Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, let us briefly look back over the text as a whole.  Taking this wider angle will allow us to see how the text has woven several themes together, and will put us in a position to think about reasoning and argument more broadly.  As noted at the outset, the goal of the text is to help its readers reflectively enhance their general reasoning skills.  We have pursued this goal by walking through the basics of argument identification, analysis, and evaluation within the social and psychological contexts in which they normally occur.  Along the way, we have gradually built up a vocabulary for describing the elements, standards, and circumstances for reasoning.

The most important running theme in the text has been asking the right question.  As we have seen, uncovering the intended structure of an argument means asking about the author’s main point and reasons, working to cooperatively resolve ambiguity, and so on.  Turning to argument evaluation, we isolated three main questions to ask of any (inductive) argument.

Evaluation: The Three Main Questions

  • Are the premises likely to be true? (A check for Factual Correctness)
  • Would the truth of the premises make the truth of the conclusion probable? (A check for “internal” Logical Strength)
  • Is there any other relevant information available? (A check for “external” Logical Strength)

We discussed the process of asking each one of these questions.  While checking for factual correctness can be difficult in some cases (e.g. conditionals), we spent most of our time thinking about how to determine logical strength.  Indeed, when we know what kind of argument we are talking about, there are more specific questions we can ask to determine an argument’s logical strength.  We focused on four of the most common types of (inductive) argument, and identified a series of more specific questions to help us determine logical strength for each type.

Two Questions to Ask of Arguments from Analogy:

  • Is the noted similarity relevant to the inferred similarity?
  • Are there differences that are relevant?

Three Questions to Ask of Inferences to the Best Explanation:

  • How likely is the proposed explanation?
  • Are there other plausible explanations?
  • Would the truth of the proposed explanation be less surprising than the truth of any competitor?

Two Questions to Ask of Inductive Generalizations:

  • Is the sample large enough?
  • Is the sample diverse enough?

Two Questions to Ask of Inductive Applications:

  • Is the individual in question a member of the subject class or not a member of the predicate class?
  • Is the individual in question a member of other relevant classes?

Another main theme at work throughout the text has to do with the influence of social factors on our thinking.  Reasoning is not the solitary task it is sometimes imagined to be, and almost always takes place within a broader social context.   We began by focusing on cooperative dialogue, and cooperative disagreement specifically.  In addition, we have seen how social factors can activate biases and help mitigate against them.  We have discussed the extent to which we depend on other people for information, and use them to check our own thinking.  Moreover, we saw how important trust is for learning from other people, and took a close look at when trust is warranted, and when it is not.  Lastly, we have seen how the internet and social media give us access to an incredible variety of new voices and information, while simultaneously amplifying misinformation and making it difficult to know who to trust.

The final theme is psychological.  At the outset, we distinguished between largely automatic and implicit reasoning processes, on the one hand, and consciously directed ones, on the other.  Although we have focused on the latter, we have considered how our conscious reasoning can be influenced by these implicit processes. Myside bias, for example, can arise from largely intuitive responses and preferences.  In addition, we saw that in some contexts we are subject to a variety of biases or cognitive illusions.  We often read conditionals as if they were symmetric even though they are not, and we tend to overestimate how common something is when it is especially interesting or provocative.  Further, we underestimate the influence of situational factors when we explain other people’s behavior, and we tend to think other people are more like us than they really are.

So where does this leave us?  Hopefully, taking the time to reflectively work through this text has made you a more careful and active thinker, and has given you greater confidence to navigate the important disagreements, challenges, and decisions you will face.



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Arguments in Context by Thaddeus Robinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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