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I sometimes find myself in a situation where I am trying to evaluate a statement to which there seem to be logically valid, but yet contradicting, arguments on both sides. The statements may be an ethical, political, moral, etc. problem, like ''you should do this, something or other...''

My question is: How do you evaluate between seemingly logical, yet contradicting, arguments in practical (real life) situations?

Do you (maybe unconsciously) have a list of criteria from which you judge? Are we only to trust our gut feeling/intuition?


The question comes from the fact that I am able to argue on both sides of almost any claim without being able to tell if one side of the argument is better than the other. Thus I am forced to suspend my judgement, and therefore I cannot have any opinions. However, as life seems to be a practical affair, I yet still have to make decisions.

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  • This is a common encounter when one realizes all one's previous knowledge, logic, intuition or whatever are not enough or not working satisfactorily and tries to turn to philosophy for hint by some chance or epiphany. Unfortunately philosophy qua itself is same as any other field which needs intense studies and gradual accumulation, then you can have "a list of criteria" for your own good to judge. It's like the moduli space in AG, there's metaphysic/geometric reason why you have not just contrary arguments about many issues, possibly infinitely many arguments depending on some parameter... Feb 9 at 3:18
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    Formal validity of the argument means that the "logical" inferential steps are correct; it does not consider if the premises of the argument are ture or plausible. "Real life" arguments are full of hidden premises and "common" background knowledge that can be questioned. Feb 9 at 8:29
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    You are basically asking how to succeed in life. It's not that simple. An argument could be simple, but it depends on thousands of facts that sustain it, and are predetermined by the context and your condition. The only advise possible in this situation is to develop your own experience, live, read, grow. Only there you will know what are the relevant facts of an argument, which is the most complex part. After that, decisions are simple, logic is easy, it's just rules.
    – RodolfoAP
    Feb 9 at 14:06
  • You prioritize/weigh according to your personal/cultural values. Feb 10 at 8:08

5 Answers 5

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Welcome to philosophy! Learning to see both sides of every coin and to understand the arguments pro and con every position is a vital philosophical skill. There are few things as dangerous as people who are sure they are right. Usually, they are the most ignorant and the most stupid.

The fact is, intelligent and well-educated people disagree about a great many things. This is a natural state of affairs, and is healthy. Our knowledge grows when we advance ideas and then criticise them. Though, as you have observed, being good at seeing both sides can make it harder to make decisions. In my view, that is a price worth paying.

Some considerations that might help:

For a given problem, make a list of the arguments pro and con, and work through them in turn. Look for any clear errors or oversights. Darwin made a list on paper of the advantages and disadvantages of getting married before proposing. That's pretty cold-blooded, but the idea is right.

Try to think of as many options as possible, including unconventional, out-of-the-box types. Rank them by how plausible they are and how desirable or otherwise the outcomes might be.

Try to think of different ways of formulating a problem. Often, finding a good formulation is the hardest part of solving it.

Don't be afraid to challenge orthodox positions. All orthodox theories, even in science, were once considered heretical. (I believe Feynman said something along these lines, though I couldn't find the exact quote.)

Ask others for advice. It is unlikely you are encountering a problem that nobody has ever met before. Communicate and keep communicating. Sometimes just the act of expressing a problem clearly to someone else is sufficient to clarify it for yourself.

Try to think first and foremost in terms of concrete examples, rather than jumping straight to the general case.

Actively seek out the best and smartest thinkers on a given subject and try to understand what they are saying. 'Best' does not mean those with the most views or followers. Truth is not a popularity contest.

Take care to avoid groupthink. Part of the curse of social media is that it constantly presents you with information that you already agree with. Based on the documents or posts or videos that you recently viewed, you will be offered more of the same. It causes silos of thinking in which you are never exposed to those who hold contrary views. You should be spending more time reading people you disagree with than people you agree with. It is important to know what the positions are that are contrary to your own and why others are defending them.

Never stop learning. No matter how much education you have had, you probably know a lot less than you think.

Don't be afraid to change your mind. Changing your mind involves admitting you were wrong, and people are naturally strongly reluctant to do so. But changing your mind just shows that you are open to being persuaded, and that's a good thing. Equally, don't fall into the trap that just because you used to believe something and don't any more that it must be wrong.

At the end of the day, there is no single decision process that resolves all questions. There is no guarantee you will always be able to find a correct, or even a satisfactory answer to a problem. There is nothing wrong with being undecided.

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  • "Take care to avoid groupthink" and the observations about social media are worth a +1 all by themselves. Feb 9 at 16:10
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Formal logic is much less of a factor in everyday decision making than people like to believe. Yes, as NotThatGuy aptly observes, logic can help you identify when people are making inherently inconsistent arguments, but it does not help with the two major roots of disagreement in politics or societal questions: differing premises and differing goals.

Differing Premises: All real-life logical arguments are based on assumptions and premises. The logical validity of the argument rests on the validity of the chosen assumptions, and these are rarely straight-forward to validate. If I assume that Brexit will increase net wealth of the UK, I can present a simple, logically coherent argument for Brexit. However, if my assumption is that Brexit will cost the UK a lot more than what can be saved I can similarly make a very simple logical argument about how it would be foolish for the country to quit the EU. Yet the question which of these contradicting premises is accurate is not straight-forward to answer - it's not trivial if you are an expert, and it's certainly not a question that you can answer using formal logic alone. If you analyse real-life arguments you will find that they often rest on a myriad such as assumptions (some small, some very big, but most of them uncertain).

Differing goals: In addition to differences in premises, people also have different goals. If my primary goal is to combat poverty and to increase equality among people I can make a logically coherent argument for a universal basic income. However, if my goal is rather to push every citizen to their best (as in, be as productive as they could be) then I can make a similarly coherent argument how a universal basic income is detrimental to that goal. None of these arguments is inherently silly, although of course most people would find one of these goals to be substantially more attractive than the other.

Consequently, logic alone will not solve the problem of decision making for you. You'll need to carefully evaluate the premises underlying each argument (and accept that you will most of the time evaluate them under uncertainty, without being entirely sure if a premise holds or not), as well as reflect what goals you find more attractive or important.

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There are formulas for solving certain kinds of problems: what load can that bridge carry? How high is that ball going to go? How far can I get on a tank of gas? But those questions make up a tiny fraction of all the questions that humans want to answer. For the huge majority of important question, there is no formula to answer it, and there never will be.

Logic does not provide such formulas, nor will it. Logic can provide insight into how decision-making is structured, and that might prove useful in some circumstances, but logic doesn't tell you how to answer question. It's only genuine practical effect is to help you recognize certain classes of bad reasoning.

The reason you often find yourself unable to decide between two positions is because the evidence and arguments themselves are not decisive. When others do take strong positions on such things, you can be sure that they are suffering from some failure of pure rationality: For example, they are basing their views on some questionable premise, or they are ignoring evidence that goes against their position.

There is no solution. You have to learn to make choices in the face of ambiguity, and stick with them in the face of unexpected difficulties. Unless evidence turns strongly in the other directions, then you need to have the wisdom to change direction. It's hard. Welcome to adulthood.

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Apply logical reasoning

There isn't really an easy answer to this.

If you have seemingly-valid arguments with contradictory conclusions, you may need to apply any of a number of principles of logical reasoning to uncover the problem with either or both arguments.

Speaking to or listening to more people on both sides, or doing some more research on the topic, may also help you find the problems or make up your mind.

Finding problems with arguments may involve answering one or more of the following questions:

  • Are there any unstated assumptions or premises? Is the argument valid?

    The most systematic way to evaluate this would be to put the argument into a syllogistic form. If the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, and only the premises, the argument is not valid.

    If you take what sounds like a logical argument, but you can't turn that into a valid argument, you may need to figure out which additional premises to add or how to update the argument to make it valid. If you still can't turn it into a valid argument, that might mean that the argument was never that logical to begin with.

  • Are there any logical fallacies? (Here's a long list of fallacies.)

    When the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, as noted above, this is a non-sequitur fallacy. Fallacies indicate flawed reasoning and invalid arguments.

  • Do you accept the premises?

    If I say "everything on Earth is engulfed in flames; I am on Earth; therefore I am engulfed in flames", this would be a valid argument (the conclusion follows from the premises). But you probably don't accept the first premise (at least).

    This can also be seen as "are the premises true", but the premises don't objectively need to be true, you just need to accept them. As an example, I might have an argument with "We should not cause harm to others" as a premise. For this to be true, objective morality would need to exist, which a number of people would object to (that's a whole other discussion). But you may still agree that we shouldn't cause harm to others, and you thus accept the premise.

    If the premise is making a claim about some fact of the world (e.g. "50% of men are actually aliens in disguise"), you can also do some research to try to figure out whether that's sufficiently likely to be true.


Something else that's important to note:

Logical arguments don't consider all facts of the world, and work best with absolutes.

I can make 2 arguments as follows:

We should not infringe on people's rights. People have a right to freedom. Therefore we should not infringe on people's right to freedom (by locking them in prison).

Criminals are likely to cause harm to others if able. We should try to prevent likely harm to others. Therefore we should lock criminals in prison.

At face value, each premise in isolation seems fairly reasonable. But if you accept all of them (and you accept the arguments as valid), you'd need to accept the contradictory conclusions.

This wasn't a particularly intricate example and you probably object to some of those premises, especially if I put all of that together. You may also challenge the arguments by asking questions like: What does it mean for something to be a "right"? Can rights be taken away? Can some rights "override" other rights? Do people really have a right to freedom? Are (all) criminals actually likely to cause harm to others if able? Is it reasonable to say we "should" act to prevent something that's likely (but not guaranteed)?

But the example should demonstrate the idea that, while logical reasoning can help a lot, it has some shortcomings too when it comes to applying it to real-world issues.

Ultimately, you may be left with the conclusion that:

It's a moral/subjective judgement.

There may not always be a "correct" answer from a purely logical perspective. Many real-world arguments are based on our values and things we care about. You may be left needing to weight up the various pros and cons to decide which side makes more sense for you. That's something logical reasoning can't do for you (although it can help with evaluating the various pros and cons).

(Although I will add that many arguments in popular discourse are deeply flawed. Don't confuse me saying "reasonable people can have different opinions" with me saying "most arguments on either side of any given commonly-discussed issue are reasonable".)

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The only conclusion I can infer from your dilemma, sir, is that you are an atheist.

Without a basis in history, your logical system (brain) cannot form any real conclusions at all and must rest on a much weaker foundation called "belief". On this, there is no resolution of Truth, hence the formation of religions.

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