Critical Thinking Note 24: Critical Thinking Basics

Twenty four notes into this series, it has been a while since we’ve laid out the basics. So, time for another pass. Critical Thinking is basically about getting at truths and avoiding falsehoods as best we can. So how do we tell if a proposition is true? The simple answer is to examine the evidence and the reasoning based on the evidence. Reasons are arguments and we have pretty well developed methods for formulating, clarifying and evaluating these. This is what logic is all about.

Arguments have some basic parts, premises and a conclusion to be specific. To determine whether an argument provides a good reason for accepting its conclusion as true we need to do two things (and only two things, trying to do other things leads us into the realm of fallacies, mistakes in reasoning).

The two steps involved in evaluating an argument are as follows:

  • Determine if the premises are true
  • Determine whether the premises support the conclusion

Determining whether the premise of an argument are true may involve evaluating some evidence or it may involve evaluating further arguments. While this may sound pretty straightforward and manageable, getting at the truth of a matter can be an involved process and sometimes our best efforts aren’t entirely conclusive. Critical thinking methods are the best tools we have, but like any good tool, there will be limits to what you can achieve with them. Fortunately, the limits are soft in the sense that with more skill and better evidence we can achieve progressively more in the way of getting at the truth. But we should not expect even the best tools and strongest skills to lead to successful acquisition of knowledge in every instance. Part of being human is coping with our own imperfection and limitations.

There are two standards we can appeal to in evaluating whether the premises of an argument provide logical support for its conclusion. There is the sure fire standard of deductive validity and the pretty good standard of inductive strength. Here are the basic definitions of these two standards:

  • A deductively valid argument is one where the conclusion must be true if the premises are all true.
  • An inductively strong argument is one where the conclusion is likely to be true if the premises are all true.

The science of deductive validity is precise, formal and pretty well developed. We teach the basics of this science, including formal methods for proving the validity of valid arguments, in PHIL& 120, Introduction to Logic. The fact that this course is not as standard a part of our educational curriculum as basic algebra continues to baffle me. Our world would be a far different place if it were.

Inductive strength is messier than formal deductive logic. There are assorted patterns of argument that aim at inductive strength and each admits of varying methods of evaluation. Unlike deductive validity, inductive strength admits of degrees. Partly because of this, the methods for evaluating inductive argument are often less precise than we’d like. And yet we can cultivate high levels of skill at evaluating inductive argument and the successes of science are testament to this. PHIL& 115 Critical Thinking includes substantial focus on how to evaluate inductive argument.

Our students get precious little dedicated instruction in how to reason well. Students get even less instruction on how to recognize good reasons. What spotty instruction they do receive often focuses on identifying fallacies, or mistakes in reasoning. This is good stuff, and the most thorough investigation of fallacies at BC will also be found in PHIL& 115, Critical Thinking. But when students learn about a few fallacies without the benefit of developing skill at appreciating good reasoning, they often fall into the trap I call the fallacy fallacy, the notion that every argument is fallacious (and especially if you don’t like the conclusion). Spotty instruction in critical thinking that focuses mainly on spotting fallacies is liable to facilitate distrust and unhealthy, cynical skepticism. It is vitally important that students get good training in how to reason well and recognize good reasons.

There is no substitute for focused dedicated training in how to reason well. It remains an open chasm in our curriculum. Every student in the US receives a decade and then some of instruction in how to reason with numbers and only occasional and passing attention to how to reason more generally. The results of this experiment are now manifest. The ongoing degradation of our natural environment, information environment and social institutions, in short the very conditions for human flourishing, would hardly be possible except for our twin failures of critical thinking and love. These twins are conjoined. Arrogance, prejudice and hatred are the end results of inattention and sloppy, self-serving thinking. Compassion and understanding and knowledge are the fruits of active, clear and open inquiry. Critical thinking is at the heart of this.

Critical Thinking Note 23: An Exercise for Your Moral Imagination

Imagine your love is forbidden. Imagine that the kinds of relationships that animate your affection, bring meaning to your life and inspire your devotion are deemed taboo, intolerable, unacceptable to polite company in your society. If you happen to be LGBT or Q, this may be less an exercise of your imagination than mere contemplation of your reality. But those who are plain cisgendered heterosexuals like myself can still imagine this scenario. And anyone who does so with some compassion will have a clear sense right away of how tragic and unjust it is for one’s way of loving other persons to be forbidden.

Who and what we love is at the same time among the deepest expressions of who we are as persons, and binding of our own wills. We cannot simply choose who to love or not love. Attempts to do so tend not to go well. Love is both deeply personal and carries significant constraints on our own will. To find yourself held blameworthy or in contempt over who you love amounts to a moral condemnation of you as an individual, not for what you have willed or done, not for anything in your direct control, but simply for who you are. That people can be deserving of blame or contempt simply for being who they are is just not morally plausible. The notion can’t be squared with the moral sense we nearly all share.

Imagination in ethical inquiry is not just make believe. It is a tool for investigation. Ethics literature is richly populated by thought experiments, and literary references precisely because inquiry into morality is furthered by expanding the range and diversity of evidence our moral theories must ultimately account for.

The person who morally condemns LGBTQ people or the lives they lead on the basis of allegiance to some supposed infallible higher moral authority can do so only by obscuring their own moral sensibility. For instance, by ignoring the compelling evidence revealed in the thought experiment we began with. Simply deferring to authority has never been a reliable way of getting at the truth of things. Of course we do want to weigh the evidence of our senses against the assessments and arguments of more careful students than ourselves. Expertise is often helpful. But ultimately we ignore the evidence of our senses, including our moral sense, at our own peril. And, too often, at the peril of others as well.

Critical Thinking Note 22: You have a right to your opinion

Of course, you have a right to your opinion. It’s not clear what it might mean to assert this as a right, since no one could possibly force a person to give up an opinion they are attached to. But when people feel the need to claim they have a right to their opinion, they are often asserting that it is perfectly OK for them to believe whatever they like. Rights don’t work like this. Rights generally come with responsibilities. If you have a valid drivers licence, you have a legal right to drive a car. But if you do so recklessly, you will be responsible for the consequences and you will likely be held accountable. Similarly, a homeowner has property rights. But it doesn’t follow that he can do whatever he likes with his property. If he lets his deck rot, he will be responsible when the wood gives way and someone gets hurt. The responsibility here is attached to the rights.

Our beliefs and opinions have consequences. They lead us to act and speak in various ways that have effects on others. We can’t avoid responsibility for the consequences of our opinions merely by asserting a right to our opinion. We can be morally responsible for irresponsibly formed and held belief or opinion just as much as we can be morally responsible for the consequences of irresponsible driving.

The degree to which we are morally responsible for the consequences of our beliefs or actions is generally taken to hinge on the degree of control we have over them. When we hold people accountable for bad actions, we generally do so on the presupposition that the action was in some way up to them. We typically can’t simply choose to believe one thing rather than another. But then we can voluntarily do things that will result in changing or not changing our beliefs. Willful ignorance works like this. When people are attached to a certain opinion, say climate change denial, they will often take care not to expose themselves to information that might challenge their view.

Being willfully unreasonable allows people to do bad things without the burden of a bad conscience. The Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the expression “the banality of evil” to capture this very idea. Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat responsible for the logistics of Nazi death camps, and was struck by how earnestly Eichmann asserted his innocence on the grounds that he believed in the Nazi cause and was simply following orders in service to that cause. The system of belief that rationalized his actions is just what made it possible for him to do terrible things, still feel good about himself, and sleep well. This is the banal, ordinary face of evil. It is rare for a person to knowingly do bad things on the basis of bad intentions. It is commonplace for people to do bad things under the veil of unreasonable but self-reassuring systems of belief.

According to 19th century philosopher William Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Clifford is probably over reaching here. Slightly irrational optimism, for instance, seems not only permissible, but sometimes helpful and inspiring. The coach who believes his players have a somewhat better chance of winning than he has reason to may thereby helpfully increase his players odds. But a strong case can be made for the more modest thesis that it is often wrong to ignore good evidence and reasoning in an effort to cling to a dubious opinion.

Many of us who lead high carbon lifestyles have put ourselves in this kind of morally dubious position. The banality of our evil makes it hard for us to recognize the bad things we are doing. We construct elaborate systems of belief to rationalize the excusable. But some have clearer vision. The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has gained a global audience for her blunt moral clarity concerning our complacency in the face of the climate crisis. Today, September 20, 2012, children and young people around the world are holding adults to account for their complacency or denial about the climate crisis. Here’s to hoping these young people put some rips in the the self-protective veils of belief so many adults have adopted to rationalize inaction. Do these adults have a right to their opinions? Of course they do. And this is exactly what makes them responsible for the consequences of those opinions.

Critical Thinking Note 21: Are we Incurably Unreasonable, Lazy, or Maybe just Poorly Trained?

We live in unreasonable times. This much seems clear. It’s not just that people are easily wounded, indignant on a dime, or chronically resentful, though we see plenty of that. But people also seem to be unreasonable in the more literal sense of just plain being unresponsive to reasoning. The ideas that people are hopelessly mired in their biases, trapped by the filters of their positions, or more swayed by identity or group loyalty than evidence and argument are widespread. Of course these ideas do nothing to make people more reasonable, so we might worry about a self-reinforcing cycle of disregard for reason.

Some of us grudgingly accept our doxastic dysfunction as an incurable facet of crookedness in the timber of humanity. Others set straight to work on unreasonable modes of persuasion. And where behavioral science, and propaganda fueled by data analytics and AI take off, our unreasonableness is not just confirmed, but more deeply ingrained.

So are we incurably biased or just too intellectually lazy to straighten ourselves out? First let’s avoid false dichotomy. We suffer both ills to varying degrees. We all sometimes rationalize rather than reason. We rationalize when we apply our reasoning ability not towards getting at what is true, but just to certify what we already believe and would like to continue believing. But all of us also, sometimes, reason about things, overcome our pre-conceptions to some degree, and thereby get at least incrementally closer to the truth. While most of us rarely see our more cherished convictions overturned, we all reason our way out of erroneous ways of thinking now and then. Sometimes it even happens that others present us with reasons that help us correct false beliefs, even though we may be reluctant to show our appreciation.

Psychologists have engaged this issue and the attention getting headlines tend to be those that shock us with how unreasonable we might be. News that we are incurably unreasonable may be perversely appealing since we’d rather hear about flaws we can’t help than those we should take steps to remedy. But the debate in psychology is hardly settled and there is a strong case to be made for the view that intellectually, we are more often lazy than incurably inept. It’s worth emphasizing here that psychology is not in a position to render ultimate verdicts about human nature on this matter. Psychologists may find that we are in fact pretty unreasonable, but this would not tell us much about how more reasonable we could be if we opted for different information environments and educational experiences. None of us should be surprised to find that 21st century Americans are not very reasonable when our education system allots precious little dedicated time and attention to how to reason well and our digital habits have us more attuned to 250 characters than 2500 words.

There is significant risk of confirmation bias in thinking that people are hopelessly unreasonable. In politics especially, we routinely see people unswayed by what seem to us strong arguments. But there are a number of things that might be at play here other than people being unresponsive to reason.

First we should note that the arguments we find persuasive might not be high quality arguments. The climate scientist that is unimpressed with talk of natural cycles of heating and cooling isn’t being dogmatically unresponsive to reason. She knows full well that this just isn’t what’s at issue in the case of global warming. It’s the CO2. And it’s clear up front to the climate scientist that the skeptic that persists in talking about benign natural cycles is ignoring what’s really at issue. So, sometimes at least, when someone is unswayed by our arguments, that’s just because they aren’t very good arguments. This is not evidence for unreasonableness, except perhaps on our own part.

Next, people really don’t like to be pushed around. In the case of issues we care deeply about especially, arguments contrary to our preferred view often feel more like coercion than rational persuasion. Pushing back against feeling pushed is often enough among the ways we are unreasonable. But many of us are likely to appear more unreasonable than we are when we feel pushed. Once we have taken a stand on an issue we care about, we are much less likely to admit defeat than to accept it, eventually anyway.

Which leads to one further point. Good reasoning is often complex and it can take some time to do its work. When people aren’t persuaded by a good argument right away, this is sometimes just because it needs to be mulled over some before its force can be appreciated. Can’t people just ignore good arguments and thereby prevent the germination of new insight? Yes, and they often do, but this isn’t simply a matter of choice. It can be hard to ignore a good idea. The temptation of novel insight isn’t necessarily less effective than the tug at the emotional heartstrings, it’s just less immediate.

A fallacy is just a mistake in reasoning. There are dozens that we know by name. But we only bother to name a fallacy when it is the sort of mistake that people are highly vulnerable to making. We can learn to commit and fall for far fewer fallacies. When it comes to appreciating good reasoning, we have straightforward methods for evaluating the quality of reasons and these constitute the central kernel of the curriculum in critical thinking and logic. Learning to reason well and avoid common mistakes is hard. Fallacious rhetoric offers the quick thrill of a roller coaster ride where critical thinking is more like hiking up a mountain. This helps to explain why Twitter flourishes as newspapers fold. The only cure may be to develop a taste for hiking. It would help if there were fewer roller coasters around.

Psychology has established that reasoning well is not part of our natural human endowment. In these unreasonable times, everyday experience certifies this much. So let us abandon the presumption of reasonableness. Instead let’s recognize being reasonable as a skill. Like most skills, it’s a skill that anyone can develop though maybe rather few can perfect. Clearly, getting along well with one another requires doing a much better job at cultivating the skill of reasonableness than our current educational and social practices manage. I’m not sure what to do about Twitter. But in the realm of education, policy solutions are an option. Critical thinking skills can be taught.

Why you might not want to say “What’s True for You isn’t Necessarily What’s True for Me”

Here is a common sense view about truth. There is an external world that is the shared object of our experience and it is some ways but not others. To say the world is a certain way is just to say that it has some properties and lacks others. This is the standard issue common sense metaphysical view. As we are parts of the world, the way the world is includes all of the various ways we are as individual subjects. Your experience is every bit as much a part of the world as anyone’s

What we believe or what we assert with a claim is true when it corresponds to the way the world is. True beliefs and claims are true because they represent the way the world way it is. A false belief or claim is just one that fails to do so. This is how we understand the notion of truth in the everyday mundane and uncontroversial cases like when we say “It’s true that Nichols is Mayor of Seattle in 2006” or “It’s true that the Space Needle is taller than any sailboat on Lake Union.” So far, I’m just trying to describe how we use the terms “true” and “false” in ordinary discourse. What I’m going to do now is examine a few ways of understanding what people might mean when they say things like “that might be true for you, but it is not true for me.”

As a Claim about Belief

The most plausible interpretation of claims like this is that talk of something being “true for a person” just means that it is believed by that person. To believe something is just to take it to be true. So perhaps when a person says “P might be true for you but it is not true for me,” all they mean to say is that perhaps you believe that P, but I don’t believe that P. But people believing incompatible things presents no challenge to the common sense metaphysic of a shared world or our commonsense understanding of truth.
The common sense picture does require that if two people believe things that are genuinely inconsistent, then one of them must be hold a false belief. There is no guarantee that we can figure out which belief is true and which is false. But as the common sense view does posit a shared world, the possibility of distinguishing the truth in some cases may be open.  We can examine our shared world more closely, share our observations, and think critically about whether our world really does correspond to this belief or that. Science, in this manner, seems to have made a good deal of progress in understanding a few things about our world. Science does not answer genuinely ethical questions, of course. But the lack of shared purely empirical evidence for or against ethical claims does not mean that we have no reasons to consider at all when evaluating ethical claims for truth. Ethicists formulate and evaluate arguments in support of ethical claims all the time. It’s what they do. So understanding talk of things being true for some people but not for others as really just meaning that some people believe this and other don’t makes this kind of talk intelligible. But it also invites us to inquire into the truth of the matter by examining what reasons are available and it presents no special obstacles to discovering that someone’s belief really is true or really is false.

As a Conversation Stopper

Yet when people talk about things being true for some and not for others, this talk is often intended to cut off debate. But why would anyone want to stop a conversation about ethical issues. Morality matters a great deal to us. People make huge personal sacrifices for what they think is right. As much as doing good and avoiding wrong matters to us personally, you would think conversations about morality would draw enthusiastic participation. But in fact the very passion and conviction with which moral beliefs are held probably does more to explain why people are reluctant to talk about ethical issues. People are used to only seeing ethical issues discussed in the context of heated emotional conflict. In fact, through cultural phenomena like cable TV political pundits, the heated rhetoric of special interest politics, and the ever present impassioned expressions of evangelical religious conviction, we are trained to only see ethical issues discussed in a context of emotional conflict. Well nobody likes emotionally heated conflicts. So, people just avoid conversations about ethical issues (except perhaps when they are confident that they are in the a-men choir). While conversations about ethical issues can be very unpleasant, they don’t have to be. The conversations philosophers have about ethics can be difficult, but they are typically not emotionally unpleasant. To the contrary, they are emotionally pleasant on account of being interesting. The standing habits ordinary folks in our culture have of talking about ethics in unpleasant ways doesn’t generalize. It’s just a bad habit. I say it is a bad habit because it’s a habit that generally discourages folks from learning anything new about ethical matters. The people who aren’t driven from conversation make it into something personal and combative rather than collegial and informative. When people go to battle in defense of a cherished belief, they are not typically open to understanding and learning new things.

One obstacle people face in breaking the bad habit of talking about ethics only in emotionally unpleasant ways is that people tend to self identify with their passionately held convictions. Many people have this tendency. In this situation an argument against one’s cherished moral belief may feel like an argument against one’s self. But a person is not the conclusion of an argument. The conclusion of an argument is a statement that expresses a thought. A thought that might be entertained, or doubted, believed or disbelieved by any number of people. Personally, as a philosopher, it’s really not a big deal to me whether someone holds this opinion or that. People believe all sorts of crazy things and I tend to like them anyway. However, I often find that I have very little patience for the people who are reluctant to examine the reasons for and against holding a belief.

Doing ethics will be uncomfortable for anyone who brings the emotional baggage of identifying with his beliefs to the conversation. So, lose that baggage if you have it. The only other choice is to just avoid doing ethics. Lots of people do make that choice. But this way of buying the comfort and security of not having to examine your own beliefs comes at the price of perpetuating ignorance (in yourself and others that might learn from you). This practice combines the intellectual vices of closed mindedness and incuriosity and it contributes to a great many of the worlds injustices.

As an Expression of Ethical Subjectivism

Sometimes the saying “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” is intended to stop conversation by implying that there is no fact of the matter to discover. If there is no fact of the matter, then clearly we are just wasting time debating the issue. The view that there are no ethical facts is not a relativistic view. The view that there are no ethical truths is variously called ethical subjectivism, nihilism or ethical skepticism. Now here is something peculiar: when folks try to cut off debate by saying something like “that may be true for some but it isn’t true for others,” they often intend this to be a way of saying “look you are both right”. But the subjectivist view that there are no ethical truths doesn’t make both parties in an ethical debate always right, it makes both parties always wrong. In a debate about an ethical issue, one party is arguing that some claim P is an ethical fact while another is arguing that not P is an ethical truth. Subjectivism does not dissolve the debate, it just interjects a third position saying that neither P nor not P is an ethical truth. This, ironically, is a way of entering the debate, not a way to shut it down. And once the debate is entered, we need to see some reasons for thinking subjectivism is right.

As the View that Ethical Truths are Relational

Some sentences just don’t make sense by themselves because they are incomplete. Consider “John us taller.” Perhaps in the right context, the missing details will be understood and the intended complete thought will be successfully conveyed. In a context where two people are standing back to back to compare their heights, “John is taller” can successfully convey the complete thought that John is taller than Joe. Perhaps ethical truths are like this. Perhaps “abortion is wrong” by itself just doesn’t express a complete thought that can be understood as true or false. But we can express a complete thought that can be true or false by adding some details as in “Abortion is wrong relative to evangelical Christians.” This view is ethical relativism. Relativism in ethics is just the view that ethical expressions like “is wrong” don’t express ethical properties had by actions, but rather express relations between actions and individuals or groups. This view is intelligible. And it does allow for the various parties to a dispute about an ethical matter to each be right. So this view works as a means of shutting down debate. To the minds of many, allowing for all parties to be right is adequate reason for adopting ethical relativism. But this strikes me as clearly disastrous. Ethical relativism makes the Nazi sympathizer just as right in holding that the holocaust was a good thing as the holocaust survivor is in holding that the holocaust was a bad thing.

As a Fractured World Metaphysic

It clear that people had better not understand truth in the ordinary way with no qualifications when they say that ethical claims are true for some by not for others for the simple reason that the world can’t both be some way and not be that very way. Perhaps we could maintain that things can be true for one person but not for another by taking the individuals in questions to live in their own distinct worlds. If I live in my world and you live in your distinct world, then it can be true for me that abortion is wrong and not true for you that abortion is wrong. My world could have the property of abortion being wrong while yours lacks it. But to go for this view is to abandon our ordinary commonsense metaphysical view and deny that there is a world that is the shared object of our experience. If there is no shared object of experience, then there is nothing for me to learn from your experience or you to learn from mine. Worse yet, if we live in distinct worlds, then the very possibility of communication is jeopardized. What could I possibly hope to understand about your experience if our experiences have no common ground what-so-ever. Maintaining relativism about truth by adopting a fractured metaphysics of many worlds is, intellectually, a bottomless pit. There is just nowhere to go from there.

Truth

 

We speak of three sorts of things as being true or false

  1. Sentences
  2. Beliefs
  3. Propositions

But what are sentences, beliefs and propositions?And for each of these three we can ask the following:

  • What is it for one to be true or false?
  • Is their truth objective?
  • Is their truth relative?
  • And if their truth is relative, what is it relative to?

    Propositions:

We address propositions first because they are the fundamental bearers of truth and falsity.  A proposition is what is expressed by a sentence.  Sentences have meanings.  When a sentence admits of truth or falsity a proposition is what is meant.  A sentence is true if and only if it expresses a true proposition.  But a proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not a given sentence expresses it.  Propositions are also the contents of our beliefs.  Whether or not a belief is true depends on whether or not its propositional content is true.  But the proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not it is believed.

So we appeal to propositions in characterizing the contents of beliefs and what is expressed by sentences.  And for a belief or sentence to be true or false is just for its propositional content to be true or false.  But what is it for a proposition to be true or false?  Here we will introduce the notion of correspondence.  For a proposition to be true is for it to represent the world in a way that corresponds to the way the world actually is.  So, for instance, the proposition expressed by the sentence “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the world contains the intended cat and mat and the cat is on the mat.  This doesn’t sound very exciting, but there it is.  Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of truth is kind of dull.  We can say that the truth or falsity of a proposition is relative to the way the world is, but that’s it.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not subjective (or relative to belief).  And the truth or falsity of a proposition is not open to interpretation (or relative to meaning).  This last point is crucial.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to what a sentence means. The truth or falsity of a sentence is relative to what proposition it expresses.  But the truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to meaning and could not be for the simple reason that propositions don’t have meanings.  Rather, the proposition is what is meant.

Sentences:

Sentences are linguistic things made up of words that have meanings.  What a sentence means depends on what its constituent words mean.  A proposition is what is meant or expressed by a meaningful sentence.  In principle, we can assign any meaning we like to a word.  And the meanings of sentences are, in some sense, a function of the meaning of words.  So, in so far as sentences are true or false, their truth is relative to meaning.  More specifically, what proposition is expressed by a given sentence depends on the meanings assigned to its constituent words.  For a sentence to be true or false is just for it to express a proposition that is true or false.  To help see that sentences are distinct from the propositions they express, and that the propositions themselves are not relative to meanings, consider the following two sentences:

Schnei ist wiess

Snow is white

The first sentence is German for snow is white.  These are distinct sentences and this is clear because they belong to different languages.  But both sentences express the same thing.  So, the proposition expressed must be something independent of either language.  Propositions are not linguistic entities.  While propositions are the meanings of sentences, they do not have meanings themselves.  So, the truth of propositions is not relative to meanings the way the truth or falsity of sentences is.

Beliefs

Belief is a relation between a mind and a proposition.  To believe a proposition is just to take it to be true.  Objectively, beliefs can be true or false.  From a subject’s point of view, to believe something is just to take it to be true.  What is thought to be true in one belief system may well be thought false in another.  But this is not to say that truth is subjective (that is, relative to subjects).  To say that what is true according to one belief system is false according to another isn’t to say anything about the nature of truth.  This is just a fairly obvious and mundane observation about what is held to be true according to a belief system.

 

Arguments

 

An argument is a reason for believing something.

Arguments consist of two or more claims, one of which is a conclusion.  The conclusion is the claim the argument purports to give a reason for believing.  The other claims are the premises.  The premises of an argument are offered as a reason for believing its conclusion.

Some arguments provide better reasons for believing their conclusions than others.  Evaluating an argument involves two essential steps:

  1. Determine whether or not the premises support the conclusion if they are true.
  2. Determine whether or not the premises are true.

The second of these tasks may involve evaluating further arguments in support of the premises.  There is an obvious question to ask regarding (1).  Namely, what is it for the premises of an argument to support its conclusion?  Here, I will introduce the two standards of support that have been recognized and developed by philosophers.  One is the standard of deductive validity and the other is the standard of inductive strength.

Here are two equivalent definitions of deductive validity:

(D) A deductively valid argument is an argument where if its premises are true, then its conclusion must be true.

(D’)  A deductively valid argument is an argument where it is not possible for all of its premises to be true and its conclusion false.

Deductive validity is the strictest standard of support we can uphold.  In a deductively valid argument, the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion.  Here are a few examples of deductively valid arguments

  1. If Socrates is human then Socrates is mortal
  2. Socrates is a human.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal
  1. All monkeys are primates
  2. All primates are mammals
  3. So, all monkeys are mammals

In contrast, the following argument is not valid:

  1. If Sue misses her plane she will be late for the conference.
  2. Sue is late for the conference.
  3. Therefore, she missed her plane.

To see why the last argument is not valid, try to think of a possible scenario that makes both of the premises true and the conclusion false.  One scenario is where Sue catches her plane, but her cab from the airport gets stuck in traffic.  The validity or invalidity of these arguments is fairly obvious.  But the validity or invalidity of many arguments is not so easy to see.  Formal logic provides us with tools for testing more difficult arguments for validity.

A deductively valid argument may or may not have true premises.  A deductively valid argument only provides one with a good reason for believing its conclusion if its premises are in fact true. If a deductively valid argument has all true premises, we say that it is deductively sound.  For an argument to be deductively sound is one way for it to pass both steps (1) and (2) for evaluating arguments.

The other widely recognized standard of support for the conclusion of an argument is inductive strength.  We can define inductive strength as follows:

(I) An inductively strong argument is an argument where it is not probable that its conclusion is false given that its premises are true.

Notice that the criteria for inductive strength in (I) looks much like the criterion for deductive validity in (D’).  The biggest difference is in the use of the word “probable” rather than “possible”.  This is a big difference.  Possibility is a yes-or-no-affair.  It either is possible for the premises of an argument to be true and its conclusion false or it isn’t.  On the other hand, probability is a matter of degree.  The conclusion of an argument may be more or less probable given the truth of its premises.

Corresponding to the notion of deductive soundness, an inductive argument that is both strong and has true premises is called a cogent inductive argument.  Unlike the notion of deductive soundness, it is possible for an inductively cogent argument to have true premises and a false conclusion.

 

 

 

Critical Thinking Note 20: Climate Change

 

Written in response to some discussion board activity in my online Intro to Philosophy:

Some of you have referred to climate change a few times in our discussions, most recently in connection with trying to get clear on the difference between something being true and something being believed (or something “being true for someone” as the confusing popular expression goes). It won’t do, however, to simply offer climate change as an example of something that is true but which many people don’t accept as true. Those who doubt human caused climate change obviously won’t find this a convincing example of the difference between truth and belief or opinion. Additionally, this issue affords good opportunity to exercise our skill at evaluating arguments which was our central focus last week.

In the flood of information, spin and fallacious manipulation surrounding climate change, it is not surprising that the average citizen has a hard time focusing on the key arguments, the central reasons for addressing the threat of human caused climate change. So here are the premises that lead inexorably to the conclusion that we have a problem that requires serious attention:

  • CO2 and assorted other gasses trap heat.More specifically, these gasses are transparent to full spectrum light from the sun but opaque to the infra-red spectrum light (radiant heat energy) that gets reflected back from the planet. To sunlight, these gasses are like a clear sky. To heat from the warmed surface of the planet, these gasses are like a blanket of fog.
  • We emit CO2 and other greenhouse gasses when we burn fossil fuels and we do so on a massive scale.Global emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are approaching 10,000 million metric tons per year. We should also note emissions from the production of meat and deforestation. Emissions of greenhouse gases on this scale is enough to change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and we’ve been tracking this for several decades.
  • The basic laws of physics tell us that matter/energy never gets created or destroyed; energy has to go somewhere and do some work.That would be the first law of thermodynamics.

None of these premises are open to reasonable doubt. We know this stuff. As a recovering gear-head myself, I’d love it if I could find some way to accept these well-established truths and avoid the conclusion that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the natural systems we depend on for survival. But the argument is valid and sound. The science is informing us in great detail about just how and how fast we are disrupting our natural systems. But there is no way to reasonably avoid the conclusion that human caused climate change is real. Anyone who thinks clearly about the three premises given above should be able to see this for themselves.

 

This morning’s news reports that the Earth set a new global heat record for the third year in a row in 2016.

Russ Payne

January 19, 2017

Critical Thinking Note 19: What’s going on with Black Lives/All Lives*

 

So here’s a now familiar exchange:

  • B: Black Lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!
  • B: Black lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!

We pay close attention to logic in philosophy and from a logical point of view this is a sort of non-debate. That’s because “All lives matter” logically entails that “Black lives matter.” If all lives matter, then black lives matter. This is a truth of logic. B and W aren’t disagreeing with each other. So what is going on?

W might say something like this:

W: When you say, “Black lives matter” it sounds to me like you are saying that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter.

But that’s just not what “Black lives matter” says. To say that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter is to make a different claim altogether. In fact in clear headed moments, almost everyone, regardless of color, will say that it’s true that black lives matter and that it is false that only black lives matter or that they matter more. Our language is not such a hopeless mess that a simple clear obviously true sentence also says something false. The words “only” and “more” make a real difference in meaning and if this is W’s complaint, then she is reading something into the sentence “Black lives matter” that just isn’t there.

The sentence “Black lives matter” is beautifully simple and specific. It just says that black lives matter and we’ve already established that B and W recognize the clear and straightforward truth of this simple and specific sentence. So again, what’s going on?

“Black lives matter” says that black lives matter, not something more or something less. But even once we grant this, we might still see a difference in emphasis in the claims made by B and W. As the rallying cry for a movement, “Black lives matter” emphasizes that black lives matter. Emphasis doesn’t entail mattering more. Emphasis here simply draws attention to the fact that black lives matter.

W might feel that she is taking the moral high ground in emphasizing that all lives matter. All lives, after all, is the broadest, most inclusive class of lives. Why not give voice to this? Its truth seems just as compelling and worthy and maybe more so because it is more inclusive than the claim that black lives matter. So, W even has an argument for emphasizing that all lives matter.

All other things being equal, W’s argument for emphasizing that all lives matter would appear to be pretty compelling. But all other things are not equal and that is exactly why B finds it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter.

When we look just at the content of the “Black Lives/All Lives” exchange, what linguist’s call the semantics and the rest of us might call the linguistic meaning of the claims, it’s hard to see just what’s going on. Yet it is clear that there is a problem. The emotional clash is obviously real. The problem lays in the rhetorical roles the slogans play and particularly how the “All Lives Matter” slogan serves to obscure the very real reasons for emphasizing that black lives matter.

This central question that W needs to consider is why people think it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter. The rhetorical role of merely insisting that all lives matter is to provide a way of avoiding this question. That is, the rhetorical role of the “All lives matter” slogan is to turn a non-disagreement into an interminable pseudo-debate that leads to emotional conflict based on talking past each other without listening. While we’d all grant the obvious truth of the claim that all lives matter, the role of that claim in this context is to divide people against each other.

Could W reasonably claim that the same is true of “Black lives matter”? Could she claim that it is also divisive? Clearly many white people feel that the “Black lives matter” slogan is devise. But it’s not so clear that this feeling is reasonable. To get some handle on whether it is, we need to consider why people would emphasize that black lives matter. Given a good reason, we can’t dismiss “Black lives Matter” as mere divisive rhetoric.

So why would people feel the need to emphasize that black lives matter? The answer here is that our social practices, the way we roll, sometimes at an individual level but always at a systemic level, treats black people as if they don’t matter or matter a good deal less. Emphasizing that black lives matter is a response to the standing situation, not just an arbitrary shout-out for black people.

The movement and slogan emerged as a response to a pattern of unarmed black men being shot or killed by police officers who were then never held accountable. There is ample evidence for this in the cases of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the list goes on. But this is just one of the more dramatic ways among the great many ways, some large and some small, that our society is hard on black people. Here’s a short list of some of the further ways:

  • The racially targeted way in which the war on drugs has been prosecuted.
  • Racial disparities in administration of the death penalty.
  • Disparities that fall along racial lines in school funding at the K – 12 level.
  • Racial disparities in pay and household wealth.
  • Racial disparities in employment.
  • Racial disparities in access to health care and life expectancy.

There is lots of basic unfairness here and it is systemic. This short list addresses injustices that are well documented with easily accessible data and evidence. A richer understanding of how our society stacks things against people of color really requires that you listen to some of those people. As a white guy, my usefulness is pretty limited when it comes to describing the black experience in America. But telling other people’s story isn’t required for making sense out of what’s going on, what’s going wrong, in America generally, and in the “All lives matter” backlash specifically.

It seems to me that there is exactly one good reason for emphasizing race, skin color, in public discourse and that is in response to the history and ongoing legacy of racial injustice our society suffers from. This one good reason is exactly what the “Black lives matter” movement is about.

Russ Payne

January 11, 2017

* I miss Marvin Gaye. This song, What’s Going On, was among the first hits I can remember hearing on the radio as a child. Now it brings tears to my eyes. It’s not as if the early 70s was an idyllic time of racial harmony. But people like Marvin Gaye infused that time with a sense of hope and joy. What he says remains worth emphasizing, “We got to find a way to bring some loving here today.”

Critical Thinking 18: About Orlando

Philosophers don’t often have much to say about LGBTQ issues. It’s been at least a decade since I addressed homosexuality in writing when a campus group invited a homo-phobic preacher to campus. The reason LGBTQ issues aren’t very high on the agendas of philosophers is that the ethical issues here are too easy. There are no interesting ethical problems raised by people having assorted sexual identities and orientations. Ethically, there just isn’t that much to figure out concerning matters of sexual identity and orientation. So why do some people feel differently? The answer has much to do with the widespread tendency to see morality as entirely a matter of cultural say so or religious authority.

At their best, culture and religion serve as vehicles in the human search for truth and aspiration towards goodness. But for some individuals there is an unfortunate tendency for culture and religion to become ends in themselves and operate as seats of authority rather than sources for inspiration and searching. The problem in this is that there is always the potential for arbitrariness in cultural and religious thinking about morality. Where morality is taken to be a matter of say so or tradition, whether God’s, one’s culture or one’s leader, anything can be deemed morally prohibited or imperative. This is the central objection against making morality a matter of say so or tradition. This is why philosophers unanimously reject both moral relativism and divine command theory.

When morality is reduced to a matter of tradition or authority, there is no rhyme or reason to it, only command and obedience. This is deeply at odds with what seems obvious in our day to day moral lives. Morality isn’t so unhinged from reason. We expect ourselves and others to have reasons for thinking they should or shouldn’t act this way or that. And when we dig at these reasons in a critically minded way, we unearth values that transcend our whims, the authority of others and the traditions of our social groups. Why should I not torture puppies just for fun? Not on account of anyone’s say so or the traditions of my culture, but simply because it hurts the puppy. The badness of pointless suffering and the goodness of happiness don’t require any special cultural or religious stamp of approval. Why is rape morally wrong? Again, the answer is easy. Rape violates the dignity of a person. That people deserve to be treated with respect is obvious enough when it we consider our own case. When we fail to treat others with the sort of respect we recognize that we deserve, we impose a double standard on the world, making a special and unjustifiable exception for ourselves. Understanding the straightforward moral reasons for thinking rape is wrong requires no special appeal to the authority, say so, or traditions of any culture or religion.

When we hold our moral judgments to standards of reasonableness that transcend culture and religion, when we treat morality as a realm of inquiry rather than command or tradition, it quickly becomes clear that there are no ethically defensible reasons for objecting to people loving the sorts of people they love or living in ways that suit their own sexual identities and orientations. The only way these things have ever come to be seen as wrong is as the result of culture or religion betraying our basic human capacities for reason and compassion. We have ample moral and intellectual grounds for objecting to this in the strongest terms possible.

Russ Payne

June 13, 2016