Critical Thinking 1: Finding an argument

At the society’s committee meeting yesterday we recognised a bit of a gap in our regular postings so far. The Society is aiming to support integrative practice at all three levels of desire, meaning and belief, but a lot of the regular posts so far are working at the level of meaning, with our weekly poems and posts about art. These are really good, and many thanks to Norma and Barry for their contributions on these, but we also need to offer something at the other levels. So I’m going to start up some weekly bite-sized posts on Critical Thinking (a key practice for integration of belief) and on meditation (a key practice for integration of desire). Here’s the first post on Critical Thinking.Discussion Oregone Dept of Transportation 300x199 Critical Thinking 1: Finding an argument

What I hope to do in these posts is to offer a very easily digestible Critical Thinking course in very small chunks. Critical Thinking is not just about understanding certain key concepts in reasoning, but also applying them in your everyday life. So I shall also include some brief exercises each time. I won’t offer any of my own answers to the exercises until the following week. I’m going to start at the beginning and assume no previous knowledge, so the first few may seem rather obvious to some people. But it will gradually get a bit less obvious and more challenging. For more on Critical Thinking in general, and how it can be part of a wider practice, see Barry’s podcast with me about it and this page.

Critical Thinking is basically the skill of being able to understand and evaluate the structure of arguments. Arguments are all around us, and are used continuously in all kinds of discussion – on the web, in conversation, in newspaper comments, and in academic study of virtually all subjects. So this first post is just about how to spot an argument. (Here I do not mean the other sort of argument – a dispute: see Monty Python on this!)

An argument is made up of claims (or propositions) about things we might possibly believe, and it aims to convince us of one claim by supporting it with others that it is assumed we already believe. There won’t be an argument unless there are claims present and they are related to each other. A claim consists of a sentence with a subject and some information about that subject. For example “The cat sat on the mat” and “New York is not the capital of the USA” are both claims. Exclamations or commands such as “Go to bed!”, questions such as “Is the cat out?” and stray words not in sentences cannot be claims. Sometimes different claims can be combined in one sentence.

For claims to form an argument they must be related so that one or more claims backs up another claim. The claim being supported is called the conclusion (or the contention) and the claims doing the supporting are called reasons (or premises). The relationship between the reasons and the conclusion, whereby the reasons give you a justification for believing the conclusion, is called inference. Here are some examples of very brief, simple arguments. Here I have put the conclusion in red and the reasons in blue.

Jack’s coat isn’t hanging in the hall, and he always takes his coat when he goes out, so Jack must be out.

New York is a big city but it is not the seat of the US government. A capital must be the seat of government. So New York is not the capital of the USA.

I shouldn’t lie to Aunt Mabel by pretending to like her Christmas present, as although it would reassure her, it would be dishonest.

As you can see from the third example, conclusions are not always written at the end of an argument. You may find them at the beginning or in the middle. What makes it a conclusion is not whether it comes at the end, but whether it is supported by other claims – i.e. whether the other claims give you a reason to believe it.

Are the following examples of arguments or not?

Feel free to offer your own answers in comments. I will give the answers in a comment in a week’s time before the next post. I suggest you think about your own answers before looking at other people’s comments. Remember that whether or not it is an argument has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with it.

1. Esmerelda is a grizzly bear. Esmerelda likes honey. Grizzly bears like honey.

2. The Second World War was largely the responsibility of one man – Hitler. Without him Germany would never have adopted the aggressive stances to other countries that were the initial cause of war.

3. Learning foreign languages is very helpful for cognitive development. Jade learnt German at high school. Adele learnt French from her uncle during a sixth month residence in Paris.

4. Dostoyevsky’s intense moral vision makes him one of the greatest Russian novelists.

5. Placing red next to yellow often produces a garish effect. Artists and designers usually avoid placing red next to yellow.

6. Intervention in Syria is unavoidable given the plight of many thousands of refugees and the escalating toll of the bloody civil war on the Syrian people.

 

14 thoughts on “Critical Thinking 1: Finding an argument

  1. I’ll have a try, though I think I’m sticking my neck out. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread (another unreasonable assertion, just included because it sort of fits how I feel)

    I think that each of the propositions in the “Esmeralda” statement could stand either as a conclusion, improperly drawn from the other two; or as a contributory reason to one of the three different conclusions.

    It seems to me that each of the propositions calls for evidence in support of it, for example:

    “Esmeralda is a grizzly bear”. Is this supported by zoological data that support Esmeralda’s being defined as a bear, and more specifically as a grizzly bear?

    Does the one who asserts these facts have the expertise to justify the definition(s) of Esmeralda as a (grizzly) bear unequivocally. If a conclusion, the reasons for reaching it seem weak.

    “Esmeralda likes honey”. As a statement this has more the flavour of an opinion. It seems improbable that a bear could express an opinion on honey.

    Beyond that, although a bear might be observed eating honey, it would seem to rather stretch anthropomorphism to confidently assert that its honey-eating behaviour demonstrated enjoyment, however much that behaviour mimicked the expressions of enjoyment associated with humans e.g. smiling, smacking lips, saying “Yummy, this is really good to eat!” etc.

    “Grizzly bear like honey”

    This seems to be a generalisation about grizzly bears. There may be evidence to support it e.g. from evidence derived from the observation of grizzly bears in various locations by individuals properly qualified to make such observations as part of a scientific enquiry into grizzly bear behaviour. But as a generalisation it should fail, because it is improbable that all grizzly bears alive have been observed; furthermore, wider or more careful observation might evidence grizzly bears that are observed to shun honey (always or occasionally), or those that have never been observed eating it (perhaps through immaturity or for other reasons).

    Further thoughts:

    I expect/hope there is a simpler, cleaner way of tackling this issue! Is there an algebraic way, a formula that can be applied?

    I’m still working on the others……

    1. Hi Peter,
      A lot of the time here you seem to be looking here at how each of the claims in no.1 can be supported, rather than the rather simpler question I intended, which is whether any of the three sentences support the others. You don’t need to invoke anything outside the statements given, but just look at how they relate to each other.

      “I think that each of the propositions in the “Esmeralda” statement could stand either as a conclusion, improperly drawn from the other two” is a relevant answer (I won’t tell you at this stage whether I think it’s right or not!). But why do you think this is the case?

      1. Thanks, Robert.

        I didn’t read the question, I can see that.

        I’ll try again.

        This statement is an argument because the conclusion that Esmeralda is a grizzly bear derives from the following assertions: (a) Esmeralda likes honey AND (b) Grizzly bears like honey.

        This statement is an argument because the conclusion that Esmeralda likes honey is derived from the assertions that (a) Esmeralda is a grizzly bear AND (b) grizzly bears like honey.

        This statement is an argument because the conclusion that grizzly bears like honey is derived from the assertions that (a) Esmeralda is a grizzly bear AND (b) Esmeralda likes honey.

        “Dostoevsky’s intense moral vision makes him one of the greatest Russian novelists.”

        This is an argument because, and only insofar as it’s proper to infer that the writer intended the statement to be read as an argument, that the conclusion that Dostoevsky is one of the greatest Russian novelists is derived from the assertion that Dostoevsky possesses intense moral vision.

        Peter :)

  2. Question 2.
    The augument in this case is whether or not Hitler was largely the cause of Germany’s aggression against other countries, I think this claim is untrue. The German population found in Hitler, Chancellor at that time, a man in tune with their anger over economic decline, employment increased due to the manufacture of armaments.

    1. Hi Norma,
      The point of the exercise here isn’t to assess whether or not the claims are true, or whether or not you agree with them – just whether or not there is an argument present. Since you start off “the argument”, I assume you believe that no.2 is an argument? If that’s the case it will have an identifable concluding claim that is supported by other claims. It doesn’t matter here, for our purposes, how well it is supported, as long as there is an attempt at support.

  3. Hi Robert,
    I think I understand, but maybe not! Use only the information given in the sentences, no embroidering with extra facts.
    Question 2. In the first sentence there is the claim, the contention or proposition, in the second sentence the initial claim is supported, backed up with another claim?

  4. That’s it – you’re getting the idea, Norma. It’s not at all uncommon for people to misinterpret the exercise to start with in Critical Thinking. Think of it as analogous to meditation, though working at a different level: you need a structure to begin with in order to start engaging with the practice.

  5. Hi Robert,

    I agree that the discussion can be a little heavy on the arts. That is not to say that there is too much discussion on the arts but too little on other fields.

    Last year I spent a week studying the arguments of Plato (which seems related to this) and completed an assignment on them, so we will see what I can remember.

    1 – Is an argument, but it is not valid, whereas this would be: Esmerelda is a grizzly bear. Grizzly bears like honey. Esmerelda likes honey.

    2 – Is an argument, and is valid (I think). If this is true: ‘The Second World War was largely the responsibility of one man – Hitler’, then it follows that this would also be true: ‘Without him Germany would never have adopted the aggressive stances to other countries that were the initial cause of war’. My only doubt here is the use of ‘largely’ in the first statement and the use of ‘would never have’ in the second, the first is not absolute, while the second is, which might mean that you cannot draw this conclusion form the first – I am not sure though (Perhaps the statements should be the other way round)?

    3 – Is not an argument, just a series of statements about learning languages.

    4 – Is an argument, but might benefit from some additional claims – ‘great novelists have intense moral vision’, for example.

    5 – This seems to be two apparently related claims that do not form an argument.

    6 – Is an argument but needs some additional claims. Like:

    Suffering and death of many innocent people in a civil war makes international military action unavoidable. The civil war in Syria is resulting in the suffering and death of many innocent people. International military action in Syria is unavoidable.

    I have tied myself in knots here and am not convinced by my answers, but they were good fun to do.

    Rich.

    1. “5. Placing red next to yellow often produces a garish effect. Artists and designers usually avoid placing red next to yellow.”

      This is an argument if the writer’s intention was to conclude that artists and designers usually avoid placing red next to yellow BECAUSE their doing so produces a garish effect.

      6. Intervention in Syria is unavoidable given the plight of many thousands of refugees and the escalating toll of the bloody civil war on the Syrian people.

      This looks like a spurious or maybe a circular argument which proposes the conclusion that intervention in Syria is unavoidable BECAUSE the plight of many thousands of refugees and the escalating toll of the bloody civil war on the Syrian people makes intervention in Syria unavoidable.

  6. Thank you Robert, I am sure I will get tied up in knots, speaking metaphorically, as the course continues, but I cannot resist a challenge. To arrive at incorrect conclusions along the way will be par for the course in my case, I’ll try not to feel downhearted about failure to get answers right first time.

    Hi Rich, I agree, a change of subject is welcome.
    I consider questions 3 and 5 to be arguments, a claim is made in the first sentence of each, which is backed up, related to it in the following sentence, the claim being supported is then the conclusion?

  7. Hi Norma,

    Perhaps number 5 is an argument, just not a good one. It doesn’t seem to follow that because red and yellow, together are garish then artists don’t use red and yellow together – what if the artist likes being garish. It would be a better argument if it said something like:

    Red next to yellow is garish. Most artists avoid being garish. Most artists do not put red next to yellow.

    I am going to stick to my guns with number 3. I am sure that it is not an argument. The first statement tells us that learning languages is good for cognitive development. The next two statements tell us that two people have learn’t a second language but we learn nothing of their cognitive development, which is the focus of the first claim.

    Rich

  8. Hi Robert

    Here’s my stab at the answers:

    1. This is an argument that contains two reasons that provide justification for the conclusion.
    2. This is an argument, containing one justifying reason for the conclusion.
    3. This is not an argument. The second and third claims do not provide sufficient justification (or are too unrelated)for claim 1 to be a conclusion.
    4. I think this maybe an argument. If you pick it apart, it contains a justifying reason and a conclusion. What I’m not sure about is whether one is allowed to pick it apart.
    Reason: “(Because) Dostoyevsky had and intense moral vision”
    Conclusion “(He is therefore) one of the greatest Russian novelists”
    5. This is an argument, containing one justifying reason for the conclusion.
    6. This is an argument that contains two reasons that provide justification for the conclusion.

  9. Thanks to everyone who has offered answers. As promised, I’ll now give you mine, a week after the post. My answers will be based on long experience of teaching this material, but they can never be absolutely definitive. That’s because although argument is defined in the abstract in absolute terms (as logical form), the interpretation of text is not. In other words, there are right and wrong answers if we all interpret the texts in exactly the same way, but nevertheless there are often disagreements between critical thinkers who would agree about the abstract logic, because they interpret texts differently.

    1. As Peter commented, this could be taken as an argument with any of the three sentences as the conclusion. However, by far the best of the three takes the conclusion to be the middle sentence. Reordered it would look like this:
    Esmerelda is a grizzly bear.
    Grizzly bears like honey.
    Therefore, Esmerelda likes honey.

    2. This is an argument. The first sentence is the conclusion, and the second supports it. We don’t need to go into how well or badly it does so.

    3. This is not an argument. As Richard pointed out, there is nothing about cognitive development in the second and third sentences. These three sentences may be on broadly the same topic, but they don’t support one another.

    4. Barry is correct that this is an argument. It becomes clearer that it is on the analysis he gives.

    5. This is not an argument in my view. The fact that artists avoid putting red next to yellow would not give us a reason to believe that it is garish, and the fact that it is garish would not give us a reason to believe that artists avoid placing red next to yellow. Artists might want to be garish for effect, or they might avoid putting the two colours together for completely unconnected reasons. We also have no indication that this is intended to be an argument despite these problems, as we would if ‘therefore’ was stuck at the beginning of the second sentence for example.

    6. This is an argument. You could analyse it like this:
    Many thousands of Syrian refugees are in a sad plight.
    The bloody civil war is exacting an escalating toll on the Syrian people.
    Therefore, intervention in Syria is unavoidable.

    Again, we don’t have to comment here on how strong or weak an argument this is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Get a Gravatar