Reasoning for kids (and others) – how to argue or how not to – or an introduction to the idea of logic

When learning and teaching logic as part of philosophy, I took it for granted as a course requirement, not really thinking very hard about its social, practical significance, much in the way you learned calculus in a maths course. But lately, for some reason, I’ve been thinking harder about that significance, which led me to draft a preliminary attempt at an intro to logic aimed young people (though I think I missed that target). Here’s a bit of it:

Sometimes people disagree – about what is true, about what is right, about what to do, about what they want or like.

Sometimes disagreement doesn’t matter much – we can agree to disagree without it causing a problem.

Sometimes disagreements do matter, because they affect important decisions or our understanding of the world.

If a disagreement must be settled, some ways of finding agreement are better than others.

Bad ways of arguing include:

  • Trying to ‘win’ regardless of truth/evidence
  • Force, shouting, use of power (bullying)
  • Manipulation of people’s emotions
  • Logical fallacies, or rhetorical tricks.

Good ways of arguing include:

  • Respecting alternative views and acknowledging errors
  • Seeking truth (in matters of fact)
  • Seeking compromise (in matters of opinion)
  • Looking for evidence
  • Arguing logically, soundly – i.e. using forms of reason that, when you start from truths, will reach more truths.

‘Argument’ often means a conflict between people, a dispute or a fight. But it also means a sequence of thoughts that lead to a conclusion. This kind of argument can be used to persuade people to agree about something or to do something. But arguments are not just for persuading people to agree with you. They are also for testing your own beliefs or arriving at new ones, or for working out what to do.

A valid argument is a sequence of thoughts or sentences that lead from a starting point, called assumptions or premises, to conclusions, so that if you know the premises are true you can be sure (or confident) that the conclusion is too. This kind of argument can help us solve problems, make decisions, find things out.

To emphasise, a chain of reasoning consists of statements that can be judged true or false – that is, it must involve complete sentences, not fragments of sentences, or isolated expressions of feeling. So it is important to understand what a sentence is and to construct arguments out of well-formed sentences. Engaging in genuine debate, not just ‘having a row’, involves composing and/or attending to statements which are well-formed, in this sense: they express a complete thought which can be assessed for its truth-value, which makes a specific claim about reality. An interrupted sentence cannot do this. Someone who tries to persuade an audience by stringing together incomplete sentences or buzzwords is not making a rational argument. At best they are creating an impression, a word cloud, which may induce a feeling in the audience or even encourage a belief, but they cannot justify the feeling or prove the belief without engaging with truth.


Real people


After spending a good part of last year despairing about the state of the world, today was the day that I had arranged to go out and find people to sign my nomination form to stand as a Green candidate in the local elections. This is my small gesture of resistance.
In order to stand you need ten people who live in the electoral district to sign a form saying you are fit to stand. Not a huge number, but still a little daunting as I only had a couple of definites and the rest would require knocking on fairly random doors. What if a door was answered by the real life version of an internet troll?
But it turned out to be one of the more uplifting days of my year so far. Obviously not everyone we approached was willing to sign the form, but everyone was polite and friendly and did not seem to mind being disturbed on their Saturday morning, even if they were still in their pyjamas. People behind the doors of old stone-built houses and neat new-builds and a static caravan were happy to sign the form, clear that they wanted to support the idea of democratic choice (or even to support the Green Party).

So I ended the day having spoken to some total strangers about politics, about pets, about local history, about medicine, about the parlous state of modern democracy, about feeding potatoes to cows… and all of them were civilised human beings – not a troll in sight.