As a leader of a church group in my home, I was recently tasked with identifying reading material that is suitable for an intelligent audience without formal theological or philosophical training. My group consists of some people who work at companies including Apple, Google, Ebay in either the business side or in the engineering side. There are members who have a science background, e.g., having worked in a lab. It is a diverse group.
In general, before two or more individuals have a discussion over arguments about some topic, it seems to me a pretty good idea that the individuals should understand something about identifying, evaluating, and constructing arguments. For this reason, I wanted to consider Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s new book, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. In the past I have taught a critical thinking course using his coauthored book, Understanding Arguments, which I liked very much. What difference is there between these works?
Understanding Arguments is textbook that serves as an introduction to informal logic. It also covers areas of deductive arguments including propositional logic and categorical syllogism. There is also the standard material covering truth tables, deductive inference, and some content about the role of language (e.g., Gricean maxims) that are pertinent to the interpretation of arguments. This is all very good for a ten week course where readings and problem sets can be assigned. It is less ideal for a group of parents and people with full time jobs who have the ability to leave the group at any time.
Think Again is more of a primer on arguments without as much of the formalization. It is for the average person who wants to gain something from reading a book about how to think well without having to study jargon and technical details that are almost entirely in used in academic works. The average person, I suspect, is likely to become bored with the jargon and find the abstraction of symbolic logic mostly unnecessary. Jargon is boring, after all, except to the dilettante who believes that expressions of jargon showcase deep knowledge. Furthermore, it seems to me that most interesting arguments are not resolved by thinking about them through variables. Of course, formalization is sometimes a relevant and important tool for clarifying arguments, as Frege, Whitehead, Russell, and others have shown. But it is common to see intellectually immature persons employ formalization without adding clarity to the discussion.
I would guess that there are probably around a couple hundred books available for logic, critical reasoning, and how to think well, which are aimed at students and lay persons. I am not thinking of advanced books in logic – the sort of books that mostly logicians and a few other specialists read. What value does Sinnott-Armstrong’s book add if it is only a primer? It is a question that he had to consider as an author. And he tells us the answer in the preface. He taught courses at Dartmouth College and Duke University for over thirty-five years.
While my students learned to argue, the rest of the world lost that skill. The level of discourse and communication in politics and also in personal life has reached new lows. During election years, my course has always discussed examples of arguments during presidential debates. During the 1980s, I had no trouble finding arguments on both sides in the debates. Today all I find are slogans, assertions, jokes, and gibes but very few real arguments. I see dismissals, put-downs, abuse, accusations, and avoiding the issue more than actual engagement with problems that matter. There might be fewer protests in the streets today than in the 1960s, but there are still fewer serious attempts to reason together and understand each other…. My goal is to show what arguments are and what good they can do. This book is not about winning arguments or beating opponents. Instead, it is about understanding each other and appreciating strong evidence. It teaches logic instead of rhetorical tricks. (xi – xii)
I share Sinnott-Armstrong’s sentiment here. When the internet started to become a more popular tool in the 1990s, before blogs there were message boards, email lists, and AOL chatrooms. The chatroom forum was interesting because there was clearly a mix of people who could not follow arguments and those who could. In fact, I came across a few people in AOL chatrooms and subsequently over AOL Messenger who went on to become professional philosophers, members of the APA. Eventually came organization around some of that with platforms like Yahoo Groups. It was in those venues where I started to cut my teeth on understanding arguments, eventually going on to the universities. There were people who tried to argue but who could not; there was a small minority who came to be known as trolls; there were lots of lurkers; and there were those who had clear command of the issues and arguments. Today we have Facebook – if you can still stomach to use that, I cannot. Even among some professional philosophers on that platform, there are topics where they seem incapable of evaluating or constructing arguments instead of throwing mud, especially when it comes to matters political (which these days includes almost everything). In my experience, I’ve found Christian philosophers and apologists also have a cognitive breakdown and resort to jokes when they cannot explain or even articulate a position they say they reject. Of course people will say they understand the issues, but the continual misrepresentation and abundance of virtue signaling makes this all very doubtful to me. Good arguments that are interesting and deep, arguments that add to the repository of knowledge rather than merely repeating arguments (if arguments instead of slogans and jokes), are less common. So it seems to me.
In this context, a very nice feature of Think Again is that Sinnott-Armstrong pulls examples from both political parties. He identifies examples from the 2016 Presidential election of abuse (e.g., “Little Marco”), things people would say about the opposing positions regarding Brexit (e.g., by German Chancellor Angela Merkel), the idea of silencing one’s opponents which has been a disease in academia for about a decade now. Sinnott-Armstrong is aimed at advancing the value of arguments; there is not an agenda against a specific group. He even treats respectfully those who contribute to the degradation of America. His hope is that if we can get people on board with valuing arguments, then this will help as a small part of the remedy needed at this time. People can be more humble as they address complicated topics; they can see their intellectual “opponents” as contributors to their own learning.
The ability to argue well is a skill; it is a learned behavior. The remainder of the book is guide the reader down the path to reach this goal. It will address questions like the following:
What argument is being presented? What are the premises and the conclusion? Is there even an argument or merely an assertion? Is the arguer assuming a plausible implicit premise instead of making an argument that is in some way defective? How should the argument be evaluated? If the argument is inductive, what sort of inductive inference is being made? Is the inference strong or not? Is there likely an informal fallacy present because, suppose, the arguer was unclear about which reference class was relevant? What are some of the common patterns of fallacious argument?
I’ll highlight a couple remaining points worthy of highlighting in this book. First is the definition of an argument. Building off the witty Monty Python sketch, The Argument Clinic, Sinnott-Armstrong proposes the following definition: an argument is a connected series of statements intended to present a reason for a proposition. (81) It follows from this definition that explanations count as arguments. Not everyone understands explanations in this way.
Another point worth highlighting is that in the section on fallacious arguments, Sinnott-Armstrong raises the neglected point that ad hominem may be appropriate. He writes, “Spectators do not have the right to speak during parliamentary debates, no matter how reliable they would be if they did speak. You really should not trust someone who failed physics but takes a strong stand on a controversy in physics.” (185) Sometimes who is making the argument matters to whether we should believe the conclusion of the argument on the basis of the premises asserted by the arguer. Alan Dershowitz last year tweeted that ad hominems do not respond to serious arguments. He is right. But I distinctly remember at least a decade ago he was a panelist on CNN and making a case against another person testifying about some matter. The host, who I do not recall now, pointed out that Dershowitz made an ad homimen and ad hominems are fallacies. Dershowitz responded, “Yes, it is ad hominem. But it is only fallacious if it is not justified.”  It is a tricky matter of when ad hominems are justified and when they are not. Probably they are unjustified more often than not, as is evidenced by the way Republicans and Democrats speak about each other. But clearly sometimes ad hominems are justified and Sinnott-Armstrong is right to not ignore this possibility.
One last highlight. Sinnott-Armstrong says that we should not be quick to accuse opponents of fallacies, or as he says, “abusing opponents with names of fallacies.” (198) For one thing, he writes, the labels do not help anyone understand the issues. “When making accusations of fallacies becomes a knee-jerk reaction without thought, they cease to be illuminating and instead become annoying and polarizing.” (ibid) Well, sadly enough, there are a lot of annoying and polarizing people out there. And for that reason, let me end with a point that I wish the author spent a little more time on regarding this.
When a person starts learning these fallacies, the fallacies can become as if arrows in a person’s quiver. Young philosophy students are often guilty of this. You can also find Christian apologists, who attempt to imitate relatively famous Christian philosophers, doing the same thing. My read on what is happening is that some people think that by being able to name these fallacies, they think they have the appearance of being reasonable. But really this is the appearance of being annoying. Of course there are arguments that are guilty of logical fallacies, but I’d wager that the likelihood of these obviously erroneous moves occurring among veterans of complicated arguments is low. When their arguments fail, they fail for more interesting and substantive reasons. Sinnott-Armstrong, for example, is an atheist. His views about ethics (metaethical certainly, maybe normatively, probably in applied) differ from mine. Although he does not show his political cards in this book, just based on the polling of views of among philosophers I doubt he shares my political views. He and I would have plenty about which to disagree. But I would be surprised if an argument of his contained a dumb fallacious mistake. He is human and so it is not impossible for him to do that, nor that I might either. But making the charge of a fallacy is one of the last places I would go in an evaluation of his arguments. Unfortunately, for many it is the first place to go. Partly this is because memorizing names of fallacies is easy. Partly this is because comprehending and getting at the real issues is difficult; it is not a skill learned just by having a degree, a certificate, or having read a book. I think this sort of pseudo-intellectualism is a real problem inside Christendom, but one can see this sort of annoying tactic in those who followed the new atheists and now, I’m starting to learn, in street epistemologists (as they call themselves). I wish Sinnott-Armstrong, were he to release a second edition, might meditate a bit on this phenomenon of inviting the learning of arguing for the purpose of wielding power over others.
I started by saying that I had to choose a book for a church group. I decided to go with another work. But there were certainly times when I wished I had chosen Sinnott-Armstrong’s Think Again. I strongly recommend this book, especially as a gift for every person holding a political job and or position in authority.
 I could not find this clip. If someone ever sees this, please send me the link.