9. How to Argue with Other People
“Man: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
Mr. Vibrating: It can be.
Man: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
Mr. Vibrating: No it isn’t.
Man: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
Mr. Vibrating: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Man: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
Mr. Vibrating: Yes it is!
Man: No it isn’t!”
— Monty Python, “Argument Clinic” (1972)
Unfortunately, we do not lack examples of people arguing with one another. What we lack are examples of people arguing constructively with one another. But how can arguing be constructive? Isn’t any argument essentially a competition in which each side is trying hard to win and not to lose?
We should begin by introducing the philosophical sense of the term “argument.” According to the philosophers, an argument is not a competition between people who believe different things. An argument is instead a set of reasons (called premises) that are supposed to lead to a conclusion. If they really do lead to the conclusion, the argument is said to be valid, it works. Anyone who disagrees with the conclusion will then have to find fault with one of the premises leading to the conclusion.
Here is an example of an argument:
Anyone who is either a philosopher or a scientist believes in truths that go beyond what experience can show. For a philosopher believes that there are proper definitions of terms, like truth or justice, and a scientist believes in the laws of nature, which are generalizations that go beyond the particulars of sense experience.
Is it a valid argument? To determine this, we need to determine what claim is being argued for (the conclusion), and what reasons are being presented for it (the premises). In this case, the conclusion is the first sentence: “Anyone who is either a philosopher or a scientist believes in truths that go beyond what experience can show.” Then, the second sentence gives us two reasons for thinking that the conclusion is true: “For a philosopher believes that there are proper definitions of terms, like truth or justice” (that’s reason or premise #1), and “a scientist believes in the laws of nature, which are generalizations that go beyond the particulars of sense experience” (that’s reason or premise #2).
This argument is valid, and the following, painstaking re-ordering of the argument will make it clear exactly why it is valid:
(Premise #1): A philosopher believes that there are proper definitions of terms, like truth or justice (and we should add here something that is pretty obviously being presumed, namely that what makes definitions “proper” is something that goes beyond what experience is able to show).
(Premise #2): A scientist believes in the laws of nature, which are generalizations that go beyond the particulars of sense experience (so they quite literally go beyond what experience is able to show).
(Conclusion): Therefore, both philosophers and scientists believe in truths that go beyond what experience is able to show.
If we drop out all of the information and pay attention only to the structure of what is being said, the argument looks like this: All of the Ss are Bs, and all of the Ps are Bs, so all of the Ss and Ps are Bs. It is not a thrilling argument, but it is a valid argument. The two premises that are offered do in fact lead to, (or imply) the conclusion.
So, there is no arguing with the logic of the argument. If someone wants to resist the conclusion—let’s say they are a scientist who hates being put into the same group as philosophers—then they will have to reject one or both of the premises being offered. Perhaps they will deny that scientists, when they believe in the laws of nature, are believing in truths that go beyond what experience shows. If that is the case, then we will return to the discussion in chapter 6 of this book, raise the problem of induction, and our discussion continues. Or perhaps someone thinks philosophers are not concerned with proper definitions but are instead concerned with other things that do not go beyond what experience shows. In that case, we shall have to ask what this person thinks philosophy is, and our discussion continues.
Either way—and this is the point—our discussion continues. The understanding of the initial argument has helped us to focus more precisely on where we disagree. Is it about what scientists believe or about what philosophers do? So, the discussion not only continues but continues in a constructive way since we are learning more about the different views and the reasons for holding the different views, or about the exact nature of the disagreement between people. This sort of result seldom comes from the shouting matches that are often recognized more popularly as “arguments.”
A philosophical argument is a cooperative effort to understand the reasons behind our disagreements. Sometimes the result is that a simple misunderstanding is cleared up. Sometimes one side ends up persuading the other because the reasons are made clearer, and on the basis of those reasons, someone is convinced that they should change their mind. Sometimes no one changes their mind, but everyone has a clearer picture of where other people are coming from or what their lines of reasoning are. Every result is an advance from where we were when we started.
There is a science of logic, or the exact nature of the ways in which premises lead to conclusions (or validity). It is extremely important not only in philosophy, but in mathematics, information science, and, really, any endeavor in which people are trying to extract more specific information from the information that is given. You should take a class in logic if you haven’t already. But we cannot cover all of that material in this textbook, so we will turn to something that is just important: how to argue with people philosophically so that our arguing is constructive and illuminating, not just frustrating and tiresome.
Taking the time to reorganize premises and conclusions in the painstaking way we just did, making everything transparently obvious, is hardly ever practical in daily life (though it is frequently done in philosophical essays). And, as was just said, logic is a science unto itself. But we can examine the attitudes we should be bringing to philosophical arguments and learn from them some lessons about the ethics of knowledge.