Posted by: 15shekels | March 13, 2010

A Lesson in Arguing

From majoring in philosophy, studying for the LSATs, and arguing my way through life (first with my parents, now with my husband), I have learned an important fact about arguments. Before making or challenging one, it is crucial to find any hidden premises, sometimes called assumptions or inferences.

First, a brief LSAT tutorial (stick with me, scientists and economists; I swear I have a point): An argument is comprised of premises, and a conclusion that follows from the premises. Here is an example of an argument:

1. I always eat ice cream on Wednesdays (premise)
2. Yesterday was a Wednesday (premise)
Therefore: 3. I ate ice cream yesterday (conclusion)

When attacking an argument, one may argue that a premise is false (You don’t always eat ice cream on Wednesdays). This is to call the argument unsound. The other option is to argue that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. This is to call the argument invalid. An invalid argument would be: 1. I always eat ice cream on Wednesdays. 2. Yesterday was Friday. 3. I ate ice cream yesterday. Even if the premises are both true, the conclusion doesn’t follow.

Sometimes an argument will contain a hidden premise: a premise that isn’t stated, but is necessary to lead to the conclusion. Here is a classic example of an argument with a hidden premise:

1. All men are mortal.
Therefore: 2. Socrates is mortal.

The hidden premise, in this case, would be that: 1b. Socrates is a man.

In a more practical case, suppose Bill says to his wife, Mary:

You didn’t take the garbage out, so you are a bad wife.

The hidden premise would be: Only bad wives don’t take the garbage out.

In order to defend herself, Mary could either deny the first premise (which is risky, as it would probably be a flat-out lie), or she could identify and argue against the hidden premise, by saying: It is not true that failing to take out the garbage makes me a bad wife. I think taking out the garbage is a husband’s job. You should have done it.

Failing to recognize a hidden premise in one’s own reasoning can be a quick way to lose an argument. In others cases, it can have much graver consequences. In a famous story from Jesus’ early ministry, Jesus healed a man who was completely paralyzed. First, however, he told the man that his sins were forgiven. His actions enraged the Pharisees:

“Some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” -Mark 2:6-7

The Pharisees were making the following argument:

1. Only God can forgive sins.
2. Jesus has claimed to have the authority to forgive sins.
Therefore: 3. Jesus is claiming to be God.
Therefore: 4. Jesus is blaspheming.

The Pharisees did not put into words their crucially important assumption:

3b. Jesus is not God.

Nobody present would have argued with premises 1 or 2. So perhaps it appeared that the Pharisees had an airtight argument. Tragically, though, it was the premise the Pharisees thought too obvious to mention that contained their error. Because they assumed that Jesus could not be God, no amount of evidence would convince them otherwise. Even when he performed miraculous healings in front of them; even when he raised people from the dead, they grasped for any alternative explanation.

People today continue to make the mistake of ignoring important hidden premises when they argue against Christianity. A classic example is the argument that Christianity cannot be true, because it claims that miracles exist. They argue that:

1. Miracles do not exist.
2. Christianity claims that miracles do exist.
Therefore: 3. Christianity is false.

Here is another LSAT definition:

Circular argument: An argument that assumes what it is trying to prove, thus committing a logical fallacy.

The above argument is circular, for the following reason: A miracle is defined as an event for which there is no natural explanation. To say that miracles do not exist is to say that nothing exists apart from the natural world. But Christianity states that there is a supernatural God who intervenes in His natural creation. The hidden premise in the above argument, then, is that 1a. Christianity and the God of Christianity are false. But this is exactly what the argument is trying to prove.

In other words, to say that miracles do not exist is really to say that there isn’t a God who performs miracles. Because if God created the natural order, is it that difficult to believe that he might occasionally intervene or suspend it? If God himself decided to come to earth and suffer death for the sake of His children, isn’t it at least possible that He wouldn’t have stayed dead?

Some people assume that because much about the world is explainable in scientific and natural terms, that there cannot be supernatural reasons for anything, and that there cannot be a supernatural force who created the natural order. These are dangerous assumptions.

As Tim Keller argues in “The Reason for God,” skeptics must “doubt their doubts” as robustly as they doubt others’ beliefs. He goes further to say that even those who call themselves indifferent must check the assumptions underneath their indifference:

“All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B…Some will respond to all this, ‘My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about God one way or another. I simply feel no need for God and I am not interested in thinking about it.’ But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of God is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn’t feel the need for him.” -Keller, Reason for God, pages xvii-xviii.

When we approach the question of God, surely the responsible approach is to search our hearts for hidden assumptions and premises. If we suspend the assumptions we cannot prove to consider the possibility that God exists, then we are at least free to consider the evidence for Him—evidence we might find shockingly compelling.

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