Arguments and Logic FAQs
What is an argument? What is an explanation? What are logical fallacies? In order to debate well on just about any topic and think critically about all of the claims we see in every facet of life, we need the proper skills. Whether reading advertising, listening to politicians, buying a used car, or considering arguments for religion, we need to know how to carefully examine what is being said and consider the validity of the content or structure.
Why bother to learn more about logic and arguments? Does it really matter and does it really help anyone? As a matter of fact, yes it does - and there are several good reasons to take the time to learn more about both topics.
What is Logic?
The term "logic" is used quite a lot, but not always in its technical sense. Logic, strictly speaking, is the science or study of how to evaluate arguments and reasoning. Logic is what allows us to distinguish correct reasoning from poor reasoning. Logic is important because it helps us reason correctly - without correct reasoning, we don't have a viable means for knowing the truth or arriving at sound beliefs.
What is Critical Thinking?
The term "critical thinking" is used, in one form or another, throughout this site - but what does it mean? Some may get the impression that it simply involves finding fault with others and others' ideas, but that isn't really the case. As a general rule, critical thinking involves developing some emotional and intellectual distance between yourself and ideas - whether your own or others' - in order to better evaluate their truth, validity, and reasonableness.
Agreement and Disagreement
When people argue about something, it is because they disagree. If they already agreed, they probably wouldn't be offering arguments for or against anything. Unfortunately, when people are in the midst of a disagreement, it isn't always clear to them or to others just what they are disagreeing about. Figuring out where the actual disagreement lies and where potential agreement might exist can be very helpful.
Language, Meaning, and Communication
Although it might sound trivial or even irrelevant to bring up such basic matters as language, meaning, and communication, these are the most fundamental components of arguments - even more fundamental than propositions, inferences, and conclusions. We cannot make sense of an argument without being able make sense of the language, meaning, and purpose of what is being communicated in the first place.
It may be true that defining key terms and concepts is important to the start of any productive argument, but not all definitions are the same. Most logic texts list five different types of definitions which people might use. This can give the impression that the matter is pretty well settled, but it's not. In fact, the assumption that the matter is settled is part of what gives rise to debates about the nature of definitions every so often. It might seem strange that a lot of ink and time is spent on something so basic a a "definition," but sometimes it is the most basic of concepts that are the most problematic.
Meaning: Denotation and Connotation
Understanding the difference between denotation and connotation is important to understanding definitions and how concepts are used. Unfortunately, that is complicated by the fact that these terms can be used in two different ways: grammatical and logical. Even worse, both uses are worth keeping in mind and both uses are relevant to project of logical, critical thinking.
Propaganda and Persuasion
When most people think of propaganda, they tend to think of the posters and songs created by or with the aid of a government during wartime, yet the truth of the matter is that propaganda has a much broader application. It refers not only to efforts by a government to get people to adopt certain beliefs or attitudes, but it can also be applied to the ways in which corporations try to get you to buy things.
What is an Argument?
It helps to know what, exactly, an argument is before you can critique one and tell what is wrong with it. Sometimes, people say they are making arguments when they are not!
What is NOT an Argument?
Premises, propositions and conclusions - the pieces of arguments - may usually be easy to spot. But arguments themselves aren't always so easy, and very often people will offer things which they claim are arguments but definitely are not.
What are deductive and inductive arguments?
There are important differences between the two which impact how we should evaluate their truth, their strengths and their weaknesses.
What is an Explanation?
An explanation is not an argument. Whereas an argument is a series of statements designed to support or establish the truth of an idea, an explanation is a series of statements designed to shed light on some event that is already accepted as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, some purported explanations do not explain anything at all.
How do you critique an argument?
Assuming that we have established that we have an actual argument, the next step is to examine it for validity. There are two points on which an argument might fail: its premises or its inferences.
Bias and Vested Interest
One of the most important things to watch out for in arguments - both our own and those offered by others - is the influence of bias or vested interest. Both are variations on the same sort of problem, although there are differences that require mentioning each separately. Bias occurs any time that facts are interpreted in a way that unreasonably favors one position over another; vested interest is a cause of bias in which one will personally and specifically benefit if people adopt a particular position.
What is a Fallacy?
Fallacies are defects in an argument - other than false premises - which cause an argument to be invalid, unsound or weak. By understanding what fallacies are, you can avoid making them and more easily detect them in the work of others.
Index of Fallacies
Known logical fallacies listed in categories and explained as to why they are defects in arguments as opposed to valid reasoning. Examples are included so that you can better see what is happening.
What is Occam's Razor?
Many people have heard of 'Occam's Razor,' but not everyone understands how it is supposed to work or why it is useful when evaluating claims and arguments. That is a pity, because it is one of the most useful tools in a skeptic's agenda.
A Concise Introduction to Logic, by Patrick J. Hurley.
Introduction to Logic, by Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen.
Critical Thinking, by Anita Harnadek.
Critical Thinking Step by Step, by Robert Cogan.
With Good Reason, by S. Morris Engel.
Good Reasoning Matters! by Leo A. Groarke, et al.