Do you ever feel like someone’s argument is wrong, but you can’t say exactly why? Maybe you don’t know how to formulate counter-arguments. Maybe you can’t tell the difference between a strong argument and a weak argument, or a bad argument and a good argument. But maybe the problem goes even deeper: maybe you’re not sure exactly what an argument is.
Here’s the definition of an argument:
An argument is a series of statements that try to prove a point. The statement that the arguer tries to prove is called the conclusion. It’s the main point the arguer is trying to prove. The statements that try to prove the conclusion are called premises.
Just like every molecule is made of atoms, every argument is made of statements. Statements are things that are either true or false. Here are some examples of statements: “The house is red,” “James is tall, and Adam is fast,” “Either you can go straight, or you can make a right,” “If you are tired, then you will make mistakes,” “Shawn can win the race only if he enters it.”
In conversation, we request an argument when we ask someone to state their reasons for believing a claim. A typical request for an argument would look like this:
Rick: “I believe that Ben is an American.”
Sally: “Why do you believe that Ben is an American?”
Rick: “Because Ben was born in New York, and all New Yorkers are American.”
Rick is stating something that he believes, and Sally is asking Rick to state his reasons for believing it. When Rick states those reasons, he is supplying premises that support the conclusion–his claim that Ben is an American.
Here’s another example of an argument that might appear in ordinary conversation:
Michael: “The dinosaurs existed.”
Jane: “What are your reasons for believing that the dinosaurs existed?”
Michael: “Scientists have identified remains from dinosaurs.”
To respond to Jane’s request for a reason, Michael states reasons that support his conclusion.
Argument Format and Examples:
When an argument occurs in conversation, it’s often stated in a way that’s unclear. This makes it hard to evaluate. Because of that it’s helpful to put arguments into a standard format that makes it clear which statements are premises, and which statement is the conclusion.
Here’s what the standard format looks like:
To put an argument in standard format, first identify which statement is the conclusion and which statements are premises that are supposed to support the conclusion. Place the premises on separate lines and the conclusion on the last line.
There are certain expressions in English that often (but not always) mark a conclusion. Common conclusion indicators include, “Therefore,” “Hence,” “Thus,” “So,” “As a result,” “Consequently,” “Ergo,” “It must be the case that,” and “It follows that.”
Let’s take a look at some examples:
Rick’s argument can be formatted as follows:
Premise 1: All New Yorkers are American.
Premise 2: Ben is a New Yorker.
Conclusion: Therefore, Ben is an American.
Michael’s argument can be formatted as follows:
Premise 1: If scientists identified dinosaur remains, then dinosaurs existed.
Premise 2: Scientists identified dinosaur remains.
Conclusion: Therefore, dinosaurs existed.
Premise 1: All humans are mortal.
Premise 2: Sam is a human.
Conclusion: Therefore, Sam is mortal.
Premise 1: If it rained, then my yard is wet.
Premise 2: It rained.
Conclusion: Therefore, my yard is wet.
Premise: If it rains, then my yard is wet.
Conclusion: Therefore, if my yard isn’t wet, then it didn’t rain.
Understanding Arguments Leads to Evaluating Arguments
The ability to recognize arguments in everyday life is one of the first steps in developing critical thinking skills. Over time, you’ll be able to pinpoint the conclusion and premises of an argument with ease. Knowing how to do that is a crucial step in evaluating arguments and in developing argumentation skills. It also helps you understand and appreciate other points of view on a given subject matter.
In later posts, I’ll talk more about types of arguments (valid, inductive, and fallacious) and how to evaluate them. Logicians have a catalog of standard argument forms. For example, the following form is called a categorical syllogism:
All As are B
X is A
Therefore, X is B
Likewise, the following form is called a conditional or hypothetical syllogism:
If P, then Q
If Q, then R
Therefore, if P, then R
These are examples of valid forms; that is, if you plug in values for the variables in these forms and the resulting premises are true, then the conclusion is guaranteed to be true. But there are also standard forms for inductive reasoning. Inductive forms are forms that have this attribute: if the premises are true, then conclusion isn’t guaranteed to be true, but it’s probably true. Here’s an example of an inductive form called an inductive generalization:
All As observed so far are B
Therefore, All As are B
Learning these forms is another important step in developing your critical thinking skills. Once you master them, you’ll be able to evaluate even complex arguments since those arguments are built up by putting together many simpler ones.
Summary and Conclusion
- An argument is a series of statements that try to prove a point.
- The statement that the arguer tries to prove is called the conclusion.
- The statements that try to prove the conclusion are called premises.
- A statement can only be true or false. Eg.”The house is red.”
- An argument is same as stating your reasons to believe in a particular claim.