One of the primary features of an argument that is strong, is its structure. When you see someone on the web arguing and making immense paragraphs of ideology-riddled nonsense, without any idea of what their own argument is, you can be certain that this is just opinion and not an argument. Therefore, it is not worth refuting.
Why would I consider this to be the case? Because proper arguments have structure: You can delineate a person’s argument in a point by point structure. What most people are familiar with is this:
- Premise: This is what the argument presumes to be true or false. Normally, the premise begins like this: “I think we need to spend more money on computer parts.”
- Hypothesis: The hypothesis is often mistaken as the argument itself. It is actually being portrayed in a way that supports the premises. When people say “that doesn’t follow the premise” as if to underline the logical fallacy which this person might argue with, they’re attacking the “hypothesis” of the argument.
- Conclusion: As an equation, the hypothesis or theses result in a conclusion. The premise makes a statement, the hypothesis supports that statement, and the conclusion is the result of the person’s logic placing 1+1 together.
Typical internet debates begin with arguments that have the conclusion within them, and the hypotheses are the conclusion.
You said you like Bernie Sanders? You must be a communist.
This is a poorly constructed argument, which some might recognize to be an “ad hominem”. You will often hear this thrown about in internet debates but there isn’t really a justification as to why logical fallacies are so bad. People will toss these around as if to signal that a holy rule of debating has been broken. Well, that’s fine and all but you can’t be a player AND the referee. So, calling a logical fallacy on someone who may feel they have not will shift the debate in an entirely pointless direction.
Thus, calling logical fallacies before attempting to debunk an argument is a logical fallacy itself: Because it wrongly uses logical fallacies as arguments unto themselves that the opposition must now refute rather than their original argument. That is the reason why ad hominems are to be avoided, but calling an ad hominem for what it is in an internet debate serves only to derail the discussion. In some cases, it actually makes the “adversary” have to justify their position on you. However, unless the beginning of the debate was about anything other than communism, you are wasting your time with word games.
A: You said you like Bernie Sanders? You must be a communist.
B: That’s an ad hominem!
A: No it’s not: Bernie Sanders has clearly demonstrated that he’s a communist, therefore you must be one too!
As you can see here, person A has been made to defend why they think B is obviously a communist, and with one logical fallacy comes the next. A and B are therefore expected to go back and forth in this exchange ad nauseam or until the forum moderator silences them both. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche:
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
E.G.: When arguing with people who abuse logical fallacies, do not use the logical fallacy fallacy to refute them, because you are playing their game. Rather, point out rationally why their point is invalid or unsupported. B‘s response could have been:
“Communism has nothing to do about what I am saying here.”
“Can you demonstrate the relevance this has with our discussion?”
At this point, A has no choice but to justify their bringing up B‘s communism as a counter-argument, and if the debate was about anything other than communism, A will have to admit that they were taking things out of context unnecessarily. Honestly, it should be then decreed that this will be for another discussion.
After all, A might have a point in that in this specific discussion, a communist might have a bias, but then again, “confirmation bias” is not inherently wrong. It is perhaps fallacious, but something being logically fallacious does not make it wrong, it makes it unsound. Certain things that do not appear to follow are not necessarily wrong: It simply means the argument was poorly constructed.
A good argument, with proper structure, should then look a little bit as follows:
“I think we need to spend more money on computer parts. Over the last 6 months, we’ve had to spend several thousand dollars in repairs with our third-party vendor. Out of these computer repairs, 60% were resolved by replacing the computer parts. Considering our local technicians are knowledgeable enough to replace these parts, it would be less costly to simply order extra parts for our local techs to install them on computers that have defective hardware, than to call up the vendor’s technician.”
This argument, while logically sound, might still have a few holes in it. Can you name some?
The above argument is supported by what can be considered a “strong hypothesis”. Inversely, there are weak hypotheses, which can easily take the form of a syllogism: Arguments born out of a syllogism are typically weak. They may be seen as “proofs” but are not inherently correct. An axiom seems like it is true, but it may very well not be. It is constructed in a manner that is logical, but may have holes in it.
An example of a strong hypothesis exists in the paragraph above. The person reporting these numbers refers to several thousands in expenses for technical support by third-party technicians. They then support their argument with a hypothesis that 60% of the repairs being done require replacement of parts, which incur waiting costs and part costs along with the technician’s visit, which likely costs at least a hundred dollars.
So on a whole, having computer parts ready to cut on third-party technician interventions seems like a good idea and is thus a strong hypothesis. It supports the premise with more authority than a weak hypothesis might. For example, our accountant here could have said:
“I think we need to spend more money on computer parts. Every time I call up the helpdesk, a technician has to come in and replace a computer part in my computer. Some of my colleagues have the same problem. That’s why I believe more money has to be spent in that regard.”
Why is this argument fallacious?
It’s speculative: You do not have the same form of strength that you might have by showing numbers from a spreadsheet and a correlation between technicians and parts being replaced. Instead, the accountant is speaking from personal experience and that of a few colleagues. If the company is several hundred people strong, that’s hardly a compelling argument. While as a philosopher, I appreciate rational conjecture, this would only serve to make the problem very localized.
Also, an accountant bringing up their own issue as if it is a trend in the company without concrete evidence would not be able to get the necessary shift in funds he is looking for, because such an argument would not convince their boss, who might actually be looking to cut in expenses.
“Our I.T. budget is already blowing up from all these service calls. I’m not spending another cent on this. We’ve had over 5000$ in technical expertise spent in the last 6 months for technical services. Tickets are being resolved; The third-vendor knows what they’re doing, so let’s keep things going that way.”
As you can see, a weak or a strong argument makes or breaks a case. In this case, the accountant is still right, but they’ve supported their argument with a very weak hypothesis that their boss had no problem refuting. This company’s going to have a rough end of year.
An argument may be worded beautifully, have excellent hypotheses but a poor conclusion. A poor conclusion can be discerned when it does not follow the hypotheses. Conclusions take the form of “Therefore…” and “It follows that…” and “That’s why…” because they are the end-result of the structure. Like a cascading ball through a labyrinth, the conclusion is the moment where the ball falls into the hole. All arguments have a conclusion of some sorts, if they are structured correctly.
Taking back the example of syllogisms, I will be able to vulgarize how conclusions are built:
- X are part of Y
- Z is an X.
- Therefore, Z is Y.
As demonstrated above, an argument makes or breaks a decision. We do this for ourselves on an everyday basis, when we choose this brand or that brand. When we choose to take this path or this other path. Decisions are formed through arguments we make for ourselves. Without knowing it, many different things come into account in our quick-thinking skills, but they are done like breathing. When we make that decision, we have reached a conclusion: This is the right thing to do.
Putting you back in an I.T. perspective:
A: Thank you for calling helpdesk, my name is Reginald. How may I help you?
B: Hi, yeah, my computer won’t turn on.
A: So there aren’t any lights on it when you press the POWER button?
B: Nope, none at all.
A: Have you checked whether it’s plugged in? There’s this black cable at the back, has three prongs…
B: *Annoyed* REALLY!? One sec. Oh sonuva… *click*
In this situation, A is a helpdesk technician who is helping B. Without really taking too much time to analyze, he has been used to these situations where a user, perhaps overstressed, has forgotten to check things he deems elementary. The technician has come to that conclusion off of experience. His conclusion, without having even made any argument, is that the computer must be unplugged.
In this case, the hypotheses are being given by B to A. A reaches his conclusion as a result of B’s own responses, which feed A’s arguments. The first step in this logic is in the first question that A asks, which points to the end-result which he has made in his mind, before asking his question.
“The computer is probably unplugged.”
So, rather than say what his conclusion outright, the technician has worked through with typical troubleshooting methodologies, which are extremely empirical and inductivistic. The conclusion here is deductive, it has already been made before the case is found to support it. That’s one of the ways you can identify a conclusion. Our technician, in any other situation could very well be wrong. That computer could be dead, but in this case, his experience readily supports his conclusion and a quick calculation can be made that is purely subjective, but still works to a key.
In the tech’s mind: 70% of my calls that start this way are because the computer was unplugged.
There are no statistics to support this argument, yet it is still being made through sheer experience, by the person’s mind. We normally work in statistics of “none”, “a little”, “half” and “a lot”, when we have no numbers. If we sided in uncertainty all the time, we would not be able to make decisions.
In order to ensure that the premise isn’t wrong, the technician tries to see if the power button works. That forms the first hypothesis: “In those 70% of calls, I checked the power button first, and the computer wouldn’t turn on.”
The computer does not in fact turn on once the button is pressed. The following hypothesis then occurs: “When in those 70% of calls, the button did not turn on, the computer cable is unplugged. Therefore, the computer cable is unplugged.” As you can see, the technician is basing himself solely off of his own experience, which is extremely subjective. Experience serves for known issues, things that are contingent to our knowledge and experience. It does not always work when new things are implemented and a person relying TOO much on habits will be ill-equipped when something new happens.
When our logic fails, especially with troubleshooting, we must go back to the beginning and work with new hypotheses. You could reproach the technician to use such deductive logic to troubleshoot and resolve issues, but empiricism is inductivist at its core. It cannot be reproached when the logic seems so adequate. Inductivism’s primary flaw, however, is that it presumes that because it worked 70% of the time, it will work all of the time.
When inevitably, the technician gets a computer that won’t turn on off of being unplugged, new troubleshooting measures will have to be undertaken to support a new conclusion. One does not replace the other, as I have already said in another one of my articles on Logic and should be interspersed to build one’s case.
Conclusion in debates
As far as debates go, however, the conclusion must be clearly outlined and how it was reached must be exactly defined in order for the argument to have coherence. If such a thing is not readily evident to you, it would be necessary to take the moment to analyze the argument so that you can spot the conclusion. If the conclusion is unclear, then it is paramount that you ask your interlocutor to explain themselves further while humbly suggesting that perhaps you are not understanding their point.
This will avoid unnecessary back and forth based on a simple misunderstanding, which unfortunately, is at the core of most problems people have. In I.T., this much is evident in the way people get frustrated at their computers. We get frustrated when we think our logic to be free of any flaws and find that we are wrong. Logic is how the mind makes sense of the world and when logic is defeated, it means that we work illogically and thus our prior beliefs were wrong and possibly many others.
Anger is a natural response to being shown to be wrong, but it should be avoided by clearly explaining ourselves.
As Wittgenstein says in the first proposition of his Tractatus:
1 The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2 The world divides into facts.
1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.
The philosophy of language can be instrumental in learning how to properly form arguments. If you cannot explain yourself adequately to form a coherent argument, then it is best to remain silent until you can.
Wittgenstein’s own expression for this was:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Bold words, to be sure and not easily respected. as Wittgenstein renounced his own work in his later life. What remains to be wise in such a phrase however, is that when we lack the proper means through which to form an argument, we should remain silent until we can, as it is likely that the poor structure of an argument reveals a flaw in our logic.