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Critical Thinking Non Argument Vs Argument

A crucial part of critical thinking is to identify, construct, and evaluate arguments.

In everyday life, people often use "argument" to mean a quarrel between people. But in logic and critical thinking, an argument is a list of statements, one of which is the conclusion and the others are the premises or assumptions of the argument.

Before proceeding, read this page about statements.

To give an argument is to provide a set of premises as reasons for accepting the conclusion. To give an argument is not necessarily to attack or criticize someone. Arguments can also be used to support other people's viewpoints.

Here is an example of an argument:

If you want to find a good job, you should work hard. You do want to find a good job. So you should work hard.

The first two sentences here are the premises of the argument, and the last sentence is the conclusion. To give this argument is to offer the premises as reasons for accepting the conclusion.

A few points to note:

  • Dogmatic people tend to make assertions without giving reasons. When they are criticized they often fail to give arguments to defend their own opinions.
  • To improve our critical thinking skills, we should develop the habit of giving good arguments to support our opinions.
  • To defend an opinion, think about whether you can give more than one argument to support it. Also, think about potential objections to your opinion, e.g. arguments against your opinion. A good thinker will consider the arguments on both sides of an issue.

See if you can give arguments to support some of your beliefs.

  1. For example, do you think the economy is going to improve or worsen in the next six months? Why or why not? What arguments can you give to support your position?
  2. Or think about something different, do you think computers can have emotions? Again, what arguments can you give to support your viewpoint? Make sure that your arguments are composed of statements.

§1. How to look for arguments

How do we identify arguments in real life? There are no easy mechanical rules, and we usually have to rely on the context in order to determine which are the premises and the conclusions. But sometimes the job can be made easier by the presence of certain premise or conclusion indicators. For example, if a person makes a statement, and then adds "this is because ...", then it is quite likely that the first statement is presented as a conclusion, supported by the statements that come afterwards. Other words in English that might be used to indicate the premises to follow include :

  • since
  • firstly, secondly, ...
  • for, as, after all,
  • assuming that, in view of the fact that
  • follows from, as shown / indicated by
  • may be inferred / deduced / derived from

Of course whether such words are used to indicate premises or not depends on the context. For example, "since" has a very different function in a statement like "I have been here since noon", unlike "X is an even number since X is divisible by 4".

Conclusions, on the other hand, are often preceded by words like:

  • therefore, so, it follows that
  • hence, consequently
  • suggests / proves / demonstrates that
  • entails, implies

Here are some examples of passages that do not contain arguments.

When people sweat a lot they tend to drink more water. [Just a single statement, not enough to make an argument.]

Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess. They lived happily together and one day they decided to have a baby. But the baby grew up to be a nasty and cruel person and they regret it very much. [A chronological description of facts composed of statements but no premise or conclusion.]

Can you come to the meeting tomorrow? [A question that does not contain an argument.]

Do these passages contain arguments? If so, what are their conclusions?

  1. Cutting the interest rate will have no effect on the stock market this time round as people have been expecting a rate cut all along. This factor has already been reflected in the market. answer
  2. So it is raining heavily and this building might collapse. But I don't really care. answer
  3. Virgin would then dominate the rail system. Is that something the government should worry about? Not necessarily. The industry is regulated, and one powerful company might at least offer a more coherent schedule of services than the present arrangement has produced. The reason the industry was broken up into more than 100 companies at privatisation was not operational, but political: the Conservative government thought it would thus be harder to renationalise. The Economist 16.12.2000 answer
  4. Bill will pay the ransom. After all, he loves his wife and children and would do everything to save them. answer
  5. All of Russia's problems of human rights and democracy come back to three things: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. None works as well as it should. Parliament passes laws in a hurry, and has neither the ability nor the will to call high officials to account. State officials abuse human rights (either on their own, or on orders from on high) and work with remarkable slowness and disorganisation. The courts almost completely fail in their role as the ultimate safeguard of freedom and order. The Economist 25.11.2000 answer
  6. Most mornings, Park Chang Woo arrives at a train station in central Seoul, South Korea's capital. But he is not commuter. He is unemployed and goes there to kill time. Around him, dozens of jobless people pass their days drinking soju, a local version of vodka. For the moment, middle-aged Mr Park would rather read a newspaper. He used to be a brick layer for a small construction company in Pusan, a southern port city. But three years ago the country's financial crisis cost him that job, so he came to Seoul, leaving his wife and two children behind. Still looking for work, he has little hope of going home any time soon. The Economist 25 .11.2000 answer
  7. For a long time, astronomers suspected that Europa, one of Jupiter's many moons, might harbour a watery ocean beneath its ice-covered surface. They were right. Now the technique used earlier this year to demonstrate the existence of the Europan ocean has been employed to detect an ocean on another Jovian satellite, Ganymede, according to work announced at the recent American Geo-physical Union meeting in San Francisco. The Economist 16.12.2000 answer
  8. There are no hard numbers, but the evidence from Asia's expatriate community is unequivocal. Three years after its handover from Britain to China, Hong Kong is unlearning English. The city's gweilos (Cantonese for "ghost men") must go to ever greater lengths to catch the oldest taxi driver available to maximize their chances of comprehension. Hotel managers are complaining that they can no longer find enough English- speakers to act as receptionists. Departing tourists, polled at the airport, voice growing frustration at not being understood. The Economist 20.1.2001 answer

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Table of Contents

  1. Critical Thinking & Formal Logic
  2. Arguments
  3. Which Arguments are Good?
  4. Two Common Good Forms
  5. Types of Argument
  6. Why Propositions and not Sentences?
  7. Relevant Links

1. Critical Thinking & Formal Logic

Critical thinking involves recognizing and forming good arguments. When we think critically, we don’t always question everything (at least not in the strong sense of that phrase). Rather, we are actively concerned with the reasons and justification one can have for making a certain claim. When someone, for example, claims that God exists, we can critically evaluate this claim. We ask, “What reasons do we have to believe that God exists?” instead of just accepting that claim because it would be hard work to figure out whether it’s true. So thinking critically requires that we use good reasoning and recognize when others aren’t reasoning well.

But how do we know when we’re reasoning well? Well, there’s actually a field of study called “logic” dedicated to finding a quite rigorous answer to that question. Logic is the formalization of arguments, which seeks to determine which arguments have a good sort of form. As it turns out, there are various patterns or forms of reasoning or argument that are known to be good in form. This all requires studying the logical relations between truths and falsehoods.

2. Arguments

But what do we mean by “arguments” in this context? The sense of “argument” that we are primarily concerned with in philosophy is not merely disputes among people. Rather, philosophy is concerned with arguments in the following sense: sets of propositions (claims/statements) which contain premises that are offered to support the truth of a conclusion. A premise is a proposition one offers in support of a conclusion. That is, one offers a premise as evidence for the truth of the conclusion, as justification for or a reason to believe the conclusion. A conclusion is a proposition the truth of which one claims to be supported by the premises.

Example of an Argument

  1. All humans are mortal. [statement, premise]
  2. G.W. Bush is a human. [statement, premise]
  3. Therefore, G.W. Bush is mortal. [statement, conclusion]

Example of a Non-Argument

  1. Get us some milk, please. [imperative]
  2. Is anyone home? [question]
  3. Therefore, G.W. Bush is mortal. [statement, conclusion]

More Examples of Non-Arguments

  • “Why are you so angry?” is not an argument.
  • A couple’s fighting with one another about who should have put the dishes away is not an argument (in the sense we’re after).
  • A debate between two people about whether God exists is not an argument (in the sense we’re after)—it’s a debate—though it does involve each side putting forth arguments for their respective positions.

3. Which Arguments are Good?

Good arguments are ones that offer good support for the conclusion. There are two key features of a good argument:

  1. Good Form: the premises, if true, render the conclusion true or probable.
  2. Good Premises: every premise of the argument is true (or at least plausible or likely to be true).

Philosophers call arguments that have these two features logically sound (“sound” for short).

Good form has to do with the logical form of the argument, not whether the premises are in fact true or false. So the two features of a good argument can come apart. And if an argument fails to have either one of these features, it isn’t a good argument; it doesn’t give us any reason to believe the conclusion. Consider some examples:

Example of a Bad Argument (good form but bad premises)

  1. All women are Republican. (false)
  2. Hilary Clinton is a woman. (true)
  3. Therefore, Hilary Clinton is a Republican. (false)

Example of a Bad Argument (bad form but good premises)

  1. Some men are Democrats. (true)
  2. G.W. Bush is a man. (true)
  3. Therefore, G.W. Bush is a Republican. (true)

Example of a Good Argument (good form + good premises)

  1. If G.W. Bush won the 2004 presidential election, then a republican is currently president of U.S. (true)
  2. G.W. Bush won the 2004 presidential election. (true)
  3. Therefore, a republican is currently president. (true)

4. Two Common Good Forms

Modus Ponens (MP):

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. P.
  3. So, Q.

Example:

  1. If [Omar went to Disneyland], then [he will have brought a souvenir back].
  2. [Omar went to Disneyland].
  3. So, [Omar brought back a souvenir].

Modus Tollens(MT):

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. Not-Q.
  3. So, not-P.

Example:

  1. If [Omar went to Disneyland], then [he will have brought a souvenir back].
  2. [Omar didn’t bring back a souvenir].
  3. So, [Omar didn’t go to the Disneyland].

5. Types of Argument

A deductive argument is an argument the premises of which are intended to provide the strongest possible support for the conclusion (to prove with absolute certainty). (Note: When philosophers talk about good form for deductive arguments, they usually call it “deductive validity.”)

Example:

  1. All humans are mortal.[premise]
  2. Obama is a human.[premise]
  3. So, Obama is mortal.[conclusion]

A non-deductive argument is an argument the premises of which are meant to provide support for the conclusion, but this support is not supposed to establish the conclusion beyond doubt. (Note: Some of the most common forms of non-deductive argument are inductive and abductive arguments.)

Example:

  1. 90% of all cable users pay for cable.[premise]
  2. Omar is a cable user.[premise]
  3. So, Omar pays for cable.[conclusion]

6. Why Propositions and not Sentences?

We are concerned with propositions rather than sentences, because propositions are (roughly) the meanings of (declarative) sentences. For example, the English sentence “Snow is white” expresses the same thing that the French sentence “La neige est blanche” does, namely the proposition that snow is white. In logic, critical thinking, and philosophy more generally, we are concerned with truths, faslehoods, and the logical relations between them. And we cannot look to sentences for this, since sentences are merely the symbols that we use to express truths and falsehoods (that is, propositions).

For example, we are not concerned with the phrase “God exists,” but rather with whether God exists. The proposition that God exists can be expressed in many different languages. And we are not concerned with the languages, but rather what the languages are used to express. That is, we are concerned with what the English sentence “God exists” and the French sentence “Dieu existe” have in common, namely the proposition that God exists. (Notice that we use quotation marks to talk about or mention the bits of language, such as words or sentences, whereas we leave the quotation marks out to simply use the words to express the meanings they have.)

7. Relevant Links