Module: Argument analysis
Quote of the page
We only think when we are confronted with a problem.
- John Dewey
With valid arguments, it is impossible to have a false conclusion if the premises are all true. Obviously valid arguments play a very important role in reasoning, because if we start with true assumptions, and use only valid arguments to establish new conclusions, then our conclusions must also be true. But which are the rules we should use to decide whether an argument is valid or not? This is where formal logic comes in. By using special symbols we can describe patterns of valid argument, and formulate rules for evaluating the validity of an argument.
Consider the following arguments :
These three arguments are of course valid. Furthermore you probably notice that they are very similar to each other. What is common between them is that they have the same structure or form:
Here, the letters P and Q are called sentence letters. They are used to translate or represent statements. By replacing P and Q with appropriate sentences, we can generate the original three valid arguments. This shows that the three arguments have a common form. It is also in virtue of this form that the arguments are valid, for we can see that any argument of the same form is a valid argument. Because this particular pattern of argument is quite common, it has been given a name. It is known as modus ponens.
However, don't confuse modus ponens with the following form of argument, which is not valid!
Giving arguments of this form is a fallacy - making a mistake of reasoning. This particular mistake is known as affirming the consequent.
If Jane lives in Beijing, then Jane lives in China. Jane lives in China. Therefore Jane lives in Beijing. (Not valid. Perhaps Jane lives in Shanghai.)
There are of course many other patterns of valid argument. Now we shall introduce a few more patterns which are often used in reasoning.
Here, "not-Q" simply means the denial of Q. So if Q means "Today is hot.", then "not-Q" can be used to translate "It is not the case that today is hot", or "Today is not hot."
If Betty is on the plane, she will be in the A1 seat. But Betty is not in the A1 seat. So she is not on the plane.
But do distinguish modus tollens from the following fallacious pattern of argument :
If Elsie is competent, she will get an important job. But Elsie is not competent. So she will not get an important job. Not valid. Perhaps Elsie is not very competent, but her boss couldn't find anyone else to do the job.
If God created the universe then the universe will be perfect. If the universe is perfect then there will be no evil. So if God created the universe there will be no evil.
Either the government brings about more sensible educational reforms, or the only good schools left will be private ones for rich kids. The government is not going to carry out sensible educational reforms. So the only good schools left will be private ones for rich kids.
When R is the same as S, we have a simpler form :
Either we increase the tax rate or we don't. If we do, the people will be unhappy. If we don't, the people will also be unhappy. (Because the government will not have enough money to provide for public services.) So the people are going to be unhappy anyway.
The Latin name here simply means "reduced to absurdity". Here is the method of argument if you want to prove that a certain statement S is false:
Those of you who can spot connections quickly might notice that this is none other than an application of modus tollens. A famous application of this pattern of argument is Euclid's proof that there is no largest prime number. A prime number is any positive integer greater than 1 that is wholly divisible only by 1 and by itself, e.g. 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, etc.
Let us look at two more examples of reductio:
There are of course many other patterns of deductively valid arguments. One way to construct more patterns is to combine the ones that we have looked at earlier. For example, we can combine two cases of hypothetical syllogism to obtain the following argument:
There are also a few other simple but also valid patterns which we have not mentioned:
Some of you might be surprised to find out that "P. Therefore P." is valid. But think about it carefully - if the conclusion is also a premise, then the conclusion obviously follows from the premise! Of course, this tells us that not all valid arguments are good arguments. How these two concepts are connected is a topic we shall discuss later on.
We shall look at a few more complicated patterns of valid arguments in another tutorial. It is understandable that you might not remember all the names of these patterns. But what is important is that you can recognize these argument patterns when you come across them in everyday life, and would not confuse them with patterns of invalid arguments that look similar.
Consider the following arguments. Identify the forms of all valid arguments. Here are your choices: modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism, disjunctive syllogism, dilemma, reductio ad absurdum, valid but not one of the above patterns, invalid.
Identify the conclusions that can be drawn from these assumptions. Which basic patterns of valid arguments should be used to derive the conclusion?
If the following statements are all true, who killed Pam and where was Jones in 1997? Which piece of information is not needed?
Is "P or Q, P, Therefore not-Q" a valid argument form?
Suppose someone thinks that there is only a finite number of integers. How would he criticize the proof that there are infinitely many primes? Which step would he reject?
Here is a very nice example taken from the philosopher James Pryor :
A computer scientist announces that he's constructed a computer program that can play the perfect game of chess: he claims that this program is guaranteed to win every game it plays, whether it plays black or white, with never a loss or a draw, and against any opponent whatsoever. The computer scientist claims to have a mathematical proof that his program will always win, but the proof runs to 500 pages of dense mathematical symbols, and no one has yet been able to verify it. Still, the program has just played 20 games against Gary Kasparov and it won every game, 10 as white and 10 as black. Should you believe the computer scientist's claim that the program is so designed that it will always win against every opponent?
How would you use the reductio method to argue against the computer scientist?
Are arguments of the form "denying the antecedent” (or "affirming the consequent") necessarily invalid?