How to make better arguments in philosophy

By Eric Bright

Two birds screaming at each other as if they are arguing.

I cannot remember reading any serious philosophy article or book, either by authors of antiquity or contemporary writers, in which the author engages in a fist-fight. I frequently see such fist-fights in some on-line philosophy communities. One reason might be because there is usually a monologue in those texts and no opponent’s voice can be heard. Yet, Plato’s dialogues do not suggest too many fist-fights between their participants either.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~Aristotle

I am going to offer you a few suggestions to improve your skills when building your arguments. Many readers, including me, discard anything you wrote/said from the point where they realize you omitted the following items. I am going to remind you of this a few times.

a. You need to make proper arguments for your proposals. Your arguments need to be based on our best scientific observations to date, and they need to leave room for error (see item d. below). Unless you are making mathematical arguments based on axioms, for which you still must provide material proof anyway, there will always be a margin of error in your arguments. If you present your arguments, let’s say in physics, in such a way that no margin of error is admitted when a margin of error must have been reported, your arguments can be dismissed right away with no further consideration since it cannot possibly have anything to do with physics. Many readers, including me, discard anything else that you wrote once they see such a sign. Knowing this might help you build better arguments.

Since repeating a sentence does not make it true, and the sense of being convinced of an idea has no power to prove the idea, watch for these signs in your own proposals (read The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations to know why[1, 2]).

E.g. “thing-in-itself,” or “ding an sich” is either a real, physical thing or a mental construct. The way to establish this or that is not by merely repeating a few sentences and accusing the opponents of not being able to understand those sentences. You have to provide a formal proof.

b. Offer formal, logical arguments if you know how to. Formal logical arguments must use a formal language. The power of a proof does not come from repetition nor does it come from the strength of our convictions about our statements. The power of proofs comes from logic. That is not enough though. Arguments must be “sound” in addition to being “valid.” Uttering true statements do not count as arguments. Assertions are not arguments, nor are they proofs. You might hold a few facts in hand, but not able to use them towards a proof. In philosophy, if you don’t provide a formal proof, you have very little to stand on. (Read Proof and Consequence – An Introduction to Classical Logic for more information.[3])

c. Don’t forget that holding true sentences in hand does not guarantee a proof. Also, you might have a complete set of truths and still harbour inconsistencies. You might form a consistent system of truths and still have an incomplete system. There is no escape from Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.

d. If you argue about anything that relates to the world, as opposed to things that relate to mathematics, you must incorporate Bayes’ theorem in your methodology. Otherwise, your arguments cannot be taken seriously. Bayesian probability governs the way we construct our arguments about the world. The reason is that observations by human perceivers cannot escape the framework of Bayesian probability.

 blue neon sign, showing the simple statement of Bayes’ theorem

When you observe anything, you can only issue meaningful statements in Bayesian probability framework. Once this issue is ignored, the rest of one’s argument can be dismissed on the ground that it would be detached from the reality of our epistemic conditions (to learn about why this is the only possible way to build meaningful statements based on evidence, and why all other “options” are either invalid or special cases of the Bayes’s Theorem, please read Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus and On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt for very detailed discussions on the Bayes’ theorem[4, 5]). Again, many readers, including me, discard anything else you say once they see such an omission. Keep that in mind.

Brianchon’s theorem

e. Don’t mix up an explanation or a description with a proof. Most of what I see in most conversations are either descriptions or explanations. I rarely see any “proof” being presented anywhere in these forums.

f. Don’t forget that individual observations do not “prove” any universal proposition. Individual observations can only falsify universal propositions (see The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations [1, 2])

g. Mixing up ‘truths’ and ‘actual states of affairs/noumena/matters of fact’ is simple. When it happens, many readers, including me, quickly lose interest in what you are saying (see Truth – Philosophy And Logic in Encyclopædia Britannica[6]). A truth-bearing sentence can be true or false and it can contradict other statements. An actual state of affairs is neither true nor false, nor can it contradict anything. One is a proposition that can be evaluated in terms of its truth-content, the other one is not, and does not have any truth-content to be evaluated. You cannot use these terms interchangeably and be taken seriously. Like it or not, these two concepts are not the same.

Truth-bearing sentences might, or might not, have a relationship to the actual states of affairs. In that case, they attempt to reflect something about the states of affairs. The other way around does not hold though. The actual states of affairs do not follow our sentences and are not bound by them. Our truth-bearing sentences might fit what the actual states of affairs
is, or not. The actual states of affairs are not affected by such a lucky congruity.
If, by a stroke of luck, you happened to stumble upon a sentence that perfectly fits the actual states of affairs, you cannot know so. If you don’t know
why, then you are in trouble (see Chisholm’s 1973 Problem of Criterion or read this excellent article instead http://www.iep.utm.edu/criterio/ [7, 8]).

h. Stop when you need to.

“And whoever wanteth to have fame, must take leave of honour betimes, and practise the difficult art of—going at the right time.”[9] ~Nietzsche

This one is tricky. Know when it’s the right time to leave a conversation. There is no clear-cut formula for it. Perhaps watch for repetitions. Perhaps ask yourself if you are running in a circle. Perhaps learn to see the cues when one is talking to a wall. Maybe you have explained your stance eloquently more than twice, but still, see no willingness from your interlocutor to even try to understand your points. After all, if persuasion is your goal, you might have a chance to persuade someone who did not understand you, but you cannot persuade someone who does not want to understand you.

At any rate, when it is time to leave and you cannot resist the temptation to stay in a conversation, nothing good comes out of it. If anything, everyone only gets even more aggravated and frustrated.

i. Remember why you started a conversation. If you only wanted to make a point, then you are done once you have made your point. If you wanted to persuade someone about something, your task is done once they are persuaded or once they declared I-won’t-listen-no-matter-how-hard-you-try. In most cases, the fate of a conversation can easily be seen through the tone of its participants quite early in a conversation. If you cannot hear the tone, then you have a problem with item h. above.

j. Good intention is not enough. People have deeply-rooted convictions that won’t shake by your input. You and your audience both might have the best intentions in mind and still fail to come to an agreement. For civility’s sake, assume the best in your audience, not the worst. Yes, it is true that your audience might not be able to understand your points. It’s not necessarily because they are stupid, incompetent, or full of crap. It might be because you are a bad orator, you don’t know how to produce an argument, your logic is weak, you cannot present the best arguments without ruining them, your points are invalid, you are simply wrong, or you have no point to make. It’s not always them. It might be you (read Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) to get better insight into this matter[10]). Always watch for cognitive dissonance, not only in others but also in yourself too.

k. Don’t Be a Dick

Watch this if you don’t know what I’m talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrFRbGjUtJk [11]

l. Remember that you are conversing with a human on the other end. Humans are complicated robots, albeit, robots that can easily be hurt.[12, 13, 14] Always consider the feelings of the people you are talking to. Text can look heartless, cold, and misleading when it comes to conveying human emotions. They usually are. Go out of your way to show your emotions as they actually are through your text. It’s an oxymoron, but at least try. Show your good intention.

A silhouette of two people having a conversation.

Assume, for the sake of your arguments, that you are talking to your boss, who is able to fire you at any time if you injure them emotionally. This auxiliary assumption helps regulate your manner. Would you talk to your boss, face to face, the same way you are talking to others in your conversations in an online forum? When there can be repercussions, you certainly use a different tone. What is different in here? That, one can say anything with any tone without the fear of any real-life retribution? Well, if that is one’s conception of how things are on the Internet, then they certainly are assholes.

(Read Assholes: A Theory to see what I mean. One might be an asshole and not know it. This book might help them understand the concept.[15])

m. It is not enough to know the above-mentioned items. You might have known them already. When one engages in a conversation and shows no signs of knowing these items, then others are not obliged to assume that one knows them. Although you might know all I have mentioned above, most of the conversations in many forums don’t show it. You might say you believe in this or that item, or even quote yourself saying things to this or that effect. Nevertheless, if it can be demonstrated that your way of engaging in conversations disregards the above-mentioned items left and right when seen in their context, then you still might need to rethink your style.

My goal in here is to encourage you to be more productive and less frustrated. It is fun to watch heated conversations unfolding before my eyes. At the same time, seeing so much talent, knowledge, and time being repeatedly invested in nothing more than fist-fights becomes unsettling after a while.

I can see people who are resourceful, intelligent, passionate, and with good intentions in most conversations. I also can see that there is room to improve the communication skills of most participants. Of course, my ideal style of a philosophical dialogue is not yours, and cannot be. But, please try to pause for a minute and reflect on your own style and see if it can be improved.

There is no politically-correct way to bring up these issues. I apologize if I sounded patronizing here, but it was not my intention at all. I hope these communication tips can make most of you have a better time in on-line philosophical conversations and avoid pointless dramas.

Bibliography


  1. Popper, Karl. 2002. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. 2 edition. London: Routledge.
  2. Popper, Karl R. 2002. Conjectures and refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge. London: Routledge.
  3. Jennings, R. E., and N. A. Friedrich. 2006. Proof and consequence : an introduction to classical logic. Peterborough, Ont.; Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press.
  4. Carrier, Richard. 2012. Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  5. Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd.
  6. Truth | philosophy and logic. 2018. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/truth-philosophy-and-logic. Accessed February 4.
  7. Chisholm, Roderick M. 1973. The problem of the criterion. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
  8. Problem of the Criterion | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2018. http://www.iep.utm.edu/criterio/. Accessed February 4.
  9. Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2018. Thus spake Zarathustra; A book for all and none. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/n/nietzsche/friedrich/n67a/. Accessed February 4.
  10. Carol Tavris, and Elliot Aronson. 2008. Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Harcourt Inc.
  11. JamesRandiFoundation. 2018. Phil Plait at TAM 8: Don’t Be A Dick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrFRbGjUtJk. Accessed February 4.
  12. Dan Dennett and the Conscious Robot | Issue 18 | Philosophy Now. 2018. https://philosophynow.org/issues/18/Dan_Dennett_and_the_Conscious_Robot. Accessed February 4.
  13. Dennett, Daniel. 2009. How People Are Like Robots – Video.
  14. Dennett, Dan. 2018. The illusion of consciousness. https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_our_consciousness. Accessed February 4.

  15. James, Aaron. 2012. Assholes: A Theory. New York: Doubleday.
Please cite this article as: Bright, Eric. (2018) How to make better arguments in philosophy. BlogSophy. https://sophy.ca/blog/2018/02/how-to-make-better-arguments-in-philosophy/
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