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Arguments and Inference

The Discipline of Logic

Human life is full of decisions, including significant choices about what to
believe. Although everyone prefers to believe what is true, we often disagree with
each other about what that is in particular instances. It may be that some of our most
fundamental convictions in life are acquired by haphazard means rather than by the
use of reason, but we all recognize that our beliefs about ourselves and the world often
hang together in important ways.
If I believe that whales are mammals and that all mammals are fish, then it would
also make sense for me to believe that whales are fish. Even someone who (rightly!)
disagreed with my understanding of biological taxonomy could appreciate the
consistent, reasonable way in which I used my mistaken beliefs as the foundation
upon which to establish a new one. On the other hand, if I decide to believe that
Hamlet was Danish because I believe that Hamlet was a character in a play by Shaw
and that some Danes are Shavian characters, then even someone who shares my belief
in the result could point out that I haven't actually provided good reasons for
accepting its truth.
In general, we can respect the directness of a path even when we don't accept the
points at which it begins and ends. Thus, it is possible to distinguish correct reasoning
from incorrect reasoning independently of our agreement on substantive
matters. Logic is the discipline that studies this distinctionboth by determining the
conditions under which the truth of certain beliefs leads naturally to the truth of some
other belief, and by drawing attention to the ways in which we may be led to believe
something without respect for its truth. This provides no guarantee that we will always
arrive at the truth, since the beliefs with which we begin are sometimes in error. But
following the principles of correct reasoning does ensure that no additional mistakes
creep in during the course of our progress.
In this review of elementary logic, we'll undertake a broad survey of the major
varieties of reasoning that have been examined by logicians of the Western
philosophical tradition. We'll see how certain patterns of thinking do invariably lead
from truth to truth while other patterns do not, and we'll develop the skills of using the
former while avoiding the latter. It will be helpful to begin by defining some of the
technical terms that describe human reasoning in general.
The Structure of Argument

Our fundamental unit of what may be asserted or denied is

the proposition (or statement) that is typically expressed by a declarative sentence.
Logicians of earlier centuries often identified propositions with the mental acts of
affirming them, often called judgments, but we can evade some interesting but thorny
philosophical issues by avoiding this locution.
Propositions are distinct from the sentences that convey them. "Smith loves
Jones" expresses exactly the same proposition as "Jones is loved by Smith," while the
sentence "Today is my birthday" can be used to convey many different propositions,
depending upon who happens to utter it, and on what day. But each proposition is
either true or false. Sometimes, of course, we don't know which of these truth-values a
particular proposition has ("There is life on the third moon of Jupiter" is presently an
example), but we can be sure that it has one or the other.
The chief concern of logic is how the truth of some propositions is connected
with the truth of another. Thus, we will usually consider a group of related
propositions. An argument is a set of two or more propositions related to each other in
such a way that all but one of them (the premises) are supposed to provide support for
the remaining one (the conclusion). The transition or movement from premises to
conclusion, the logical connection between them, is the inference upon which the
argument relies.
Notice that "premise" and "conclusion" are here defined only as they occur in
relation to each other within a particular argument. One and the same proposition can
(and often does) appear as the conclusion of one line of reasoning but also as one of
the premises of another. A number of words and phrases are commonly used in
ordinary language to indicate the premises and conclusion of an argument, although
their use is never strictly required, since the context can make clear the direction of
movement. What distinguishes an argument from a mere collection of propositions is
the inference that is supposed to hold between them.
Thus, for example, "The moon is made of green cheese, and strawberries are red.
My dog has fleas." is just a collection of unrelated propositions; the truth or falsity of
each has no bearing on that of the others. But "Helen is a physician. So Helen went to
medical school, since all physicians have gone to medical school." is an argument; the
truth of its conclusion, "Helen went to medical school," is inferentially derived from
its premises, "Helen is a physician." and "All physicians have gone to medical
Recognizing Arguments

It's important to be able to identify which proposition is the conclusion of each

argument, since that's a necessary step in our evaluation of the inference that is
supposed to lead to it. We might even employ a simple diagram to represent the
structure of an argument, numbering each of the propositions it comprises and
drawing an arrow to indicate the inference that leads from its premise(s) to its
Don't worry if this procedure seems rather tentative and uncertain at first. We'll
be studying the structural features of logical arguments in much greater detail as we
proceed, and you'll soon find it easy to spot instances of the particular patterns we
encounter most often. For now, it is enough to tell the difference between an argument
and a mere collection of propositions and to identify the intended conclusion of each
Even that isn't always easy, since arguments embedded in ordinary language can
take on a bewildering variety of forms. Again, don't worry too much about this; as we
acquire more sophisticated techniques for representing logical arguments, we will
deliberately limit ourselves to a very restricted number of distinct patterns and
develop standard methods for expressing their structure. Just remember the basic
definition of an argument: it includes more than one proposition, and it infers a
conclusion from one or more premises. So "If John has already left, then either Jane
has arrived or Gail is on the way." can't be an argument, since it is just one big
(compound) proposition. But "John has already left, since Jane has arrived." is an
argument that proposes an inference from the fact of Jane's arrival to the conclusion,
"John has already left." If you find it helpful to draw a diagram, please make good use
of that method to your advantage.

Our primary concern is to evaluate the reliability of inferences, the patterns of

reasoning that lead from premises to conclusion in a logical argument. We'll devote a
lot of attention to what works and what does not. It is vital from the outset to
distinguish two kinds of inference, each of which has its own distinctive structure and
standard of correctness.
Deductive Inferences
When an argument claims that the truth of its premises guarantees the truth of its
conclusion, it is said to involve a deductive inference. Deductive reasoning holds to a
very high standard of correctness. A deductive inference succeeds only if its premises

provide such absolute and complete support for its conclusion that it would be utterly
inconsistent to suppose that the premises are true but the conclusion false.
Notice that each argument either meets this standard or else it does not; there is
no middle ground. Some deductive arguments are perfect, and if their premises are in
fact true, then it follows that their conclusions must also be true, no matter what else
may happen to be the case. All other deductive arguments are no good at alltheir
conclusions may be false even if their premises are true, and no amount of additional
information can help them in the least.
Inductive Inferences
When an argument claims merely that the truth of its premises make it likely or
probable that its conclusion is also true, it is said to involve an inductive inference.
The standard of correctness for inductive reasoning is much more flexible than that
for deduction. An inductive argument succeeds whenever its premises provide some
legitimate evidence or support for the truth of its conclusion. Although it is therefore
reasonable to accept the truth of that conclusion on these grounds, it would not be
completely inconsistent to withhold judgment or even to deny it outright.
Inductive arguments, then, may meet their standard to a greater or to a lesser
degree, depending upon the amount of support they supply. No inductive argument is
either absolutely perfect or entirely useless, although one may be said to be relatively
better or worse than another in the sense that it recommends its conclusion with a
higher or lower degree of probability. In such cases, relevant additional information
often affects the reliability of an inductive argument by providing other evidence that
changes our estimation of the likelihood of the conclusion.
It should be possible to differentiate arguments of these two sorts with some
accuracy already. Remember that deductive arguments claim to guarantee their
conclusions, while inductive arguments merely recommend theirs. Or ask yourself
whether the introduction of any additional informationshort of changing or denying
any of the premisescould make the conclusion seem more or less likely; if so, the
pattern of reasoning is inductive.
Truth and Validity
Since deductive reasoning requires such a strong relationship between premises
and conclusion, we will spend the majority of this survey studying various patterns of
deductive inference. It is therefore worthwhile to consider the standard of correctness
for deductive arguments in some detail.

A deductive argument is said to be valid when the inference from premises to

conclusion is perfect. Here are two equivalent ways of stating that standard:

If the premises of a valid argument are true, then its conclusion must also be
It is impossible for the conclusion of a valid argument to be false while its
premises are true.

(Considering the premises as a set of propositions, we will say that the premises are
true only on those occasions when each and every one of those propositions is true.)
Any deductive argument that is not valid is invalid: it is possible for its conclusion to
be false while its premises are true, so even if the premises are true, the conclusion
may turn out to be either true or false.
Notice that the validity of the inference of a deductive argument is independent of
the truth of its premises; both conditions must be met in order to be sure of the truth
of the conclusion. Of the eight distinct possible combinations of truth and validity,
only one is ruled out completely:
Premises Inference Conclusion


The only thing that cannot happen is for a deductive argument to have true premises
and a valid inference but a false conclusion.
Some logicians designate the combination of true premises and a valid inference
as a soundargument; it is a piece of reasoning whose conclusion must be true. The
trouble with every other case is that it gets us nowhere, since either at least one of the
premises is false, or the inference is invalid, or both. The conclusions of such
arguments may be either true or false, so they are entirely useless in any effort to gain
new information.
When people create and critique arguments, it's helpful to understand what an
argument is and is not. Sometimes an argument is seen as a verbal fight, but that is not

what is meant in thesediscussions. Sometimes a person thinks they are offering an

argument when they are only providing assertions.
Perhaps the simplest explanation of what an argument is comes from Monty
Python sArgument Clinic sketch:

An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a

definite proposition. argument is an intellectual process... contradiction is
just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

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This may have been a comedy sketch, but it highlights a common misunderstanding: to
offer an argument, you cannot simply make a claim or gainsay what others claim.
An argument is a deliberate attempt to move beyond just making an assertion. When
offering an argument, you are offering a series of related statements which represent an
attempt to support that assertion to give others good reasons to believe that what
you are asserting is true rather than false.
Here are examples of assertions:

1. Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet.

2. The Civil War was caused by disagreements over slavery.
3. God exists.
4. Prostitution is immoral.

Sometimes you hear such statements referred to as propositions. Technically

speaking, a proposition is the informational content of any statement or assertion. To
qualify as a proposition, a statement must be capable of being either true or false.
The above represent positions people hold, but which others may disagree with. Merely
making the above statements does not constitute an argument, no matter how often one
repeats the assertions. To create an argument, the person making the claims must offer
further statements which, at least in theory, support the claims. If the claim is supported,
the argument is successful; if the claim is not supported, the argument fails.
This is the purpose of an argument: to offer reasons and evidence for the purpose of
establishing the truth value of a proposition, which can mean either establishing that the
proposition is true or establishing that the proposition is false. If a series of statements
does not do this, it isn t an argument.
Another aspect of understanding arguments is to examine the parts. An argument can
be broken down into three major components: premises, inferences and a conclusion.
Premises are statements of (assumed) fact which are supposed to set forth the reasons
and/or evidence for believing a claim. The claim, in turn, is the conclusion: what you
finish with at the end of an argument. When an argument is simple, you may just have a
couple of premises and a conclusion:

1. Doctors earn a lot of money. (premise)

2. I want to earn a lot of money. (premise)
3. I should become a doctor. (conclusion)
Inferences are the reasoning parts of an argument. Conclusions are a type of inference,
but always the final inference. Usually an argument will be complicated enough to
require inferences linking the premises with the final conclusion:

1. Doctors earn a lot of money. (premise)

2. With a lot of money, a person can travel a lot. (premise)
3. Doctors can travel a lot. (inference, from 1 and 2)
4. I want to travel a lot. (premise)
5. I should become a doctor. (from 3 and 4)
Here we see two different types of claims which can occur in an argument. The first is
afactual claim, and this purports to offer evidence. The first two premises above are

factual claims and usually not much time is spent on them either they are true or they
are not.
The second type is an inferential claim it expresses the idea that some matter of
fact is related to the sought-after conclusion. This is the attempt to link the factual claim
to the conclusion in such a way as to support the conclusion. The third statement above
is an inferential claim because it infers from the previous two statements that doctors
can travel a lot.
Without an inferential claim, there would be no clear connection between the premises
and the conclusion. It is rare to have an argument where inferential claims play no role.
Sometimes you will come across an argument where inferential claims are needed,
butmissing you won t be able to see the connection from factual claims to
conclusion and will have to ask for them.
Assuming such inferential claims really are there, you will be spending most of your time
on them when evaluating and critiquing an argument. If the factual claims are true, it is
with the inferences that an argument will stand or fall, and it is here where you will find
fallacies committed.
Unfortunately, most arguments aren t presented in such a logical and clear manner as
the above examples, making them difficult to decipher sometimes. But every argument
which really is an argument should be capable of being reformulated in such a manner.
If you cannot do that, then it is reasonable to suspect that something is wrong.