You use arguments all the time, whether you know it or not. Whenever you offer one or more statements in support of another statement, you are giving reasons for someone to accept a claim. Consider the example of an argument found in everyday speech and pay attention to how we break it down into its parts.
|Argument: Adena's car broke down, so she will be late.|
|PREMISE||"Adena's car broke down"||A premise claims to say something true of the world. In other words, it is a factual claim.|
|CONCLUSION||"she will be late"||A conclusion claims to say what follows from the premise(s)|
By claiming that the conclusion follows from the premise (indicated by the word "so"), an inferential claim has been made.
Some arguments can be less direct.
The conclusion (that Sarah didn’t take the pen) is only implicit in what you said, but you would be asking someone to make that inference in an indirect way.
As we have just seen, an argument will have a premise (or set of premises) that is supposed to support a conclusion. But the premise (or set of premises) may itself be wrong.
The premise in (1) is clearly true, whereas the premise in (2) is clearly false. Egypt has pyramids and temples from ancient civilizations. But pigs cannot fly. Whether or not the inference made in each is successful is another question. For now, we just want to look at whether or not the factual claims are true.
It is not always as straightforward to identify whether or not a premise is true.
But what if they aren’t dangerous? If you ask “is it true that they are dangerous?” and it turns out not to really be a fact (perhaps you received bad information), then you wouldn’t have a good reason to draw the conclusion.
Just as factual claims can turn out not to be accurate, an inferential claim can fail to show that a premise supports a conclusion.
Imagine someone asks you whether you thought your friend, Amy, was going to pass her exams, and you said the following:
“Amy likes to have a good time and hates school; therefore, she won’t pass.”
Here you have given two premises (premise (1) is the factual claim that Amy likes to have a good time, and premise (2) is the factual claim that Amy hates school), and offered the inferential claim that these premises support the conclusion (that Amy won’t pass her exams). But does the conclusion follow from the premises?
If you want to know whether the inferential claim is successful or not, then you can ask the question: “assuming all premises were true, would they support the conclusion?”
In the context of your friend’s chances in the exams, if we assume that she really does like to have a good time and hates school, do they support the conclusion that she will fail her exams? No, because it is perfectly possible for Amy (or anyone else) to like to have a good time, hate school, and still do well in her exams.
It may not have been obvious to see that the inference doesn’t work in the above example; this is because we may often associate having a good time with not focusing on other commitments. Sometimes the quality of an inference is much more obvious.
The inference in (1) is clearly incorrect since someone’s country of origin does not, of itself, tell us anything about their intentions. The inference in (2) is clearly correct since humans are injured by fire and must avoid it in order to remain healthy.
The factual claim and the inferential claim must be evaluated separately if you are going to find out whether or not an argument works.
Here is how the arguments did:
Although we have been stressing that arguments are used very often (perhaps more often than we think), it is important to recognize that many instances of speech and writing are not arguments.
Neither of these offer a premise that is supposed to support a conclusion. The first example is a simple report; the second a warning. They are conveying information, but they are not claiming to prove something. In this sense, they are non-inferential statements.
A group of statements containing both a factual claim or claims and an inferential claim or claims
A claim that some fact or facts obtain in the world
A claim that the premises support the conclusion