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2.1 Simple argument.

Definition and structure


Hello everybody! Because in this chapter we will be searching for the truth using
arguments, I chose as motto Mark Twains words: If you tell the truth, you dont
have to remember anything.
This chapter is dedicated to Arguments. In this first unit we will start understanding
arguments as reasons building blocks.
We know something to be true because weve seen it with our own eyes (Its
raining or My hand has five fingers), but most of the knowledge we have is
inferred from other things, like My cake has disappeared and my roommate has
chocolate on his fingers. I think he ate it.
So, what is an argument? Well, most people think about a dispute, a quarrel, a fight.
But that is not the meaning we will focus upon. Argument is definitely not abuse, or
simple contradiction, or complaining, or fight. Monty Python, the cult British comedy
group, made a short and funny film about this; you can find the link below.
Argument, in the sense used in Critical Thinking, is a piece of reasoning.
In order to understand what an argument is, lets make an analogy: A couple of
years ago, my daughters were hooked on a game called Little Alchemy, where
you start with the four basic elements, water, fire, earth, and air, and you
can combine them creatively two by two to get new things. For instance, water
and earth creates mud. And then, you can combine these new elements to
create others and others. For instance, mud and fire equals brick. Brick
combined with itself creates wall and so on, until you can create things like
airplane or astronaut.
Reason functions similarly. We combine two or more pieces of information that we
know to be true and we can obtain a brand new truth. The statements that we know
to be true are called premises, and we offer them as reasons to believe the new
statement, called conclusion. And the whole set is called argument, in our case a
simple argument, because it only has one conclusion. For instance, lets say that
youre trying to make a plan for today, and a trip to the Village Museum seems the
best idea. But then you think: Wait, the museums are closed on Monday, so the
Village Museum must be closed, too. What is the conclusion? The new piece of
information? That the museum is closed today. And what premises does it rely
upon? What is the truth that we already knew? That museums are closed on
Monday. But, wait a minute! We just said earlier that any argument has two or more
premises. And we just found one: Museums are closed on Monday. Why? Well,
sometimes there are hidden premises, which are assumed to be known by the
audience. Can you guess what the hidden premise is here? So we have Museums
are closed on Monday. What else do we already know in order to decide that The
museum is closed today? Obviously: Today is Monday.

So, the structure of this argument is:


First premise: Museums are closed on Monday
Second premise, hidden: Today is Monday.
Conclusion: The museum is closed today.
There are two important rules we need to observe when we look at a simple
argument: the rabbit rule and the holding hands rule. The guys at ReasoningLab
came up with these names, and I find them to have a nice visual impact. Lets see:
The rabbit rule states that any major concept in the conclusion must be found in
one of the premises. Lets see:
Our conclusion is that the museum is closed today. One major concept is museum
is closed, and we can find it in the first, stated premise: Museums are closed on
Monday. The other is today and we find it in the hidden premise Today is
Monday.
Why is it called the rabbit rule? Because you cannot put significant concepts in the
conclusion that come from nowhere, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
The other rule, the holding hands rule, completes the first one. It says that if a
significant concept appears in a premise, but not in the conclusion, it must be found
also in another premise. Its like premises holding hands. In our case, this concept is
Monday, see?
With these two simple rules we account for all major concepts in a simple argument
and we can make sure that the argument is complete.
Lets practice with the following argument, which is, I think, the most famous
example ever:
All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
What is the conclusion? What is the new piece of truth we found out? That Socrates
is mortal. And what do we offer as reasons for this claim? The two premises: All
men are mortal and Socrates is a man. In this case there is no hidden,
suppressed premise; they are both in the open. Lets make sure weve got
everything right by the two rules: The major concept Socrates is to be found in
the second premise, the other one, mortal, in the first premise. So, no rabbits
here. What about holding hands? Men is the concept in the first premise that
doesnt show up in the conclusion, and it holds hands with man in the second.
In real life, in our daily communication, arguments, even simple arguments, look a
little more complicated.

First, there are almost always hidden premises that we need to identify. For
instance: Kangaroos feed their cubs with milk, so theyre mammals. Whats
missing? Of course, a hidden premise: All animals that feed their cubs with milk are
mammals.
Second, theres a lot of words we can discard. Lets take this example from Sherlock
Holmes: A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone has been in and
fetched out a horse, the dog had not barked. Obviously, the visitor was someone
whom the dog knew well. In order to look at the argument better, we need to get
rid of some words. Its like Michelangelo, who said that sculpting David was easy.
You just chip away the stone that doesnt look like David. If we do the same, were
left with the conclusion The visitor was not a stranger. and the premise The dog
did not bark. Of course, we now see the need for a hidden premise, namely (pause)
you guessed: Dogs bark at strangers. What Ive done is take away a lot of words
and paraphrasing others. But you need to do that carefully!
Third: An argument can have more than two premises. For instance, if we were to
be more catholic than the Pope, the museum argument should look like this:
The Village Museum is a museum. Museums are closed on Monday. Today is Monday.
Therefore the Village Museum is closed today.
Forth: sometimes there are special words that indicate the conclusion. What would
those be? So, therefore, thus, and so on. They are called conclusion markers.
Also, sometimes we can identify premises by special words like because or for,
which are called premise markers. But in every day communication, these markers
sometimes are just not there.
Lets recap:

New knowledge is born from old knowledge, one argument at a time.


An argument is a set of statements in which one, the conclusion, is said to be
true because it follows logically from the others, the premises.
A simple argument has only one conclusion and at least two premises.
A complete argument respects the rabbit rule and the holding hands rule.

In real life:

Look for hidden premises!


Theres a lot of words.
There can be more than two premises.
You cannot always find conclusion markers or premise markers.

Next unit, we will discuss how to analyze an argument.