Reasoning for the Digital Age
How to fool and be fooled, arguments, premises, and conclusions, defining an argument.
Argument: vas is das? For most of us when we hear the word ‘argument’ we think of something we’d rather avoid. As it is commonly understood, an argument involves some sort of unpleasant confrontation (well, maybe not always unpleasant–it can feel pretty good when you win!). While this is one notion of ‘argument,’ it’s (generally) not what the term refers to in philosophy.
In philosophy, by argument we mean a set of reasons offered in support of a claim. An argument, in this narrower sense, also implies some sort of structure. For now we’ll ignore the structural aspects and focus on the two primary elements that make up an argument: premises and conclusions.
Let’s talk about conclusions first because their definition is pretty simple. A conclusion is the final claim that is supported with evidence and reasons. We can also think of it as the claim that the arguer is trying to get the audience to believe. The relationship between premises and conclusions is important. Premises are reasons and evidence that support the conclusion. In a good argument, we say that a conclusion follows from the premises . Let’s consider a simple example:
Claim: Plato drinks beer. Premise 1: All philosophers drink beer. Premise 2: Plato is a philosopher. Conclusion: Therefore, Plato drinks beer.
Notice that so long as we accept Premise 1 and Premise 2 as true, then we must also accept the conclusion. This is what we mean by “the conclusion ‘follows’ from the premises.”
Let’s examine premises a little more closely. A premise is any reason or evidence that supports the argument’s conclusion. In the context of arguments we can use ‘reasons’, ‘evidence’, and ‘premises’ interchangeably.
Let’s look at another example:
Claim: Dogs are better pets than cats. (P1) Dogs are generally more affectionate than cats and (P2) Dogs are more responsive to their owners’ commands than cats. From my two premises, I infer my conclusion that (C) Dogs are better pets than cats.
Let’s return to the definition of an argument. Notice that in the definition, I’ve said that arguments are a set of reasons. While this isn’t always true, generally a good argument will have more than one premise.
Heuristics for Identifying Premises and Conclusions
A heuristic is a rule of thumb. Rules of thumb don’t always work but when used in conjunction with others, they are more reliable than just guessing how to do something. In this section we’ll learn four heuristics to identify conclusions.
The easiest way to go about decomposing arguments is to first try to find the conclusion. This is a good strategy because there is usually only one conclusion so, if we can identify it, it means the rest of the passage is made up of premises. For this reason, most of the heuristics focus on finding the conclusion.
Heuristic 1: Look for the most controversial statement in the argument. The conclusion will generally be the most controversial statement in the argument. If you think about it, this makes sense. Typically arguments proceed by moving from assertions (i.e., premises) the audience agrees with then showing how these assertions imply something that the audience might not have previously agreed with.
Heuristic 2: The conclusion is usually a statement that takes a position on an issue. By implication, the premises will be reasons that support the position on the issue (i.e., the conclusion). A good way to apply this heuristic is to ask “what is the arguer trying to get me to believe?”. The answer to this question is generally going to be the conclusion.
Heuristic 3: The conclusion is usually (but not always) the first or last statement of the argument.
Heuristic 4: The “because” test. Use this method when you’re having trouble figuring which of 2 statements is the conclusion. The “because” test helps you figure out which statement is supporting which. Recall that the premise(s) always supports the conclusion. This method is best explained by using an example. Suppose you encounter an argument that goes something like this:
It’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit. It tastes delicious. Also, lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer.
Suppose you’re having trouble deciding what the conclusion is. You’ve eliminated “it tastes delicious” as a candidate but you still have to choose between “it’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit” and “lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer”. To use the ‘because’ test, read one statement after the other but insert the word “because” between the two and see what makes more sense. Let’s try the two possibilities:
A: It’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit because lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer. B: Lots of facebook posts say that amazonian jungle fruit cures cancer because it’s a good idea to eat lots of it.
Which makes more sense? Which is providing support for which? The answer is A. Lots of facebook posts saying something is a reason (i.e. premise) to believe that it’s a good idea to eat amazonian jungle fruit–despite the fact that it’s not a very good reason…
Identifying the Premises
Identifying the premises once you’ve identified the conclusion is cake. Whatever isn’t contained in the conclusion is either a premise or “filler” (i.e., not relevant to the argument). We will explore the distinction between filler and relevant premises a bit later, so don’t worry about that distinction for now.
Example 1 Gun availability should be regulated. Put simply, if your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re more likely to kill you than if they don’t have access. Interestingly, this turned out to be true not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too. http://listverse.com/2013/04/21/10-arguments-for-gun-control/
Ok, lets try heuristic #1. What’s the most controversial statement? For most Americans, it is probably that “gun availability should be regulated.” This is probably the conclusion. Just for fun let’s try out the other heuristics.
Heuristic #2 says we should find a statement that takes a position on an issue. Hmmm… the issue seems to be gun control, and “gun availability should be regulated” is taking a position. Both heuristics converge on “gun availability should be regulated.”
Heuristic #3 says the conclusion will usually be the first or last statement. Guess what? Same result as the other heuristics.
A: Gun availability should be regulated because people with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you. Or B: People with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you because gun availability should be regulated.
A is the winner. The conclusion in this argument is well established. It follows that what’s left over are premises (support for the conclusion):
(P1) If your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re more likely to kill you than if they don’t have access. (P2) Studies show that P1 is true, not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too. (C) Gun availability should be regulated.
Let’s try another example:
Example 2 If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns. This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage. Gun control is a bad idea.
Heuristic #1: What’s the most controversial statement? Probably “gun control is a bad idea.”
Heuristic #2: Which statement takes a position on an issue? “Gun control is a bad idea.”
Heuristic #3: “Gun control is a bad idea” is last and also passed heuristic 1 and 2. Probably a good bet as the conclusion.
A: If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns because gun control is a bad idea. OR B: Gun control is a bad idea because if you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns.
The winner is B, therefore, “gun control is a bad idea” is the conclusion.
All 4 heuristics point to “gun control is a bad idea” as being the conclusion therefore we can safely infer that the other statements are premises:
(P1) If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns.
(P2) This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage. (C) Gun control is a bad idea.
Also, many arguments can also contain what are called ‘hidden’, ‘unstated,’ or ‘assumed’ premises. To understand the notion of a hidden premise let’s return to the argument about dogs.
(P1) Dogs are generally more affectionate than cats and (P2) Dogs are more responsive to their owners’ commands than cats. (C) Dogs are better pets than cats.
Look at (P1). Can you find the hidden premise? Here it is: (HP1) If a pet is more affectionate then it is a better pet than a less affectionate one. This is an assumption that displays the values of the arguer. (Note: hidden premises might not always be about values.)
However, there may be people who don’t value affection as a marker of being a good pet. Maybe for some people what makes a good pet is that it is clean or self-reliant. So, a huge part of being a good critical thinker is to look beyond the stated premises and to try to find the assumed premises. When we do this, the task of assessing the relative strength and weaknesses of an argument’s premises (and, in turn, the argument itself) becomes much easier.
A cat lover could now counter the dog-as-better-pets argument by showing that the hidden assumption upon which the relevance of (P1) relies isn’t necessarily true, and therefore the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow.
So, the cat lover can show that (C) (dogs are better than cats) doesn’t necessarily follow from (P1) (dogs are more affectionate than cats) because (P1) is only relevant to the conclusion if we also assume that affection-giving is a necessary determinant of being a good pet. In other words, the dog proponent’s argument only works if we also accept their hidden assumption/premise.
However, showing that (C) doesn’t follow from (P1) doesn’t mean (C) is false, nor does it show the contrary, that cats are better pets than dogs. It only shows that “dogs are better pets than cats” can’t be established through this particular argument or at least not without further argument.
In other words, it could very well be true that dogs are better pets than cats but this argument doesn’t show it. In order to prove that dogs are better than cats we’d need a different argument or support for the hidden premise.
This brings us to an interesting point which I’ll discuss in the next section: systems of belief, biases, and values. When (as often happens) arguments involve values, evaluating an argument as ‘true’ or ‘false’ becomes difficult because it is an open question whether a value (that is supporting a major premise or conclusion) can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
This is more a question for ethics, but as far as being good critical thinkers goes, it is extremely important to be able to recognize when and how a premise or conclusion is ultimately supported by a value judgement, bias, or system of belief. The next post will give an overview of systems of belief, biases, and values, and their role in arguments and critical thinking.
An argument is a set of reasons or evidence offered in support of a claim.
A premise is an individual reason or piece of evidence offered in support of a conclusion.
A conclusion is the claim that follows from or is supported by the premise(s).
Key ideas: 1) Just because a conclusion is true, it doesn’t mean that the argument in support of the conclusion is a good one (i.e. valid). Truth and justification are two different things! 2) Be on the alert for hidden premises!
A. Basic Practice
(1) Identify the conclusion and premises of each of the following arguments then rewrite the argument in standard premise-conclusion form. To save time you don’t need to write full sentences, just the first three words of each sentence. (2) Explain which heuristic(s) you used identify the conclusion.
Example: (a) If you want to be in good shape you should drink beer. (b) For example, Mary drinks beer and she’s in good shape. (c) Also, Mike drinks beer and he’s also fit.
- P1 For example, Mary…
- P2 Also, Mike drinks…
- C If you want…
- I think (a) is the conclusion because it’s controversial (heuristic 1), it’s the first statement (heuristic 3).
- (a) Slandering the spouse or family of a presidential candidate is bullshit. (b) Unless you want politics to devolve into pure playground name-calling, you need to cut it out. (c) Also, slander reduces the possibility for civil dialogue and political compromise.
- (a) I’m here to do just two things: think logically and chew bubblegum. (b) And I’m all out of bubblegum. (c) Therefore, I’m here to think logically.
- (a) Over the summer I got totally shredded because I took Hydroxy Cut. (b) Hydroxy Cut contains a proven energy-enhancing ingredient (caffeine anhydrous) that’s been shown in scientific studies to deliver energy after just one dose!!!111!!! (c) If you want to get shredded you should take it too.
- (a) Tupac is still alive. (b) I know this because I saw a video on youtube that showed proof!!!1111!!! (c) And there’s no way that picture was photoshopped. (d) Plus, I can just feel it.
- (a) First of all, if you’re just trying to get drunk taste shouldn’t matter. (b) And second, even if you don’t like the taste you wont notice it after just a few drinks. (c) If you’re just looking to get drunk you should buy the cheapest liquor possible.
- (a) Nick Diaz should have won the second fight against MacGregor. (b) For 3 of the 5 rounds Diaz controlled MacGregor against the fence. (c) He also probably landed more shots. (d) Besides, even if MacGregor won the 1st round, it wasn’t a 10-8 round.
- (a) We won’t take attendance tomorrow because it’s the first day. (b) Also, John won’t be there. (c) Besides it wouldn’t be fair to enforce a rule unless students know the rule first.
- (a) The whole thing [election] is rigged. (b) The DNC didn’t want Bernie to win regardless. (c) Look at every state that had voter suppression. (d) They don’t care about what the majority of the people want.
- (a) Tea has some health benefits that coffee doesn’t. (b) Therefore, generally you should drink tea instead of coffee. (c) Besides, coffee can give you coffee breath. (d) And I’ve never heard anyone complain about tea breath.
- (a) I’m mean, seriously, I didn’t come to university to just learn stuff. (b) I’m here for points. (c) And besides, how do I know if I’m winning or not if no one is keeping score? (d) Professors shouldn’t assign anything unless it’s for credit.
- (a) Zoolander 2 was a complete disappointment. (b) Almost all the good jokes were in the trailer. (c) Also, whatever jokes weren’t in the trailer weren’t very funny.
- (a) If you’re gonna eat pizza you should eat the best pizza. (b) First of all, pizza should be a treat not a regular meal. (c) Also, even though some people think there’s no such thing as bad pizza, they’re wrong. (d) I’ve tried bad pizza and I ended up feeling really disappointed.
- (a) When the new Iphone came out it came with a free download of a U2 album. (b) People started complaining. (c) WTF? Free music isn’t a reason to complain. (d) People are whiny little babies.
- (a) Economic theory supposes human beings are rational and will always act in their own self interest. (b) But this is false. (c) For example, it isn’t in your best interest to be checking your twitter/FB/instagram/snapchat while you’re doing your homework but you’re doing it anyway. (d) Policies fail because they assume economic theory is correct.
- (a) If you don’t eat your meat you can’t have any pudding. (b) You didn’t eat your meat. (c) So, no pudding for you.
B. Critical Thinking in the “Real” World
1. Find 2 short arguments (good, bad, or ugly) from any of the following sources: (a) Comments section in social media, (b) comments section of an article, (c) part of an article. Try find arguments with no more than 3 main premises.
2. (a) Copy-pasta the argument as it appeared “in the wild” then (b) rewrite it in standard premise-conclusion form.
C. Critical Thinking About Your Life
Answer only questions 1 and 2, and be prepared to discuss them in your recitation section.
Read the following article: https://aeon.co/essays/can-students-who-are-constantly-on-their-devices-actually-learn 1. (a) Why does the author think digital technology damages critical thinking?
(b) Suggest some ways to counter these effects.
From the article:
A California State University study monitored middle-, high-school and college students who had been instructed to research something important for 15 minutes. Two minutes in, students’ focus started to wane as they checked messages, texts and various websites. The average student lasted six minutes before caving to the temptation to engage in social media. Despite being watched, students spent only approximately 65 per cent of the allotted time studying. Given that most students spend far longer than 15 minutes trying to do coursework, it’s easy to see how little gets done, and how checking messages or opening up another browser tab would be increasingly difficult to resist, especially if we tell ourselves it’s related to work or study.
In respect to this problem, at least some students seem to have some self-awareness of the problem. One student wrote:
I constantly procrastinate, leaving huge chunks of writing until the last minute, or sometimes until a few minutes past the last minute… Even now, on the last, easiest assignment, I left it until the last minute, and am still procrastinating. It’s 3 in the morning, and instead of consistently working on my portfolio, I’m watching a video review of a hammock. I’ve never even used a hammock. I have a serious problem in making myself do work, and even I’m not entirely sure why. Even when the work interests me, as [this class] does, and the work is important, I am still bizarrely capable of feeling absolutely no compulsion to work.
Suppose you want to give advice to this student. What sort of strategies and tips would you offer them to avoid distraction while they do homework and study?
3. Some people might make the following argument: If students are distracted in class, it’s the teacher’s fault. Teachers need to make the class so interesting that students will want to pay attention instead of look at their connected devices.
(a) Regardless of your own position, consider at least one way someone could reply to this argument.
(b) Consider both the original argument and your hypothetical reply from (a). Which position do you think is better justified? Defend your position with reasons and arguments.
4. Some people might make the following argument: Students or students’s families are paying for the education. Since they are paying, there’s no obligation for the student to pay attention in class. It’s no different from if I pay to download a movie. If I want to text during the movie and miss out, that’s my choice.
(a) What two activities are being compared in the argument?
(b) In what relevant ways are the activities different from each other?
(c) Construct a counter-argument by appealing to the differences between the two activities being compared.
(d) Do you agree that paying tuition removes a student’s obligation to pay attention in class? Is there any obligation for students to pay attention? Support your answer.
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Home » Language » What are Premises and Conclusions in an Argument
What are Premises and Conclusions in an Argument
In the field of critical thinking, an argument is a statement or a group of statements that includes at least one premise and conclusion. Therefore, it can be said that premises and conclusions are the building blocks of an argument.
Let’s see what they are in detail here.
What is a Premise in an Argument
A premise is a statement in an argument that provides evidence or reasons to form a conclusion. It contains the information that leads your audience to believe that your argument is true. An argument can have one or more premises.
What is a Conclusion in an Argument
A conclusion in an argument is the statement the premises support; it indicates what the arguer is trying to prove to his audience. An argument can have only one conclusion.
Let’s describe the two terms, premise and conclusion, using some examples.
Examples of Premise and Conclusion
- Since small fish is rich in calcium, it follows that your body will benefit if you eat them.
The above argument can be categorized into two parts: premise and conclusion. The premise is that small fish is rich in calcium; the conclusion is that your body will benefit if you eat them. This argument has only one premise.
Note that this argument can be also written as follows.
Your body will benefit from eating small fish because it is a rich source of calcium.
Here, the conclusion is presented first and the premise is connected to it by the linking word because . It is important to remember that the conclusion and the premise have no set order in an argument.
Given below are some more examples of arguments with their premises and conclusions.
- I have heard that cats with long hair have lots of fleas. They also shed all over the house, so you should not get a long-haired cat.
Premise 1: Cats with long hair have lots of fleas.
Premise 2: Cats with long hair shed all over the house
Conclusion: Don’t get a cat with long hair
- He is not good at his work, so he doesn’t deserve a raise.
Premise: He is not good at his work.
Conclusion: He doesn’t deserve a raise.
- No one under eighteen-years-old can vote. Jim cannot vote because he is not yet eighteen.
Premise 1: No one under eighteen-years-old can vote
Premise 2: Jim is under eighteen.
Conclusion: Jim cannot vote.
5. A good society treasures its dissidents and mavericks because it needs the creative thinking that produces new hypotheses, expanded means, a larger set of alternatives, and, in general, the vigorous conversation induced by fresh ideas. (Nel Noddings, Philosophy of Education , 1995)
Premise: A good society needs creative thinking that produces new hypotheses, expanded means, a larger set of alternatives, and, in general, the vigorous conversation induced by fresh ideas.
Conclusion: A good society treasures its dissidents and mavericks.
How to Differentiate Premise and Conclusion in an Argument
Look at the indicator words.
The easiest way to distinguish premises and conclusions in an argument is to learn their indicator words. Indicator words, also known as joining words, act as transitional words between ideas; the transitional words that occur with premises and conclusions are not the same.
Some examples of indicator words that can be found with premises include because, since, given that, considering that, but, and, or, etc.
Some examples of indicator words and phrases that can be found with conclusions include, therefore, thus, which follows that, consequently, so, hence, etc.
- A premise in an argument is the part that supports the conclusion with evidence and reasons.
- A conclusion in an argument is the main point the arguer is trying to prove.
- An argument can contain one conclusion and one or more premises.
About the Author: Hasa
Hasanthi is a seasoned content writer and editor with over 8 years of experience. Armed with a BA degree in English and a knack for digital marketing, she explores her passions for literature, history, culture, and food through her engaging and informative writing.
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How to Identify Premises, Conclusions on the LSAT
Learn a crucial skill for logical reasoning and reading comprehension questions.
LSAT. Identifying Premises, Conclusions
If you want to boost your LSAT score quickly, learning to spot premises and conclusions on logical reasoning questions is an effective way. (Getty Images)
The LSAT includes three main sections: logical reasoning, reading comprehension and analytical reasoning. Each of these sections relies on specific skills or strategies. For example, the analytical reasoning section requires you to know how to set up a logic game .
And to do well on the analytical reasoning section, you’ll also need to understand common questions the LSAT asks about logic games , as well as advanced tactics tailored to specific logic game scenarios.
On the other hand, some skills are useful across multiple sections. One of the most fundamental skills LSAT takers need to master is how to divide an argument into premises and conclusions.
How to Identify Premises and Conclusions
A logical argument is a series of claims that make a point. A conclusion is the point an argument is making, and the premises are claims that support that point.
There are two main ways to find a conclusion to an argument. The simplest is to look for indicator words. Words that indicate a premise include "because," "since" and "for ." Words that indicate a conclusion include "therefore," "thus" and "consequently."
However, some words and phrases can indicate either a premise or a conclusion depending on the context, like "but," "although," "yet," "however," "nevertheless" and "after all."
Some premises and conclusions don’t start with an indicator word at all. Writing would be clunky and repetitive if writers had to signal every point they made. Instead, indicator words are used judiciously to add clarity or emphasis.
Be careful. Indicator words may lead you to a conclusion that is not necessarily the main point of the argument.
For example, consider the following argument: "Don’t play with your pet turtle in the snow. Turtles are reptiles. Reptiles are cold-blooded, therefore so are turtles."
This argument has two clear premises: Turtles are reptiles and reptiles are cold-blooded. The claim that turtles are cold-blooded is a conclusion that follows from these premises, as indicated by the word "therefore."
But notice that the argument doesn’t end there, even though it is the end of the paragraph. The author’s conclusion that turtles are cold-blooded is just a step toward the author’s main point, stated in the first sentence: Don’t play with your pet turtle in the snow.
If all that you took away from the argument is that turtles are cold-blooded, you would have missed the author’s main point. That would be upsetting for both the author and your poor turtle.
This leads to the second, more abstract way to identify a conclusion: Think about the argument’s ultimate claim, which the other claims are meant to support.
If you identify two conclusions in an argument, decide which one supports the other one. Try to imagine which conclusion would make more sense after the word "because." In this case, “Don’t play with your pet turtle in the snow because turtles are cold-blooded” makes more sense than “Turtles are cold-blooded because you shouldn’t play with your pet turtle in the snow.”
This test will help you distinguish a subconclusion from the author’s main point.
Using Premises and Conclusions Knowledge on the LSAT
The LSAT may ask you to do a range of things with an argument in both the logical reasoning and reading comprehension sections. You may have to strengthen, weaken or find hidden assumptions or flaws in an argument ; compare the argument to other arguments; or explain how the argument works.
In all these cases, you will need to find the argument’s premises and conclusions.
Let’s take a new sample argument: "Law school applicants can learn a lot from U.S. News’ Law Admissions Lowdown. It is one of the best blogs about law school admissions, enjoyed by tens of thousands of readers."
What’s the conclusion? Law school applicants can learn a lot from U.S. News’ Law Admissions Lowdown. What’s the premise? It is one of the best blogs about law school admissions.
What about the other claim, that the blog is "enjoyed by tens of thousands of readers"? This might be considered supporting evidence, helpful but not necessary to the conclusion.
Now, imagine an LSAT question that asked you for an assumption that the argument depends upon. In this case, you need to find an unstated premise that connects the other premise to the conclusion: Law school applicants can learn a lot from one of the best blogs about law school admissions.
If an argument in the logical reasoning section seems to lack a conclusion, don’t panic. The question may ask you to draw your own conclusion by asking “what must be true” based on the prompt.
Learning to spot premises and conclusions on logical reasoning questions quickly and flawlessly is one of the best things you can do to boost your LSAT score in a short time . While tricky at first, with focused and rigorous practice, it will become second nature.
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About Law Admissions Lowdown
Law Admissions Lowdown provides advice to prospective students about the law school application process, LSAT prep and potential career paths. Previously authored by contributors from Stratus Admissions Counseling, the blog is currently authored by Gabriel Kuris, founder of Top Law Coach , an admissions consultancy. Kuris is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has helped hundreds of applicants navigate the law school application process since 2003. Got a question? Email [email protected] .
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Premise & Conclusion
Premise & conclusion.
They are the constitutive elements of an argument. They are also the definition of an argument. An argument is nothing more than just a premise plus a conclusion.
So, let’s take a closer look at what "premise" and "conclusion" actually entail.
These are the four things you really need to remember about premise and conclusion.
1. How to recognize them
First of all you have to know how to recognize them. This is tactically very important. When you’re actually doing the LSAT and you have to figure out whether the argument is good or bad, you better be able to tell premises apart from conclusions fast. Otherwise you won't even know what the argument is. We'll cover this in a later lesson.
2. Support is the relationship
We've covered this in a previous lesson, but remember that support is the relationship between the premise and the conclusion.
3. Definition of premise
The definition of premise is " a sentence that supports another sentence ." It's not hard to remember, but, in order for you to internalize the definition, in order for these words to mean something to you, that might take some time. For some of you, I’m sure this is all very old news, but for others, it might take some time. It’s not hard. A sentence that supports another sentence. But, what’s this mysterious “other sentence?”
4. Definition of conclusion
It's the conclusion. The definition of conclusion is “ a sentence that is supported by another sentence ." Similarly here, what’s the “other sentence?” It’s the premise!
Is it all coming together now? A premise is a premise only in so far as it supports another sentence. A conclusion is a conclusion only in so far as it is supported by another sentence. So really, they define each other. The definitions are dependent on each other. That shouldn't be surprising because after all, these two ideas – premise and conclusion – they exist in a relationship where one supports the other and the other is supported by the first.
As you get more and more advanced with evaluating arguments, you'll come to see that all the weakening questions, all the strengthening questions and all the Logical Reasoning questions on the LSAT really just gets to the root of the idea of "support." Do you really know what it means for one idea to support another idea?
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What is a Good Argument?
- Welcome and Overview (2:10)
- PDF Ebook - Basic Concepts in Logic and Argumentation
- Quiz Question Discussion
- 1. What is an Argument? (4:17)
- Quiz: What is an Argument?
- 2. What is a Claim? (4:25)
- Quiz: What is a Claim?
- 3. What is a Good Argument (I)? (3:58)
- Quiz: What is a Good Argument (I)?
- 4. Identifying Premises and Conclusions (5:34)
- Quiz: Identifying Premises and Conclusions
- Discuss the Quiz Questions in This Section
- 1. The Truth Condition (6:29)
- Quiz: The Truth Condition
- 2. The Logic Condition (5:49)
- Quiz: The Logic Condition
- 3. Valid versus Invalid Arguments (5:29)
- Quiz: Valid vs Invalid Arguments
- 4. Strong versus Weak Arguments (6:38)
- Quiz: Strong vs Weak Arguments
- 5. What is a Good Argument (II)? (1:57)
- Quiz: What is a Good Argument (II)?
- 1. Deductive Arguments and Valid Reasoning (2:18)
- Quiz: Deductive Arguments and Valid Reasoning
- 2. Inductive Arguments and Strong Reasoning (1:41)
- Quiz: Inductive Arguments and Strong Reasoning
- 3. Inductive Arguments and Scientific Reasoning (9:41)
- Quiz: Inductive Arguments and Scientific Reasoning
- What's Next?
4. Identifying Premises and Conclusions
4. identifying premises and conclusions.
Argument analysis would be a lot easier if people gave their arguments in standard form, with the premises and conclusions flagged in an obvious way.
But people don’t usually talk this way, or write this way. Sometimes the conclusion of an argument is obvious, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the conclusion is buried or implicit and we have to reconstruct the argument based on what’s given, and it’s not always obvious how to do this.
In this lecture we’re going to look at some principles that will help us identify premises and conclusions and put natural language arguments in standard form. This is a very important critical thinking skill.
Here’s an argument:
“Abortion is wrong because all human life is sacred.”
Question: which is the conclusion?
“Abortion is wrong” ?
“All human life is sacred” ?
For most of us the answer is clear. “ Abortion is wrong” is the conclusion , and “ All human life is sacred” is the premise .
How did we know this? Well, two things are going on.
First, we’re consciously, intentionally, reading for the argument , and when we do this we’re asking ourselves, “what claim are we being asked to believe or accept, and what other claims are being offered as reasons to accept that claim?”.
Second, we recognize the logical significance of the word “because” . “Because” is what we call an indicator word , a word that indicates the logical relationship of claims that come before it or after it. In this case it indicates that the claim following it is being offered as a reason to accept the claim before it.
So, rewriting this argument in standard form, it looks like this ...
1. All human life is sacred. Therefore, abortion is wrong.
At this point we could start talking about whether this is a good argument or not, but that’s not really our concern right now. Right now we’re more concerned with identifying premises and conclusions and getting the logical structure of an argument right.
Here are some key words or phrases that indicate a CONCLUSION :
therefore, so, hence, thus, it follows that, as a result, consequently ,
and of course there are others.
This argument gives an example using “so”:
It’s flu season and you work with kids, SO you should get a flu shot.
Now, keywords like these make it much easier to identify conclusions, but not all arguments have keywords that flag the conclusion. Some arguments have no indicator words of any kind. In these cases you have to rely on your ability to analyze context and read for the argument.
Here’s a more complex argument that illustrates this point:
"We must reduce the amount of money we spend on space exploration. Right now, the enemy is launching a massive military buildup, and we need the additional money to purchase military equipment to match the anticipated increase in the enemy’s strength."
Notice that there are no indicator words that might help us flag the conclusion.
So, which claim is the conclusion of this argument?
“We must reduce the amount of money we spend on space exploration.” ?
“The enemy is launching a massive military buildup” ?
Or is it ...
“We need the additional money to purchase military equipment to match the anticipated increase in the enemy’s strength” ?
The answer is ...
“We must reduce the amount of money we spend on space exploration.”
Most people can see this just by looking at the argument for a few seconds, but from experience I know that some people have a harder time seeing logical relationships like this.
If it’s not obvious, the way to work the problem is this: for each claim asserted in the argument you have to ask yourself,
“Is this the main point that the arguer is trying to convey?”
“Is this a claim that is being offered as a reason to believe another claim?”
If it’s being offered as a reason to believe another claim, then it’s functioning as a premise . If it’s expressing the main point of the argument, what the argument is trying to persuade you to accept, then it’s the conclusion.
There are words and phrases that indicate premises too. Here are a few:
since, if, because, from which it follows, for these reasons,
And here’s an example that uses “since”:
"John will probably receive the next promotion SINCE he’s been here the longest."
“Since” is used to indicate that John’s being here the longest is a reason for thinking that he will probably receive the next promotion.
So, let’s summarize:
- Arguments in natural language aren’t usually presented in standard form, so we need to know how to extract the logical structure from the language that’s given.
- To do this, we look at each of the claims in the argument and we ask ourselves, is this the main point that the arguer is trying to convey, or is this being offered as a reason to accept some other claim?
- The claim that expresses the main point is the conclusion.
- The claims that are functioning as reasons to accept the main point are the premises.
- And finally, premises and conclusions are often flagged by the presence of indicator words. Paying attention to indicator words can really help to simplify the task of reconstructing an argument.
2 Logic and the Study of Arguments
If we want to study how we ought to reason (normative) we should start by looking at the primary way that we do reason (descriptive): through the use of arguments. In order to develop a theory of good reasoning, we will start with an account of what an argument is and then proceed to talk about what constitutes a “good” argument.
- Arguments are a set of statements (premises and conclusion).
- The premises provide evidence, reasons, and grounds for the conclusion.
- The conclusion is what is being argued for.
- An argument attempts to draw some logical connection between the premises and the conclusion.
- And in doing so, the argument expresses an inference: a process of reasoning from the truth of the premises to the truth of the conclusion.
Example : The world will end on August 6, 2045. I know this because my dad told me so and my dad is smart.
In this instance, the conclusion is the first sentence (“The world will end…”); the premises (however dubious) are revealed in the second sentence (“I know this because…”).
Conclusions and premises are articulated in the form of statements . Statements are sentences that can be determined to possess or lack truth. Some examples of true-or-false statements can be found below. (Notice that while some statements are categorically true or false, others may or may not be true depending on when they are made or who is making them.)
Examples of sentences that are statements:
- It is below 40°F outside.
- Oklahoma is north of Texas.
- The Denver Broncos will make it to the Super Bowl.
- Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the league.
- I like broccoli.
- I shouldn’t eat French fries.
- Time travel is possible.
- If time travel is possible, then you can be your own father or mother.
However, there are many sentences that cannot so easily be determined to be true or false. For this reason, these sentences identified below are not considered statements.
- Questions: “What time is it?”
- Commands: “Do your homework.”
- Requests: “Please clean the kitchen.”
- Proposals: “Let’s go to the museum tomorrow.”
Question: Why are arguments only made up of statements?
First, we only believe statements . It doesn’t make sense to talk about believing questions, commands, requests or proposals. Contrast sentences on the left that are not statements with sentences on the right that are statements:
It would be non-sensical to say that we believe the non-statements (e.g. “I believe what time is it?”). But it makes perfect sense to say that we believe the statements (e.g. “I believe the time is 11 a.m.”). If conclusions are the statements being argued for, then they are also ideas we are being persuaded to believe. Therefore, only statements can be conclusions.
Second, only statements can provide reasons to believe.
- Q: Why should I believe that it is 11:00 a.m.? A: Because the clock says it is 11a.m.
- Q: Why should I believe that we are going to the museum tomorrow? A: Because today we are making plans to go.
Sentences that cannot be true or false cannot provide reasons to believe. So, if premises are meant to provide reasons to believe, then only statements can be premises.
III. Representing Arguments
As we concern ourselves with arguments, we will want to represent our arguments in some way, indicating which statements are the premises and which statement is the conclusion. We shall represent arguments in two ways. For both ways, we will number the premises.
In order to identify the conclusion, we will either label the conclusion with a (c) or (conclusion). Or we will mark the conclusion with the ∴ symbol
There will be a war in the next year. I know this because there has been a massive buildup in weapons. And every time there is a massive buildup in weapons, there is a war. My guru said the world will end on August 6, 2045.
- There has been a massive buildup in weapons.
- Every time there has been a massive buildup in weapons, there is a war.
(c) There will be a war in the next year.
∴ There will be a war in the next year.
Of course, arguments do not come labeled as such. And so we must be able to look at a passage and identify whether the passage contains an argument and if it does, we should also be identify which statements are the premises and which statement is the conclusion. This is harder than you might think!
There is no argument here. There is no statement being argued for. There are no statements being used as reasons to believe. This is simply a report of information.
The following are also not arguments:
Advice: Be good to your friends; your friends will be good to you.
Warnings: No lifeguard on duty. Be careful.
Associated claims: Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to the dark side.
When you have an argument, the passage will express some process of reasoning. There will be statements presented that serve to help the speaker building a case for the conclusion.
IV. How to L ook for A rguments 
How do we identify arguments in real life? There are no easy, mechanical rules, and we usually have to rely on the context in order to determine which are the premises and the conclusions. But sometimes the job can be made easier by the presence of certain premise or conclusion indicators. For example, if a person makes a statement, and then adds “this is because …,” then it is quite likely that the first statement is presented as a conclusion, supported by the statements that come afterward. Other words in English that might be used to indicate the premises to follow include:
- firstly, secondly, …
- for, as, after all
- assuming that, in view of the fact that
- follows from, as shown / indicated by
- may be inferred / deduced / derived from
Of course whether such words are used to indicate premises or not depends on the context. For example, “since” has a very different function in a statement like “I have been here since noon,” unlike “X is an even number since X is divisible by 4.” In the first instance (“since noon”) “since” means “from.” In the second instance, “since” means “because.”
Conclusions, on the other hand, are often preceded by words like:
- therefore, so, it follows that
- hence, consequently
- suggests / proves / demonstrates that
- entails, implies
Here are some examples of passages that do not contain arguments.
1. When people sweat a lot they tend to drink more water. [Just a single statement, not enough to make an argument.]
2. Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess. They lived happily together and one day they decided to have a baby. But the baby grew up to be a nasty and cruel person and they regret it very much. [A chronological description of facts composed of statements but no premise or conclusion.]
3. Can you come to the meeting tomorrow? [A question that does not contain an argument.]
Do these passages contain arguments? If so, what are their conclusions?
- Cutting the interest rate will have no effect on the stock market this time around, as people have been expecting a rate cut all along. This factor has already been reflected in the market.
- So it is raining heavily and this building might collapse. But I don’t really care.
- Virgin would then dominate the rail system. Is that something the government should worry about? Not necessarily. The industry is regulated, and one powerful company might at least offer a more coherent schedule of services than the present arrangement has produced. The reason the industry was broken up into more than 100 companies at privatization was not operational, but political: the Conservative government thought it would thus be harder to renationalize (The Economist 12/16/2000).
- Bill will pay the ransom. After all, he loves his wife and children and would do everything to save them.
- All of Russia’s problems of human rights and democracy come back to three things: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. None works as well as it should. Parliament passes laws in a hurry, and has neither the ability nor the will to call high officials to account. State officials abuse human rights (either on their own, or on orders from on high) and work with remarkable slowness and disorganization. The courts almost completely fail in their role as the ultimate safeguard of freedom and order (The Economist 11/25/2000).
- Most mornings, Park Chang Woo arrives at a train station in central Seoul, South Korea’s capital. But he is not commuter. He is unemployed and goes there to kill time. Around him, dozens of jobless people pass their days drinking soju, a local version of vodka. For the moment, middle-aged Mr. Park would rather read a newspaper. He used to be a bricklayer for a small construction company in Pusan, a southern port city. But three years ago the country’s financial crisis cost him that job, so he came to Seoul, leaving his wife and two children behind. Still looking for work, he has little hope of going home any time soon (The Economist 11/25/2000).
- For a long time, astronomers suspected that Europa, one of Jupiter’s many moons, might harbour a watery ocean beneath its ice-covered surface. They were right. Now the technique used earlier this year to demonstrate the existence of the Europan ocean has been employed to detect an ocean on another Jovian satellite, Ganymede, according to work announced at the recent American Geo-physical Union meeting in San Francisco (The Economist 12/16/2000).
- There are no hard numbers, but the evidence from Asia’s expatriate community is unequivocal. Three years after its handover from Britain to China, Hong Kong is unlearning English. The city’s gweilos (Cantonese for “ghost men”) must go to ever greater lengths to catch the oldest taxi driver available to maximize their chances of comprehension. Hotel managers are complaining that they can no longer find enough English-speakers to act as receptionists. Departing tourists, polled at the airport, voice growing frustration at not being understood (The Economist 1/20/2001).
V. Evaluating Arguments
Q: What does it mean for an argument to be good? What are the different ways in which arguments can be good? Good arguments:
- Are persuasive.
- Have premises that provide good evidence for the conclusion.
- Contain premises that are true.
- Reach a true conclusion.
- Provide the audience good reasons for accepting the conclusion.
The focus of logic is primarily about one type of goodness: The logical relationship between premises and conclusion.
An argument is good in this sense if the premises provide good evidence for the conclusion. But what does it mean for premises to provide good evidence? We need some new concepts to capture this idea of premises providing good logical support. In order to do so, we will first need to distinguish between two types of argument.
VI. Two Types of Arguments
The two main types of arguments are called deductive and inductive arguments. We differentiate them in terms of the type of support that the premises are meant to provide for the conclusion.
Deductive Arguments are arguments in which the premises are meant to provide conclusive logical support for the conclusion.
1. All humans are mortal
2. Socrates is a human.
∴ Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
1. No student in this class will fail.
2. Mary is a student in this class.
∴ Therefore, Mary will not fail.
1. A intersects lines B and C.
2. Lines A and B form a 90-degree angle
3. Lines A and C form a 90-degree angle.
∴ B and C are parallel lines.
Inductive arguments are, by their very nature, risky arguments.
Arguments in which premises provide probable support for the conclusion.
1. Ten percent of all customers in this restaurant order soda.
2. John is a customer.
∴ John will not order Soda..
1. Some students work on campus.
2. Bill is a student.
∴ Bill works on campus.
1. Vegas has the Carolina Panthers as a six-point favorite for the super bowl.
∴ Carolina will win the Super Bowl.
VII. Good Deductive Arguments
The First Type of Goodness: Premises play their function – they provide conclusive logical support.
Deductive and inductive arguments have different aims. Deductive argument attempt to provide conclusive support or reasons; inductive argument attempt to provide probable reasons or support. So we must evaluate these two types of arguments.
Deductive arguments attempt to be valid.
To put validity in another way: if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true.
It is very important to note that validity has nothing to do with whether or not the premises are, in fact, true and whether or not the conclusion is in fact true; it merely has to do with a certain conditional claim. If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true.
Q: What does this mean?
- The validity of an argument does not depend upon the actual world. Rather, it depends upon the world described by the premises.
- First, consider the world described by the premises. In this world, is it logically possible for the conclusion to be false? That is, can you even imagine a world in which the conclusion is false?
- If you cannot, then why not?
- If you can, then provide an example of a valid argument.
You should convince yourself that validity is not just about the actual truth or falsity of the premises and conclusion. Rather, validity only has to do with a certain logical relationship between the truth of the premise and the truth of the conclusion. So the only possible combination that is ruled out by a valid argument is a set of true premises and false conclusion.
Let’s go back to example #1. Here are the premises:
1. All humans are mortal.
If both of these premises are true, then every human that we find must be a mortal. And this means, that it must be the case that if Socrates is a human, that Socrates is mortal.
Reflection Questions about Invalid Arguments:
- Can you have an invalid argument with a true premise?
- Can you have an invalid argument with true premises and a true conclusion?
The s econd type of goodness for deductive arguments: The premises provide us the right reasons to accept the conclusion.
Soundness V ersus V alidity:
Our original argument is a sound one:
∴ Socrates is mortal.
Question: Can a sound argument have a false conclusion?
VIII. From Deductive Arguments to Inductive Arguments
Question: What happens if we mix around the premises and conclusion?
2. Socrates is mortal.
∴ Socrates is a human.
1. Socrates is mortal
∴ All humans are mortal.
Are these valid deductive arguments?
NO, but they are common inductive arguments.
Other examples :
Suppose that there are two opaque glass jars with different color marbles in them.
1. All the marbles in jar #1 are blue.
2. This marble is blue.
∴ This marble came from jar #1.
1. This marble came from jar #2.
2. This marble is red.
∴ All the marbles in jar #2 are red.
While this is a very risky argument, what if we drew 100 marbles from jar #2 and found that they were all red? Would this affect the second argument’s validity?
IX. Inductive Arguments:
The aim of an inductive argument is different from the aim of deductive argument because the type of reasons we are trying to provide are different. Therefore, the function of the premises is different in deductive and inductive arguments. And again, we can split up goodness into two types when considering inductive arguments:
- The premises provide the right logical support.
- The premises provide the right type of reason.
Logical S upport:
Remember that for inductive arguments, the premises are intended to provide probable support for the conclusion. Thus, we shall begin by discussing a fairly rough, coarse-grained way of talking about probable support by introducing the notions of strong and weak inductive arguments.
A strong inductive argument:
- The vast majority of Europeans speak at least two languages.
- Sam is a European.
∴ Sam speaks two languages.
Weak inductive argument:
- This quarter is a fair coin.
∴ Therefore, the next coin flip will land heads.
- At least one dog in this town has rabies.
- Fido is a dog that lives in this town.
∴ Fido has rabies.
The R ight T ype of R easons. As we noted above, the right type of reasons are true statements. So what happens when we get an inductive argument that is good in the first sense (right type of logical support) and good in the second sense (the right type of reasons)? Corresponding to the notion of soundness for deductive arguments, we call inductive arguments that are good in both senses cogent arguments.
- With which of the following types of premises and conclusions can you have a strong inductive argument?
- With which of the following types of premises and conclusions can you have a cogent inductive argument?
X. Steps for Evaluating Arguments:
- Read a passage and assess whether or not it contains an argument.
- If it does contain an argument, then identify the conclusion and premises.
- If yes, then assess it for soundness.
- If not, then treat it as an inductive argument (step 3).
- If the inductive argument is strong, then is it cogent?
XI. Evaluating Real – World Arguments
An important part of evaluating arguments is not to represent the arguments of others in a deliberately weak way.
For example, suppose that I state the following:
All humans are mortal, so Socrates is mortal.
Is this valid? Not as it stands. But clearly, I believe that Socrates is a human being. Or I thought that was assumed in the conversation. That premise was clearly an implicit one.
So one of the things we can do in the evaluation of argument is to take an argument as it is stated, and represent it in a way such that it is a valid deductive argument or a strong inductive one. In doing so, we are making explicit what one would have to assume to provide a good argument (in the sense that the premises provide good – conclusive or probable – reason to accept the conclusion).
The teacher’s policy on extra credit was unfair because Sally was the only person to have a chance at receiving extra credit.
- Sally was the only person to have a chance at receiving extra credit.
- The teacher’s policy on extra credit is fair only if everyone gets a chance to receive extra credit.
Therefore, the teacher’s policy on extra credit was unfair.
Sally didn’t train very hard so she didn’t win the race.
- Sally didn’t train very hard.
- If you don’t train hard, you won’t win the race.
Therefore, Sally didn’t win the race.
Strong (not valid):
- If you won the race, you trained hard.
- Those who don’t train hard are likely not to win.
Therefore, Sally didn’t win.
Ordinary workers receive worker’s compensation benefits if they suffer an on-the-job injury. However, universities have no obligations to pay similar compensation to student athletes if they are hurt while playing sports. So, universities are not doing what they should.
- Ordinary workers receive worker’s compensation benefits if they suffer an on-the-job injury that prevents them working.
- Student athletes are just like ordinary workers except that their job is to play sports.
- So if student athletes are injured while playing sports, they should also be provided worker’s compensation benefits.
- Universities have no obligations to provide injured student athletes compensation.
Therefore, universities are not doing what they should.
Deductively valid argument
If Obama couldn’t implement a single-payer healthcare system in his first term as president, then the next president will not be able to implement a single-payer healthcare system.
- Obama couldn’t implement a single-payer healthcare system.
- In Obama’s first term as president, both the House and Senate were under Democratic control.
- The next president will either be dealing with the Republican-controlled house and senate or at best, a split legislature.
- Obama’s first term as president will be much easier than the next president’s term in terms of passing legislation.
Therefore, the next president will not be able to implement a single-payer healthcare system.
Strong inductive argument
Sam is weaker than John. Sam is slower than John. So Sam’s time on the obstacle will be slower than John’s.
- Sam is weaker than John.
- Sam is slower than John.
- A person’s strength and speed inversely correlate with their time on the obstacle course.
Therefore, Sam’s time will be slower than John’s.
XII. Diagramming Arguments
All the arguments we’ve dealt with – except for the last two – have been fairly simple in that the premises always provided direct support for the conclusion. But in many arguments, such as the last one, there are often arguments within arguments.
Obama example :
- The next president will either be dealing with the Republican controlled house and senate or at best, a split legislature.
∴ The next president will not be able to implement a single-payer healthcare system.
It’s clear that premises #2 and #3 are used in support of #4. And #1 in combination with #4 provides support for the conclusion.
When we diagram arguments, the aim is to represent the logical relationships between premises and conclusion. More specifically, we want to identify what each premise supports and how.
This represents that 2+3 together provide support for 4
This represents that 4+1 together provide support for 5
When we say that 2+3 together or 4+1 together support some statement, we mean that the logical support of these statements are dependent upon each other. Without the other, these statements would not provide evidence for the conclusion. In order to identify when statements are dependent upon one another, we simply underline the set that are logically dependent upon one another for their evidential support. Every argument has a single conclusion, which the premises support; therefore, every argument diagram should point to the conclusion (c).
- Sam is less flexible than John.
- A person’s strength and flexibility inversely correlate with their time on the obstacle course.
∴ Therefore, Sam’s time will be slower than John’s.
In some cases, different sets of premises provide evidence for the conclusion independently of one another. In the argument above, there are two logically independent arguments for the conclusion that Sam’s time will be slower than John’s. That Sam is weaker than John and that being weaker correlates with a slower time provide evidence for the conclusion that Sam will be slower than John. Completely independent of this argument is the fact that Sam is less flexible and that being less flexible corresponds with a slower time. The diagram above represent these logical relations by showing that #1 and #3 dependently provide support for #4. Independent of that argument, #2 and #3 also dependently provide support for #4. Therefore, there are two logically independent sets of premises that provide support for the conclusion.
Try diagramming the following argument for yourself. The structure of the argument has been provided below:
- All humans are mortal
- Socrates is human
- So Socrates is mortal.
- If you feed a mortal person poison, he will die.
∴ Therefore, Socrates has been fed poison, so he will die.
- This section is taken from http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/ and is in use under creative commons license. Some modifications have been made to the original content. ↵
Critical Thinking Copyright © 2019 by Brian Kim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.