Refutation

17 Jun

Refutation is an important part of debating. You need not only to present your own case convincingly, but also help the audience point out the flaws in your opponent’s case. This is the purpose of refutation. In order to be efficient in refutation you can also use the SEXI model as a guide. This model and the logic behind it provides 5 avenues of potential refutation that you can use:

1)      Refuting the logic: The first avenue is to check whether the EXplanation logically leads to the Statement. In other words whether the premises logically lead to the conclusion your opponent wants to make. You can expect this to be the case in the majority of cases, but nevertheless you need to be aware of the potential use of a logical fallacy, or faulty logic. I will delve deeper into logical fallacies in a separate article, but for now it is important to know where problems with logic often lie. Faulty logic in speeches often lies with the use of hidden/implicit premises. In a speech one rarely explicates all required premises, but instead only use the premise that answers the “why” question. This is because in spoken language this sounds strange and overcomplicated. So if we take the classic example of Aristotle is mortal, than in a speech one would only say: “Aristotle is mortal, because he is merely human”. You wouldn’t continue explaining that all humans are mortal. This is implicit in the reasoning and is not mentioned explicitly because it is commonly known and would sound kind of strange if said. In most cases this poses no problem, because the implicit logic is a generally accepted premise and an obvious logical step that has to be taken, but where logic goes awry, it is often because an implicit premise is either not generally accepted, or not at all obvious. Take the following example: “A creator brought the universe into existence, because the universe didn’t come into existence out of nothing, as nothing comes from nothing.” Whether you agree with the premises or not, at first sight this argument appears logically sound. However, if we make the hidden premise explicit, we see that there is a logical flaw behind this line of argument: “Either a Creator brought the universe into existence, or the universe came into existence out of nothing.” This is a typical hidden premise that isn’t mentioned as it is considered an obvious logical step. However, it actually contains a false dilemma, there is a third alternative, the option that the universe has existed from eternity. This logical fallacy, a false dilemma, is hidden due to the fact that one premise is not explicated. By making that premise explicit, you can successfully refute the logic of the argument.

2)      Refuting the premises: This leads us to the second avenue of refutation, attacking the premises, or the EXplanation. Every argument, as seen above, has explicit and implicit or hidden premises all of which can be challenged on their validity. An argument can be logically sound, but if one of its premises is false, than the argument itself is false or weakened.

3)      Refuting the evidence: If refuting the premises itself is difficult, then one can look at the evidence supporting the EXplanation and seek to refute that. This can be done by showing the evidence to be false, to be inconclusive or to provide counterevidence.

The first three avenues have a clear link with the SEXI model. The last two relate more to the structure of a speech, or how the arguments support the motion. If we look at the motion as a statement and the individual arguments as EXplanation or premises, than this opens up some further avenues:

4)      Attacking the relevance: The first is attacking the “logic” of your argumentation structure. In the same way as true premises must lead to a true conclusion or Statement, so must true arguments lead to your motion/case being true. However, in some cases the arguments can be perfect, but their truth does not lead to the truth of your motion. In that case the arguments are irrelevant. If you can show this to be the case, then an argument is instantly made ineffective. Needless to say this doesn’t happen very often, but it does occur.

5)      Providing a counterargument: This leaves us with the last avenue. Even if an argument is solid and relevant, then there is still a way to refute by providing a counter argument. The reason this can be used comes from the fact that a debate is only rarely about the objective truth or falsity of a case. Often it is about policy, ethics or cases where the objective truth cannot be ascertained (criminal trials). In those cases the truth of an argument doesn’t lead to the truth of the case, but provides a reason to prefer your case over another. These debates are like virtual scales where each argument is a weight on a particular side. The side with most weights wins. In those instances providing a counterargument simply provides a counter reason why this case shouldn’t be preferred.  Or in the case of a criminal trial, why it is unlikely that the suspect is guilty.

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