Argumentational Modality: Wherein Sea Lions Make Intellectually Invalid Arguments

Posted on March 20, 2015 by



Wondermark: A question for the philosophers.

Those of us trained in the philosophical definitions of a valid argument will recognise that for an argument to be considered deductively valid it must meet certain conditions: its premisses must be either proven true by deductive argument or must be proved axiomatic, thereby producing a true conclusion. (In all my writing I use “premiss” to denote the philosophical concept that has been carefully defined, and “premise” to mean the commonsense version of that concept.)

Arguments, because of the plural nature of knowledge, are not confined to deduction; depending on one’s stance, inductive or transcendental arguments can be considered valid according to their own conditions. This plural nature is uncollapsible: there is no means by which a transcendental argument may be determined valid under deductive logics, for example.

Every kind of argument assumes another set of contextual axioms that are not normally discussed, that is, intellectual validity. I will argue in this short blog piece that intellectual validity is necessary for any formal argument, and that a formal argument’s intellectual validity is dependent upon something I’ll call argumentational mood. I am out of practice at this “philosophy” malarkey and as such I fully expect to tread beaten ground, leave enormous gaps in reasoning, and generally make a mess of things. I will attempt to clean up/expand this piece as necessary.

I. Arrangement

Arguments do not exist a priori. We might feel the metaphysical need to claim that certain arguments, deductive arguments in particular, do exist a priori, because of the nature of their conclusions. To use a tired but useful example: “all bachelors are unmarried” is a concept that seems to exist before it is “revealed” or “discovered” through argumentation. Because it is true before we argue it, and true regardless of whether or not we argue it, and because if it is true the premisses of the argument must also be true, then it seems that those premisses must also be true  a priori. Therefore it seems that the argument itself must be a priori.

I will discuss deductive arguments shortly, but first consider inductive and transcendental arguments. Inductive arguments are the lowest-hanging fruit, as it were: it is easy to see that induction is a type of argumentation that takes place in time, because time is what inductive argument relies upon to be true. Therefore, inductive arguments cannot exist a priori; the argument is by necessity established over time, and through repeated observation.

The transcendental argument is a form that determines the necessity of certain phenomena from experience, either by beginning with experiential truths and arguing that these phenomena must exist, or by assuming that such phenomena do not exist and showing that experience would not be as it is if that assumption were true. For example: our inner experience of the world is such that, even though we cannot experience objects fully or directly, the phenomena that we experience must have a source outside ourselves (an argument made famous by Kant). To argue transcendentally, one must assume the existence of a being that can experience, and therefore by its nature a transcendental argument cannot exist a priori.

Deductive arguments, though their premisses and conclusions may exist a priori (I am unconvinced, but it’s irrelevant to this piece) are themselves a posteriori. We cannot claim that a deductive argument exists simply because the concepts behind its premisses are scattered about the natural world: even if those premisses are true, even if the conclusion is true, the argument itself does not become extant until it is arranged according to a specific logic.

This touches upon the nature of an argument as a concept: an argument is something that must be arranged according to a system of argumentation. Premisses, in turn, must meet rules to be premisses in the first place; a premiss cannot be determined as such if it is not first expressed within a deductive logic, and may be considered a different premiss when formulated within a logic with different axioms.

Though there must be something that exists a priori (per Kant) for an argument to draw upon, some concepts that fit within the framework of logics or induction or transcendental phenomena, the arguments themselves are a posteriori: concepts arranged into structures that meet necessary criteria specific to the type of structure.

Arguments are therefore concepts that are either a priori or a posteriori, arranged in such a way that they form structures with meaning that is derived from the arrangement.

II. Establishment of the Observer

It will be tempting to assume that the arrangement of concepts into an argument requires an arguer, some being capable of experience that is either responsible for making the argument’s claim or repeating the argument of another arguer.

This is not, however, the case. A computer is capable of producing and creating arguments without having experiences, for example–but to make this very clear and avoid the mire of questions that surround AI like “does a computer have being at all”, I will use a less likely but clearer example.

If pieces of paper were to float on a pool of water and come to be arranged by the minute currents that are a result of temperature differentials, surface tension and so on, such that the words on them spelled out an argument, the argument would be arranged and come into existence without the influence of an arguer.

In every instance of an argument, however, an argument cannot be made without some experiential result in the mind of an observer. Perhaps the arguer and the observer are the same being; this is often the case. But in order for the floating pieces of paper in the above instance to construct an argument, there must be receipt of concepts. If there is no receipt of concepts, the paper could float out the entire text of Sein und Zeit and it would merely be a flabbergasting coincidence—but if somebody is there to read it, that person is being argued to: the experience of receiving an argument is in this case responsible for the argument’s existence. (So too an argument made by a being capable of experience: the argument comes into existence by the experience of the arguer.)

Thus the arrangement of concepts into arguments by way of argument types (deductive, inductive, transcendental) can be done by either an arguer or a receiver or both.

III. Argumentational Mood

I will borrow from Grice’s work on conversational maxims and Toulmin’s work in argumentation theory here: the nature of the arrangement of arguments is such that an argument will be arranged differently for arguer and receiver if certain requirements are not met. If these requirements are not met (and they are frequently not), the argument will either be nonsensical to the receiver or different arguments will be extant for arguer and receiver. (I do not intend to claim here that reality is subjective–simply that arguer and receiver will experience incompatible phenomena.)

As Toulmin discusses, certain components of arguments are field-dependant; outside of certain contexts or criteria, these components render an argument invalid. For example: an arguer’s credentials may lend justification to the same argument in some contexts, but not others. The flaw of absolutism is that it assumes all aspects of argument are field-invariant (as we have seen, this is not the case).

Neither Grice nor Toulmin, however, discuss in detail what I would like to dub “argumentational mood”, a quality that applies to the modal context in which an argument is made and received–something most definitely field-variant.

This piece came about because of an essay by game critic Tegeminis titled “Recognizing Sealioning”. (“Sealioning” is best understood by reading the comic that gave rise to the name, above.) Tegeminis, by cataloguing and defining a flawed mode of argumentation, makes it clear that the modality of a sealioning arguer is responsible for that argument’s invalidity. Whether the argument is sound according to existing argumentation theory is irrelevant. The arguer may very well not commit any logical fallacies; the arguer may be an expert in her field; the arguer may meet all of Grice’s maxims for conversation–and the argument will still be invalid, because the argumentational mood, the arguer’s intent, renders it so.

I will claim that this is because a sealioner’s arguments are intellectually invalid. I will attempt to define intellectual validity below and explain why it is a more complete picture of validity.

IV. Intellectual Invalidity and the Sealion

Intellectual validity as defined in this piece denotes arguments that both meet the current standards for validity and have zero argumentational modality (i.e., the argument is presented for no other reason than to be presented). According to current thought, intellectual invalidity is a useless concept. Who cares what the arguer intends by an argument if the argument is valid?

Remember, though, that an argument is an arrangement of concepts by both arguer and receiver. In order for the receiver to arrange the concepts of the arguer’s argument as closely to the arguer’s arrangement as possible, and thus receive the same argument, the receiver must either: a) naturally assume the arrangement of the concepts into an argument that resembles that of the arguer or b) know the arrangement intended by the arguer.

Consider this simple case: A is presenting an argument to B. A says, “Oh, sure, murdering someone is totally ethical”. B can choose to read only the data and conclude that A thinks that murdering someone is ethical, or can choose to also read the metadata and conclude that A is being sarcastic and does not think that murdering someone is ethical at all.

According to Grice, A and B are both applying conversational maxims, sort of. A might seem to be defying the maxim of quality (say what you mean) but sarcasm is a well-accepted conversational modality and can be seen to conform to Grice. If B mistakes A, B is simply a poor judge of conversation.

What if A’s intent cannot be determined? Let’s say that A is not well-versed in conversational maxims, in this case because A is (for the sake of example) an alien, who has learnt the building blocks of language but not of conversation. In this case it would be impossible for B to make a good guess whether or not A is being sarcastic independent of whether B knows it.

Back to argumentation theory: Toulmin unwittingly makes the assumption that arguments exist in a modal vacuum (whether because it’s not something he considers, whether he assumes that arguments are modally neutral, or whether he perhaps thinks their modality is simple conversational modality). This is just not the case. Malki !’s sea lion, if you let it, would adhere to every current requirement for argumentational validity when presenting an argument, would adhere to Grice’s conversational maxims, and still its argument would have a nonzero modal value because its intent is not simply to argue in a valid way. Its intent is to have emotional impact on the receiver.

The woman, for her part, is aware that the sea lion does not intend to present arguments or to receive them for the purpose of doing these things in-and-of-themselves–and therefore knows that any argument presented by the sea lion is irrelevant.

What is worse, the sea lion may purposely rearrange concepts when presenting an argument, either during repetitions of the concepts or to different receivers–because to him, the arrangement is irrelevant, only its affect on receivers–and the woman doesn’t know when this is happening. Therefore, the woman cannot accurately reproduce the sea lion’s arrangement of concepts; even if she doesn’t realise that this rearrangement is going on, she still cannot be sure that it isn’t.

Because we know that arrangement is important–a key component of argument–we can conclude that the sea lion’s arguments are invalid (perhaps even failing to be arguments in the first place) because the sea lion intends to present arguments in such a way that the receiver of the argument cannot accurately reproduce their arrangement.

A receiver may be able to arrange a zero modality, intellectually honest version of an intellectually dishonest argument without knowing the current arrangement of concepts, but it is impossible to have metaknowledge of that fact (i.e. the receiver cannot know whether her version is accurate), and therefore it is impossible to know what the corresponding arrangement of a zero modality standpoint might be when presented with an argument of nonzero argumentational modality.

V. Nonzero Argumentational Modalities

All arguments that have nonzero argumentational modalities (i.e. are presented for a reason other than simply the argument in-and-of-itself) are intellectually invalid, as well as invalid under current validity standards, as I have shown. Thus, if an argument is presented for a reason other than simply the argument in-and-of-itself, then the argument must be reconsidered from a zero modality standpoint before determining its validity.

This principle still works when considering nonzero argumentational modalities that are not intellectually dishonest. For example: a professor presents his students with a philosophical argument for the sake of teaching them the principles behind it. Though the argumentational modality is nonzero (that is to say, the argument is presented with an ulterior motive), that motive is not intellectually dishonest—however, the students would do well to consider the argument from a zero modality standpoint before considering its validity.

Because the professor in this example has a benign argumentational mood, the professor is a reliable arguer and as such the translation from the arrangement of concepts when intended as teaching implements into the arrangement of concepts as arguments in-and-of-themselves is trivial.

VI. Argument Validity

Because zero modality must be considered before validity is determined, intellectual validity as a concept (current standards for validity have been met, and the argument has a null argumentational mood) is more useful than what is currently used to declare an argument valid.

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