A Primer to Logic: Definition of an Argument

Logic is the study of and the use of methods and principles that evaluate arguments in order to distinguish between correct and incorrect reasoning.[1] This definition is clear enough, but under the surface lies a problem that can derail the student of logic. The issue is found in what is meant by “argument.”

In the opening chapter of her book Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion, Nancey C. Murphy lists five definitions of the term “argument” from the Random House Dictionary of the English Language:

  1. An oral disagreement; verbal opposition; contention, altercation.
  2. A discussion involving differing points of view; debate.
  3. A process of reasoning; series of reasons.
  4. A statement, reason, or fact or against a point.
  5. An address or composition intended to convince or persuade; persuasive discourse.[2]

If you were to ask any number of people to state what first comes to mind upon hearing the word “argument,” many of the responses mostly likely would fall under definitions 1) and 2) above. You only need to flip through the various network and cable channels to see various talk shows debating the benefits or detriments of the latest political decision, or reality talk shows that host family members or friends embroiled in some dispute that is played out in the form of a verbal assault, or sports shows pontificating on the greatness of one team or sport over another.  You hear the same over the airwaves as radio talk show hosts yell through your speakers, ranting about your team’s recent loss or the opposing political party’s idiocy. For many, when they hear the word “argument,” they immediately associate it with verbal spats or heated debates.

This association is not lost in Christian circles. Usually theological arguments are viewed as nothing more than opposing sides buttressing their own views while seeking to undercut their opponent by harping on what they disagree upon. Believers and unbelievers alike sometimes view the church as a house of divisiveness instead of one of unity.  While the examples that have been mentioned so far are those of arguments, they do fail to meet the criteria of what is deemed as an argument in the study of logic.

Remember, logic seeks to distinguish between correct and incorrect reasoning. In order to do so, an argument must first assert something; that is, it must make a claim that is either true or false. But, a claim alone does not make an argument; rather, the argument must also provide reasons that purport to support the claim. Without any supporting reasons, a claim is nothing more than an opinion.

For example, “Twenty-first century churches ought to aesthetically design their sanctuaries such that all of the senses of the congregation are utilized in the worship of God and the proclamation of the Word” is making an assertion such that a congregation either accepts or rejects the claim. Yet, without any supporting reason(s), no argument exists. What one can use by way of reasons for a claim is the subject of a later chapter in this book. For now, it should be clear that an argument must: 1) make a claim that is either true or false, and 2) provide reasons that purport to support the claim.

Just as important to how an argument is structured, there are matters more basic than how an argument is built. All arguments that are of interest to logic are necessarily composed of words and sentences. Though these concepts are simple, they are riddled with complexities and nuances that must be brought to light if you are to rightly analyze or build an argument. In an upcoming post, we will look at the issues of words and ideas.

Connection to Apologetics

With the growth of social media as a platform for sharing ideas and personal beliefs, the Christian is exposed to more opportunities to share and defend the Christian faith. Yet, as nearly everyone can attest to, social media tends open the gates for reactionary verbal bouts than for fruitful dialogue. Too often, in the heat of a disagreement on social media, Christians resort to poor argumentation that does more harm than good in proclaiming the truth of the Gospel (see my post from August 2016). As such, it is to our advantage to understand and apply the concepts that characterize good arguments.

[1] This definition is a combination of the definitions of logic found in Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 9th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2006), 1, and Irving Copi, Carl Cohen, and Kenneth McMahon, Introduction to Logic, 14th ed. (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 2. For a more detailed discussion on the definition of logic and a defense of why the Christian ought to study logic, see this book’s Introduction.

[2] Nancey C. Murphy, Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 4.

© John Daniel “Danny” McDonald, PhD and Philosophical Lagniappe, 2017-18

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