Tag Archives: Critical thinking

Conditionals (How to win arguments part 1)

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argumentillustration

Being able to argue properly, with yourself and others, is an incredibly valuable skill. Being able to critically evaluate arguments is not only extremely useful in the workplace – it can help you make better life choices for yourself and the people around you. This skill is generally known as “critical thinking”, and it is a philosopher’s bread and butter. Now, there’s no point in denying that we all use our brains differently, and that some of us are naturally good at this kind of thinking. But anyone can get better at thinking critically by studying arguments, including those to whom it comes naturally. So, for your entertainment and edification, I’ve decided to put together a few posts on the topic.

Let’s start with deduction. A deductive argument, simply speaking, is one in which the premises (if true) guarantee the conclusion. In other words, if the premises of a valid deductive argument are true, the conclusion can’t possibly be false. An example of this could be; “If I don’t study for my philosophy exam on wednesday, I will not get a good mark on it (first premise). I’m not studying for my philosophy exam on wednesday (second premise), therefore I will not get a good mark on it (conclusion)”. As you can see, if the premises of this argument are true, the conclusion must also be true. Note that this doesn’t mean that the conclusion actually is true, because the premises might be false. Compare this to; “If I don’t study for my philosophy exam on wednesday, I will not get a good mark on it. I will study for my philosophy exam on wednesday, therefore I will get a good mark on it”. This is a bad argument, deductively speaking, because the premises don’t guarantee the conclusion. This is because the form of the argument is invalid. I’ll get to validity later, but for now I want to focus on conditionals.

Conditional statements (often shortened to “conditionals”) are statements like the first premise in the example arguments above. “If then” statements, essentially. Conditional statements contain two different conditions (hence the name): a necessary condition and a sufficient condition. To put it very simply, the sufficient condition is the one that comes after the “if”, and the necessary condition is the one that comes after the “then”. In the examples above, “not studying for my philosophy exam” is the sufficient condition and “not getting a good mark on it” is the necessary condition. The “if” and “then” are not part of the conditions. Knowing the difference between these different kinds of condition, and being able to identify them, is an essential skill when it comes to evaluating deductive arguments.

However, identifying them can be difficult, because conditional statements are often not given in the standard “if then” form. In such sentences, it’s possible to work out which is which by looking at the meaning of the statement (what is necessary and what is sufficient), but it’s also possible to translate it into “if then” form. Consider this statement: “only people who don’t study for their philosophy exam will get a bad mark on it.” This translates into: “if you get a bad mark on your philosophy exam, then you didn’t study for it.” The original sentence does not say that everyone who doesn’t study for their philosophy exam will get a bad mark on it; rather, it says that those who do get a bad mark will not have studied. This becomes a lot clearer when the sentence has been translated, because it’s easier to identify the conditionals.

There are various different ways in which you can go about translating conditional statements, such as memorizing certain key words and phrases (“only if”, for instance, usually precedes a necessary condition), but I’ve found that the easiest way is to use a conditional statement that you know is true (preferably one that’s very obviously true), and seeing how it would be rearranged in the form of the sentence you’re translating. I tend to use “if you’re a father, then you’re a parent”, which was the example given to me when I was learning how to do this. Consider the example sentence I gave you earlier. If I translate my “if then” sentence into the form it has, I get “only parents are fathers” (since the “if then” sentence is true, it must still be true when it’s rearranged – that’s how I know where to put the “father” and where to put the “parent” – “only fathers are parents” would be a false statement). I can now see that the necessary condition and sufficient condition have changed place, with the necessary condition coming first. All I have to do now is identify what the original conditions were (“not studying for your philosophy exam” and “getting a bad mark on it”) and lable them as necessary and sufficient.

Translating conditional statements like this is a skill, and as such you have to practice doing it. There’s a great little game on Khan Academy that let’s you do just this (don’t worry, it’s not too mathsy): https://www.khanacademy.org/math/geometry/logical-reasoning/e/conditional_statements_2

You can also find more information on conditional statements and deductive arguments on that page – I’ll be following up on this post with one on deductive validity in the near future. Until then, I hope you are well, and as always if you have any questions or suggestions please leave a comment below!

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Unorthodox Views

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Yesterday, I bumped into a philosophical blog written by a man who’s views were of a definite non-mainstream nature. He wrote about how fat people are never beautiful and how homosexuality is fundamentally wrong, things like that. Now, he actually did this in an intellectual manner – it was clear from his writing that he was smart and well-educated, with a keen and critical mind. Some of what he said did have merit – but not all of it. He was evidently a highly cynical person who refused to accept authority of any kind, and wouldn’t allow himself to be swayed by mainstream thought. This I endorse, as it is a very good state of mind to adopt, especially if one has an interest in philosophy. But he failed to embrace a fully philosophical approach. He didn’t accept things as they were, but challenged them, which was good – but then he assumed that his conclusions were necessarily right, which was bad. I wanted to comment on one of his posts, to question some of his assertions and see whether I could draw him into a debate, but found that I couldn’t. He had decided to disband comments on his blog posts, I read, because he found that most people disagreed with what he said. Which, to be frank, didn’t surprise me.

Naturally, he’s free to do whatever he wants to do, and I can understand his reasoning. Apart from anything else, judging from the content on his blog he would probably get a lot of vitriol thrown at him if he did allow comments. So, in a way, society is at fault. If we lived in the sort of world where, if we stumbled across someone who disagreed with our views, we would try to understand this person’s arguments and then question them in a polite and reasoned manner, he may simply have welcomed the opportunity to have his views challenged. But we seem to prefer to get angry and indignant. Nevertheless, it brought home a couple of important points for me. Firstly, that it really is very important to allow room for discussion when arguing against accepted norms – or when arguing in any way whatsoever. Secondly, that we should never forget that sometimes society is wrong, and people like this blogger are right; as said, some of what he had written made sense.