What do assumptions make of you?

Or what do you make of assumptions? Are assumptions good or bad?

We hear the cliche all too much about what assumptions make of you and me, but have you ever thought about how much that cliche assumes? Next time somebody says something like that to you, make a simple little request. Ask, “How can I avoid making assumptions in the future?”

Whatever answer they give you will be both wrong and laden with assumptions.

But the funny thing is, there really is a great way to find your assumptions. All you have to do is take a normal every day argument and complete it.

The point is, we usually put our arguments before the public or our opponent in a form that is far from complete. For example, I got a kick out of Matt Damon’s terror over Sarah Palin. You can see the video easily enough since Americans widely assume that movie stars know a lot about politics.

What he said was something like this: I need to know if she believes that dinosaurs lived on earth 4000 years ago. I need to know that because she’s going to have the nuclear code.

Damon clearly has a flair for the dramatic, and if the dramatic doesn’t take advantage of indirection then I’m in Rio De Janeiro right now. Let’s try to see if he actually has an argument here by trying to complete it.

Sarah Palin may believe that dinosaurs lived on earth 4000 years ago.
Sarah Palin will have access to the codes for nuclear bombs.

Clearly he is implying that she is dangerous, so let’s just add that.

Sarah Palin will be dangerous.

So why will she be dangerous? Because she may believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth 4000 years ago.

So what is the link between the conclusion and the premise? That link is the assumption we are looking for. In this case, the general principle on which Damon’s argument rests is that everybody who believes that dinosaurs roamed the earth 4000 years ago is dangerous or at least that enough of them are that Sarah can’t be trusted.

Well, OK. Now we’re a step closer to an actual argument and we have identified the assumption behind it.

Now we can examine the assumptions behind the assumption. We can seek evidence. We can unfold the logic beneath it (i.e. find more assumptions). We can listen to what the authorities (like, I guess, Matt Damon) have to say about the issue. And then we can determine whether we actually agree.

Of course, what seems to happen most often is that somebody who has fallen in love with Matt Damon because he is so great in the Bourne Identity and therefore must be an authority on international relations will be soul-shaken by the frightening idea so powerfully expressed and that will be the end of logical reasoning, which, after all, is just a masculine control mechanism anyway. Oh wait, that line went out in the late nineties.

You can go through this process rather easily with many arguments. For example, here’s one from Mother Goose:

A little cock sparrow sat on a green tree,
And he chirruped, he chirruped, so merry was he

The argument could go like this: The little cock sparrow chirruped because he was so merry.

But there’s a rather pleasant assumption buried in this argument. What is it? By the way, we know there is an assumption because I could add the word because.

Premise: The little cock sparrow chirruped.
Conclusion: The little cock sparrow was so merry.

What’s the assumption? We need to connect the cock sparrow’s merryness with his chirruping. Ah, there it is! Either when you are merry you chirrup, or when you chirrup you are merry.

Now we have two premises:

The little cock sparrow chirruped
When you chirrup you are “so merry”
The little cock sparrow was “so merry”

Does it work? Maybe not enough to satisfy a strict logician, but I think we’d readily agree that most chirruping indicates merriness. But then again, maybe there’s something going on that we don’t know about…

The first argument, as it is presented in the text, is what Aristotle called an enthymeme. The second one is, loosely, a syllogism. The way we can find the assumptions behind an argument and thus examine where we stand in relation to it is as simple as converting an enthymeme into a syllogism.

When we share the same assumptions with others, it is pretty easy to have a long conversation with lots of enthymemes. But if at some point we start to feel uneasy about something somebody is saying, it is probably time to convert it to a syllogism (which is why he’ll get on to the next point as fast as possible!).

Here’s how to make the conversion:

Identify the argument you are questioning. Reduce it to its simplest terms, removing the evidence and appeals to authority. Both evidence and authority are valid and necessary, but they aren’t the logic of the argument.

In what you have left, look for logical cues and use them to structure the premises:

If X…
Since Y…
…, therefore
…, so
X, for …
X, hence …
… because

Use these cues to help you write out the enthymeme in logical form, with one premise and one conclusion.

Connect the conclusion to the premise by adding another premise. You can add the new premise by identifying the term that is in the conclusion but not in the premise and linking it to the term that is in the premise but not in the conclusion. Now you have a bridge from the first premise to the conclusion.

First premise: The little cock sparrow chirruped
Conclusion: The little cock sparrow was so merry

Term from first premise: chirruped
Term from conclusion: so merry

New premise: When one chirrups he is “so merry”

You may be helped as you try to practice this concept if you can remember these little watchwords: 

  • A syllogism is a formally complete argument 
  • An enthymeme hides an assumption or principle
  • Most or at least many common statements hide the logical cues that help us develop the syllogism
  • The hardest arguments to follow are those that hide both the assumption and the logical cues
  • The closer you get to the syllogism, the more easily you can follow the argument

Well, it’s time for me to go home, so I think I shall go chirrup. Keep your eyes open because this blog arose from a discussion with the LTW apprentices for a lesson we’re developing in Lost Tools of Writing Level II. Understanding this can help you read better, write better, think better, communicate better, and make better decisions all while getting along better with others.

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