GLOSSARY
by Sandra LaFave  

Click on the term you want.


Absolutism
Absolutism in metaphysics is the view that the most real things (essences or Forms or God) are fixed, unchanging, and the same for all persons and cultures. Hence absolutism is often called essentialism. The "really real" is basically static and unchanging. Often, for absolutists, the most real things are also thought to be the best and "highest" things. Plato was a metaphysical absolutist. His influence on subsequent Western philosophy was immense. The paradigm of reality for an absolutist is Plato’s Form of the Good or the Christian God.

The sensible world, because it changes, is thus not "really real." "Pure" disciplines such as math, philosophy, and theology, which study the "really real" things, are the "privileged discourses"; they are more important than science, which studies only the apparently real.

Absolutist Epistemology is the view that p is true if it corresponds to the essences or Forms of numbers or God or things. Truth applies only to statements whose truth value never changes, e.g., about math or God or essential natures such as Dog-ness or Table-ness.

For absolutism, a paradigm of knowledge would be a math statement such as "2 + 2 = 4". This statement is objectively true: it is true whether or not anyone knows it, for all times, cultures, and situations. When rational beings discover this kind of truth (the only kind, for absolutism), they are bound to agree about it.

Absolutist Ethics is the view that fixed and unchanging ethical rules apply to all individuals in all cultures. Usually these rules are thought to be laid down by the immutable God. God is construed as intelligible, i.e., able to be understood by reason. Thus if we apply ourselves to the task of reasoning, we will always know which moral rule to use in any particular case. In other words, morality is objective. All rational beings following rational methods will agree what those rules are and how to apply them.

None of the characters in Who’s To Say? is an absolutist in the sense defined here. In philosophy, absolutism is pretty much dead. It has been superseded by various forms of relative relativism, such as scientific rationality and pragmatism.

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ad hoc hypothesis

"An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal research and in the work of pseudoscientists. For example, ESP researchers have been known to blame the hostile thoughts of onlookers for unconsciously influencing pointer readings on sensitive instruments. The hostile vibes, they say, made it impossible for them to duplicate a positive ESP experiment. Being able to duplicate an experiment is essential to confirming its validity. Of course, if this objection is taken seriously, then no experiment on ESP can ever fail. Whatever the results, one can always say they were caused by paranormal psychic forces, either the ones being tested or others not being tested. ...

"Ad hoc hypotheses are common in defense of the pseudoscientific theory known as biorhythm theory. For example, there are very many people who do not fit the predicted patterns of biorhythm theory. Rather than accept this fact as refuting evidence of the theory, a new category of people is created: the arhythmic. In short, whenever the theory does not seem to work, the contrary evidence is systematically discounted. Advocates of biorhythm theory claimed that the theory could be used to accurately predict the sex of unborn children. However, W.S. Bainbridge, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, demonstrated that the chance of predicting the sex of an unborn child using biorhythms was  50/50, the same as flipping a coin. An expert in biorhythms tried unsuccessfully to predict accurately the sexes of the children in Bainbridge's study based on Bainbridge's data. The expert's spouse suggested to Bainbridge an interesting ad hoc hypothesis, namely, that the cases where the theory was wrong probably included many homosexuals with indeterminate sex identities!

"Astrologers are often fond of using statistical data and analysis to impress us with the scientific nature of astrology. Of course, a scientific analysis of the statistical data does not always pan out for the astrologer. In those cases, the astrologer can make the data fit the astrological paradigm by the ad hoc hypothesis that those who do not fit the mold have other, unknown influences that counteract the influence of the dominant planets.

"Using ad hoc hypotheses is not limited to pseudoscientists. Another type of ad hoc hypothesis occurs in science when a new scientific theory is proposed which conflicts with an established theory and which lacks an essential explanatory mechanism. An ad hoc hypothesis is proposed to explain what the new theory cannot explain. For example, when Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift he could not explain how continents move. It was suggested that gravity was the force behind the movement of continents, though there was no scientific evidence for this notion. In fact, scientists could and did show that gravity was too weak a force to account for the movement of continents. Alexis du Toit, a defender of Wegener's theory, argued for radioactive melting of the ocean floor at continental borders as the mechanism by which continents might move. Stephen Jay Gould noted that "this ad hoc hypothesis added no increment of plausibility to Wegener's speculation." (Gould, p. 160)

"Finally, rejecting explanations that require belief in occult, supernatural or paranormal forces in favor of simpler and more plausible explanations is called applying Occam's razor. It is not the same as ad hoc hypothesizing. For example, let's say I catch you stealing a watch from a shop. You say you did not steal it. I ask you to empty your pockets. You agree and pull out a watch. I say, "Aha!, I was right. You stole the watch." You reply that you did not steal the watch, but you admit that it was not in your pocket when we went into the store. I ask you to explain how the watch got into your pocket and you say that you used telekinesis: you used your thoughts to transport the watch out of a glass case into your pocket. I ask you to repeat the act with another watch and you say "ok." Try as you will, however, you cannot make a watch magically appear in your pocket. You say that there is too much pressure on you to perform or that there are too many bad vibes in the air for you to work your powers. You have offered an ad hoc hypothesis to explain away what looks like a good refutation of your claim. My hypothesis that the watch is in your pocket because you stole it, is not an ad hoc hypothesis. I have chosen to believe a plausible explanation rather than an implausible one. Likewise, given the choice between believing that my headache went away of its own accord or that it went away because some nurse waved her hands over my hand while chanting a mantra, I will opt for the former every time.

"It is always more reasonable to apply Occam's razor than to offer speculative ad hoc hypotheses just to maintain the possibility of something supernatural or paranormal."

For more information and references, see the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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affirming the consequent

A formal fallacy. Affirming the Consequent has the form:

If A then B
B
Therefore A

You can recognize Affirming the Consequent because the CONSEQUENT (B) of the conditional statement (If A then B) serves as the other premise.

All substitution instances of Affirming the Consequent are invalid.

People who commit the error might be thinking the argument in question is a substitution instance of Modus Ponens, a valid form, since Affirming the Consequent looks somewhat like Modus Ponens.

Modus Ponens looks like this:

If A then B
A
Therefore B

All substitution instances of Modus Ponens are valid (logically correct deductive arguments).

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analogy
Comparison. We make a positive analogy when we compare two things and note their similarities. We make a negative analogy when we compare two things and note their differences.

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anomaly
An anomaly (literally, no law or rule) is an irregular or unusual event which does not fit a standard rule or law. For example, a frog when dropped should move through the air towards the ground, according to the law of gravity. If the frog were to remain suspended in mid-air, such levitation would be an anomaly. If it were discovered, however, that the frog was being suspended in mid-air by electromagnetic devices, the anomaly would dissolve.

Anything weird, abnormal, strange, odd, or difficult to classify is considered an anomaly.

In science, an anomaly is something which cannot be explained by currently accepted scientific theories. Sometimes the new phenomenon leads to new rules or theories, e.g., the discovery of x-rays and radiation.

For further references, go to the Skeptic's Dictionary. Click on "Glossary" in the Course Menu to return here.

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antecedent
A conditional is a statement form. It says

If [something -- call it A] then [something else -- call it B]

or

If A then B

The part of the conditional after the word "if" is called the antecedent. The part after the "then" is called the consequent.

In logic, we understand a conditional to say the antecedent is sufficient for the consequent. In other words, the antecedent guarantees or ensures the consequent. Or whenever you have the antecedent you have the consequent.

The conditional is important because it is found in many deductive argument forms. Some are valid (modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism); some are invalid (affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent).

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a priori and a posteriori statements

The expressions “a priori” and “a posteriori” are Latin idioms. They are phrases and function as adjectives or adverbs. That is, they modify a noun (such as “knowledge,” “statement,” or “claim”), a verb (such as "know") or an adjective (such as “true” or “false”). The “a” in these expressions is the Latin preposition meaning “from.” So “a priori” means “from before [observation]” and “a posteriori” means “from after [observation]”. The expressions “a priori” and “a posteriori” describe how we know the truth or falsity of a statement.

A statement is true or false a priori if no observation or experiment is required to determine if it is true or false. Examples of a priori statements are mathematical assertions, statements true or false by definition, and logical truths and falsehoods. We “just know” when some claims are a priori true or false. For example, we “just know” that the same statement cannot be both true and false in the same sense at the same time (a rule of logic called the law of non-contradiction).

A statement is true or false a posteriori if observation or experiment is required to determine if it is true or false; we don’t “just know” it. Examples of a posteriori statements are statements the world, e.g., “Dogs are carnivores” or “Ottawa is the capitol of Canada.”

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argument
In philosophy, an argument is a set of statements. Some statements in an argument are called premises; their job is to give support for another statement, the conclusion. An arguer implicitly tells us two things: (1) that his conclusion really is supported by the other statement(s) (the premises); and (2) that his premises are true, or at least reasonable to believe. Claim (1) — "The premises support the conclusion" — is called the inferential or LOGICAL claim; the second claim — "The premises are true or reasonable to believe" — is the FACTUAL claim. An arguer might be wrong about either (or both) of these claims. Critical thinking practice encourages careful examination of both claims. In other words, the critical thinker asks, "Is the logic really correct? Are the premises really true or reasonable to believe?"

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Barnum effect
"The Forer or Barnum effect is also known as the subjective validation effect or the personal validation effect. (The expression, "the Barnum effect," seems to have originated with psychologist Paul Meehl, in deference to circus man P.T. Barnum's reputation as a master psychological manipulator.)

"Psychologist B.R. Forer found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone. Consider the following as if it were given to you as an evaluation of your personality.

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

"Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student the above evaluation. He asked them to evaluate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of times with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2.

"In short, Forer convinced people he could successfully read their character. His accuracy amazed his subjects, though his personality analysis was taken from a newsstand astrology column and was presented to people without regard to their sun sign. The Forer effect seems to explain, in part at least, why so many people think that pseudosciences"work"."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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closed concept
A concept is closed if one can specify precisely the conditions for membership in its denotation. This set of membership conditions is called the term's connotation. For example, the concept "square" is closed because we can specify its connotation exactly: we can say exactly what properties a thing must possess in order to be a square: it must be (1) equilateral and (2) rectangular. Anything that is both equilateral and rectangular is a square; and anything that is a square is equilateral and rectangular. Closed concepts are opposed to open concepts. If a concept is open, we can't precisely specify the membership conditions for the denotation, but we can still identify paradigms of the concept in question.

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cogent argument
An inductive argument is cogent if it is both strong (logically correct) and its premises are all true (factually correct).

"Cogent" is to induction as "sound" is to deduction.

See also strong argument, weak argument

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coherence theory of truth
According to the coherence theory of truth, a statement is true if it is logically consistent with other beliefs that are held to be true. A belief is false if it is inconsistent with (contradicts) other beliefs that are held to be true. We should doubt claims that are currently inconsistent with the rest of our beliefs. Willard Quine is a famous contemporary philosopher who advocates the coherence theory.

Example: we don't believe in solipsism primarily because it contradicts so many of our other beliefs.

Problems: a belief can be consistent with all our other beliefs and yet have no independent supporting evidence. For example, many metaphysical beliefs are consistent with all imaginable states of affairs (e.g., "the universe came into existence five minutes ago complete with historical records and memories").

See Philosophical Theories of Truth for a much more comprehensive account!

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compatibility with all states of affairs

The logical positivists were the 20th-century radical empiricist heirs of David Hume.  The logical positivists said statements about the world (a posteriori statements) had to pass the verificationist test in order to be meaningful.

According to the verificationist test, an empirical statement is meaningful (not nonsense) if and only if you know, or you can imagine, what would verify it (what would make it true) and what would falsify it (what would make it false). Statements that do not pass the verificationist test are nonsense.

A statement is nonsense, then, if nothing makes it true or false. In other words, a statement is nonsense if it is compatible with all states of affairs.

The verificationist principle applies only to a posteriori statements. True statements about a priori matters (relations of ideas) are compatible with all states of affairs, but not in a dangerous way. For example, nothing falsifies “2 + 2 = 4” but according to the positivists, that’s not a statement about the world; it’s a statement about how we think. 

You’d probably agree that lots of statements are nonsense.  For example, consider the statement “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” That statement comes from the famous linguist Noam Chomsky. Now, what would make that true? False? You don’t know where to look, because the statement is internally contradictory – whereas the universe isn’t.

Many statements of pseudo-science (bogus science) are compatible with all states of affairs.  Consider statements of astrology. Suppose your horoscope says “You may be disappointed today.” That’s going to be true whether or not you’re disappointed today. In other words, the claim is not falsifiable. And according to the logical positivists, if it’s not falsifiable, it’s meaningless nonsense.

“The universe came into existence five minutes ago, complete with so-called historical records and memories.” You can’t prove that’s false either, can you?  Anything you bring forward as evidence to the contrary is either a “historical” record (like “yesterday’s” newspaper, which of course came into existence with all the other “historical” records five minutes ago) or a memory (a false memory). Because you can’t prove the statement false, the statement does not pass the verificationist test for meaning.  The statement is not false; it doesn’t say anything at all, so it’s nonsense. 

That’s an important point.  “False” and “nonsense” are two different things.  The statement “Bill Clinton is on my roof” is meaningful, because I know how my roof would be different if it were true.  The statement is not compatible with all states of affairs. However, the statement “God is in this room” would be classified as meaningless, since I don’t know how the room would be any different if God were in it or not (assuming God is a non-material being that can’t be sensed – the usual definition of “God”).

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conditional
A conditional is a statement form. It says

If [something -- call it A] then [something else -- call it B]

or

If A then B

The part of the conditional after the word "if" is called the antecedent. The part after the "then" is called the consequent.

In logic, we understand a conditional to say the antecedent is sufficient for the consequent. In other words, the antecedent guarantees or ensures the consequent. Or whenever you have the antecedent you have the consequent.

The conditional is important because it is found in many deductive argument forms. Some are valid (modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism); some are invalid (affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent).

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confirmation bias
"Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs. For example, if one believes that during a full moon there is an increase in accidents, one will take notice when accidents occur during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when accidents occur during other times of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens one's belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents.

"This tendency to give more attention and weight to data that supports our preconceptions and beliefs than we do to contrary data is especially pernicious when our preconceptions and beliefs are little more than prejudices. If our beliefs are firmly established upon solid evidence and valid confirmatory experiments, the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that fits with our beliefs should not lead us astray as a rule. Of course, if we become blinded to evidence truly refuting a favored hypothesis, we have crossed the line from reasonableness to closed-mindedness.

"Numerous studies have demonstrated that people generally give an excessive amount of value to confirmatory information, i.e., data which is positive or which supports a position (Gilovich, ch. 3). Thomas Gilovich speculates that the "most likely reason for the excessive influence of confirmatory information is that it is easier to deal with cognitively." It is much easier to see how a piece of data supports a position than it is to see how it might count against the position. Consider a typical ESP experiment or a seemingly clairvoyant dream: successes are often unambiguous or data is easily massaged to count as a success, while negative instances require intellectual effort to even see them as negative or to consider them as significant. The tendency to give more attention and weight to the positive and the confirmatory has been shown to influence memory. When digging into our memories for data relevant to a position, we are more likely to recall data that confirms the position (Gilovich)."

For more information and references, see the Skeptic's Dictionary. Click "Glossary" on the Course Menu to return here.

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connotation
In literary analysis, the connotation of a word comprises the word's emotional associations -- its "vibes." Some words have positive connotation (e.g., "friend," "fresh," "natural," "family"); others have negative connotation (e.g., "evil," "stress," artificial," "politician"). In linguistics and philosophy, "connotation" means something different, however. The connotation of a word, for linguistics and philosophy, is the list of conditions for membership in the set of things denoted by the term (the denotation of the term). Each condition in the list is necessary and together the conditions are sufficient for class membership. For example, the connotation of the term "square" is "(1) equilateral and (2) rectangular." Each condition is necessary for being a square, and together the conditions are sufficient. If a concept is a closed concept, its connotation can be precisely specified.

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consequent
A conditional is a statement form. It says

If [something -- call it A] then [something else -- call it B]

or

If A then B

The part of the conditional after the word "if" is called the antecedent. The part after the "then" is called the consequent.

In logic, we understand a conditional to say the antecedent is sufficient for the consequent. In other words, the antecedent guarantees or ensures the consequent. Or whenever you have the antecedent you have the consequent.

The conditional is important because it is found in many deductive argument forms. Some are valid (modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism); some are invalid (affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent).

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controlled experiment
"A control group study uses a control group to compare to an experimental group in a test of a causal hypothesis. The control and experimental groups must be identical in all relevant ways except for the introduction of a suspected causal agent into the experimental group. If the suspected causal agent is actually a causal factor of some event, then logic dictates that that event should manifest itself more significantly in the experimental than in the control group. For example, if 'C' causes 'E', when we introduce 'C' into the experimental group but not into the control group, we should find 'E' occurring in the experimental group at a significantly greater rate than in the control group. Significance is measured by relation to chance: if an event is not likely due to chance, then its occurrence is significant.

"A double-blind test is a control group test where neither the evaluator nor the subject knows which items are controls. A random test is one which randomly assigns items to the control or experimental groups.

"The purpose of controls, double-blind and random testing is to reduce error, self-deception and bias."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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correspondence theory of truth
The correspondence theory is the "default" theory of truth. It's the one most people think is obvious. According to the correspondence theory, a claim is true if it corresponds to what is so (the "facts" or "reality") and false if it does not correspond to what is so. Most scientists and many philosophers hold some version of the correspondence theory of truth.

Example: The statement "The opera Aida had its first performance in Cairo" is true just in case the opera Aida had its first performance in Cairo, and false otherwise. "Snow is white" is true just in case snow is white.

Problems: Is the correspondence theory itself true? If so, what does it correspond to?

How do we figure out what is so? This latter question belongs to metaphysics. A metaphysical realist will hold that the reality that "corresponds" is objective and mind-independent. An idealist may hold that it is objective yet not mind-independent.

You may think it is easy to figure out what is so. In the Part 8 of this class, we will see the overwhelming psychological evidence that there is no such thing as "pure" perception or "pure" linguistic description. If everybody comes from somewhere, nobody has complete God-like objectivity. So some people have rejected the correspondence theory because they say we simply can't discover what is so in any "objective" way.

Think about this argument in the light of our earlier discussion of the subjective-objective distinction! (Remind me.)

(The point of our discussion was that you DON'T have to reject the correspondence theory of truth even if it's true that there's no pure perception.)

See Philosophical Theories of Truth for a much more comprehensive account!

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critical theory
In English departments, "critical theory" (see separate notes on critical theory), "deconstructionism," "postmodernism," "literary theory," or just "theory" is a form of relativism. Peter in Who's to Say? espouses this view. He claims that fundamental notions like reality, truth, rationality, contradiction, etc., apply only within linguistic or cultural frameworks ("meta-narratives"), and that science is just one of many possible frameworks, and is thus not privileged.

In the hands of theorists like Derrida, critical theory probably belongs in the "absolute relativist" column, because it calls into question the notion of disinterested rationality itself. Critical theorists, in other words, would support the view that there is no objective truth of any sort, since all "texts" are situated in a particular socio-political framework.

Peter Barry, from his book Beginning Theory, pp. 34-36 summarizes the main points of critical theory as follows:"politics is pervasive, language is constitutive, truth is provisional, meaning is contingent, human nature is a myth."

Philosophers generally do not think well of critical theory. Philosophers agree with many of its claims -- e.g., that meaning is constitutive -- but disagree, for empirical reasons, that reason and human nature are radically different from culture to culture.

The Web has many sites about critical theory, since it was very fashionable in some literature departments in the 1980's and 90's. Search for keywords like postmodernism, deconstructionism, Foucault, and Derrida.

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deconstruction
In English departments, "critical theory" (see separate notes on critical theory), "deconstructionism," "postmodernism," "literary theory," or just "theory" is a form of relativism. Peter in Who's to Say? espouses this view. He claims that fundamental notions like reality, truth, rationality, contradiction, etc., apply only within linguistic or cultural frameworks ("meta-narratives"), and that science is just one of many possible frameworks, and is thus not privileged.

In the hands of theorists like Derrida, critical theory probably belongs in the "absolute relativist" column, because it calls into question the notion of disinterested rationality itself. Critical theorists, in other words, would support the view that there is no objective truth of any sort, since all "texts" are situated in a particular socio-political framework.

Peter Barry, from his book Beginning Theory, pp. 34-36 summarizes the main points of critical theory as follows:"politics is pervasive, language is constitutive, truth is provisional, meaning is contingent, human nature is a myth."

Philosophers generally do not think well of critical theory. Philosophers agree with many of its claims -- e.g., that meaning is constitutive -- but disagree, for empirical reasons, that reason and human nature are radically different from culture to culture.

The Web has many sites about critical theory, since it was very fashionable in some literature departments in the 1980's and 90's. Search for keywords like postmodernism, deconstructionism, Foucault, and Derrida.

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deduction
The sort of argument in which the arguer claims that the conclusion must be true (cannot be false) if the premises are true. Logically correct deductive arguments -- called valid arguments -- are those in which the arguer's inferential claim is true: the conclusion really must be true if the premises are true. Logically incorrect deductive arguments -- called invalid -- are those in which the arguer claims the conclusion must be true if the premises are true, but the arguer is mistaken: it is possible that the premises might be true and the conclusion false. Logical correctness in deduction is due to logical form.

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denotation
The set of things a term correctly refers to. For example, the denotation of the general term "dog" is the set containing all the dogs. The denotation of the singular term "Bill Clinton" is the set containing only Bill Clinton. (In math it is okay for a set to have only one member.) The denotation of the term "mermaid" is the null class (the class with no members). See also connotation.

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denying the antecedent
A formal fallacy. Denying the Antecedent has the form:

If A then B
not A
Therefore not B

You can recognize Denying the Antecedent because the ANTECEDENT (A) of the conditional statement (If A then B) is negated or denied in the other premise.

All substitution instances of Denying the Antecedent are invalid.

People who commit the error might be thinking the argument in question is a substitution instance of Modus Tollens, a valid form, since Denying the Antecedent looks somewhat like Modus Tollens.

Modus Tollens, the valid form, looks like this:

If A then B
not B
Therefore not A

All substitution instances of Modus Tollens are valid (logically correct deductive arguments).

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double blind experiment
"A control group study uses a control group to compare to an experimental group in a test of a causal hypothesis. The control and experimental groups must be identical in all relevant ways except for the introduction of a suspected causal agent into the experimental group. If the suspected causal agent is actually a causal factor of some event, then logic dictates that that event should manifest itself more significantly in the experimental than in the control group. For example, if 'C' causes 'E', when we introduce 'C' into the experimental group but not into the control group, we should find 'E' occurring in the experimental group at a significantly greater rate than in the control group. Significance is measured by relation to chance: if an event is not likely due to chance, then its occurrence is significant.

"A double-blind test is a control group test where neither the evaluator nor the subject knows which items are controls. A random test is one that randomly assigns items to the control or experimental groups.

"The purpose of controls, double-blind and random testing is to reduce error, self-deception and bias."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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epistemological relativism
Epistemological relativism is the view that truth and falsity in general are relative. An epistemological relativist denies that anything at all can be known with certainty. According to hard core epistemological relativism, everything is a matter of opinion, including science. Naturally, anyone who is an epistemological relativist is also an ethical relativist.

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epistemology
The branch of philosophy that investigates the nature, source, and limits of knowledge. Knowledge in epistemology is primarily construed as "knowledge that" a statement is true or false.

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ethical relativism
Ethical relativism is the view that morality is relative and not objective. That is, according to ethical relativism, what's actually moral can differ from person to person or from culture to culture. Ethical relativists also claim that it is impossible for individuals or cultures with different ethical views to reason together about what's moral, since morality is primarily a matter of non-rational personal or cultural preference. Philosophers generally reject ethical relativism, because philosophers think people of different cultures can and do reason together about morality, by virtue of our common human nature and common principles of reason.

An ethical relativist restricts relativism to ethical matters; an ethical relativist might not be an epistemological relativist. For example, an ethical relativist might accept the possibility of scientific truth but deny the possibility of truth in ethics.

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facts and theories
"Scientific facts, like scientific theories, are not infallible certainties. Facts involve not only easily testable perceptual elements; they also involve interpretation.

"Noted paleoanthropologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould reminds us that in science 'fact' can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent" (Gould, 1983, 254). However, facts and theories are different things, notes Gould, "not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts." In Popper's words: "Theories are nets cast to catch what we call 'the world': to rationalize, to explain, and to master it. We endeavor to make the mesh ever finer and finer."

"To the uninformed public, facts contrast with theories. Non-scientists commonly use the term 'theory' to refer to a speculation or guess based on limited information or knowledge. However, when we refer to a scientific theory, we are not referring to a speculation or guess, but to a systematic explanation of some range of empirical phenomena. Nevertheless, scientific theories vary in degree of certainty from the highly improbable to the highly probable. That is, there are varying degrees of evidence and support for different theories, i.e., some are more reasonable to accept than others.

"There are, of course, many more facts than theories, and once something has been established as a scientific fact (e.g., that the earth goes around the sun) it is not likely to be replaced by a "better" fact in the future. Whereas, the history of science clearly shows that scientific theories do not remain forever unchanged. The history of science is, among other things, the history of theorizing, testing, arguing, refining, rejecting, replacing, more theorizing, more testing, etc. It is the history of theories working well for awhile, anomalies occurring (i.e., new facts being discovered which do not fit with established theories), and new theories being proposed and eventually replacing the old ones partially or completely."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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fallacy
A fallacy is a common mistake in argument. The study of fallacies began in ancient Greece and Rome, which explains why many fallacies still have Latin names.

A formal fallacy is one that results from an arguer's mistaking an invalid form for a valid form, because of the resemblance between the forms. For example, Affirming the Consequent, a formal fallacy, looks superficially very much like the valid form modus ponens, and it is easy to see how someone might mistake AC for MP.

An informal fallacy is any other kind of common error in reasoning. Informal fallacies are commonly used in propaganda and advertising. Many lists of informal fallacies are available online; for example, here.

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Forer effect
"The Forer or Barnum effect is also known as the subjective validation effect or the personal validation effect. (The expression, "the Barnum effect," seems to have originated with psychologist Paul Meehl, in deference to circus man P.T. Barnum's reputation as a master psychological manipulator.)

"Psychologist B.R. Forer found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone. Consider the following as if it were given to you as an evaluation of your personality.

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

"Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student the above evaluation. He asked them to evaluate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of times with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2.

"In short, Forer convinced people he could successfully read their character. His accuracy amazed his subjects, though his personality analysis was taken from a newsstand astrology column and was presented to people without regard to their sun sign. The Forer effect seems to explain, in part at least, why so many people think that pseudosciences"work"."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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formal fallacy
A fallacy is a common mistake in argument. A formal fallacy is one that results from an arguer's mistaking an invalid form for a valid form, because of the resemblance between the forms. For example, Affirming the Consequent is a formal fallacy. It looks like this:

If A then B
B
Therefore A

Modus Ponens, a valid form, looks like this:

If A then B
A
Therefore B

Affirming the Consequent looks superficially very much like Modus Ponens, and it is easy to see how a careless person might mistake AC for MP. Thus Affirming the Consequent is considered a formal fallacy.

An informal fallacy is any other kind of common error in reasoning.

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hypothetical syllogism
A valid argument form containing two premises, all statements of which are conditionals. The form is:

If A then B.
If B then C.
Therefore, if A then C.

The order of the premises does not matter. All substitution instances of hypothetical syllogism are valid.

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induction
The sort of argument in which the arguer claims the conclusion is likely or probable if the premises are true. An inductive argument is logically correct (strong) if the arguer's claim is true: that is, the conclusion really is likely if the premises are true. An inductive argument is logically incorrect if the arguer's claim is false: the conclusion is not likely if the premises are true. Logical correctness in induction is not a matter of logical form.

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informal fallacy
A fallacy is a common mistake in argument. A formal fallacy is one that results from an arguer's mistaking an invalid form for a valid form, because of the resemblance between the forms. An informal fallacy is any other kind of common error in reasoning. For example, an irrelevant personal attack is fallacious (because of the irrelevance), yet the fallacy does not result from mistaking an invalid form for a valid form. It's a different kind of mistake.

The division of fallacies into formal and informal is not precise. Some informal fallacies are formally valid arguments. For example, the argument

A
Therefore A

is formally valid (the conclusion must be true if the premise is true). But this argument doesn't do the job an argument is supposed to do; it doesn't give you a reason to believe A. So this argument fails, and is considered an instance of the informal fallacy of Begging the Question.

Informal fallacies are commonly used in propaganda and advertising. Many lists of informal fallacies are available online; for example, here.

The fallacy lists compiled by different authors (including Conway and Munson) differ slightly, but all include the same core group: Accident/ Appeal to a Saying, Ad Hominem/Genetic Fallacy,Appeal to Common Belief, Appeal to Common Practice, Appeal to Ignorance, Arguing from Questionable Premises, Bandwagon, Begging the Question, Compatibility with All States of Affairs, Composition, Continuum Fallacy, Correlation Fallacy, Division, Equivocation, False Dilemma, Gambler's Fallacy, Impromptu Definition,Irrelevant Emotional Appeal, Loaded Question, Objectionable Vagueness, Poisoning the Well, Post Hoc, Questionable Analogy, Questionable Cause, Questionable Statistics, Quibbling, Sample Too Small, Sample Unrepresentative, Slippery Slope, Smokescreen/Red Herring, Straw Man, Suppressed (Overlooked) Evidence, Two Wrongs Make a Right, Unfair Shifting of the Burden of Proof

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invalid argument
In deduction, an argument is said to be invalid if the inferential claim is false: the conclusion does not have to be true if the premises are true. Invalid arguments have incorrect deductive logic. Note that the word "invalid" applies only to arguments -- not to statements, which are said to be true or false.

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Kuhn, Thomas
"T.S. Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), used the term 'paradigm' to refer to the conceptual frameworks and/or worldviews of various scientific communities. For Kuhn a scientific paradigm includes models like the planetary model of atoms, and theories, concepts, knowledge, assumptions, and values. For Kuhn such a notion as the scientific paradigm was essential to make his argument regarding a particular aspect of the history of science, viz., when one conceptual framework gives way to another during what he called a scientific revolution.

"Kuhn believed that during periods of "normal science" scientists work within the same paradigm. Scientific communication and work proceeds relatively smoothly until anomalies occur or a new theory or model is proposed which requires understanding traditional scientific concepts in new ways, and which rejects old assumptions and replaces them with new ones.

"A paradigm of a scientific revolution in Kuhn's sense would be the Copernican revolution. The old model of the earth at the center of God's creation was replaced with a model that put the earth as one of several planets orbiting our Sun. Eventually, circular orbits, which represented perfection and God's design for the heavens in the old worldview, would be reluctantly replaced by elliptical orbits. Galileo would find other "imperfections" in the heavens, such as craters on the moon.

"For Kuhn, scientific revolutions occur during those periods where at least two paradigms co-exist, one traditional and at least one new. The paradigms are incommensurable, as are the concepts used to understand and explain basic facts and beliefs. The two groups live in different worlds. The movement from the old to a new paradigm he called a paradigm shift."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary

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logic
The branch of philosophy that investigates the link between the premises and conclusion in argument. There are two basic kinds of logic. Deductive arguments claim the strongest possible link between premises and conclusion: in a logically correct deductive argument, the conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true. Inductive arguments claim a less strong link between premises and conclusion. In a logically correct inductive argument, the conclusion is likely or probable (though still possibly false) if the premises are true.

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lunar effect
From the Skeptic's Dictionary:
"The full moon has been linked to crime, suicide, mental illness, disasters, accidents,  birthrates, fertility, and werewolves, among other things. Some people even buy and sell stocks according to phases of the moon, a method probably as successful as many others. Numerous studies have tried to find lunar effects. So far, the studies have failed to establish anything of interest, except that the idea of the full moon definitely sends some lunatics (after luna, the Latin word for moon) over the edge. (Lunar effects that have been found have little or nothing to do with human behavior, e.g., the discovery of a slight effect of the moon on global temperature,* which in turn might have an effect on the growth of plants. *)

"Ivan Kelly, James Rotton and Roger Culver examined over 100 studies on lunar effects and concluded that the studies have failed to show a reliable and significant correlation (i.e., one not likely due to chance) between the full moon, or any other phase of the moon, and each of the following:


-the homicide rate
-traffic accidents
-crisis calls to police or fire stations
-domestic violence
-births of babies
-suicide
-major disasters
-casino payout rates
-assassinations
-kidnappings
-aggression by professional hockey players
-violence in prisons
-psychiatric admissions
-agitated behavior by nursing home residents
-assaults
-gunshot wounds
-stabbings
-emergency room admissions
-behavioral outbursts of psychologically challenged rural adults
-lycanthropy
-vampirism
-alcoholism
-sleep walking
-epilepsy

"If so many studies have failed to prove a significant correlation between the full moon and anything, why do so many people believe in these lunar myths? Kelly, Rotton, and Culver suspect four factors: media effects, folklore and tradition, misconceptions, and cognitive biases. I would add a fifth factor: communal reinforcement."

For more info and references see the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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matter of fact
An issue is a matter of fact (or, if you prefer, a factual matter) if metaphysically objective data would decide the truth value of statements about it. An issue can be a matter of fact (a factual matter) even if we do not currently happen to have the metaphysically objective data. For example, whether or not O.J. Simpson murdered his wife is a factual matter (a matter of fact and NOT a matter of opinion), since we could agree on the truth value of the statement "O.J. murdered his wife" if we had access to all the relevant information about the case. O.J., as a matter of fact, either did murder his wife, or he didn't. The relevant event really took place, or it didn't, independently of anyone's experience. What happened happened, metaphysically objectively. And if reasonable people ever had access to all the relevant information about the case, reasonable people would all agree about what happened. The same is true of whether or not extraterrestrials have ever visited earth. That's a factual matter; either extraterrestrials have visited the earth or they haven't, independently of anyone's experience. And if we knew enough about extraterrestrials and had access to all the relevant data, and agreed about what could constitute sufficient evidence, we would be able to say (epistemologically objectively) whether the statement "Extraterrestrials have visited the earth" is true or false.

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matter of opinion
An issue is a matter of opinion if the only relevant evidence for determining the truth value of statements about the issue is metaphysically subjective. For example, the issue of whether vanilla ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice cream is a matter of opinion because no metaphysically objective data exist for deciding its truth value. The taste of the ice cream is metaphysically subjective; it exists ONLY as experienced. So the truth value of the statement "Vanilla ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice cream" depends ONLY on each individual's metaphysically subjective experience of the tastes in question. Many aspects of ice-cream eating are matters of fact: a particular dish of ice cream has the chemical composition it has, for example, independently of anyone's experience. But taste is different; taste does not exist until somebody experiences it. (This doesn't mean taste isn't REAL, by the way; taste simply exists in a metaphysically different way from the chemical composition.)

A claim is NOT automatically a mere "matter of opinion" simply because people disagree about it. Note that people do disagree about matters of opinion (whether vanilla ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice cream) but they also disagree about matters of fact (whether aliens have visited earth). The two cases are quite different. The taste of the ice cream is metaphysically subjective; it exists ONLY as experienced. So the truth value of the statement "Vanilla ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice cream" depends ONLY on each individual's metaphysically subjective experience of the taste. On the other hand, ETs either have or haven't visited the earth, and at some future time, on the basis of shared evidence and reasoning, we could reasonably be said to have objectively determined the truth-value of the statement "As of (some date) ETs have visited" — whatever the truth value turns out to be. The relevant events that would determine the truth value either have or have not occurred: ETs have visited or they haven't, independently of anyone's experience.

What do you think about aesthetic judgments, then (like "Mozart's music is better than Copland's" or "Amadeus is a better movie than Dumb and Dumber")? Some matters of "taste" seem to be more than mere matters of taste, no?

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metaphysics
Usually, synonymous with "ontology": the branch of philosophy that investigates the general nature of being or reality, especially the being of the sensible world, God, freedom, and souls. Sometimes used in a broader sense as "the branch of philosophy that attempts to construct a general, speculative worldview; a complete, systematic account of all reality and experience, usually involving an epistemology, an ontology, an ethics, and an aesthetics." (From Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy, p. 410.)

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modus ponens
A valid argument form containing two premises. An argument is in modus ponens form if one of its premises is a conditional, the other premise is the antecedent of that conditional, and the conclusion is the consequent of that conditional. In other words,

If A then B
A
Therefore B

The order of the premises does not matter. All substitution instances of modus ponens are valid (i.e., have correct deductive logic).

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modus tollens
A valid argument form containing two premises. An argument is in modus tollens form if one of its premises is a conditional, the other premise is the negation or denial of the consequent of that conditional, and the conclusion is the negation of the antecedent of that conditional. In other words,

If A then B
not B
Therefore not A

The order of the premises does not matter. All substitution instances of modus tollens are valid (i.e., have correct deductive logic).

An example of an argument in modus tollens form is:

If I get an A, I pass the class.
I didn't pass the class.
So I didn't get an A.

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necessary condition
Something (x) is a necessary condition for something else (y) if y can't occur without x. For example, you can't be pregnant without being female. Therefore, being female is a necessary condition for being pregnant. Note that if x is necessary for y, then whenever you have y, you have x. For example, whenever we find a pregnant person, it's a female. Note that being female is not a sufficient condition for being pregnant, since being female does not guarantee being pregnant.

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normal science
"T.S. Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), used the term 'paradigm' to refer to the conceptual frameworks and/or worldviews of various scientific communities. For Kuhn a scientific paradigm includes models like the planetary model of atoms, and theories, concepts, knowledge, assumptions, and values. For Kuhn such a notion as the scientific paradigm was essential to make his argument regarding a particular aspect of the history of science, viz., when one conceptual framework gives way to another during what he called a scientific revolution.

Kuhn believed that during periods of "normal science" scientists work within the same paradigm. Scientific communication and work proceeds relatively smoothly until anomalies occur or a new theory or model is proposed which requires understanding traditional scientific concepts in new ways, and which rejects old assumptions and replaces them with new ones.

"A paradigm of a scientific revolution in Kuhn's sense would be the Copernican revolution. The old model of the earth at the center of God's creation was replaced with a model that put the earth as one of several planets orbiting our Sun. Eventually, circular orbits, which represented perfection and God's design for the heavens in the old worldview, would be reluctantly replaced by elliptical orbits. Galileo would find other "imperfections" in the heavens, such as craters on the moon.

"For Kuhn, scientific revolutions occur during those periods where at least two paradigms co-exist, one traditional and at least one new. The paradigms are incommensurable, as are the concepts used to understand and explain basic facts and beliefs. The two groups live in different worlds. The movement from the old to a new paradigm he called a paradigm shift."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary

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objectionable vagueness
A sentence is objectionably vague if you can't tell what it says. Causes of objectionable vagueness include: ambiguity, equivocation, amphiboly, compatibility with all states of affairs, wordiness, etc.

The Examples of Bad Writing exemplify objectionable vagueness.

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objective
In metaphysics, something exists objectively if its existence does not depend on its being experienced, e.g., the Eiffel Tower. Metaphysical objectivity is opposed to metaphysical subjectivity: something exists in a metaphysically subjective way if its existence depends on its being experienced -- like a headache. A claim is epistemologically objective if its truth value can be determined intersubjectively by generally-agreed methods or procedures: for example, the statement "The Eiffel Tower is 1000 feet tall" is epistemologically objective. Its truth value can be readily determined. We are said to know epistemologically objective claims that turn out to be true. A claim is epistemologically subjective if its truth value cannot be determined by any intersubjective, generally-agreed methods or procedures. The statement "The Eiffel Tower is beautiful" is epistemologically subjective. We say epistemologically subjective matters are mere matters of taste. See Thinking Critically About the Subjective/Objective Distinction.

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Occam's razor
"Occam" is also spelled "Ockham".

""Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate" or "plurality should not be posited without necessity." The words are those of the medieval English philosopher and Franciscan monk, William of Ockham (ca. 1285-1349). ..."

Occam's razor is also called the principle of parsimony. These days it is usually interpreted to mean something like "the simpler the explanation, the better" or "don't multiply hypotheses unnecessarily." In any case, Occam's razor is a principle which is frequently used outside of ontology, e.g., by philosophers of science in an effort to establish criteria for choosing from among theories with equal explanatory power. When giving explanatory reasons for something, don't posit more than is necessary. Von Daniken could be right: maybe extraterrestrials did teach ancient people art and engineering, but we don't need to posit alien visitations in order to explain the feats of ancient people. Why posit pluralities unnecessarily? Or, as most would put it today, don't make any more assumptions than you have to. We can posit the ether to explain action at a distance, but we don't need ether to explain it, so why assume an ethereal ether?"

For more information and references, see the Skeptic's Dictionary. Click on "Glossary" in the Course Menu to return here.

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ontology
The branch of philosophy that investigates general questions of being or reality: what is real? Are some kinds of things more real than others? Does a tree falling in the forest if no one is around make a real sound? etc. Usually the word "ontology" is used synonymously with the word "metaphysics."

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open concept
A concept is open if we cannot precisely specify its connotation, i.e., the membership conditions of its denotation. For example, concepts such as "educated person" or "art" or "obscenity" are open concepts. We can't say exactly what characteristics someone must have in order to be properly called an educated person. However, we do recognize paradigms of educated people, and we give arguments by analogy with paradigms for borderline cases.

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paradigm
A very good example of something. When a concept is an open concept, we know it through paradigms.

From the Skeptic's Dictionary:
"A paradigm is a model or exemplar. The paradigm case is the typical or archetypal case. A paradigm shift is the movement from one paradigm to another.

"One notion of a paradigm is that used in law, where a paradigm is a model case to be distinguished from penumbral cases. A law might make it a crime to use a gun. A case where a robber uses a loaded .357 magnum would be a paradigm case; a case where a robber uses a squirt gun would be considered penumbral. A court would have to decide whether the law meant to include the use of squirt guns as a crime, but there would be no need for interpretation of the law to decide whether using a loaded .357 magnum was within the legislature's intent. Paradigm in this sense has no correlative paradigm shift.

"A more common use of paradigm as model would be something like the paradigm of policing, which would include the basic assumptions, values, goals, beliefs, expectations, theories and knowledge that a community has about policing. Many models, like that of policing, have emerged over time in response to various changes in society and are not the result of a grand design or plan. A paradigm shift in policing might occur slowly and over many years or it might occur abruptly as the result of a conscious analysis and evaluation of the current paradigm. An individual or a group might list the inadequacies, dangers, etc. of the current paradigm in light of relevant changes in society and present a new model for policing. If the new model is accepted by the community then a paradigm shift occurs. The new paradigm would replace old assumptions, values, goals, beliefs, expectations, theories, etc. with ones of its own. ...

"One of the more common applications of the terms paradigm and paradigm shift is to mean "traditional way of thinking" vs. "new way of thinking." Some New Age thinkers seem to think that paradigms can be created by individuals or groups who consciously set out to create new paradigms. They seem to mean by 'paradigm' nothing more than "a set of personal beliefs," e.g., Essays on Creating Sacred Relationships: The Next Step to a New Paradigm by Sondra Ray and Handbook for the New Paradigm from Benevelent [sic] Energies. Many of the New Age Self-Help promoters base their approaches on the notion that one's current paradigm is holding them back and what they need to do is create a new paradigm (set of beliefs, priorities, assumptions, values, goals, etc.) for themselves that will allow them to break through, etc., e.g., The Paradigm Conspiracy: How Our Systems of Government, Church, School, and Culture Violate Our Human Potential by Denise Breton and Christopher Largent.

For more information and references, see the Skeptic's Dictionary. Click on "Glossary" in the Course Menu to return here.

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pareidolia
"Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. For example, in the discolorations of a burnt tortilla one sees the face of Jesus Christ. Or one sees the image of Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun or the face of a man in the moon.

"Under ordinary circumstances, pareidolia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based upon sense perception. For example, it explains many UFO sightings and hearing sinister messages on records played backwards. Pareidolia explains Elvis, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster sightings. It explains numerous  religious apparitions and visions. And it explains why some people see a face or a building in a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars.

"Under clinical circumstances, some psychologists encourage pareidolia as a means to understanding a patient. The most infamous example of this type of clinical  procedure is the Rorschach ink blot test."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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philosophy
In universities, philosophy is the critical investigation of presuppositions. Two basic kinds of presuppositions are investigated: presuppositions of ordinary life (in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic), and presuppositions of other disciplines (in philosophy of art, philosophy of law, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, etc.). For more information see What Is Philosophy?.

There are many online resources for philosophy, including:

Guide to Philosophy on the Internet
Very comprehensive, browsable.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Currently incomplete, but what's here is very good.

Online help for writing philosophy papers

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Many classic philosophy texts online here.

Philosophical Links

Episteme Links: Welcome Page

The Philosopher's Magazine (TPM) Online

Philosophical Dictionary

No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed
"Your one-stop shop for multi-media philosophy!"

Dictionary of hilosophy of Mind

Philosophy News Service
Interesting up-to-date articles on the contemporary philosophy scene.

The Philosopher's Lighthouse
Sort of Philosophy 101 online.

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postmodernism
In English departments, "critical theory" (see separate notes on critical theory), "deconstructionism," "postmodernism," "literary theory," or just "theory" is a form of relativism. Peter in Who's to Say? espouses this view. He claims that fundamental notions like reality, truth, rationality, contradiction, etc., apply only within linguistic or cultural frameworks ("meta-narratives"), and that science is just one of many possible frameworks, and is thus not privileged.

In the hands of theorists like Derrida, critical theory probably belongs in the "absolute relativist" column, because it calls into question the notion of disinterested rationality itself. Critical theorists, in other words, would support the view that there is no objective truth of any sort, since all "texts" are situated in a particular socio-political framework.

Peter Barry, from his book Beginning Theory, pp. 34-36 summarizes the main points of critical theory as follows:"politics is pervasive, language is constitutive, truth is provisional, meaning is contingent, human nature is a myth."

Philosophers generally do not think well of critical theory. Philosophers agree with many of its claims -- e.g., that meaning is constitutive -- but disagree, for empirical reasons, that reason and human nature are radically different from culture to culture.

The Web has many sites about critical theory, since it was very fashionable in some literature departments in the 1980's and 90's. Search for keywords like postmodernism, deconstructionism, Foucault, and Derrida.

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pragmatic theory of truth
According to the pragmatic theory of truth, a statement is true if it allows you to interact effectively and efficiently with the cosmos. The less true a belief is, the less it facilitates such interaction. A belief is false if it facilitates no interaction. The most famous advocate of the pragmatic theory is the American philosopher William James. A contemporary adherent is Richard Rorty.

Example: My belief that inanimate objects do not spontaneously get up and move about is true because it makes my world more predictable and thus easier to live in. It "works."

Problems: Sometimes unreasonable beliefs "work". A tribe might believe that human sacrifice brings their crops back each year. The crops do come back after the human sacrifice, but not because of the human sacrifice.

The pragmatic theory of truth might invite relativism in the case of beliefs that are compatible with all states of affairs, e.g., religious beliefs. (Someone might say the belief "God exists" is true because it "works for me," i.e., it helps this person "interact more effectively with the cosmos.")

The notion of "more effective and efficient interaction with the cosmos" is perhaps objectionably vague.

The pragmatic theory of truth invites the notion that there are degrees of truth (some beliefs might be more effective than others), and thus invites us to reject the law of non-contradiction ("a claim is either true or false").

See Philosophical Theories of Truth for a much more comprehensive account!

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pragmatism
Pragmatism in metaphysics says that to be real, something must make a real practical difference. For example, a table is real because I have to walk around it. If the table made no difference to my life (if I didn't have to walk around it, for example, or never used it to put stuff on), it would not be real; it would be imaginary. Now, God might be real if the notion of God makes a practical difference in people's lives.

Pragmatic epistemology says p is true/right if and only if p "works," i.e., enables more satisfactory relations with the world. "God exists" is true for me if it makes my life better (and I define "better").

Beliefs that work for one person or culture or time might not work for another. But pragmatists agree that scientific discourse is privileged as long as science tends to continue to produce beliefs that work very well.

In Who's to Say? Anita represents pragmatism.

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pseudoscience
"A pseudoscience is set of ideas based on
theories put forth as scientific when they are not scientific. A theory is scientific if and only if it explains a range of empirical phenomena and can be empirically tested in some meaningful way. Scientific testing usually involves deducing empirical predictions from the theory. To be meaningful, such predictions must, at least in theory, be possible to be false. This quality of scientific theories was called falsifiability by Karl Popper. A pseudoscientific theory claims to be scientific, i.e., be falsifiable, but either the theory is not really falsifiable or it has been falsified but its adherents refuse to accept that the theory has been refuted.

"Pseudoscientists claim to base their theories on empirical evidence, and they may even use some scientific methods, though often their understanding of a controlled experiment is inadequate. Many pseudoscientists relish being able to point out the consistency of their theories with known facts or with predicted consequences, but they do not recognize that such consistency is not proof of anything. It is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition that a good scientific theory be consistent with the facts. A theory which is contradicted by empirical facts is obviously not a very good scientific theory, but it does not follow from that fact that a theory which is consistent with the facts is therefore a good theory. For example, "the truth of the hypothesis that plague is due to evil spirits is not established by the correctness of the deduction that you can avoid the disease by keeping out of the reach of the evil spirits."

"Several characteristics of pseudoscientists and pseudoscience seem to stand out:

1. The tendency to propose theories which are put forth as scientific, but which cannot be empirically tested in any meaningful way; that is, the theory is consistent with every conceivable empirical event and no deduced prediction from it could ever falsify it. Or, the theory is couched in terms of non-empirical entities.

2. The dogmatic refusal to give up an idea in the face of overwhelming evidence that the idea is false, and the use of ad hoc hypotheses to try to explain away contrary evidence.

3. The selective use of data: the tendency to attend only to confirming instances and to ignore disconfirming instances. P>

4. The use of personal anecdotes as evidence.

5. The lack of concern over the absence of evidence in support of one's theory.

6. The use of myths or ancient mysteries to support theories which are then used to explain the myths or mysteries. E.g., creationism

7. Gullibility, especially about paranormal, supernatural or extraterrestrial claims."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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quibbling
Quibbling is also known as attack on a minor point. It's often a diversionary tactic in argument. For example:

Geometry Teacher: "Now we'll discuss circles." (Draws a circle on blackboard).

Student (quibbling): "That doesn't look like a circle to me. That's not a perfect circle. That's just one circle, and how can you generalize from that? That's not a circle at all; it's really just particles of chalk." Etc.

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relativism

  • "Who's to say what's true? Everyone has different experiences; you might even say everyone has a different reality. So what's true is just a matter of opinion."

  • "Who's to say what's moral or immoral? Everybody has different views (or feelings) about right and wrong; so ethics is just a matter of opinion (or feeling). It's up to the individual or the culture to decide."

These positions, and others like them, are forms of relativism. Relativism is the view that judgments about truth and falsity, good and bad, right and wrong are relative to the individual person or culture. Different people have different opinions about what's true but no one can be said to be absolutely right or wrong; rather, everyone is correct. Relativism denies that there can be any objectivity in matters of truth or morality.

Relativism comes in many forms, some more problematic than others. Schick and Vaughn devote an entire chapter (Chapter 4) to the problematic forms of relativism. See here for an outline of that chapter.

If "relativism" is construed simply as the denial of absolutism, there are at least two philosophically respectable forms of relativism ("relative relativisms"): scientific rationality and pragmatism.

See also absolutism, epistemological relativism, ethical relativism, critical theory, deconstruction, postmodernism, scientific rationality, pragmatism.

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science
"Science is first and foremost a set of logical and empirical methods which provide for the systematic observation of empirical phenomena in order to understand them. We think we understand empirical phenomena when we have a satisfactory theory which explains how the phenomena work, what regular patterns they follow, or why they appear to us as they do. Scientific explanations are in terms of natural phenomena rather than supernatural phenomena, although science itself requires neither the acceptance nor the rejection of the supernatural.

"Science is also the organized body of knowledge about the empirical world which issues from the application of the abovementioned set of logical and empirical methods.

"Science consists of several specific sciences, such as biology, physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. which are defined by the type and range of empirical phenomena they investigate.

"Finally, science is also the application of scientific knowledge, as in the altering of rice with daffodil and bacteria genes to boost the vitamin A content of rice."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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scientific method
"There is no single scientific method. Some of the methods of science involve logic, e.g., drawing inferences or deductions from hypotheses, or thinking out the logical implications of causal relationships in terms of necessary or sufficient conditions. Some of the methods are empirical, such as making observations, designing controlled experiments, or designing instruments to use in collecting data.

"Scientific methods are impersonal. Thus, whatever one scientist is able to do qua scientist, any other scientist should be able to duplicate. When a person claims to measure or observe something by some purely subjective method, which others cannot duplicate, that person is not doing science. When scientists cannot duplicate the work of another scientist that is a clear sign that the scientist has erred in either in design, methodology, observation, calculation, or calibration.

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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scientific rationality
The metaphysics of scientific rationality says there is a world, which is in certain ways independently of anyone's beliefs about it. Obviously, people can interpret this world in different ways, but certain aspects of this world are the same for everyone. Science explores those.

The epistemology of scientific rationality says that p is true / we know p beyond reasonable doubt if and only if

  • p is empirical;
  • p is intersubjectively verifiable;
  • p is falsifiable.

However, p might still turn out to be false later on, as science progresses.

"Truth" and "knowledge" always thus always qualified as beyond reasonable doubt.

According to scientific rationality, scientific discourse is "privileged." The self-correcting nature of science ensures that knowledge of the world will get better and better.

The ethics of scientific rationality says science has an essential role to play in making life happier for everyone by improving the material circumstances of life: "good" = "happy-making"

The character Mike in Who's to Say? represents scientific rationality.

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scientific theory
"Science does not assume it knows the truth about the empirical world a priori. Science assumes it must discover its knowledge. Those who claim to know empirical truth a priori (such as so-called scientific creationists) cannot be talking about scientific knowledge. Science presupposes a regular order to nature and assumes there are underlying principles according to which natural phenomena work. It assumes that these principles or laws are relatively constant. But it does not assume that it can know a priori what these principles are or what the actual order of any set of empirical phenomena is.

"A scientific theory is a unified set of principles, knowledge, and methods for explaining the behavior of some specified range of empirical phenomena. Scientific theories attempt to understand the world of observation and sense experience. They attempt to explain how the natural world works.

"A scientific theory must have some logical consequences we can test against empirical facts by making predictions based on the theory.

"To be able to test a theory by experience means to be able to predict certain observable or measurable consequences from the theory. For example, from a theory about how physical bodies move in relation to one another, one predicts that a pendulum ought to follow a certain pattern of behavior. One then sets up a pendulum and tests the hypothesis that pendulums behave in the way predicted by the theory. If they do, then the theory is confirmed. If pendulums do not behave in the way predicted by the theory, then the theory is falsified. (This assumes that the predicted behavior for the pendulum was correctly deduced from your theory and that your experiment was conducted properly.) 

"The fact that a theory passed an empirical test does not prove the theory, however. The greater the number of severe tests a theory has passed, the greater its degree of confirmation and the more reasonable it is to accept it. However, to confirm is not the same as to prove logically or mathematically. No scientific theory can be proved with absolute certainty.

"Furthermore, the more tests which can be made of the theory, the greater its empirical content (Popper, 112, 267). A theory from which very few empirical predictions can be made will be difficult to test and generally will not be very useful. A useful theory is rich, i.e., many empirical predictions can be generated from it, each one serving as another test of the theory. However, even if a theory is very rich and even if it passes many severe tests, it is always possible that it will fail the next test. It could even fail the same test it has passed many times in the past. Karl Popper calls this characteristic of scientific theories, "falsifiability.""

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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scientism
"Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.

"In the weak sense, scientism is the view that the methods of the natural sciences should be applied to any subject matter."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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selective thinking
"Selective thinking is the process whereby one selects out favorable evidence for remembrance and focus, while ignoring unfavorable evidence for a hypothesis. This kind of thinking is the basis for most beliefs in the psychic powers of so-called mind readers. It is also the basis for many, if not most, occult and pseudoscientific beliefs.

James Randi gives the following example of selective thinking. Peter Hurkos was astonishing people with his ability to recite intimate details about their homes and their lives. Two of the persons who had their minds read by Hurkos and who were amazed at his accuracy were invited by Randi to watch a tape of the mind readings. It was "discovered by actual count that this so-called psychic had, on the average, been correct in one out of fourteen of his statements.... Selective thinking had led them to dismiss all the apparent misses and the obviously wrong guesses and remember only the "hits." They were believers who needed this man to be the genuine article, and in spite of the results of this experiment they are still devoted fans of this charlatan" (Flim-Flam!, 7).

For more information and references, see the Skeptic's Dictionary. Click "Glossary" on the Course Menu to return here.

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sound argument
A sound argument is a deductive argument that has both correct logic and correct facts. In other words, a sound argument is valid (logically correct) AND has all true premises (factually correct). If an argument is sound — i.e., it is both logically and factually correct — then the conclusion of that argument must be true. If you choose your beliefs on the basis of reason, you must accept the conclusions of sound arguments.

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statement
A statement is the kind of sentence that makes a claim. Arguments consist of statements: premise(s) and conclusion. Statements have truth value, i.e., they are said to be true or false.

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strong argument
In induction, a strong argument is one with correct inductive logic. The inferential claim for induction is true: the conclusion is likely if the premises are true.

The following is a strong inductive argument:

All US Presidents to date have been male.
So probably the next US President will be male.

Here the premise, if true, would support the conclusion in the inductive sense of "support": it would make the conclusion likely, though not certain, since a woman might be elected President someday. In this argument the premise is also true (i.e., the argument is factually correct), so this argument is not only strong but cogent.

The following is also a strong argument.

All US Presidents to date have been female.
Therefore, the next US President will be female.

This one is strong because here the premise, IF true, would support the conclusion in the inductive sense of "support": if true, it would make the conclusion likely, though not certain, since a man might be elected. In this argument the premise happens to be factually false, so while this argument is strong, it is not cogent.

See also weak argument, cogent argument

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subjective
In metaphysics, something is subjective if its being depends on its being experienced, e.g., a headache. In epistemology, a statement is subjective if there are no intersubjective generally-recognized methods for determining its truth value. Statements about mere matters of taste are epistemologically subjective, e.g., "Vanilla ice cream tastes better than chocolate ice cream." See "objective" and Thinking Critically About the Subjective/Objective Distinction.

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subjective validation
"The Forer or Barnum effect is also known as the subjective validation effect or the personal validation effect. (The expression, "the Barnum effect," seems to have originated with psychologist Paul Meehl, in deference to circus man P.T. Barnum's reputation as a master psychological manipulator.)

"Psychologist B.R. Forer found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone. Consider the following as if it were given to you as an evaluation of your personality.

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

"Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student the above evaluation. He asked them to evaluate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of times with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2.

"In short, Forer convinced people he could successfully read their character. His accuracy amazed his subjects, though his personality analysis was taken from a newsstand astrology column and was presented to people without regard to their sun sign. The Forer effect seems to explain, in part at least, why so many people think that pseudosciences"work"."

From the Skeptic's Dictionary.

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subjectivism
In ethics, the view that ethical views are matters of feeling and not reason. Ethical subjectivism is usually a form of ethical relativism, since ethical subjectivists assume that people may feel differently about different things, and thus not be able to come to rational agreement about ethical matters. In epistemology, subjectivism is the view that objective knowledge is not possible: that everything is a matter of opinion or feeling. Epistemological subjectivism results from failing to realize that metaphysically subjective things (like our experiences, which exist only insofar as we experience them) nevertheless can still be known with epistemological objectivity. For example, doctors can say a great many objective things about pain, which exists subjectively.

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sufficient condition
Something (x) is sufficient for something else (y) if the occurrence of x guarantees y. For example, getting an A in a class guarantees passing the class. So getting an A is a sufficient condition for passing. If x is sufficient for y, then whenever you have x, you have y; you can't have x without y. For example, you can't get an A and not pass. Note that getting an A is not a necessary condition for passing, since you can pass without getting an A.

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term
A word or phrase that designates a class or set. There are three kinds of terms: general terms, singular terms, and non-denoting terms. A general term, like "dog," denotes a class that has more than one member. When you call something a "dog," you're saying this thing is a member of the class of dogs. A singular term, like "the Eiffel Tower," denotes an individual thing. Proper names and definite descriptions are examples of singular terms. A non-denoting term designates the null set; it does not refer to anything. Examples of non-denoting terms include "mermaid" and "unicorn." Some problems in metaphysics are really debates over whether terms (like "God") are singular or non-denoting.

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truth value
In ordinary logic, there are two truth values: "true" and "false." Statements have truth values. Questions, exclamations, commands, etc. do not have truth values unless they are being used to make claims (e.g., rhetorical questions).There are modern multi-valued logics that use more than two truth values.

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valid argument
In deduction, an argument is valid if the inferential claim is true: that is, if the conclusion really must be true if the premises are true. Valid arguments have correct deductive logic. Note that the word "valid" applies only to arguments; in logic, we do not say statements are valid or invalid. (Statements are said to be true or false.)

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weak argument
In induction, a weak argument is one with bad inductive logic. The inferential claim is false: in other words, the conclusion is not likely if the premises are true.

The following inductive argument is weak:

Janga is a woman of the Itchybooboo tribe and her lips are pierced.
Therefore all women of the Itchybooboo tribe have pierced lips.

The premise here does not make the conclusion likely, because the conclusion makes a claim about all women of the tribe on the basis of an observation of a single one. Perhaps Janga is unique among Itchybooboo women, perhaps not. We simply don't know. (Compare: "I met a WVC college student and he was a guy. So WVC must be a men's college.") The conclusion might happen to be true; it is just not established by THIS premise.

Note that the words "strong" and "weak" apply only to inductive arguments.

See also strong argument, cogent argument.

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