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Fallacy Friday: What is an Argument?

January 21st, 2011 by Matt

Plato and Aristotle arguing in the School of AthensWhen I was doing my PhD at the University of Otago, Madeleine and I would try to save up for a “date night” once a fortnight.  Often we would go to the movies. On more than one occasion we would stand in the theatre and look at various options. Madeleine would suggest we see one movie and give some reasons, I would suggest another. After a few minutes we would settle on a movie and then buy a ticket.

In the technical sense, in amicably settling on which movie we would see Madeleine and I had ‘had an argument.’ Now, in everyday language when we say a husband and wife have ‘had an argument’ we mean they have quarrelled, had a fight, come into conflict with each other and so forth. In logic, however, the phrase is more precise. An argument is defined as a set of reasons in support of a conclusion.

This definition suggests an argument has two features:

A Conclusion: the claim being proposed as true; and,

Premises: a set of propositions or statements being made in support of a conclusion.

It is important to note that these features are not the same thing. Simply asserting your conclusion is not an argument, it is a statement. Asserting random facts does not constitute an argument either, unless these facts are offered in support of some conclusion. Grasping the distinction between a premise and a conclusion is important because it is possible, and in many cases likely, that you will come across an argument which has a conclusion you agree with and yet the premises offered for it are either false or do not support this conclusion. Consider the following:

Premise [1] The sun is divine;

Premise [2] Whatever is divine would exist in the centre of the solar system and have all other planets orbiting it;

Therefore:

Conclusion [3] The sun is at the centre of the solar system and all the other planets orbit it.

Pretty much all of us would accept the conclusion of this argument. However, few of us would accept the premises. It is important to note this because one real problem that exists in our current society is that people fail to draw the distinction between premises and conclusions.

Because they agree with the conclusion of an argument and because it advances a cause they believe in, they accept the argument regardless of its merits. This is a terrible mistake, you should want to believe and support a position for good reasons not bad ones. And if you are trying to persuade others you should want to offer them good reasons, not bad reasons for coming to agreement with your position.

A final point to note here is that premises can be implict or unstated. Sometimes a person who offers an argument will take certain things for granted and assume that others will accept them. In this instance the premise will be unstated and you will need to look for it.

An example illustrating these points is a famous quote by Winston Churchill

“I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.”

Churchill here provides some reasons for why he is an optimist; hence, this quote expresses an argument for why Churchill thinks he should be an optimist.

The argument can be set out as follows:

Premise [1] There does not seem too much use in being anything else but an optimist;

Therefore:

Conclusion [2] I should not be anything else but an optimist.

These are the stated or explicit premise and conclusion of Churchill’s argument. However, this argument has an implicit premise, which is: “if there is not much use in being anything else I should not be anything else.”

So the full argument, with the implicit premise included, is:

Premise [1a] There does not seem too much use in being anything else but an optimist;

Premise [1a] If there is not too much use in being anything else then I should be an optimist;

Therefore:

Conclusion [2a] I should not be anything else but an optimist.

So to recap, an argument is a set of reasons given for a conclusion. Arguments have two components: premises and conclusions. When assessing an argument it is important to distinguish premises from conclusions and also to identify both implicit and explicit premises. One cannot assess or examine an argument until we have accurately identified what it is.

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45 responses so far ↓

  • In the technical sense, in amicably settling on which movie we would see Madeleine and I had ‘had an argument.’ Now, in everyday language when we say a husband and wife have ‘had an argument’ we mean they have quarrelled, had a fight, come into conflict with each other and so forth. In logic, however, the phrase is more narrow. An argument is defined as a set of reasons in support of a conclusion.

    If:
    1. In logic, the word argument is defined as a set of reasons in support of a conclusion; and
    2. Sets of reasons in support of a conclusion can be used in a quarrel, or in a fight, or in a conflict, or amicably

    Then:
    3. In logic, the word argument has a broader meaning.

    🙂

  • So technically there are no arguments in theology since there are no reasons given for anything in the broad topic of theology? Just conclusions.

  • Richard, that would follow if it is true that people never give reasons for their positions in theology, but that is a false contention.

  • I disagree with you there, Matt. I am yet to come across anyone in the field of theology who does given reasons for their beliefs and does not merely assert their positions based on faith. Prove me wrong please.

  • Graeme, the reason I said that arguments in logic were narrower than arguments in the more popular sense, like in relationships, is that while arguments in the popular sense can involve the giving of reasons for a conclusion, they can also involve things like making assertions, complaining, accusing, throwing things, hitting, etc. Their purpose can be to explain one’s rationale or to persuade someone to change their mind but they can also be about other things like expressing anger, frustration, hurt, they can be about testing the relationship, being bored, getting attention and sympathy and so on.
    In logic arguments are about giving reasons for a conclusion, nothing more, so in that sense they are narrower than arguments within relationships.
    However, I take your point that in the sense you are talking about you can argue that they arguments in logic are broader. So, I have changed the post to say ‘precise’ instead of narrower.

  • How does this differ from a syllogism?

  • A syllogism is a type of argument.

    The Stanford Encyclopedia goes into it more here.

  • Richard,

    2 points to make:
    1. Nothing follows from the fact that you have met no theologian which offers reasons for his beliefs. The most that follows is that you are yet to find such a person. It does not follow that theology is, in principle, incapable of argument.

    2. Matt is a theologian, Matt offers reasons for his beliefs that are based on premises which are not themselves based on blind faith. Hence Matt offers you an instance of theology based on something other than blind faith
    – Alternatively William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne (who are both “natural theologians” and are as such “in the field of theology”) offer arguments for their positions without basing it on blind faith. Even if you don’t think their arguments are particularly good, you have to agree that there arguments start with premises that are not themselves premised on blind faith.

    Ergo your statement = EPIC FAIL.

  • Richard,

    you wanted to be proven wrong? …Done.

  • Richard P: perhaps you aren’t looking in the right place. Or perhaps you have set yourself up as the arbiter of what constitutes “faith” or “reason”?

    Craig’s Reasonable Faith contains a wealth of reasons, no doubt they will be dismissed by your arbitrary scheme.

  • So, Matt…. I have a question you failed to address in your blog….

    What movie did you see? 😀

  • Flotsam and jetsam (1/21)…

    Matt Flannagan begins a series called “Fallacy Friday” with a post on What Is an Argument?…

  • Richard P, are you serious? Or are you making a funny? BTW, its not funny.

    An example of a reason in the topic of theology:
    We should love people because Christ is our example and Christ loved other people.

    Argument:
    Premise 1) The example above provides a reason for something in the topic of theology.
    Premise 2) You asserted that “there are no reasons given for anything in the broad topic of theology” and that you have yet to come across someone in the “field of theology who does given reasons for their beliefs and does not merely assert their positions based on faith.”
    Conclusion 3) Therefore, you are wrong.

    Also, the argument above is another example of an argument in the topic of theology.

  • Weekly Apologetics Bonus Links (01/14 – 01/21)…

    Here are this week’s recommended apologetics links. Enjoy. Fallacy Friday: What is an Argument?…

  • Richard, your comment simply suggests you have not read much theology. Are you claiming for example Augustine of Hippo never gave arguments for his conclusions. Medieval theologians like Abelard, Aquinas, Anselm,Ockham, Scotus never offered any arguments, neither did Luther, or Calvin, or even people like Pascal, Newton, Locke, Descartes who all wrote in theology and so forth.

    One would simply have to be breath takingly ignorant to make this claim.

  • Or breathtakingly arrogant.

  • “I am yet to come across anyone in the field of theology who does given reasons for their beliefs and does not merely assert their positions based on faith.”

    Richard, I suspect that’s because you are yet to read any theology. Am I right?

  • From Matt; ” Are you claiming for example Augustine of Hippo never gave arguments for his conclusions. Medieval theologians like Abelard, Aquinas, Anselm,Ockham, Scotus never offered any arguments, neither did Luther, or Calvin, or even people like Pascal, Newton, Locke, Descartes who all wrote in theology and so forth”

    All the people listed there are morons who have not contributed anything to the advancement of society.

  • And from what I hear about Bill Craig is that he has lied about much of his arguments.

  • Wow. I’m awaiting the accomplishments of Richard P to surpass that of ‘morons’ such as Newton, Pascal, Descartes, etc.

  • I think what we’re dealing with here, Richard, is not any sort of attempt at discussion, but rather a serious of bald assertions which are nothing more than a verbal equivalent of giving someone the finger [1].

    Perhaps in the future, when you get the urge to vent some rage, you could just write “I’m giving you the finger and I think you’re stupid. Nya nya!”

    That way, people wouldn’t mistake anything you write for thought, and wouldn’t have to waste their time attempting to formulate a response.

    [1] I think I ripped that image off from John Hobbins, but I’m not completely certain.

  • Richard, are you being satrical?

  • I meant “series” when I said “serious.” Using “serious” at that particular spot was the furthest thing from my mind.

  • Gee Richard p
    just when i thought you had been showing signs of making intelligent contributions

  • The great thing about Richard P’s statement is it shows what people who claim that all people who believe in God are stupid and theological reflection has contributed nothing to society need to actually affirm.

  • Richard,

    So John Locke, who contributed significantly to the philosophical underpinnings of modern democracy added nothing to society? wow!

    Aside from engaging in ad hominem arguments do you offer any substantiation for your claims?

    It seems with you, that the moment someone declares themselves a theist, they are automatically “morons who have contributed nothing to society”. What that means is that fairly much the entirety of history’s philosophers (who I might add are largely theists) a) are morons and b) have added nothing to society (even though their thoughts form much of the philosophical base of modern democracy.

    Your claims evince tremendous stupidity and arrogance.

  • Richard, I might recommend that you at least study the history of philosophy before you make idiotic assertions about the intelligence of some of History’s greatest philosophers.

    From what you’ve said so far, I’m almost convinced that you have little, if no, education in the history of philosophy.

  • I think the mistake here is taking Richard’s comment seriously. Surely it wasn’t meant to be taken that way. I’ve long suspected that the same is true when it comes to Ken’s comments on epistemology.

  • There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    Gal 3:28

    Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
    Col 3:11

    The Pauline epistles are the first record in history of the idea of equality of all people, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, wealth, birth,
    This idea is so radical it still hasnt fully penetrated even our society.
    It leads to ideas like human rights, democratic freedoms, individual worth.

    Richard P would you really prefer some of the alternatives.

  • A great book on this is Socratic Logic by Dr. Peter Kreeft:
    http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=OWPLbwAACAAJ

  • I notice Richard P shifted his position. He went from “theologians never provide arguments” to “those people [theologians all] have not contributed anything to society.” Since both statements are equally absurd the shift in his position only provides more ammunition for the sensible.

    The utter ignorance of such statements are astounding. Its like a person who walks out onto a street during rush hour and who takes no cognizance of the cars surrounding him. One can only conclude the person is blind (and deaf to boot). The most charitable thing would be to construe those remarks as a joke… it must be a joke.

  • Yeah, yeah, yeah, you Christians make heaps of loud noises when someone steps on anything you believe in. Yet you are all very happy to tell women that they are going to hell for having an abortion or telling homosexuals they are going to hell for kissing someone of the same sex. Rather silly this whole Christianity thing.

    How about Foucauldian Fridays? Matt and Maddy could give us a quote from Michel and everyone could then discuss it. Sounds more exciting than talking about logic (or even Jesus!). What you think?

  • Richard when you can show that the claim that “abortion is homicide” is as demonstrably false as the claim that , Pascal, Aquinas, Descartes, Augustine,Ockham, Locke, Newton, never offered an argument for there position, you will have a point.

    But instead you want to mistakenly suggest its just about what people do and do not like, which it clearly wasn’t

  • What about my Foucauldian Fridays?

  • Richard my next post is on rape, virginity, and killing, much more interesting for you I suspect.

  • “Yet you are all very happy to tell women that they are going to hell for having an abortion or telling homosexuals they are going to hell for kissing someone of the same sex”

    Yo Ricky P, while i do understand that you are being a deliberately annoying @#$%,and i shouldnt bother rising to the bait. I feel compelled to correct the above assertion.
    People go to hell because they dont want God in their lives and He honours that choice and ultimately doesnt push in where it has been made clear He is not welcome, its that simple.

  • Jeremy, if you want to call me a Jew then go ahead and say it instead of using those symbols.

    That is your understanding of your god and why and who he sends to hell. I don’t think that you can deny that there are other Christians who do think that their god will send people to hell for having abortions and kissing people of the same sex. Just the other day I was told I was going to hell for being a postmodern relelativist.

  • Matt, I’m looking forward to something a bit more applied.

  • Well Richard I am sure other people don’t share your opinion either so if we are going to tow the relativist line here, then one can dismiss your objection as just relative to your opinion

  • Richard P,

    Hell is the consequence of only one sin – rejection of God’s Son Jesus. All those other sins you mention are forgivable and so are not the ultimately cause a person going to hell. Whats more, God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We send ourselves.

    Relativism: another absurd claim with no argument – because its self-refuting (It’s not Christians that are lacking in the argument department.)

  • Yo Ricky P

    whats a “relelativist” ?. I think you may be having a memory recall failure.

  • Richard,

    I’d be curious to know how your comment regarding our “sexism” or “homophobia” is at all relevant to the discussion. Otherwise, it’s a mere red herring.

  • “An argument is defined as a set of reasons in support of a conclusion.” Nice. Looking forward to Fallacy Fridays. Thank you, Matt.

  • Hi there,
    This has ust been brought to my attention.
    MY name is Paul Baird and I have been at the University of Otago In New Zealand.
    I have lived in Dunedin much of my life. Who ever this Paul Baird is, it isnt me.
    Best of luck
    Paul