Starting tommorrow, I am going to be doing a semi-regular series that I will call Saturday Cerebration. “Cerebration” is not simply a slurred pronunciation of “celebration” (though, I admit, I like the pun); it comes from the same root as “cerebral“. Saturday Cerebration posts will be exercises in cerebrating – in cogitating; in thinking very deeply, but rationally.
Saturday Cerebration is going to be series intended to challenge readers to think more critically and philosophically about practical, real-world problems. I will pick a question or argument, then present an argument for or against it. I may not actually believe the position I am taking. I may, in fact, deliberately argue for things I believe are wrong, or against things I believe are right; I may argue for racism, or against human rights. I will also not indicate (at least within the post) which side I really take. Saturday Cerebration will not be about me or my beliefs; it will be about you, and your brain. It will be a challenge to you to exercise your philosophical and thinking processes.
What I want to happen is that when you read a Saturday Cerebration, you will be challenged to think more deeply about something that you probably already have a firm position on. I want you to look at the arguments I make, and consider them rationally and philosophically, to figure out where I’m right, and where I’m wrong. What is right, or wrong, about the arguments I have made? Where are the fallacies, if any? Are the premisses legitimate? There may be nothing wrong with the whole argument! Or, it may be riddled with fallacies. The challenge to you, dear reader, is to figure out what’s going on, and identify and correct the problems as necessary.
To be clear, even when I argue for something I believe in, there may be flaws in my argument. Just because an argument is flawed, that doesn’t make the conclusion flawed, but it’s still important to correct the argument. The same is true when I argue against something I disagree with.
When I argue for something I don’t agree with, it may be because I am parroting bad arguments others make… or it may be because I am presenting an argument I cannot dispute even though I dislike the conclusion. In such cases, I would love someone to help point out the flaws in the argument. When I argue against something I agree with, the same is true.
How to read a Saturday Cerebration
Saturday Cerebration will cover some very emotionally intense topics, that are relevant, and even important, to our lives and society. And some of them will be deliberately provocative; I may consciously argue for a position I find detestable, to challenge you to find a good rebuttal.
The most important thing when reading a Saturday Cerebration is to remain calm. If you fail to keep a cool head, and let your emotions take over, you’ll probably fail to properly dispose of the argument. That’s failing as a philosopher, and a rational thinker. That’s letting the other side win.
The second most important thing to remember is that I am not (necessarily) expressing what I believe. Therefore, getting angry or snarky at me will just make you look like a fool. I will sometimes be playing a “devil’s advocate” role, arguing for positions I find abhorrent, because I think it is important for a critical thinker to know how to react to an argument they find disgusting. If your only reaction is disgust, then you’re not mature enough for Saturday Cerebration, but if you can manage to put your emotions aside and defeat the argument, then you will have increased your critical thinking skills and added a solid rebuttal to your inventory for when you run into that argument in the wild.
For example, I might try to craft a very convincing and strong argument that racism is good. If you can’t even handle reading through such an argument without your head exploding… don’t play Saturday Cerebration. If the only response you can muster after reading something you disagree with is just to call me names, or tell me how stupid or evil I am… don’t play Saturday Cerebration. If you can’t realize that it’s possible for someone to convincingly argue for something they don’t believe in… don’t play Saturday Cerebration. Go play something more your intellectual speed, like Kerplunk. Saturday Cerebration is a challenge for adults to exercise their critical thinking skills, even in the face of powerful emotional arousal. This is a big people’s game, not for children who can’t keep their cool.
If you can keep your cool, then you can properly analyze the argument, and identify where and how it fails – or if it succeeds. Here’s how to go about doing that, step-by-step:
DO NOT LET EMOTION GET THE BETTER OF YOU! Keep your cool, and consider the arguments calmly and rationally. Bear in mind that I may not even believe the argument I’ve made – I may think it’s a stupid and even repugnant argument – so screaming at me about it is only going to make you look like a moron (and yes, I will publish stupid comments like that). Saturday Cerebration is an exercise; it’s a challenge; it’s a game. Saturday Cerebration posts do not (necessarily) reflect my own beliefs.
An argument consists of premisses and a conclusion, linked by inferences. More complex arguments may be built of smaller arguments, so that the conclusion of a sub-argument becomes a premiss for the larger argument. For example, the argument:
- All horses have four legs.
- Buster is a horse.
- Therefore Buster has four legs.
has two premises and one inference, leading to one conclusion.
A premiss is a statement of fact. Most arguments work by listing two facts, then drawing a conclusion from them via an inference. The facts are the premisses. The two premisses in the argument above are that horses have four legs, and that Buster is a horse. Premisses can be either true or false. They’re usually easy to identify, because they’re basically anything that doesn’t work with a “therefore” in front of it.
The conclusion is also quite easily identified: they start with “therefore” (or there is an implicit “therefore”, at least). The conclusion in the example above is that Buster has four legs.
Inferences are what connect the premisses to the conclusion. The idea is that once you know the premisses, the conclusion is necessary, and obvious. For example, if all horses have four legs and Buster is horse, then Buster has to have four legs. All horses do! And, Buster is a horse. The conclusion is undeniable, and inescapable.
In order for an argument to be sound, all of its premisses must be true, and all of the inferences must be valid. If that is true, and the argument is sound, then you must accept the conclusion – unless you intend to be irrational. If any of the premisses are false, or if any of the inferences are invalid, then the argument is not sound, and the conclusion is suspect. It might still be right! (For example, if the second premiss of the argument above is false – if Buster is not a horse, but a dog – the argument is not sound, though the conclusion still happens to be correct. If Buster was a turkey, then the argument is not sound, and the conclusion is false.) But you can’t be sure.
So what you want to do is determine if the argument is sound by checking the premisses and the inferences. If the premisses are all true, and the inferences are all valid, then the conclusion must be correct – even if you don’t like it. If there are any false premisses or invalid inferences, the conclusion might be incorrect… but at the very least, you know it’s suspicious.
Premisses are simply statements of fact, so you can check them the same way you check any facts. In the example argument, you could simply check to see if it really is true that all horses have four legs, and if Buster really is a horse.
Inferences are very tricky to check. You should familiarize yourself with logical fallacies, which are different types of broken inferences. An example of one type of formal fallacy, called “denying the antecedent” goes like this:
- If Buster is a horse, then Buster has four legs.
- Buster is a dog.
- Therefore Buster does not have four legs.
Now, both of those premisses could be true… but clearly the conclusion is wrong. The problem is that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premisses. You know that Buster would have four legs if he was a horse… you don’t know anything about the number of legs he might have if he’s not a horse – he might have four, two or a hundred.
This may seem like a silly notion, but these kinds of mistakes are rife – especially in politics. You’ve probably heard something like this: “If you support SOPA, then you are against piracy. You don’t support SOPA. Therefore, you’re not against piracy.”
Fallacies can also take more informal forms, like appeals to emotions, were there really is no inference between the premiss and the conclusion, but emotion can make you feel like there should be one. For example, an appeal to fear: “If the Bible is true, and I don’t believe in it, I’ll burn forever in Hell. I’m afraid of burning forever. Therefore, I believe the Bible is true.”
- If you’ve found a false premiss, or a fallacy, then you have found a flaw in the argument, and the conclusion is suspicious. This may make you happy if you disagree with the conclusion… but if you agree with the conclusion, then you should try to fix the argument. Fix the premiss, fix the fallacy, or toss the whole thing and offer a different argument instead.
- If you can’t find any problem with the premisses, and you can’t find any fallacies, then you must accept that the conclusion is true. This may not be a problem if you agree with it… but if you disagree with the conclusion, you should go back and try again – try to find a flaw in the premisses, or in the inferences. If you still can’t find a problem with the argument… well… either you have to change your belief, or you have to hope that someone else will figure out how to beat the argument.
If your goal is to disagree with the conclusion of a Saturday Cerebration, then you should attempt to find flawed premisses or bad inferences. Don’t just send me a message telling me how wrong I am. Tell me what’s wrong with the argument.
If your goal is to agree with the conclusion of a Saturday Cerebration, you should still try to find flawed premisses and bad inferences, just to convince yourself that your belief is validated. You should always challenge your beliefs, even deeply held ones.
It is my hope that Saturday Cerebration will become a semi-regular way for both myself and my readers to practice critical thinking, using realistic arguments. I also intend for them to be puzzles for you to mull over for a couple of days – that’s why I am doing them on Saturday, so you can spend a lazy Sunday thinking about the argument. (Or, if you’re going to church, you can tune out the sermon and puzzle over the argument instead.)
So remember: the arguments made in a Saturday Cerebration will not necessarily represent my own beliefs. They are critical thinking challenges. If you disagree with the conclusion, try to figure out why the argument is not sound – are the premisses wrong, or are the inferences invalid? If you agree with the conclusion, try testing the argument for soundness anyway. If you find a flaw in the argument, congratulations! Please share what you’ve found in the comments. If you can’t find a flaw, you can also ask in the comments for help. Bear in mind, though, that even I might not be sure what, if anything, is wrong with the argument. But I’d love help figuring it out.
The first Saturday Cerebration will be tomorrow! I hope you enjoy the mental exercises!