Reasoning and Critical Thinking
Instructor: Robert E. Gladd,
An attorney of my acquaintance once remarked that "we spend $100,000 to go to law school for three years to try to learn the meaning of the word 'reasonable'."
Indeed, what does it mean to reason well, i.e., what must we do to arrive at sound conclusions enabling us to make correct (or "best") decisions? In this course, we will learn the basic principles and acquire the intellectual tools that will leave us much better equipped to deal effectively with the endless onslaught of information we will have to evaluate throughout our lives. We will examine the sometimes sly techniques that partisans of every stripe employ to persuade us to their viewpoints. We will learn how to strip away the rhetorical clutter that often obscures the underlying intent and logic of arguments. We will examine the ways in which numerical data -- "statistics" -- are frequently misused or misinterpreted by those advocating one position or another on social, political, economic, or legal issues.
In short we will learn how to think, write, and speak more clearly in defense of our positions and decisions regarding important issues, and we will learn how to fully and honestly evaluate the claims of others. Our goals are to become honest and thoughtful communicators and skillful decisionmakers. They are most important goals.
Why? There are several basic reasons. First, while perhaps as much as 80% of the technical knowledge you acquire during your college years may become obsolete with a decade, solid reasoning and communications skills will serve you well for a lifetime. Second, the world is a dangerous place. There is an endless supply of risks to be evaluated and dealt with, and society unfortunately remains full of people working tirelessly and deceptively to deprive you of both your resources and your liberty by getting you to buy into weak or false arguments shrewdly packaged with persuasive nonsense and/or irrelevance. Finally—and most immediately—, effective and efficient reasoning skills cannot but help you get better grades. A to-the-point, well-constructed, and well-stated argument is a breath of fresh air to your instructors.
My goal is to permanently sharpen the way you think and reason and make decisions.
Once you commit to a decision on a given issue (e.g., that x is good/bad, right/wrong, safe/harmful, etc), the psychological investment is difficult to discard. The tools you will acquire through active study and participation in a course such as this will pay life-long dividends by arming you with the means to get at the core truths and constructive resolutions of important issues you will face throughout your days.
Thinking, 6th Edition
Moore & Parker, 2001, Mayfield Publishing Co., Mt. View, CA.
NOTE: Click on the text cover to go directly to the authors' online Textbook Companion, which is complete with a diagnostic quiz, and reviews/quizzes for each chapter in the text (the URL is http://www.mayfieldpub.com/ct/chapterindex.htm ).
Additional resource: UNLV's WebCT content area for Phi102 is located at http://webct.unlv.edu:8900/webct/public/home.pl
Specific course objectives
We will cover the material in the required text, with an emphasis on Chapters 1-8, and 11-13 (roughly on a pace of a chapter a week, with some doubling up), and will apply the principles we learn by assessing contemporary issues through class discussions and individual writing assignments. Specifically, we will
Code of conduct
I agree with the principles of civil inquiry outlined by Dr. Gratton (Director of the UNLV Critical Thinking curriculum). We will aspire to observe them at all times:
We will have an in-class mid-term exam (25% of grade) and an in-class final exam (25% of grade). There will be four short unannounced pop quizzes. The quizzes will be drawn directly from the review/quiz materials presented in the online study aids, and will comprise 15% of your grade (I will drop the lowest of the 4 quiz scores). You will write an argument essay (an “Op-Ed”) on a secular issue topic of your choosing in which you will display your increasing mastery of critical thinking and solid reasoning techniques and skills. This paper will be due one week before the final exam and will constitute 25% of your grade. The remaining 10% of your grade will come from homework assignments handed in on time after they are announced.
My grading will conform to UNLV requirements. To the extent you all earn "A"s, I succeed. But, you must do your part to earn them. I am available by phone and email always, and will do my utmost to respond quickly to your questions, comments, complaints, and suggestions.
Finally, I expect academic honesty. No plagiarism, please (which I can readily spot). Don't risk an immediate course grade of "F". Just participate actively, and do the work. I will try to make it fun.
If you have a documented disability that may require assistance, contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC), located at Room 137, Reynolds Student Services Complex, phone 895-0866 or TDD 895-0652. On the web see www.unlv.edu/studentserv/disability/.
If you must be absent owing to observance of religious holiday, please let me know ahead of time. All students are responsible for the material presented; missing class will not be accepted as an excuse. The textbook is interesting and an accessible read. The additional online resources are many and comprehensive. Use them.
A few interesting web resources for critical thinking:
For help with effective writing (essential to effective communication of reasoned argument), see www.waldenu.edu/acad-rsrcs/writing-center/
Steve Milloy, "The Junkman"
Critical thinking and effective argument do not have to be dead-pan serious all the time. Click on the picture below for some of Steve Milloy's hilarious takes on dubious and/or poor reasoning in the field of public health.
I go well beyond the textbook and
try to apply its concepts to timely, real-world issues that are of interest
to you, the students. To be able to do that, I require that each of you
think about, write down, rank-order, and hand in a “Top Ten” list of issues
you are most concerned with. These can range from the purely personal all
the way to the large national / global issues of war/peace, human rights,
environment, morality etc. I then tabulate these to get a feel for what
is of most concern to all of you, after which I can choose argument examples
more likely to be of your interest.
OK: "Arguments" are about persuasion. I want to persuade you that my view on some "issue" is correct. So, I make statements that offer some "evidence" to support my claim. My claims may be factual ("truth claims") or they may be pure opinion. I may be simply "blowing smoke."
Also, maybe an "issue" is purely within myself, and not about some political or social topic. Should I buy this DVD unit or that one? Marry this person or that one? Take this job or that one? Take Critical Thinking or some other course at UNLV in its place? Take creatine for my weightlifting or not?
We have to weigh evidence and decide. And, much of the time we don't really give enough thought to what really counts as good evidence.
We discuss in broad terms the concepts of how we reason, noting that there are essentially two methods of trying to determine "truth":
Deductive reasoning: the form of analysis
in which true conclusions must follow from true premises (given
a valid argument structure), and;
Inductive reasoning: wherein we assess how likely it is that some conclusion is true or false.
The latter is also known as "statistical inference," or "reasoning by ("empirical" or data-based) analogy." Inductive reasoning constitutes most of the reasoning we do on a daily basis. We decide that something is "probable" or "unlikely" based on our assessment of the evidence/data presented, knowing -- however dimly -- that we might be wrong in our conclusion.
"Probability" is that branch of math dealing with assessing degrees of uncertainty. Probabilities range from zero ("cannnot happen") to one ("must happen"). Probability is frequently expressed in terms of percentages.
"A Priori" probability deals with fixed alternative outcomes (e.g., the coin toss [1/2] or roll of the die [1/6]), whereas "empirical" probability focuses on data from prior events with which we make decisions about the future (e.g., "30% chance of rain tomorrow; "0.0000001 average risk of your dying in a plane crash.").
There are many ways in which we reason incorrectly with "data", ways in which we misperceive relative risks and benefits. Casino games are the obvious example familiar to Nevadans.
With respect to "deductive" logic, a couple of examples should suffice for now:
If X = 6 and Y = 9, and if Z = X + 2 times Y, then Z must = 24.
To be elected U.S. President, one must minimally
be 35 years old and a natural born U.S. citizen.
George W. Bush is the current U.S. President.
(therefore) Mr. Bush must be at least 35 years old and a natural born U.S. citizen.
In sum, "arguments" are simply assertions of facts that are perhaps in dispute (i.e., there's an "issue" to be resolved constructively). Some argument statements are "premises" that provide the evidence for "conclusions." All complex arguments simply consist of chains of premises and conclusions. It is important to note that some premises are often "unstated." In other words they are "assumptions," and if our assumptions are untrue or doubtful, our conclusions may not hold regardless of whatever explicit premises we may state.
Chapters 1 and 8: the structure of arguments
Chapters 1 and 8 introduce us to the basics regarding issues and argument. We use the tools of reasoning to evauate assertions ("claims") concerning matters of "fact." We have to be careful to differentiate between "factual matters" and matters of pure opinion. Remember that "factual matters" are those for which we can either find objective evidence or conceive of ways to do so, even if we currently lack the methods. For example, the issue of whether biological life exists on other planets is a "factual matter" even though we as yet have essentially no scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life. It's more than just "opinion." We can conceive of the technologies that could in time provide evidence.
So, arguments consist of statements that assert something to be true. Some statements ask us to accept a conclusion, to agree with the person making the assertion.
These are "conclusion" statements. Declarations that provide reasons (evidence) as known as "premises." Always think to yourself "because of this (premise), therefore that (conclusion)".
Some statements are "counter examples" or "objections." Think "despite this (counterexample), still that (conclusion) anyway". A fair-minded and thorough person will ackowledge objections to his/her position, as issues are rarely crystal-clear. Openly acknowledging objections is not only fair-minded, it's a good tactic for persuasion, as it provides you with added credibility in most peoples' eyes.
Lengthy, complex arguments are really nothing more than intricate premise-to-conclusion chains.
CHAPTER 8: Premises can be "independent" or "dependent" where there are more than one arguing for a conclusion. Independent premises are in effect standalone reasons supporting a conclusion, whereas dependent premises are just that: reasons that, taken together, are essentially inseparable parts of one premise. If either/any clause fails the test of truth, the entire premise fails.
"VALID ARGUMENT" An argument can be "valid" in form but not true if the premises, while true, are not relevant to or otherwise binding the conclusion. The text states that a "sound" argument is a valid one whose premises are true and thereby dictate that the conclusion has to be true. Facts, however, have to be relevant and conclusive reasons with respect to the argument. Merely being a "true" statement is not enough. Example:
To be elected U.S. President, one must minimally
be 35 years old and a natural born U.S. citizen.
George W. Bush is more than 35 years old and a natural born U.S. citizen.
(therefore) Mr. Bush is the U.S. President.
This is clearly invalid. All three statements are true, but the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises. It is only deductively true ("necessarily follows") that Mr. Bush is eligible to be President from the prior statements.
Again, most of the argument evaluation we do in the real world has to do with "strong" vs "weak" arguments, i.e., we usually have to deal with incomplete, vague, ambiguous premise information, and the best we can do is decide on the basis of "likelihood" (that a conclusion is true or untrue).
Finally, always be on the lookout for unstated premises (a.k.a. "assumptions").
When you diagram an argument, it is essential to include them, as they
are equally important toward getting at truth.
We use the example of how lawyers are trained to advance an argument. The principles are really no different than those set forth in Chapter Two of our textbook: Preparation/organization, focus, clarity, appropriate brevity. A good lawyer sets out to establish point-by-point her/his case by presenting one strong sub-argument after another until there is (ideally) only one reasonable conclusion left. You and I have to work at this; we often tend to wander about, making our points in sometimes random, stream-of-consciousness fashion, while loading up our claims with a lot of excess linguistic baggage.
REMEMBER: PHIL102 is not and English class, and I am not your English teacher. But clear writing and oral argument skills are inseparable from effective reasoning ability where it concerns making your case to others.
Things to avoid: ambiguity, vagueness (and overblown, irrelevant precision), windiness, rambling, apples-to-oranges data comparisons, reliance on heated language, lack of comprehensiveness (i.e., bias and otherwise leaving pertinent evidence out). Are your definitions of key terms clear to your reader? Many arguments are weakened by using key terms in ways that you intend, but that are not clear to your intended audience.
What tactics help with writing? One method:
In a nutshell: Explanations are used to clarify how or why something is or was, to give reasons describing  the physical attributes  the function, or  the behavior of something. Often, though, "explanation" is a thinly disguised argument for a conclusion that is still at issue. The same verbal and written structures are employed, the same "because this..." "therefore that..." premise-to-conclusion sequences are used. Explanation is only appropriate when then conclusion is agreed upon going in as factual. It gets confusing at times, because explanations are often used within larger arguments.
Just as there are good/bad, strong/weak arguments, so too are there good/bad, strong/weak explanations. Explanations should fully explain, and be testable, non-circular, appropriately precise and comprehensive, reliable, relevant, consistent with well-established knowledge, and so forth. These are covered in detail in your text.
Many explanations take the form of "analogy." An analogy is an explanation
(or argument) where a widely familiar example is posed in order to explain
a more obscure object or concept. Lawyers use analogies all the time when
pleading their cases, i.e., "this case" is like that/those "former case(s)",
so we ought to decide in the same way as way done before.
|Your Op-ed paper
Due the week before finals, (you may hand them in earlier). Remember, the specs are:
NOTE: Yahoo has a convenient OpEd section in their online news portal. See http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/cm/?u
Is it "explanation" or "argument"?
Evaluating informative/argumentative claims (Chapter 3): How do we intuitively assess assertions of fact and the arguments they collectively constitute? Well, we use the yardsticks of
First, personal "observations" must be reconstructed through memory, and we may not always recall accurately what we observed at a prior time. Research has repeatedly shown, for example, that "eyewitness" testimony in court cases is far less accurate than commonly assumed, primarily because eyewitnesses were usually psychologically unprepared for that which they encountered, and then are put under great pressure to give accounts that support the diverging interests of contending parties. More generally, a broad range of psychological and physical factors can degrade our ability to accurately recall prior events.
Second, our "knowledge" of the world is to a degree limited by the implicit assumptions of our cultural and temporal worldview. What an ancient European would have deemed an "obvious" truth would today possibly be considered the height of ignorant superstition. It need not even be "ancient." Not long ago industrial age humans simply "knew" that Newtonian mechanical physics accurately explained the workings of the physical world.
Until Heisenberg and Einstein threw sand in Newton's gears.
Finally, "authority," "experts." Beware. You must ask yourself 'who's footing the bill?' 'What agenda is being pushed (e.g., by the media) beyond getting at objective truth?' 'Is the "expert" testifying outside his/her field of competence?'
What of "expert credentials"? The book speaks of areas such as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments, track record, and so on. Critical thinkers are not automatically wowed by the aura of an expert.
"In God We Trust. All Others Bring Data."
Non-argumentative persuasion (Chapter 4), i.e., how we use "loaded" language to persuade, either to augment or to replace factual evidence. For example, the "euphemism" is the "kinder/gentler" synonym, while the "dysphemism" and "epithet" are harsh words used to cast a negative spin on some argument position or person For example, is the doctor who performs abortions merely an OB/Gyn or a "baby butcher"? Did Bill Clinton conclude a controversial term in office in January 2001, or, as an editorial stated after Mr. Bush's inauguration, a "morally bankrupt reign"?
Why was it so repeatedly necessary, during coverage of the notorious Jessica Williams trial in Las Vegas, for the press to keep pointing out that she was a "former stripper"? Had she been a former Raley's grocery check-out clerk, the media would not have prefaced nearly every mention of her with "former grocery clerk."
We know why, don't we? (we'll revisit this topic in chapters 5 and 6 when we discuss the "poisoning the well" type of ad hominem attack fallacy)
The text lists a number of unethical "slanting" and/or diversionary techniques we should all be aware of, such as use of
Advertising has evolved persuasive pseudo-reasoning into a fine art and sophisicated science. Advertisers play on our fears on inadequacy. We'll be more attractive and less vulnerable if we just buy this product. We'll be more "Like Mike." We'll be on the beach in paradise with a sexy companion. We'll be healthier, wealthier, and happier...
"Nothing works better than Advil."
Uhh.hh...do they mean that their product is no better than those of their competitors? Or that, if we take no drug at all, we'll feel better than if we take Advil?
Deliberate ambiguity at work. Ad company lawyers won't permit precise
Chapters 5 and 6 deal with a broad range of categories of "pseudoreasoning,"
which involves appeals to emotion, factual irrelevancies (i.e., claims
that may be true,
but not relevant to a conclusion), and other persuasive techniques that induce us to draw conclusions without proper factual evidence to support them. The
Don't hold your breath. Instead, you will have to learn to recognize
all these distractions.
Chapter 11: Inductive Generalizations
"Inductive" arguments. MOST of the reasoning we have to do throughout
our lives involves weighing incomplete evidence and drawing conclusions
that might be correct, but maybe not. We're talking about probability now, and arguments that run from very strong to very weak.
Much of the time we're using samples of information ("data") from the past to infer that the same or similar outcome will once again occur, given the similarities of current (or predicted) circumstances to past circumstances. This is "reasoning by analogy" or "empirical reasoning."
Key terms: "sample", "target class" (a.k.a. "population"), "characteristic of interest," "hasty generalization."
Chapter 11 addresses some of the pitfalls, such as insufficient sample size, or biased samples. There's also a good discussion of the problems inherent in "polling," i.e., gathering data by surveys, such as the call-in "self-selecting" type, the telephone survey, "man-in-the-street" survey, "push-poll," etc. A push-poll is really an argument designed to influence your opinion, disguised as a "poll."
See in particular pages 373-377. The second section of Chapter 11 focuses on "analogical reasoning." Simply, using "analogies" that compare attributes from one thing/situation to another and make inferences based on the extent of similarities.
Remember a central distinction made in this chapter:
The gamblers' fallacy: Wrongly assuming that independent
events are causally related when they are not. The basis for the entire
"Causal argument," is really about the "scientific method." We look at
We could spend an entire semester on the concepts and technical details contained in these two chapters, but time will not permit such. The important point to take away from this material is that we use these methods to help assess the validity (or invalidity), and subsequently the soundness of deductive arguments. Recall that deductive arguments purport to prove something either true or false, whereas inductive arguments provide evidence for the likelihood ("probability") that a conclusion is true or false.
RECAP: A "valid" argument form is one wherein a true conclusion must follow from true premises. A "sound" argument is one in which the premises are in fact true (meaning the conclusion is also true). An argument in which the premises are true yet the conclusion is false is formally "invalid".
Pay particular attention to the standard categorical claim forms presented in Chapter 9:
Review "The Square of Opposition" on page 301.
Syllogistic forms: A standard logical "syllogism" is an argument form containing two premise claims followed by a conclusion claim. Recall our earlier example:
BASIC SYLLOGISTIC FORMS: Modus
Ponens, Modus Tollens,
For openers, we've just look at some basics of "science." Now we will discuss topics like "morality." Can we ever hope to reconcile and combine central concepts of religion and science, or are they to remain intractably at odds? One remarkable thinker has written eloquently and forcefully in this area, the American philosopher Ken Wilber. I heartily recommend his recent book "The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion" (Click the cover for an online sample).
We will also find much conceptual overlap on these topics. Again, as I've stated before, we put things in categories for convenience, but in the real world things frequently blur at the margins. It is commonplace, for example that people who find certain types of art (the "aesthetic") offensive on moral grounds will attempt to get the legal authorities (the police, legislators, etc.) to suppress such works. We've this very phenomenon recently regarding the wildly popular Harry Potter books and new movie. Last year it was Eminem ("racist", "homophobic"," misogynistic", etc.), before him the artist Robert Mapplethorpe who did (among other deliberately outrageous things) the controversial photos of a Crucifix in a container of urine...and so on back through time.
Historical underpinnings and main philosophies of moral reasoning
Relativism – the assertion that “morality” is largely a product of era and culture. At its most extreme is total “subjectivism,” wherein it is asserted that there are no objective central truths, that all moral concepts are subjective. The problem here is that, if the assertion is true, it must also be false.
Utilitarianism – the philosophy that posits maximizing happiness or benefit to the greatest number as its core motive. Many issues are indeed argued on cost/benefit grounds.
Duty Theory/Deontology – in many ways similar to “the Golden Rule,” i.e., that which is good is that which is good for all, and that we all have a duty to act in such a way, to see others as ends in themselves rather than a means to our ends. We should obey laws and moral principles out of a sense of "duty" to that which is good for all, not out of fear of consquences. Immanuel Kant is cited here as a principal philosopher.
Divine Command Theory – This school of thought seeks to end moral speculations of the “infinite regress” sort by positing that there must some “First Principles” we are ultimately bound to, and that such principles come from the Creator.
Virtue Ethics – Aristotle argued that ethics should be concerned with how to be in the world, and that virtuous acts would result from a devotion to habituating oneself to virtuous character. “Habituation” is key here. Aristotle and his followers insist that becoming “virtuous” (“just”, “kind”, “temperate”, “brave”, “generous”, etc) could only result from repeatedly doing virtuous deeds – habituation.
Basic strains of legal reasoning
Legal Moralism – we’ve all heard the assertion that “you can’t legislate morality.” Maybe so, but that doesn’t stop authorities from trying. Laws forbidding homosexual practices or mere recognition are an example.
The Harm Principle – laws which prevent people from overtly harming others are the only laws which can be justified.
Legal Paternalism – Bike helmets, seat belts, required packaging warning labels are common examples of paternalistic legal reasoning and policies – laws that protect us from ourselves. There’s a corollary of of moral utilitarianism here, on the grounds that the costs of individual losses are in part borne by society, which therefore has the right to minimize such harms.
The Offense Principle – many people are deeply offended by derogatory symbolic acts such as flag burning or other acts of political and cultural mockery. Laws aimed at suppressing such deeds fall into this category.
Two types of law
Statutory law – that which comes out of governing bodies such as legislatures or the Congress.
Case Law – once statutes are enacted, they very soon come
under the scrutiny of courts which have to resolve disputes pertaining
to them. Court decisions that clarify or nullify statutes become “case
law.” Most of what you pay a lawyer for, should you requires the services
of one, is the time spent on case law research. The attorney is looking
for legal analogies that are used as premises for an argument that
the court should rule in your favor.
Can we "reason" over aesthetics? Or is this area simply one of subjective opinions? Matters of "taste"? Summarizing Moore and Parker in Chapter 13; art is thought to be "valuable" if it  reflects ideals important to the culture from which it emanates,  conveys important truths,  helps bring about political and social change -- by portraying injustices fictionally in ways that change public opinion (and eventually policies) without directly challenging authority, and  enables people to change their perspectives and see the world in a new and more constructive light.
Well, yes, But such evaluative principles still do not allay aesthetic controversies. Are "Gangsta Rapper" films merely reflections of the brutal reality of ghetto life -- where the authorities are often justifiably viewed with fear and suspicion? Does Eminem's unsparingly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic (women-hating) work simply reflect the views of a large segment of our young population? Are erotic artworks simply expressions of widely held fantasies regarding a primal human impulse? Or, do such push-the-envelope artistic works actually cause (or at least contribute to) urban violence, gay-bashing, rape, and "a decline of moral standards"? We have discussed these problems in class, noting that they overlap with moral and legal reasoning areas, because we have a long documented history of people using the legal system to try to suppress art works that offend the majority culture's moral preferences.
One thing Moore and Parker omitted: Aesthetics as part of the design
qualities of products. The discussion in Chapter 13 was limited to "art"
per se. But, what of the aesthetics of products? i.e., everything from
architecture to auto design to ad layout. Obviously at lot of attention
is paid to design aesthetics in the interest of making products "desirable."
Commercial artists have a pretty good grip on what makes for attractive/persuasive
design. Moore and Parker should have at least mentioned this, and summarized
some of the more "objective" principles that guide effective designers
(e.g., contrast, balance, economy, direction, rhythm, emphasis, unity).
A good website through which to explore these topics is www.graphicdesignbasics.com.