A House with No Walls

I want to teach you how to assess a basic argument. How can you know if an argument is a good one or not?

Think of an argument like a simple house, a roof supported by walls. The roof is the conclusion and the walls are the supporting ideas. In the lingo of logic, the walls are called premises and the whole structure of the building is called a syllogism.

Syllogisms have a particular form and contain certain facts. When the form is right and the facts are true we say that the argument is sound, that the walls are strong enough to support the roof. The conclusion is true, resting securely on its supporting foundation.

But some arguments are not really arguments at all. In terms of our house illustration, many people try to build their roof right on the ground. Instead of erecting solid walls—the supporting ideas that hold the conclusion up—they simply assert their conclusion and pound the podium.

An argument is different from an assertion, though. An assertion simply states a point. An argument gives supporting reasons why the point should be taken seriously. The reasons become the topic of mutual discussion or analysis. But if there are no reasons, there’s little to discuss. Opinions are opinions, not proof. A mere point of view cannot be taken seriously as worthy of belief. That requires reasons.

Roofs are useless when they’re on the ground. In the same way an assertion without evidence doesn’t do any work. I frequently get calls from people who think they’re giving me an argument, when all they’re doing is forcefully stating a point of view. They sound compelling, but a closer look reveals an emperor with lots of bluster, but no bloomers. My job is to recognize that the roof is laying flat on the ground and simply point it out.

If you find yourself stymied in a discussion, you may be looking for an argument that’s not there. Ask yourself, “Did they give me an argument or just make an assertion?” If the latter is true then say, “Well, that’s an interesting opinion. What’s your argument? Why should I believe what you believe? How did you come to that conclusion? Give me your reasons.”

Don’t let them flatten you by dropping a roof on your head. Make them build walls underneath their roof. Ask for reasons or facts to support their conclusion.

quick thought |
Greg Koukl