Reasons and Inferences
We can conceive of reasons as answers to open questions. An open question is an inquiry that allows for a range of answers, rather than simply yes or no, true or false. Typically, the questions that will interest us here will involve “why” or “what happened”. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a guideline to help us develop a sensitivity to when and where using our critical thinking skills will be to our benefit. In particular, we look to questions that ask for statements of preference or characterisations of circumstances.
For example, if you ask me why I prefer to ride steel-framed bicycles, the answers I give will be reasons. In this case, I’ll likely describe my riding preferences, or cite facts about the nature of steel, or talk about brand loyalty as a bicycle consumer. In any case, I will answer in a way that defends my choice, and aims to persuade you that I have made a good choice.
Reasons, then, often take the form of defensive or persuasive answers to open questions. And those answers typically involve preferences or descriptions.
A good approach to Critical Thinking, and the approach we will take here, is to treat reasons as answers to questions. The skills we develop in Critical Thinking include framing good questions and crafting creative answers to those questions.
In our ordinary talk, forms of the word “infer” work as both verb and noun. As a verb, to “infer” is to move from reasons to think to thinking something. As a noun, an “inference” is an answer to an open, critical question. Here we will talk about Inference to the Best Explanation, which will mean the process of picking out one-among-many possible answers to open, critical questions.
Inference to the Best Explanation is the process of picking out the preferred answer, among many possibilities, to open, critical questions.
We will treat both the analysis and the construction of arguments. Analysis will involve formalising informal arguments into structures that allow for easy evaluation. It is worth noting that while building our skills we will treat non-controversial cases, so to avoid emotional distractions to our analysis.
Construction of arguments will involve formulating what we will call the “Narrative Judgement”. This is a rendering of a Best Explanation or Recommendation from our formal structure into prose. Later we will develop techniques to help make your writing clearer to a reader, and to improve your persuasive writing skills.
A Note on Terminology
For our purposes, we will use the terms “argument” and “inference” interchangeably. In a more technical sense, argument is the name we give to a structured series of reasons, called premises, that stand in support of a conclusion. An inference is “the movement” from the reasons to the conclusion; a deeper investigation of this “movement” is beyond the scope of this text. Ignoring the subtleties of this distinction will not vandalise the system we develop here. Our focus here is on sharpening our skills at framing and answering critical questions, rather than studying overly-subtle philosophical distinctions. So, we will not pause to investigate the nuances of this terminology.