device — though I’ve stated it slightly differently — to remember the five areas of support for an argument: TRACK.

Truth: “All premises must be factually true or intellectually acceptable. Even one false premise in an argument defeats the argument. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that sometimes premises represent acceptable views more than demonstrable truths.”

Relevance: “The premises must be connected, readily applicable, or pertinent to the conclusion. As Damer explains: ‘A premise is relevant if its acceptance provides some reason to believe, counts in favor of, or makes a difference to the truth (or falsity) of the conclusion.'”

Adequacy: “The premises must provide enough support — ‘sufficient in number, kind, and weight’ — to justify the conclusion. This point applies to arguments dealing with empirical facts, such as scientific or historical matters. Genuine support supplies all the crucial reasons necessary to back up the conclusion with appropriate depth.”

Clarity: “The premises must possess essential clarity of thought and expression, thus avoiding vagueness (being blurred or fuzzy), ambiguity (multiple meanings), and grammatical error. Thinking, speaking, and writing should reflect logical unity.”

Knowledge: “The premises must qualify as knowledge (warranted, true belief), avoiding unwarranted presumption. Good premises are not based upon easily challenged assumptions but instead on those beliefs that supply legitimate proof or evidence for accepting the conclusion. Good arguments also anticipate and rebut alternative viewpoints and/or challenges.”

Get these right, and you’ll be on solid footing — or, on the right track — to make and defend whatever case or claim you are arguing for.

Next post in the series, we’ll examine the three types of argument: deductive, inductive, and abductive. (I promise, no UFOs are involved in that last one.) Best of all, none of them require any yelling.


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