This entire series is going to be focused on finding and evaluating arguments. But nothing that I said in the Series Introduction indicated exactly what I mean by an “argument” in the first place. I’ll explain that in this post.
What Arguments Are Not
Let’s start by clearing away some misconceptions about what arguments are. Have you ever witnessed two (or more) people have an intense verbal fight, perhaps with raised voices? People like to call these kinds of yelling matches “arguments,” but that is not what I’m going to be talking about. I’m not going to be talking about how to shout somebody down effectively.
Is there somebody in your family you will never discuss politics or religion with because they will make it their goal to prove you wrong? We say that people who like to simply contradict others like to “argue” or are “argumentative.” I will not be discussing how to be contentious. (In fact, it’s downright annoying.)
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt the person you were talking to would say anything to get you to do something? I once had a somewhat long conversation with a man about my Christian beliefs because he was asking questions that sounded like he was genuinely interested in me. I knew that he wasn’t when he suddenly asked me, “So, who does your car insurance?” He then tried to convince me that I should buy car insurance with him because of his ability to tell how and when somebody might get into a car accident and help them avoid it. This guy was bizarre, but he was taking advantage of my belief in God’s providence to try to sell me car insurance. I will not be discussing how to give an “argument” like this guy did; we call guys like these “sophists.”
So far I’ve said that arguments are not verbal fights, not mere contradiction, and not mere persuasion (or sophistry). What exactly are they then?
Mere Opinions vs. Supported Opinions
Here I must distinguish between a mere (or “unsupported”) opinion and a supported opinion and say one more thing than an argument is not. A mere opinion is something that you happen to think on any given topic. It is what you think (notice I didn’t say “feel”) is the truth about something, or what you think the answer to a question is.
Suppose somebody asks you if you think America should have free college education. You simply say yes, and the person who asked you that question responds, “That’s stupid!” You have given your mere opinion because you didn’t give any reason for why you think that—you just answered a question.
Your questioner, on the other hand, subtly gave you a supported opinion. Inside their short outburst was an argument that goes something like this:
- If allowing America to have free college education is a stupid idea, then there shouldn’t be free college education in America.
- Allowing America to have free college education is a stupid idea.
- Therefore, there shouldn’t be free college education in America.
That statement (or “premise”) labelled with a (1) was assumed by your questioner. What they actually stated was premise (2) when they said “That’s stupid!” The conclusion is that you are wrong: there shouldn’t be free college education in America. Premise (3) is the conclusion that is supported by premises, or reasons to think that the conclusion is true. When a conclusion is given support, it is (not surprisingly) a supported opinion. To give an argument, therefore, is to give a supported opinion about something. Premises (1) through (3) above are an argument.
Many heated verbal exchanges probably take place because both sides feel strongly about what they are asserting and keep shouting mere opinions to contradict one another. A sophist (like my car insurance salesman) will give you a supported opinion even though all they care about is getting something from you. Behind the sophist’s supported opinion probably lies the mere opinion that you are only a means to an end. The point is that having mere opinions often negatively drives how we interact with others.
The Purpose of this Series
The entire purpose of this Logic 101 series is to teach you how to spot arguments and evaluate them. I will introduce you to the art of finding out what people believe, and why (if they even have a “why”). In short, you will learn how to do exactly what I just did above, only with arguments that are a lot more complicated.
The ultimate goal for anybody who desires to be rational is to have as many true, supported opinions and as few false, mere opinions as possible. This is a difficult goal, but it is one worth pursuing for a lifetime.
In my next post I’ll talk about the two basic types of arguments that there are.