How to Untangle an Argument (Week 2)

Argument Markers

2 kinds of argument markers
Conclusion markers : so, therefore, thus, accordingly, hence, by
Reason markers : because, for, as, since, for the reason that

These words are not always used as an argument markers. To detect an argument marker, try substituting the words with same kind of argument marker and see if the meaning is still the same.

This artist is very popular. Consequently, her paintings cost a lot of money.
== This artist is very popular.
Therefore, her paintings cost a lot of money.
!= This artist is very popular,
because her paintings cost a lot of money.

Substituting the word “consequently” with “therefore” will not change the meaning. So “consequently” here is an argument marker. But if we replace “consequently” with “because”. Then the meaning will be different.

The word “proof” could be argument marker, so this sentence

Something and something is the proofs of this.

are the same with

P. Something
P. Something
C. this

If” sets the pattern of argument but itself is not an argument marker.

Standard form

Premise or (P) 1, 2, 3 …etc
Conclusion or (C) 1, 2, 3, …etc

The Problem of the Skeptical Regress

An argument cannot justify you in believing that the conclusion is true unless you are justified in believing that the premises are true. Skeptical Regress happens when someone keeps asking for the premises of the premises.

Possible solutions:
1. Start with a premises that are unjustified. If an argument has unjustified premises then there is no reason to believe its conclusion. Because people can prove anything by just making up reasons for everything.
2. To use a circular structure.

(P)There is life on Mars.
(C)There is life on Mars.

Circular argument does not justify anything because anyone who does not believe its conclusion will not believe its premises. So it cannot justify its conclusion.

3. Use infinite chain of arguments. There is no independent premise.

(P) …
(P)John told Tom.
(P)Tom told me.
(P)I know the water is hot.
(C)The water is hot.

Practical tricks for dealing with the skeptical regress.

  1. Assure the audience (Find shared assumptions)
  2. Discount objections
  3. Guard your claim


Types of assurances :

  1. Authoritative : Site the authority that the audiences share the assumption that this authority is trustworthy. Always ask
    What is the authority?
    What reason does the authority have?
  2. Reflexive : I believe that. I know that. I am certain that.
    People don’t like to question other people’s feeling. Sometimes it’s impolite to question other people. Or people want to trust one’s judgement.
  3. Abusive : “Everybody knows this.” means “if you don’t know then you are an idiot.” Appeal to common sense is a kind of abusive assuring.
    “It’s just common sense that …” indicates that if you don’t agree with that, then you don’t have common sense.

Assuring is needed for general cases because we don’t have time to check everything ourselves.

Benefits of assurances

  1. Save time.
  2. Avoid the skeptical regress.

But beware :

Tricks with assurances

  1. Untrustworthy authority
  2. Distractions. “That’s obvious.” “It’s certain.” “I’m sure!”
  3. Dropping assurances.
    “He says …”
    “It is reported that …”
    “Sources have said that …”
    And then “There are …”

We want an assurance when

  1. Someone might question the assurance.
  2. The audience accepts the authority.
  3. It would be too much trouble to cite all of evidence.

Assurances are not appropriate when

  1. No one would question the claim anyway.
  2. The authority is not trustworthy.
  3. When you are able to easily give the full explanation.


Guarding an argument means making that argument weaker so it will be harder to object that argument. But not making the argument too weak to be considered at all.

Three ways of guarding
hard ————-——————————————————— easy
extend all > most > many > some
probability certain > probable > likely > there’s a chance > might
will happen > can happen
know > believe > tend to believe > incline to believe
strong— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — weak


Discounting is citing possible objection in order to reject it or counter it.

The ring is expensive, but it is beautiful.

This sentence contrasts two claims and emphasizes the claim right after “but”. “But” indicates the sentence after it is more important. It is a discounting term, e.g. but, although, even if, even though, whereas, nevertheless, nonetheless, still, etc. Use the substitution test to determine if they are acting as discounting terms.

Functions of discounting terms

  1. They assert two claims.
  2. They contrast the two claims.
  3. They emphasize one of the claims.

The trick of discounting straw people : The arguer discount the easiest objection to distract and make people overlook the more difficult objections.

The President is in favor of a public health service, but a public health service is not going to solve all of the medical problems of our people.

This argument puts an unguarded term “all” in the mouth of objector and make it easier to counter that objection. There is another trick by combining trick of discounting straw man with misuses of guarding and assuring.

One rule of thumb : Think about the objections that are not on the table.


Evaluation language can also be used to stop skeptical regression. It works similar to assuring and is related to some standards. One trick is when we use evaluation terms, we don’t specify what the standards are. So our claim is easier to defense.

Different levels of evaluation

  1. General : Good or bad, ought or ought not, should or should not, right or wring
  2. Specific : Beautiful or ugly, cruel or kind, brave or cowardly, comfortable or uncomfortable

What makes them evaluative is their connection to what is good or bad. We call language “evaluative” only when it is openly and literally evaluative, not contextually evaluative.

Beware :

  1. Combination of evaluation words, e.g. pretty good vs darn good.
  2. Evaluation is not always bad. It makes us think about the standards applied.
  3. Slanting is using evaluative terms without reasons.
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