Chapter 1: Argument Basics
1.1 Identifying Arguments
The first step of the critical thinking process concerns the ability to identity arguments; this, in turn, requires that we know what an argument is. For the purposes of this text, we will define an argument as a set of propositions, one of which (the conclusion) is claimed to follow from the others (the premises). So, according to this definition, every argument has exactly one conclusion and can have any number of premises. Again, conclusions and premises are all propositions, which are statements that can be said to be true or false. To illustrate, take a few minutes to determine whether each of the following sentences is a proposition:
Proposition or Not?
The sky is blue: _______
France is ruled by a king: _______
Dogs bark: _______
God exists: _______
The sum of 2 and 3 is 5: _______
Ice cream tastes good: _______
I’m sure you had no problem understanding why sentences like “the sky is blue” and “dogs bark” are propositions. But did you have more difficulty with sentences like “God exists” and “ice cream tastes good”? Like the previous examples, these are also propositions. Granted, we may not know whether God does or does not exist, and we might think there is no objective fact of the matter whether ice cream tastes good, but it is still appropriate to say of these propositions that they are true or false. The point is grammatical—if someone says to you “God exists,” it is at least grammatically appropriate to respond “true” or “false.” Whether you are right depends on whether God does in fact exist. Note that responding “true” or “false” is not grammatically appropriate in each example of a non-proposition.
It is also important that we understand the distinction between propositions and sentences. A proposition is defined by its meaning, while a sentences is defined by the words that constitute it. Difference sentences, then, can express the same proposition. For example, “Au
temps de la Renaissance, l’Italie était déjà le pays des virtuoses” and “At the time of the Renaissance, Italy was already the country of virtuosos” are two different sentences that express the same proposition; they have the same meaning. Perhaps less obviously, a single sentence can express more than one proposition. Consider the sentence, “My dog prefers the towel in the dryer.” This can mean at least three different things: (1) My dog prefers the towel that is in the dryer, (2) My dog prefers that the towel be in the dryer, or (3) My dog prefers having the towel while he’s in the dryer. Which meaning is intended often depends on context and as we will see latter, it is easy to engage in, or fall for, fallacious reasoning because of the inherent ambiguity of some sentences.
Now consider a passage that contains an argument (note that all three sentences are propositions):
All crimes are violations of the law. Murder is a crime. Therefore, murder is a violation of the law.
It is essential first of all to be able to identify which proposition is the conclusion, that is, the proposition that is claimed to follow from the others. In this example, the presence of the word “therefore” (a conclusion indicator) tells us that the conclusion is the third proposition. In the context of an argument, a conclusion indicator helps us identify (or “indicate”) the argument’s conclusion. Numerous words/phrases can serve as conclusion indicators, including the following:
Some Common Conclusion Indicators
For this reason
We may infer
Which means that
Which allows us to infer
For these reasons
I conclude that
Which entails that
Which points to the fact that
As a result
It follows that
Which shows that
Which implies that
From which it follows
Some of these words/phrases can also be used to indicate the explanandum1 of an explanation and can also have uses unrelated to...
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