The Critical Thinker’s Toolkit (Rev #1)

We here at Brain Stab seems to be on a bit of a rationality kick at the moment. Articles defending charitable reconstructions of arguments, arguments against Objectivism and warnings about equivocation; all of this is music to my ears. I, in one guise, am a teacher of Philosophy and in that field of excellence Argumentation Theory is a particular speciality of mine that has seen me present material at an academic level throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Since you can’t shut me up at the best of times, here’s a six point guide to having a reasonable, rational discussion… even with Marxists, Objectivists and the other lunatics of that ilk.

Brain Stab, with thanks to PHIL105 Productions, presents the Critical Thinker’s Toolkit – Blogosphere Edition

First Tool: Argument extraction, analysis, classification and evaluation

The ‘Critical Thinker’s Toolkit’ has this to say on arguments; half the battle is done when an argument is presented formally. Any piece of prose meant as an argument can be reconstructed into what is called ‘Standard Form.’ Take the philosophical chestnut, often paraphrased and misunderstood by prominent Objectivists of:

‘Socrates is a man, and men are mortal, so he must be mortal too.’

This piece of prose can be separated into a conclusion, the statement the arguer wishes prove and the premises, the reasons used to support the conclusion. In our example it is clear that the conclusion, the statement that the argument seems to want to prove, is the claim that ‘Socrates is mortal’ whilst the premises, the reasons, for holding this to be so are that ‘Socrates is a man’ and ‘All men are mortal.’

We can now present this argument as follows:

Premise 1: Socrates is a man
Premise 2: All men are mortal
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal

Once the premises and the conclusion are so specified we can analyse the argument’s logical structure; do the premises of the argument guarantee the truth of its conclusion or do they merely suggest it? In the preceding example the premises guarantee, or entail the conclusion. These kinds of arguments we will call deductive. Deductive arguments are those where the premises are intended to guarantee the truth of the conclusion. Not all such arguments are good, however. Here is an example.

“My fax machine is a knife; my hard drive is a fork; I can eat a meal with my fax machine & hard drive.”

Reconstructed in Standard Form the argument looks something like this.

Premise 1: My fax machine is a knife
Premise 2: My hard drive is a fork
Conclusion: I can eat a meal with my fax machine and hard drive.

This is a deductive argument, but it is a bad deductive argument; the conclusion is not entailed by the premises. We can fix such an argument by adding in a suppressed premise, a premise statement that was not in the original argument but one that we could plausibly claim the arguer intended, such as:

Premise 3: I eat my meals with a knife and fork

With this extra premise included the conclusion is now entailed by the premises. It is, however, a stupid argument and we will spend no further time on it.

Some arguments have conclusions which are suggested, not entailed, by their premises, like this one:

Premise 1:Most of the cats I have owned are Tonkinese
Premise 2: Lek is a cat I have owned
Conclusion: Therefore, probably, Lek was a Tonkinese

This second argument suggests its conclusion; it is still possible that Lek was one of the many non-Tonkinese cats I have owned. These kinds of arguments we will call inductive.

Inductive arguments are good or bad in matters of degree.

The final task of argument analysis is that of deciding whether the premises are plausible. We are not often in a position to decide whether a premise is true; even the claim ‘All men are mortal’ may well turn out to be false should anti-agaptics ever come into existence. Thus we usually talk about premise plausibility; given what we know is this particular premise plausible. If a premise is implausible then the argument is not good; if a premise is plausible then the argument, if it is deductive is intended to entail a plausible conclusion whilst if the argument is inductive then the argument is intended to suggest, to some degree of likelihood, a plausible conclusion.

Second Tool: The Blank Slate

High-price lifestyle gurus such as Hedley Merricut like to tell you what to believe; the Toolkit, however, advocates approaching an argument without preconceptions. Don’t import your fancy ideas.

You may have been brought up by Scientologists, Radical Feminists or Libertarians and those debates around the dinner-table might well have left an impression on you. The Toolkit once had an editor who had been told by his father never to trust a man with corduroy trousers, and such formative influences can easily become biases when you hear the arguments of another. Think of it this way; if you were trying to convince a Socialist of the evils of their ways you wouldn’t want them to automatically trout the party line; you would want them to reason along with you. The notion of the Blank Slate asks that you do the same; approach each argument from a position of innocence and then, once you understand the arguer’s position, then you can begin to pick it apart.

Third Tool: The ability to assign the Burden of Proof

The Critical Thinker’s Toolkit has the following to say on the ‘Burden of Proof;’ learn who has to hold it. The ‘Burden of Proof’ tells us that if you make a statement you must be prepared to defend that statement. Here is a helpful list:

People who argue against the status quo
People who put forward a controversial claim
People who put forward a claim which could easily be checked by gathering evidence without much effort
People who start an argument
The Prosecution in a trial
Site managers in matters of safety
Whistle blowers
Sub-ordinates who disobey orders that are handed down by an appropriate procedure

The moral of the story is this: if a statement is implausible then you will need to provide some kind of argument in support of it. Implausibility here can mean factually implausible and also socially or consensus implausibility. If you hold a view in variance to the general population then expect to defend said view until such time that you can demonstrate why your position is superior.

Fourth Tool: The Principle of Charity

In its less rambunctious rants the Toolkit recommends the application of Charity to other people’s arguments; not everyone makes their points as succinctly as you do. Applying the principle of Charity allows for the best possible reconstruction of an argument, something we might all learn to appreciate. For more details, seek the wise counsel of Mr. Olthwaite.

Fifth Tool: Irreverence

Aside from the sage advice given by the Critical Thinker’s Toolkit, of course, itself the Toolkit recommends you treat all sources of an argument as irrelevant. What matters is the argument itself, not its delivery. The same goes with whatever possible effects the argument might have; the consequences of an argument should have no effect on how good it is. Imagine yourself as a good Socialist, prim and proper. Your opponent is a nasty, smelly Objectivist, arrogant as the day is long. Now, even though it seems justifiable in the sense of social grace to dismiss your opponent’s views out of hand as a critical thinker you should ignore who is giving the argument and, instead, focus on what exactly they are saying. Just in the same way that a Climate Change Denier might have something worthwhile to say on the subject of local vs. global temperature changes an Objectivist might have something decent to report on the matter of civil liberties, a point you might well never get to hear should you dismiss all they say on their reported views alone. The Toolkit understands your mistake but you have to admit that such mistakes can be truly regrettable.

Sixth Tool: The ability to find a counterexample

The Toolkit’s advice when evaluating an argument is to question whether the premises, if true, could have a false conclusion.

Take, for example, this old chestnut:

Premise 1: If it has been raining then the grass will be wet.
Premise 2: The grass is wet
Conclusion: Therefore, it has been raining.

This is a deductive argument; the arguer has intended the conclusion to be entailed from the truth of the premises. It is also a bad deductive argument because nothing in the premises forces the truth of the conclusion. The grass might well be wet but it doesn’t have to be because it has been raining; I might well have had the sprinklers on or the kids next door could have been using their waterslide. For one effect we can have a multitude of causes, and rain is simply one cause for the grass being wet.

What the Toolkit has just described, then, is a counter-example, an example of additional information that, if true, would show that the argument is bad. If any such information can be brought to bear on a deductive argument then it shows that the argument does not logically entail its conclusion and thus the argument must be thought of as bad.

Counter-examples are funny creatures; whilst it is easy to imagine counterexamples to bad deductive arguments it can be a little difficult to do the same for those frequently encountered inductive ones. Inductive counter-examples are those whereby the premises show that the conclusion is unlikely but be warned; this doesn’t mean that the conclusion could be true, just that on the balance of probabilities you would not expect it to be so.

Concluding Thoughts

This is just a taster of the kinds of things you will learn about should you take a Critical Thinking course. Aside from the Toolkit you would also learn about the common fallacies, more in-depth argument reconstruction techniques and, most probably, a whole lot on how to construct good arguments of your own. For those of you not engaged in undergraduate tertiary study I would recommend seeking out your local university’s Adult Education or Continuing Education unit. It’s amazing what you will learn, and even those of you who are already Critical Thinkers can always do with a little revision or a tune-up. And who knows; you might get me as your tutor. You’d like me, even if it turned out that we had wildly different political views.