Arguments must be convincing and, in order to convince, they must be valid—the minimum requirement of persuasion.
Whatever the field of research, the major claims made by one author or another will be contested. If this does not happen, the assertions in question pass as ipse dixit statements (“he said it”), i.e. unproven statements. But supporting a statement with just any old argument is not enough. An argument must be convincing and, in order to convince, must be, at least, valid—the minimum condition of persuasion. The development of sharp, alert thinking may seem to be the prerogative of the elite, fed by the latest research. On the contrary, reasoning correctly in solving a problem is a basic skill we all should learn, and is necessary in most aspects of life.
Components of an argument
Before seeing how valid arguments are constructed, it is necessary to understand what an argument consists of: a premise, hypothesis, reasons, evidence, and a conclusion.1
How are these elements related in an argument? Every statement has a premise, from which a hypothesis results. This hypothesis is to be tested, and the results are seen in a general assertion related to the argument. In turn, the latter has some reasons behind it. And those reasons are supported by some evidence.
The persuasive nature of an argument depends on the logical relationship between these components. Someone might disagree with the premise—in which case they will not embrace the conclusions—but can still recognize the validity of the argument, given the logical relationship between the components, and especially the soundness of the reasons and evidence. If the premises are true, then the conclusions of a valid argument must also be true.2
However, in order to be valid, arguments must meet several conditions. The first would be that the premises are plausible. For example, if we start from the premise that intra-Christian religious prejudices stand in the way of dialogue between different churches (which sounds credible to most), then we have every chance of being believed and our hypothesis has every chance of being considered. A possible hypothesis could be that the prejudices of the majority are the reason why Protestants in Romania are so little heard in public spaces. The hypothesis must be provable. This is where reasons and evidence come into play. Our hypothesis, in this case, could be true for statistical reasons, based on case studies, each of which requires accompanying evidence, i.e. concrete examples. The conclusion should be derived from the arguments3 and should turn the hypothesis into a thesis—an argument.
It is quite easy to notice that the basis of an argument is its evidence, and then the reasons that are determined by this evidence. If the evidence has serious sources, their importance is greater.
The sources are of two types: primary and secondary. Primary sources will always have priority, because they come from witnesses or writers contemporary to the researched phenomenon. Secondary sources are divided into quality sources and poor sources. Those of quality would be those made by specialists engaged in honest dialogue with primary sources. Also, in almost every field, new discoveries must be taken into account. You can no longer, for example, give your opinion on ancient texts while ignoring the progress of general linguistics, even if the latter is recently developed.
Regarding the reverse of valid arguments, when the premise is hard to believe, even the hypothesis itself cannot be imposed. For example, we cannot assume that “the earth is flat”, or hope that the geocentric hypothesis will be seen as worthy of consideration. Furthermore, the hypothesis is not good if it cannot be proved. This is how Einstein’s hypothesis that space-time curves under the force of gravity sounded for several decades. Only with modern technology has it been possible to confirm, for the time being, that he was right.
I do not think that modern research would accept a hypothesis as easily as the difficult hypotheses proposed by Einstein. Although there was a happy ending in the example given, such cases are as rare as genius. The hypothesis must be immediately provable.
When it comes to the argument itself, if the sentence that expresses it is formulated in vague terms, the argument will be weak and negligible. Thus, if we use words such as: “interesting, important, significant”, which are difficult to assess, we do not affirm much.
We cannot properly evaluate vague statements such as: “Volkswagen is one of the most important car manufacturers”, “Vladimir Putin is going through a significant period in his political career”, “The Bible is a very interesting book” or “Christianity has made an important contribution to the development of the Western world.”
But the reasons we make a statement are what is most important. If they are weak, the whole argument collapses. Let’s say we make the statement, “The end of the world will have come by 2100.” (The premise is that the earth can have an end, if we consider the biblical perspective on eschatology and/or our current capabilities of mass destruction). If our reasons derive from some occult prophecy, predictions about a third world war, the depletion of planetary resources, and the proliferation of disasters in the coming years, we have little chance of convincing our audience, even if we had evidence to support some of these reasons.
Here we reach the most important point—the evidence. If the evidence is of popular origin, motivated by the media, or bypasses contradictory evidence, then our evidence will tend to nullify the force of the reasons it supports. The argument itself, in this case, is doomed to failure. So, if the sources are inadequate, insufficient, and partial, and the reasons are weak, few, or irrelevant, then the argument is invalidated.
Finally, an example
I sense that an example of an argument that follows the rigours suggested in this article might be more useful than a theoretical conclusion. I invite the reader to venture into the area of personal development (very fashionable today), which we will look at through the prism of theology.
Listening to the many personal trainers and motivational speakers addressing the topic of success, I notice a missing ingredient (assuming a ‘missing ingredient’ is the premise of the following argument). The hypothesis is that the missing ingredient has nothing to do with personal efforts. In other words, if we do not achieve success, the reason is not that we did not believe enough in ourselves or that we did not develop properly. I have a few reasons to think so.
There are talented people (intellectually and physically) who do not do well on stage (first reason). Recall that during his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting, for just over $100 (proof). John the Baptist and Jesus died in obscurity. Their fame came after their deaths (proof). There are also mediocre people who are in important positions, the de facto imitators that you meet even where you would not expect them to be (second reason). Solomon said it a long time ago, “Madness is exalted in the highest” (proof from Ecclesiastes 10:6). Solomon states that success comes when personal preparation meets with favourable circumstances (third reason from Ecclesiastes 9:11).4
Therefore, it is not enough to make an effort to be successful. It is vitally important, but it is more important to maintain an attitude of patience and vigilance (conclusion). Whether we listen to politics, learn about religion, or scan social media, it is important to read and listen critically, and evaluate the arguments we are offered.
Laurenţiu-Florentin Moţ, PhD, is associate professor and rector of Adventus University.