So far, these tutorials have dealt with arguments that only involve a few premises with one conclusion. However, it will very rarely be that simple. Sometimes, or even most of the time, the premises used in an argument will need to be justified as well.
Consider this argument here:
This current government did a bad job, so we need a change in government. To change government we will need to vote for the other major party. Hence, we should vote for the other major party.
The overall conclusion of the argument is that ‘we should vote for the other major party’. The premises for this argument are that we need a change in government and we can do this by voting for the other major party. However, as we can see by the conclusion indicator ‘so’, there is an argument for the premise ‘we need a change in government’. What we have here is an argument for one of the premises which is an argument for an overall conclusion. This is how you can put such an argument into standard form:
- 1. This current government did a bad job
- 2. We need a change in government
- 3. To change the government we will need to vote for the other major party
- 4. We should vote for the other major party
So, what you can see here is (1) is the premise form conclusion (2), which operates as a premise along with (3) for the overall conclusion which is (4).
Soundness and infinite regress
Since premises require a sound argument in order to be justified, the premises used in that argument will need a sound argument, and so will those premises in that argument, and so on. This is called an infinite regress.
One way to avoid an infinite regress is to appeal to common sense. Philosopher G.E Moore is the most popular philosopher to put forward such a solution. However, there have been many things in the past that were seen as common sense and turned out to be false, such as believing the Sun revolved around the Earth as opposed to the Earth revolving around the Sun.
Another way to avoid sn infinite regress is to apply circular reasoning, but as explained earlier this does not give us knowledge of the conclusion.
A third way can be to weaken the conclusion. We can weaken a conclusion by instead of claiming certainty of the conclusion, we can appeal to probability of the conclusion, or even weaker, possibility of the conclusion. Here is an example:
- 1. If I play one game of the lotto, my chances of winning are no greater than 1/1000,000.
- 2. 1/1000,000 are very low chances.
- 3. I am going to play one game of the lotto.
- 4. I have a very low chance of winning the lotto.
This argument is sound, because the conclusion is not that I will not win the lotto, it is that it is a very low chance.
Thinking back to our original argument: All human will eventually die. I am human. Therefore, I’ll eventually die. Imagine if someone doubted the premise ‘all humans will eventually die’. If we tried to justify the premise by saying all humans up to this point have eventually died, this would be an invalid. This is known as the problem of induction (something that will be discussed in more depth in future tutorials). So we could change the argument to:
- 1. If all humans up to this point have eventually died, then it is very likely that all humans that exist right now will eventually die.
- 2. I am human that exists right now.
- 3. All humans up to this point have eventually died.
- 3. It is very likely that I’ll eventually die.
We can now have a sound argument. However, it is not a conclusion most of us would be satisfied with. If I said to you ‘it is very likely that I’ll eventually die’, your reaction would most likely be: ‘more than likely, it is a certainty!’ So, weakening the conclusion may not always be satisfactory.
Even if we are satisfied with the weaker conclusion, basing our premises on our observations are open to scepticism. Consider the premise ‘I am a human that exists right now’. In philosophy, there are philosophers known as ‘sceptics’ that doubt that we can know anything with certainty. In the case that I am human, based on my own observations, the sceptic could raise the possibility that I am an alien that is dreaming that I am human. The first philosopher to raise such an issue was Rene Descartes. He is famous for the phrase “I think, therefore, I am” or in latin as “Cogito ergo sum”. Descartes’s argument is that you can say with certainty that you are thinking, because even if you are being decieved, such as dreaming, or being in ‘the Matrix’, and so on, it requires some kind of thing that has the capacity to think in order to be decieved. Thus, since you know you are thinking, and some kind of thing has to exist in order to be thinking, then you have to exist.
So, this is where the infinite digress can stop. You exist as a thinking thing. But this is not very satisfactory, we claim to know much, much more than this. Descartes had his own solution to this problem, which is called the problem of scepticism or the problem of knowledge, but this will be discuss later on in future tutorials.
Practical use: arguing controversial conclusions from uncontroversial premises
Infinite digress, the problem of induction, and the problem or scepticism, are serious problems in philosophy, which is why they will require their own attention with future tutorials. However, for day to day practical use of arguments, my advice is to design arguments based on premises that can be supported by sound arguments, but up to a point where the premises are uncontroversial. This is similar to the ‘common sense’ position. This is not satisfactory for someone wishing to play the role of the ‘sceptic’, but it should satisfy the requirements for someone who is trying to get knowledge of a conclusion that is controversial. It is up to you what standard you wish to set, but I think this is reasonable for analysing arguments in a practical sense.
Try to put the following arguments into standard form (try to see if they are valid/sound as well:
- If dogs eat chocolate, they will be poisoned. My dog ate chocolate, so he has been poisioned. If my dog has been poisoned, I need to take him to the vet. So, I need to take him to the vet.
- The United States of America is in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere. It is not in the Southern Hemisphere. Therefore, it is in the Northern Hemisphere. Countries in the Northern Hemisphere have their winter in December. Hence, The United States of America has its winter in December.
If you wish to ask any questions, seek clarification, raise some objections, or check how you went on the test questions, please write them in the comments section and I will try respond as soon as I can.
I highly recommend purchasing the book ‘Understanding arguments’ by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which is available for purchase in the link below. In addition, I also recommend ‘An introduction to philosophical methods’ by Chris Daly, which is useful for learning advanced topics. If you do purchase these books via these links, you are helping support this webpage. Thank you.
An introduction to philosophical methods: