What Is A Philosophical Argument?

What is a philosophical argument?

There is a lot of confusion as to what an argument is as it relates to philosophy. Most of the time arguing is something more like a verbal quarrel between two or more people expressing subjective or personal ideas about something. A philosophical argument (PA) is a little different.

To begin with a philosophical argument shouldn’t be used to attack an opponent or impress an audience with ones fine oratory skills. A second thing that an argument is not is a default gainsaying of the opposing position. Even in cases where you know the rival position is wrong you haven’t made PA until you have stated reasons why it is wrong. That in a nutshell is what an argument is; giving good reasons to support your conclusion.

A PA will consist of reasons (or premises) leading to a conclusion. These premises will typically be take for granted and follow the assumption that if you accept these premises then you ought to accept the conclusion that follows. For example:

P.1 Everything which begins to exist has a cause
P.2 The universe began to exist there for the universe had a cause
C. This cause is what we call God

The premises in the argument above are marked with the P. and the conclusion with a C. Having said this there are three questions one ought to be asking herself when evaluating an argument like this:
1. Is the argument form valid?
2. Are the premises true?
3. Is the argument sound?
Each of these are completely independent issues so that one might agree with the premises but the form of the argument might be fallacious or wrong. In other cases the argument for is correct but the premises are untrue. Or in some cases both the argument form is bad and the premises are untrue.

In the argument above one could make the case that P.1 is wrong and give an example of an atomic photon light that enters and exits existence without any apparent cause. Then it would be up to the arguer to either accept the refutation, reject it on the basis of something like “apparent causes” not being a strong basis for refutation, or abstain.

Another way of attacking the argument is by attacking its form which will be a topic for another blog post.

Can Crazy Be Logical?

Here is a fun way of evaluating logical relations between propositions.

We were driving in the car the other day and my son Collin asks the following “I’m crazy aren’t I dad?”  Wanting to be a game player I went along with it “Yes Collin you are crazy.”  Collin then gloats and said to his older brother “See Harrison I told you I was crazy” (I don’t know when he began to view crazy as a virtue).  To which Harrison replied “Thats only because you asked dad, he will go along with anything you ask him.”  Without skipping a beat Collin immediately says “Dad give me a hundred dollars.”

In the square of opposition you have four propositions:
A = Universal Affirmative
E = Universal Negative
I = Particular Affirmative
O = Particular Negative

Chalk one up for the little guy!  He realized in order to win the debate he didn’t necessarily have to refute his big brothers argument (that Dad will go along with anything he asks).  Collin knew that he just needed to come up with one example where dad wouldn’t go along with anything by taking the argument from an A proposition to an O.  And that is how the square of opposition is used.

What Is A Philosophical Argument 2

Attacking The Argument Form

In the previous post What Is A Philosophical Argument we said, ” A PA will consist of reasons (or premises) leading to a conclusion.”  In other words it deals with evidences that point us to a final conclusion.  We also said that there are some things to look out for when evaluating an argument, namely the argument form and the truthfulness of its premises.

What does it mean to look at the argument form?  This means that we are going to look at the relationships between the argument’s premises and its conclusion.  The reason is if no relation exists then the conclusion does not follow from the premises.  It is important to also understand that evaluating the argument form is not evaluating the truthfulness of its premises.  At this stage in our evaluation all we want to know is whether or not the argument form is valid.

Modus Ponens: Affirming The Antecedent

For example a common argument form that is used:

If P then Q

P

therefore Q

This argument affirms the antecedent and is a valid argument form.  If you want to impress your friends you can drop the Latin modus ponens. However when we change things around we have something like this:


If P then Q

Q

therefore P

Notice in this argument form we are affirming the consequent.  This is an invalid argument form.  For example:

If the universe was created by God, then there would be no evil

there is no evil

Therefore the universe was created by God

This invalid form can be easily seen when we model the argument.  For example consider my dog Lady:

If Lady were a cat, then Lady would have four legs and a tail

Lady has four legs and a tail

Therefore Lady is a cat

Here we see a situation where both premises are true but the conclusion is false leaving us with an invalid form since we know that true premises cannot lead us to a false conclusion.

Modus Ponens: Negating the Consequent 

Some arguments consist of a negation. For example:

If the universe was created by God, then it would exhibit design.

But the universe does not exhibit design.

Therefor the universe was not created by God.

If P then Q

Not Q

Therefor not P

This is a valid form. However if we turn things around and affirm the antecedent the result is an invalid form:

If the universe was created by God, then it would exhibit design.

The universe was not created by God.

Therefor the universe does not exhibit design.

If P then Q

Not P

Therefor not Q