What is an argument?

For our first ever blog post, I thought a website dedicated to helping students with arguments ought to start with the most basic question: just what is an argument, anyway?

The word ‘argument’ often has negative connotations. If you learned that your friends recently had an argument, you would be concerned for them. An argument in this sense is some kind of scuffle or public row.

Arguments as understood at the Thought Laboratory, however, are not a bad thing at all! In fact, they are the bedrock of us relating to each other as people trying to collaborate to find the truth. It is how we try to convince each other of some view.

Ok, arguments are pretty nifty things. But what are they?

In short, an argument is a set of claims from which follows some conclusion. That’s it. Easy, right?

Not so fast. Just what is a claim? An easy way to understand a claim is that it is the kind of thing that can be expressed with a complete sentence. Here are a few claims to chew on:

1) My lucky bamboo needs to be watered.
2) Cats are mammals.
3) The moon is made of green cheese.

An important thing to notice about 1-3 is that they can be either true or false: 1 and 2 are true while 3 is false.

That might be simple enough. But the last bit that needs explaining is this “following” business. What is that all about?

This is in fact a deeply controversial issue debated by philosophers and logicians specifically. (If you want to learn more, scheduling office hours might be a great way to do so!.) But we can avoid these controversies by starting simple: C follows from P if P is a reason to believe C.

Ok, but when is P a reason to believe C? A common way of understanding this is that the truth of P guarantees the truth of C. Let’s see how that works. Take the following argument:

P1) My cat is a mammal.
C) Therefore, my cat is an animal.

“Therefore” is an important word to remember: it is the “follows” indicator. What the above is saying is that C follows from P1. This is because if P1 is true, then C must be true. There is no situation in which my cat is a mammal but not an animal. Such an argument is said to be valid

Let’s take another example:

P1) Daassa is a lovebird and the bike is blue.
C) Therefore, Daassa is a lovebird.

Like the previous argument about my cat, if P1 is true, then so is C.

There is an important difference between these arguments. In the second argument, the argument is logically valid. The validity of the argument is due to its structure. You could replace “Daassa is a lovebird” and “the bike is blue” with any claim and the C would still follow from C. In the first argument this isn’t the case. C follows from P1 because of the meaning of P1 and C. Changing the claims would change whether it was valid. Such arguments are said to be materially.

After all that, we now know what an argument is! An argument is a conclusion which follows from some premises. In later posts we will go into more depth about validity and other features of arguments. Stay tuned!