Rational Reconstruction 1:  Argument and Explanation


Rationales are models we use to reveal the logical relationships underlying our reasoning. We call the process of identifying these rationales "rational reconstruction." The simplest possible rationale consists of one reason connected to a conclusion by a principle. A rationale may contain multiple reasons and principles, but it has one and only one conclusion. The simplest possible rationale looks like this.

Note that the reason is positioned to the left of the conclusion and that the principle is indicated by an arrow pointing from left to right.  Always use exactly this format when constructing rationales. 

There are two kinds of rationale:  argument and explanation.  Rational reconstruction depends critically on the ability to distinguish one from the other.  The distinction is this:

In the beginning the best way to remember the difference between arguments and explanations is to think of them as answering two different questions. 


Example 1:  Butch must be afraid of clowns.  Butch fled the theater when Bobo the clown appeared.

Rap:  This example expresses the opinion that Butch is afraid of clowns, and gives us a reason to believe it: Butch ran away when a clown appeared.  Notice that the sentences in the boxes are not simply cut and pasted from the example.  The word 'must' has been deleted from the conclusion, because the statement "Butch must be afraid of clowns" isn't what the speaker is arguing for.  We simplified the reason because the place and the name of the clown aren't needed to grasp the evidential relationship. When constructing rationales you should always simplify the reasons and conclusions by eliminating jargon and logically irrelevant information.

Example 2:  Butch is afraid of clowns because he was attacked by one as a child.

Rap:  This example informs us that Butch is afraid of clowns.  It does not try to convince us of this; rather, it explains why this is the case:  Butch was attacked by a clown as a child.  Notice that our rationale contains complete sentences and that the pronouns "one" and "he" have been replaced by the corresponding nouns.  This is essential for clarity.  Every reason and conclusion should make sense on its own; specifically, we should not have to refer to the content of other boxes to find out what the statement means.

Example 3:  The United States invaded Iraq in order to seize control of Iraq's vast oil reserves.

Rap:  This example makes a claim that many people will disagree with.  Because of this, it is tempting to characterize it as an unsubstantiated opinion, and therefore an argument.  Some discipline is required here. This is an explanation because the speaker identifies the well known fact that the United States invaded Iraq and then provides a possible cause.  You may think that the causes identified in an explanation are hypothetical, speculative or completely erroneous. It is important to understand that whether something is an explanation or an argument depends on what the author believes to be the case, not you.  To register disagreement with the above rationale, you would not characterize it as an argument, but simply as an explanation you disagree with.

Example 4:  The reason the United States should not have invaded Iraq is that it had no clear plan for maintaining law and order once Sadaam Hussein's government had been toppled.

Rap:  This is an example of an argument for a normative conclusion.  It is natural to say here that the speaker is explaining why the U.S. should not have invaded Iraq.  However, this is not an explanation in our sense of the term because there is no sense in which the reason represents a cause of some fact represented by the conclusion.  The conclusion does not simply represent the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq (as in Example 3) but attaches a certain moral value (bad) to that fact.  Clearly, the reasoning is designed to convince us that the U.S. should not have invaded Iraq.  (In general, whenever the conclusion of a rationale is a value judgment, the rationale is an argument.)

Example 5:  In my opinion scientists who do not want creation science taught alongside the theory of evolution in our public schools are just moral cowards.

Example 6:  Rabbits may taste like chicken, but the fact of that matter is that rabbit is not poultry.

Rap:  There are no rationales for Examples 5 and 6, because they contain no reasoning.   Example 5 is simply an opinion about the moral character of some scientists.  Example 6 is just two statements:  rabbits taste like chicken and rabbit isn't poultry.  These examples are here to show you that phrases like "In my opinion" and "The fact of the matter" don't automatically mean that an argument or an explanation is in the offing.

Example 7:  In my opinion, the reason that animals do not feel pain is that animals don't have souls .

Rap: This example combines some features already discussed.  Do not be mislead by the phrase "in my opinion" into calling this an argument.  The opinion being asserted here is the entire explanation.  Also, note that the rather outlandish claim that animals do not feel pain is being asserted by the speaker as a fact.  He does not give any evidence for this, but simply explains why it is so.  Hence, as in Example 3, you should not call this an argument simply because you regard the conclusion as a false opinion.  Rather, you should call it an explanation because the author apparently regards it as a fact.  In calling it an explanation you are in no way committed to accepting it as a fact yourself.

Example 8:  Sure, I drink quite a bit, but I don't think that makes me an alcoholic because I don't let it affect my work.

Rap:  This is pretty clearly an argument.  You'll notice that to avoid the use of pronouns, we just substituted a fictitious name.  Also note that we were able to combine the independent sentences "I drink quite a bit" and "I don't let it affect my work" into one simple sentence that captures both assertions.


Example 9:  I think the reason Barb always feels sick at work is that she has a serious drinking problem.

Rap:  Note that we've rewritten the reason to eliminate the slightly ambiguous phrase "drinking problem".  We call this a psychological explanation, because the fact being explained is a certain psychological state of a person, namely Barb's well-being.

Example 10

The reason Barb believes she's not an alcoholic is that she thinks her drinking doesn't affect her work.

Rap:  As in example 9, the conclusion here is also psychological in nature; it refers to one of Barb's beliefs.  You might initially think that because we are talking about a belief or opinion, this must be an argument.  But we often represent people's beliefs simply as facts about them. In this case the author claims that it is a fact that Barb believes she's not an alcoholic, and further claims that a cause of this fact is another one of Barb's beliefs, namely that Barb's drinking doesn't affect her work.

Now pay special attention this:  The reason in this rationale retains the phrase "Barb believes" because the claim here is that one of Barb's beliefs is causing another of Barb's beliefs.  If we had eliminated reference to Barb's beliefs entirely we would have had

But this would be wrong because the author is committed to neither the conclusion nor the reason of this rationale.  For all we know, the author of this passage may actually believe that Barb is an alcoholic and that her drinking does affect her work. In fact, the ultimate point of this explanation may be to show that Barb is in a state of denial about her drinking problem.

Example 11:   Kip and La Fawnda are in love.  Kip and La Fawnda are getting married.

Interpretation 1

Interpretation 2

Rap:  This example is devoid of any clues that would help us to decide between the above interpretations.  If it had read "Kip and La Fawnda are getting married because they are in love" then the explanation would be the correct interpretation.  If it had read "Kip and La Fawnda are getting married. They must be in love!" then the argument interpretation would be correct.  Indeed, because of the absence of any clues in this regard, it is plausible to claim that there is really no reasoning here at all.  Even though these statements can be related as above, for all we know the author might just have intended them as two distinct observations.

The ambiguity of this passage is highly instructive.  Here are two important points to think about.

First, there are times when it will be difficult or even impossible to tell whether reasoning offered is argumentative or explanatory in nature.  Usually, however, there is some kind of verbal hint that makes one interpretation more plausible than the other.   Although ordinary people do not operate with our refined understanding of the concepts of argument and explanation, they usually do have some idea whether they are trying to convince us of something or, alternatively, to help us understand why it is the case. 

 Second, even in ambiguous cases, we can usually narrow the choices down to a couple of plausible interpretations.  Its important to see that in this example, while we are not in a position to decide between the two interpretations given, other interpretations are clearly wrong.  For instance, the explanation interpretation would make little sense if we simply relabeled it as an argument. Similarly, the argument interpretation would make little sense if we relabeled it as an explanation.  So, as you do these exercises do not let yourself succumb to the tempting idea that rational reconstruction is all futile because it is totally subjective.  It isn't. (BTW, is that last underlined passage an argument or an explanation?)