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Philosophy Training

How to Construct Arguments


Version 1.1. Modified 5/24/09.

How to Construct Arguments

Contents

– Step 1: Select a claim you believe and want to argue for.


– Step 2: Discern your reason for believing that claim.
– Step 3: Turn that reason into a full argument.
– Step 4: Assess and revise the argument.
– Step 5: Get feedback from other people.

– An example: arguing for the existence of God

– The rationale for this method

Step 1: Select a claim you believe and want to argue


for.

Look through your beliefs. Pick one of your beliefs that you want to
argue for. That will be your conclusion.

Step 2: Discern your reason for believing that claim.

Take your conclusion and ask yourself: “What is my reason for believing
this?” This about this until either:

(a) you can state explicitly what your reason is, or


(b)you realize that you don’t have a reason.

If you can state explicitly what your reason is, go on to step 3. If you
don’t have a reason, see whether you stop believing the claim in
question. If you don’t stop believing it, repeat this step. Dig deeper.
See whether you have any reason at all for believing your claim. If you
do stop believing the claim, go back to step 1 and pick a different
claim. If after several repetitions you still believe the claim but can’t
find any reason, go back to step 1 and pick a different claim.

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Step 3: Turn that reason into a full argument.

The reason you found in step 2 is a nascent argument. Now, turn it


into a full argument. Write down the conclusion. Write down the main
claims contained in your reason. Work that reason into a full-fledged
numbered argument.

Step 4: Assess and revise the argument.

Now, assess your argument and revise it accordingly. Is it valid? If not,


add premises to fill the gaps. Are the premises good? If not, either
argue for those premises or replace them with better premises.

Step 5: Get feedback from other people.

Once your argument is good enough, get some feedback from other
people. Talk to people, perhaps try to convince them of your
conclusion using your argument. Don’t argue endlessly – just argue for
as long as it takes to get the feedback you’re looking for. It’s fine to
get feedback from non-philosophers as well as philosophers.

Repeat steps 4 and 5 as many times as seems useful. If you decide


your general line of argument won’t work, go back to step 2 and look
for another one. If you run out of ideas entirely or ceasing believing
the claim you’re trying to argue for, go back to step 1 and select and
different claim.

An example: Arguing for the existence of God

Here’s an example.

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Step 1. Scott wants to argue about the existence of God. He considers


what he believes on the topic and concludes that he believes that God
exists. So he selects the claim “God exists” as the claim he’s going to
argue for. That’s step 1.

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Step 2. Next, Scott asks himself: “What is my reason for believing that
God exists?” He first thinks: “I learned about God when I was young
and when I was young I pretty much believed whatever I was told.”
But this isn’t what Scott is looking for. It might be that Scott is right – it
might be that the historical cause of his belief was his youthful
credulity. But the point here isn’t to look for historical causes. It’s to
look for a reason – for justification. So Scott asks himself again: “What
is my reason for believing that God exists?” This time he gives the
right sort of answer: “I believe that God exists because that’s what the
Bible says, and I trust the Bible.” Now Scott has a nascent argument
for his belief – that’s step 2.

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Step 3. Next, Scott needs to turn his nascent, beginning argument into
a full-fledged argument. First, he writes down his conclusion, adding a
“Therefore, …” in front of it to indicate that it’s a conclusion:

Therefore, God exists.

Then Scott writes down the main claims from his nascent argument
above his conclusion:

The Bible says that God exists.


I trust the Bible.
Therefore, God exists.

Scott considers whether this argument represents his thoughts on the


matter and concludes that it does. He numbers the claims and now
has a full-fledged argument for his belief. That’s step 3.

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Step 4. Next, Scott gets to work revising and improving his argument.
He asks himself: “Is the argument valid?” No, he decides. It could be
that the Bible says that God exists and that he trusts the Bible, but that
the Bible is false. So his conclusion doesn’t follow from his premises.
After a bit of thought, he changes the argument:

1. The Bible says “God exists.”


2. Everything the Bible says is true.
3. Therefore, “God exists” is true.
4. If “God exists” is true, then God exists.
5. Therefore, God exists.

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Scott considers the new argument and decides (correctly) that it is
valid. Next, heasks himself: “Are my premises good?” He thinks a little
and concludes: “Premise 1 is solid. Premise 4 is solid. Premise 2,
however, is not so good. People will disagree with it, and it is the sort
of claim that would have to be known by an argument.” So then he
reformulates the argument again, this time including an argument for
what was his second premise.

1. The Bible says “God exists.”


2. Over one billion people believe that everything the Bible says is
true.
3. One billion people can’t be wrong.
4. Therefore, everything the Bible says is true.
5. Therefore, “God exists” is true.
6. If “God exists” is true, then God exists.
7. Therefore, God exists.

Scott might continue reformulating and improving his argument. When


he’s done, he’s done step 4.

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Step 5. Now that Scott has his argument, he talks to people and gets
some feedback. Usefully, someone points out that over one billion
people believe that not everything the Bible says is true. Scott realizes
that this means that premise 3 can’t be right.

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Repetition. After Scott realizes that his third premise is false he goes
back to step 4 and reformulates his argument again. He repeats steps
4 and 5 until he believes he has a good argument. If he finds that he
can’t make his general line of approach work, he goes back to step 2
and tries to develop another one. If he finds that no line of approach
works, or if he finds that he no longer believes the claim he’s arguing
for, he goes back to step 1 and selects another claim.

The rationale for this method

To be filled in.
– It is natural to think you should start with premises.
– Starting with premises does not work. Try it. It doesn’t work.
– Instead, we start with our conclusion.

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– This is not dogmatism. Dogmatism is irrational commitment to a conclusion.
You can start with conclusions, build, then conclude the conclusion is wrong
and change your beliefs.
– Why you should believe the claim – so that you can come up with arguments
for it.
○ People are bad at coming up with arguments for things they don’t
believe.