Communication and Philosophical Arguments

I’ve never formally studied philosophy. I do, however, have some experience with logic in computer science and engineering contexts. Philosophical arguments may be structured in a similar logical format. This post discusses the approach of communicating philosophical ideas in a structured and logical way that will be tested in upcoming edits and posts on this website.

The structure of a philosophical argument may include premises and conclusions. A premise is a proposed statement of fact. Premises can be combined to make conclusions. An argument may be presented as (numbered) premises and conclusions, a common example being,

P1: All men are mortal.
P2: Socrates is a man.
C1: Socrates is mortal.

Communicating philosophical arguments is a challenge for a number of reasons. Trying to communicate arguments as prose can obscure the important points by burying them in paragraphs and sentences: the structure of an argument, the premises and conclusions, must be extracted.

In future posts and additions to this website, it will be aimed to present philosophical arguments arguments as enumerated lists of premises and the conclusions. Prose may be used to elaborate premises or present thought-experiments that are believed to strengthen arguments; however, clarity and succinctness will still be a goal. Wherever possible summaries will be provided.

As an aside, I have an interest in the practise and failings of debate in general.

I was struck by the exchange of emails between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris being an example of an attempt at a discussion that struggled to gain traction. Chomsky and Harris both have a great command of the English language, but they seemed to lack a process to conduct a discussion that could allow them to succinctly and accurately communicate their own beliefs and determine the beliefs of the other.

Spoken debates often demonstrate the same failing. A spoken debate may allow the speakers to demonstrate their skill as orators, but the aim should probably be to share and learn from sound arguments. Presently, debates are often a situation where we are subject to the full range of tricks used to persuade. Spoken debates suffer at least two big challenges as a mode of presenting arguments: 1) the audience can only keep a few items in their mind at one time, 2) claims of supporting facts and evidence cannot be checked for truth.

Given that logic is a foundation of modern philosophy it seems odd that its use is not emphasised. The point-by-point approach to expressing an argument seems to provide an improved, straightforward process for conducting debates and discussions. It may be difficult and it may make debates seem even more abstract and dry, but it might improve the value of discussion and debate as a tool for learning.

I’m interested in taking this approach in communicating my philosophical arguments and I hope that it makes any discussion or debates that I have more concise and fruitful.

If all arguments are conveyed as a set of premises and conclusions, anyone with an opposing view should be able to state which premises they do not believe to be true or which conclusions are not valid. Probing the reasons for disagreeing with the truth of a premise or the structure of the argument should lead to a refinement of the argument or adoption of a position that is valid.

In cases where the truth of a statement is not (or cannot) be known, there may be many ways of approaches to find a resolution. It is reasonable to make an attempt to search for evidence that may indicate the truth or falsity of the claim. If evidence is unavailable, experiments may be considered and performed that may provide that evidence. If experiments are not feasible, the effect of truth or falsity on the argument may be examined or an attempt may be made to construct an argument that does not rely on that premise.

Spoken debates may be more educational if conducted with a whiteboard (or similar) used to list the form of arguments made and to act as a visual aid for participants and the audience. Speakers would be required to list the premises and the form of their argument. Responses could come in the form of annotation of the arguments listed, pointing out which claims are dubious or where there is a gap in the argument structure. Evidence and sources could also be provided. This approach would likely change televised debates significantly.

Now that I’ve refined my approach to communication, I just need to actually do some communicating.