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What is NOT an Argument?

Differentiating Arguments from Hypotheticals


We’ve just seen a description of what an argument is and why, so now may be a good time to take a look at some things which are not arguments. 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.

Too often, you will hear something like these:

    1. God exists and the Bible is true!
    2. Ronald Reagan was the best President we ever had!
    3. Global warming is a great danger to life and civilization.

None of these are actually arguments; instead, they are all just assertions. They could be transformed into arguments if the speaker were to offer evidence in support of their claims, but until then we don’t have very much to go on. One sign that you just have a strong assertion is the use of the exclamation points.


Arguments vs. Hypotheticals
One common pseudo-argument which you will probably encounter too often is the hypothetical proposition. Consider the following examples:

    4. If the Bible is accurate, Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Son of God.
    5. If you want to improve the economy, you have to lower taxes.
    6. If we don’t act quickly, the environment will be damaged beyond repair.

These all look like arguments and, because of that, it isn’t uncommon for them to be offered as if they were arguments. But they aren’t: they are simply conditional statements of the if-then type. The part following the if is called the antecedent and the part following the then is called the consequent.

In none of the three cases (#4-6) do we see the premises which would supposedly support the conclusion. If you want to try to create a genuine argument when you see such claims, you have to focus on the antecedent of the conditional and ask why it should be accepted as true. You can also ask why there is any connection between the hypothetical in the antecedent and the proposition in the consequent.

To better understand the difference betweeen an argument and a hypothetical proposition, look at these two very similar statements:

    7. If today is Tuesday, tomorrow will be Wednesday.
    8. Because today is Tuesday, tomorrow will be Wednesday.

Both of these statements express similar ideas, but the second is an argument while the first is not. In the first, we have an if-then conditional (as you can see, sometimes the then is dropped). The author is not asking readers to make any inferences from any premises because it is not being claimed that today is, in fact, Tuesday.

But statement #8 is an argument because “today is Tuesday” is being offered as a factual premise. From this claim, it is being inferred — and we are asked to accept this inference — that tomorrow is therefore Wednesday.

» Arguments vs. Commands, Warnings & Suggestions...

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