Social media is filled with arguments. But usually they are comprised of opinions or pictures and not ‘good arguments’. We humans don’t often actually produce arguments, but merely shout at each other. How does this use of ‘argument’ arise? Why do we usually think of argument as a brannigan or donnybrook? Like all words ‘argument’ has evolved.

A quick internet trip to yields for ‘argument’ over 50 synonyms. These include ‘brawl’ ‘clash’ ‘spat’ etc. But notice:

Word Origin & History – argument late 14c., “statements and reasoning in support of a proposition,” from Fr. argument (13c.), from L. argumentum, from arguere “to argue” (see argue). Sense passed through “subject of contention” to “a quarrel,” a sense formerly attached to argumentation.

The word carries with it two distinct senses:

  • an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one.

“I’ve had an argument with my father”

  • a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.

“there is a strong argument for submitting a formal appeal”

Lawyers and, of course, philosophers use the word in the second sense, while on social media it is often the first sense that is intended.

In Episode 29 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus a customer goes to the Argument Clinic but initially arrives in the abuse room where he runs into Mr. Barnard.

Mr. B: What do you want?

C: Well, I was just . . .

Mr. B: Don’t give me that, you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!

After abuse like that for some time the customer finds Mr. Vibrating in the argument room:

C: Ah, is this the right room for an argument?

Mr. V: I told you once.

C: No, you haven’t.

Mr. V: Yes, I have.

C: When?

Mr. V: Just now.

C: No, you didn’t.

Mr. V: Yes I did.

Mr. V merely contradicts every statement that the customer makes. Finally the Customer draws the distinction as follows: “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just he automatic gainsaying of anything  the other person says.”



Scientism and the Is/Ought Gap


Justinthecanuck has generously provided the following essay, which he wrote for a soon to be published book, for us here at Episyllogism, as a part of the discussion on morality, naturalism, constructionism,  the is/ought distinction, and a number of important themes in moral philosophy. Thank you!

Readers may want to review our recent discussion:

  1. Moral philosophy and empirical psychology;
  2. Point/Counterpoint – Moral Psychology: An Exchange;
  3. Philosophy, psychology, anthropology: morality


The following essay will appear, with minor edits, as a chapter in a forthcoming volume on scientism edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. I include it here as a sneak preview in case any episyllogists are interested: please cite only with permission.


Scientism is the view that the only facts are those that could in principle be learned exclusively from the natural and social sciences, empirical observations, mathematics, and logic, and that any beliefs that can only be justified in some other way are merely sham knowledge. And yet, adherents of scientism often speak and act as though we ought to do things (for instance, that we ought to accept scientism). Clearly, if it is a fallacy to derive an ought from an is, then these devotees of scientism are in trouble.

The putative fallacy of deriving an ought from an is, sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy, arises from the simple observation that an argument whose conclusion non-trivially contains a concept that does not appear in any of its explicit or implicit premises cannot be valid. An apparently straightforward application of this general principle is that an argument whose conclusion non-trivially contains the concept ‘ought’ (or ‘morally right’, ‘morally good’, etc.), but whose premises do not contain that concept, cannot be valid.

Is it possible that the naturalistic fallacy is not in fact a fallacy? While the reasoning behind the fallacy diagnosis seems airtight, there is one possibility that could, in theory at least, make room for a scientistic approach: the possibility that the move from an ought to an is may be legitimate in some cases. As Charles Pigden remarks in ‘The Is-Ought Gap’[1], certain deontic logics may employ logical ‘ought’ operators that appear in the premises without being mentioned in the conceptual content of the statements, but that become more salient in the conclusion. Since it is a matter of considerable controversy which modal logical system, if any, is to be preferred in such cases, and which system of deontic logic, if any, is the correct correlate of that general modal system, it remains a live possibility that an ought can legitimately be derived from an is[2]. I explore this interesting possibility a little later.

Much of the discussion of scientism takes place in popular books and lectures, far away from technical controversies over operators and metatheorems in deontic logics. In these popular discussions, it is common for moral philosophers to be portrayed in caricature as benighted longhairs stumbling around in the dark for want of empirical enlightenment – enlightenment that scientism alone can provide. Sam Harris, perhaps the most notorious among the ‘scient-ists’ in the popular press, has written a book and given several talks in support of the supposedly revolutionary view that science can inform human values and steer us away from moral relativism.[4] The fact that prominent philosophers have been articulating clear moral views, and opposing relativism, for millennia appears not to impress Harris: in his self-presentation, the attempt to use observations (and, curiously enough, non-empirical thought experiments such as one involving a fictional society that systematically blinds every third child in obedience to some religious scriptures[5]) represents a new and hitherto neglected direction in moral thinking.

It is hard not to wonder why Harris thinks his approach of considering the overall levels of happiness in objective or hypothetical cases is some sort of novelty, or why he would brazenly present this view with great fanfare as a significant achievement if he recognized that it is what most philosophers, and perhaps most people, already employ and have perhaps always employed in working through moral issues. It is also tempting to wonder, at times, whether Harris is entirely capable of grasping the nature of the is/ought problem, as when he says:

Moore felt that his “open question argument” was decisive here: it would seem, for instance, that we can always coherently ask of any state of happiness, “Is this form of happiness itself good?” The fact that the question still makes sense suggests that happiness and goodness cannot be the same. I would argue, however, that what we are really asking in such a case is “Is this form of happiness conducive to (or obstructive of) some higher happiness?” This question is also coherent, and keeps our notion of what is good linked to the experience of sentient beings.[6]

Unfortunately, Harris does not tell us what his argument for that conclusion would be in the unspecified circumstances under which he “would argue” for it. But to be as fair as possible to Harris, I focus on what I take to be his clearest articulation of how he thinks it possible to cross the is/ought divide. His plan is to make the crossing via an articulation of the synonymy of certain moral and non-moral terms:

To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive) … Imagine that you could push a button that would make every person on earth a little more creative, compassionate, intelligent, and fulfilled — in such a way as to produce no negative effects, now or in the future. This would be “good” in the only moral sense of the word that I understand. However, to make this claim, one needs to posit a larger space of possible experiences (e.g., a moral landscape). What does it mean to say that a person should push this button? It means that making this choice would do a lot of good in the world without doing any harm. And a disposition to not push the button would say something very unflattering about him. After all, what possible motive could a person have for declining to increase everyone’s well-being (including his own) at no cost? I think our notions of “should” and “ought” can be derived from these facts and others like them. Pushing the button is better for everyone involved. What more do we need to motivate prescriptive judgments like “should” and “ought”? [7]

Harris’s partner-in-scientism Michael Shermer attempts to cross the is/ought boundary in a similar way:

Morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents in terms of whether our thoughts and actions are right or wrong with regard to their survival and flourishing. By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health. Any organism subject to natural selection – which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well – will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish, for if they didn’t they would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore no longer be subject to natural selection … Given these reasons and this evidence, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my starting point, and the fundamental principle of this system of morality. It is a system based on science and reason, and is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature – principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world.[8]

Continue reading



It is sense #2 that drives philosophers much of the time. (not all of the time)

Then, the first distinction is between VALID arguments and SOUND arguments.

Try this: a sound argument is a valid argument with true premises.

Example: imagine a conversation 100 years ago between father and daughter:

D: Soon I will be 21 and able to vote!

F: Well no, you won’t.

D: Why?

F: Only persons 21 and over can vote. And, females are not persons; so, you cannot vote.

D: I see that’s a valid argument, but the premises suck!

How should the daughter proceed to convince her father?

“Yesterday was a great day for the women of Saskatchewan,” the Feb. 15, 1916, issue of the Regina Morning Leader proclaimed.
At the time, the Dominion Elections Act, which dictated how provincial elections were run, stipulated “No woman, idiot, lunatic or criminal shall vote.” On Valentine’s Day 100 years ago, the government decided it was time that change.

Good discussion here.

English: All 2-ary logical connectives, expres...
English: All 2-ary logical connectives, expressed with the Sheffer operator NAND. The operation NAND (argument 1, argument 2) is displayed as a black circle, including both arguments. Deutsch: Alle zweistelligen Junktoren, dargestellt mit dem Sheffer-Operator NAND. Die Operation NAND (Argument 1, Argument 2) ist graphisch dargestellt durch einen schwarzen Kreis, der die beiden Argumente enthält. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arguments from analogy

guns_kids.jpgAfter every mass murder in the USA we are bombarded by talking heads on all social media with explanations, warnings, and sometimes arguments. After the most recent shooting we were reminded that “Forks don’t make people fat and in the same way guns don’t kill people.” The point of such nonsense is, I guess, to argue that forks and guns are similar enough to allow us to draw the conclusion that both are instruments used by people, and though the results of overeating and the results of a volley of gunshots can be deadly, it’s not the instrument that is responsible.

But, are forks and guns similar in the relevant ways?

A strong argument from analogy should have these features:

  • P and Q are similar in respect to properties a, b, c.
  • Object P has been observed to have further property x.
  • Therefore, Q probably has property x also.

Truth : First of all we need to check that the two objects being compared are indeed similar in the way assumed. Both forks and guns are used by people.

Relevance : Even if two objects are similar, we also need to make sure that those aspects in which they are similar are actually relevant to the conclusion. For example, suppose two books are alike in that their covers are both green. Just because one of them is boring does not follow that the other one is also boring, since the color of a book’s cover is completely irrelevant to its contents.

Disanalogy : Even if two objects X and Y are similar in lots of relevant respects, we should also consider whether there are dissimilarities between X and Y which might cast doubt on the conclusion. E.g., it is hard to kill several people with a fork, but fairly easy with a gun. The glutton may use his fork to ruin his own health but s/he doesn’t stuff others until they are obese.

The fallacy in reasoning when an argument from analogy goes wrong  is called a FALSE ANALOGY. – Forks and guns? – False analogy.

See “Analogy and Analogical Reasoning” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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On argument

B_~BArguments rage in our free societies and we depend upon our citizens to participate in those arguments in order to vote intelligently and to influence social policy. Currently in the USA arguments about gun control and about immigration policy are popular.  Too often it seems that citizens make a fundamental error: they start with a conclusion that they already believe to be the case and then try to argue for that pre-conceived conclusion.  In doing so they either ignore the facts, or seek facts that fit their belief, ignoring counter arguments and stacking the deck for support.

There is something to the claim that if you say something often enough people will think it is true. I have heard it said that the assault weapons ban (no longer in effect) in the USA did not work. The gun lobby says it daily. Congress people say it to defend themselves when they vote. But is it true? (See this study.)

Does the fact that the original law allowed for statistical study for just one year have a bearing on the results?  (See this study.)

I have heard an argument for the AR-15 that goes like this:

  1. The AR-15 is a semi-automatic weapon capable of rapid fire.
  2. It is fun to shoot such a weapon.
  3. So, it should be available.

Does (2) justify (3)? Is everything that is fun a good thing to do?

On immigration policy in the USA one hears people like Senator McCain argue that if the Republicans do not do something in that area they will continue to lose elections. Try putting that argument in standard form and assessing it.

Below are links to sites that discuss proper argumentation and the fallacies that we all fall into.

The Nizkor Project

The Secular Web

Philosophical society

Purdue Online Writing Lab