Argument Ninja Podcast Episode 010

010 – How to Build an Argument Matrix

Last episode I introduced an important concept for critical thinking, what I call an Argument Matrix.

In this episode I talk about the mindset, the tools and the literacy skills that are required to successfully build an Argument Matrix.

In This Episode:

  • How should we go about building an Argument Matrix?
  • Recap: What is an Argument Matrix?
  • Three parts to my answer:
    • Mindset
    • Technology
    • Literacy
  • Mindset issues: confirmation bias, psychological barriers, fear
  • Technology issues: capturing and organizing the right kind of information
  • Literacy issues:
    • media and information literacy
    • argument literacy
    • reading and writing literacy
  • Why public education doesn’t teach critical thinking


“If you want to build an Argument Matrix, you need to have the right mindset, you need to have a system in place for capturing and processing the information that you come across, and you need to have the right literacy skills, developed to a level that is sufficient to support the activity.”

“There’s no shortcut to any of this. It’s better to think of it as a lifestyle choice, that reflects a commitment to life-long learning and the values of critical thinking.”

“I don’t know if it will ever be a popular choice, to support education for critical thinking and personal development, rather than for economic value. It may always be a minority lifestyle choice. But the tools are in our hands, and there’s nothing to stop us from developing our own programs and support systems.”

References and Links

Subscribe to the Podcast

Play or download the mp3 file for this episode

This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 010.

Hi everyone, this is Kevin deLaplante and you are listening to the Argument Ninja podcast.

Last episode I introduced the idea of an Argument Matrix and the important role it plays in critical thinking, and I got a lot of enthusiastic feedback on it. The image resonated with a lot of you, and I’m happy about that.

I got a couple of emails asked about the best way of building an Argument Matrix. How do you go about acquiring the background knowledge that gives an understanding of all the relevant arguments involved on a topic or in a debate?

And I got another couple of emails about you would use this knowledge to actually persuade someone. Once you’ve got this knowledge, how can you apply it in a strategic way?

These are both great questions. In fact, they’re both central to the Argument Ninja program that I’m developing.

What I want to talk about on today’s episode is the first question. How do we go about acquiring this kind of knowledge? How do you build, or expand, your Argument Matrix?

In this episode I’m going to walk through how I approach this question and share the advice I give when I’m asked about it.

But before we get into that, I think we should do a bit of a recap for those who missed last episode, so that we’re all on the same page in terms of what we’re talking about.

So, what do I mean by an Argument Matrix?

Well, take any interesting claim. Any claim for which it might make sense to offer reasons to believe or accept it. Or it could be an action, a decision, it doesn’t matter.

Abortion should be illegal.

Abortion should be legal.

There is a God.

There isn’t a God.

I should take this new job offer.

I should have a kid before I finish graduate school.

We should invest in the goal of establishing a human colony on Mars within the next twenty years.

String Theory is our best hope for a grand unified theory in physics.


Whatever you want. These are all claims for which reasons can be given either for or against. And they’re claims about which reasonable people can have different opinions.

What I’m calling an Argument Matrix is a conceptual tool for thinking about what it means to really know what you’re talking about when you’re arguing about claims like these.

You start building an Argument Matrix by looking for arguments in favor of a claim, that offer reasons to accept the claim.

You also want to be looking for the strongest natural objections to the argument you’re considering. An objection is itself an argument. The conclusion of the objection is that the argument you just gave is a bad argument.

To say that an argument is bad is just to say that the premises don’t offer good reasons to accept the conclusion.

There several different ways that arguments can be bad.

They can be bad because they rely on premises that are false or dubious. And they can be bad because they rely on weak logic. By weak logic, I mean that even if the premises were all true, they still wouldn’t give us good reason to accept the conclusion.

There are other ways that arguments can be bad, but these are the two ways that connect directly to the formal structure of arguments.

So, an objection is an argument that says that the logic of your main argument is weak, or one or more of the premises are false or dubious. Or both.

If the objection is a good objection — if we judge it to be a good objection — then what we’re saying is that it provides good reason to believe that your original argument was bad.

Now, if you want to defend your original argument — and if it’s a defensible position, then you should want to —  you need to come up with a reply to the objection. That reply will be another argument.

What’s the conclusion of the reply? The conclusion of the reply is that the objection that was just given is a bad argument. The reply is an argument that criticizes the objection.

Now, notice that there are three arguments in this group: a main argument, an objection and a reply. These form a natural unit. It’s the minimal unit to have an argumentative dialogue.

The term I use for this is a “dialectic” unit. It’s the unit that describes the back-and-forth of a debate where, to use a tennis metaphor, there’s an initial serve, a return of serve, and a volley. I whack the ball over the net, you whack it back, and I return the volley.

The important thing about these volleys is that they’re on point. You’re directly addressing relevant argumentative points, and responding to these points. You’re not avoiding the objections, you’re facing the objections head on.

Now, from here you can go on and build out the Argument Matrix in different ways. You can go deeper, and explore the grounds of the premises that you’re relying on; and you can go broader, by considering different kinds of arguments that bear on your subject.

But this basic dialectic structure, of argument, objection and reply, is the minimum you need to have a genuinely productive argumentative dialogue.

It’s also, no coincidence, the minimum number of arguments you need to see in a good argumentative essay, and it’s the natural structural unit of most academic papers, for all the same reasons.

Now, if you were to diagram this out, and start including possible objections and replies at different levels, and different types of arguments in support of your root claim, then our diagram would quickly start to look like a branching tree, a hierarchically ordered web of inferential relationships.

And it’ll be a bushy tree. You won’t be able to draw it all out explicitly so you can see it all at once, it’ll be too tangled and complex.

But this web of inferential relationships is what I’m calling an Argument Matrix.

When I was watching the Disney movie Frozen there’s that scene in the big song, “Let it Go”, where Elsa is building her ice castle and she stamps her foot on the ground and a branching crystal structure bursts outward from that point on the ground.

In my head that’s sort of what I see when I visualize an Argument Matrix. Or that burst initiated by something like Gandalf planting his staff in the ground in front of him. It’s too pretty and symmetrical to be a realistic representation of an Argument Matrix, but as a depiction of an idea that captures some essential features, it works for me.

Your personal matrix is defined by whatever portions of the matrix you can reconstruct and navigate, on the topic in question. So these will vary from person to person. If you know a lot more about a topic than someone else, your matrix will be broader, deeper and more articulated than that other person’s.

But there’s also the much larger matrix, defined by the collection of arguments of everyone who has dedicated time to thinking about and engaging with the topic. Our personal matrices will always be limited and incomplete in comparison to this larger matrix.

So, that’s basically were we left off last episode.

I want to reiterate that this structure that I’m describing isn’t anything that we would expect a person to formally reconstruct on paper. You could try to outline portions of it, and there can be reasons to do that. But more commonly it’s the kind of understanding that is revealed in conversation, when someone is talking or writing about a particular topic.

And the main point is that, this is the kind of understanding that is central to the goals of critical thinking. The greater your command of the Argument Matrix surrounding a topic, the more likely you are to be right when you make a judgment on the topic, and the greater your ability to claim ownership and responsibility for those judgments.

Now, from a debate standpoint, it’s also clear that the person with the deepest and broadest Argument Matrix has a material advantage over everyone else, in the sense that they have a better understanding of the issues that are actually relevant to judging the truth of the claims in question.

However — and this is vitally important — that advantage doesn’t automatically translate into successful persuasion. There’s a big difference between being right and convincing someone else that you’re right.

Arguments don’t advocate for themselves, people do. And that means that even if you’ve got the best arguments at your disposal, you and your audience are still human beings, with all the foibles and vulnerabilities that come with that. You will always be dealing with cognitive biases and the psychology of resistance.

That’s why persuasion skills need to be developed independently, alongside the kind of argumentative understanding that we’re talking about here.

But the issue of persuasion and argumentation is another topic, for another day. What I want to focus on now, is the question about what is the best strategy for developing an Argument Matrix.

If I’m starting from a place where I know my knowledge is limited, and probably one-sided, how should I go about broadening and deepening my understanding of the arguments on all sides of a debate?

When I give advice on this question I find that my answers tend to fall into one of three categories.

1. Sometimes the advice I give is about mindset, what kind of psychological attitude is most conducive to this process.

2. Sometimes I talk about technology, about the amazing tools that we now have at our disposal for finding and capturing information.

3. And sometimes I talk about the different kinds of literacy that are important for recognizing and processing and interpreting this information.

So, my answer to this question, about the best way to acquire information about the argument structure surrounding an issue or a debate, has three parts: a part about mindset, a part about technology and a part about literacy.

So let’s talk about each of these in turn.

I’ll start with mindset issues.

One of the biggest obstacles we face when looking for information is that we self-segregate into groups of like-minded people that share a similar worldview. On the internet we tend to visit the same small number of information sites over and over again.  And on social media, we’re fed a curated, filtered stream of information, determined by our search history and the history of articles we’ve clicked on, that reinforces our old viewing habits.

So our information environment isn’t as rich or as diverse as it could be, or as it needs to be if our goal is build an argument matrix.

We’re also subject to confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that makes us prone to remember, to search for and to interpret information in ways that reinforce our expectations, and makes us prone to forget, ignore or otherwise downplay information that challenges our expectations.

These are all mechanisms that are working to keep us inside the information bubble that we’ve constructed for ourselves. So we need to find ways of getting outside this bubble.

Another mindset issue involves our attitude toward the whole process of becoming educated about different points of view.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the history of cultural anthropology. 19th century European and American anthropologists were preoccupied with categorizing the cultures they encountered as either “primitive” or “civilized”. So they would go into a technologically less developed culture, or a tribal culture, and document what they learned, but all of it was filtered through a lens that ranked cultures as civilized to the degree they shared key traits with their own culture, which was assumed to be the pinnacle of civilized culture, and primitive or backward to the degree that they lacked the traits they regarded as essential to civilization.

This filter gave rise to an ethnocentric bias in how Western anthropologists described and theorized about the cultural phenomena that they were observing. Quite apart from the role that all of this played in reinforcing colonialist and racist views, the resulting science, even at the basic level of just describing what you’re seeing right in front of you, was seriously compromised, because of this bias.

Anthropology has worked hard to purge these ethnocentric biases from its methodology. One approach, for example, involves cultivating a sense of distance from one’s own cultural worldview, and through extensive engagement in the target culture, actively trying to perceive the activities of the culture as natural, to the point where the anthropologist comes to see how those activities are perceived and understood and have meaning within that culture.

Now, there are limits to how far one can go in adopting the worldview of another culture, when you weren’t born and raised into it. But the point is that some effort like this is necessary just to get the descriptive facts halfway right.

And the same is true for a lot of issues that are held by people within particular sub-cultures, that are part of a group identity, even within our own culture. Think about abortion rights issues from the perspective of richer communities versus poorer communities, or men versus women. Think about gun control issues from the perspective of liberal urbanites versus the rural poor, or the inner city poor.

The arguments that we’re trying to understand are held by people with their own motivations and histories, that reflect their point of view on the world. It may not be your history, but to really understand the issues as others see them, we need to develop an ability to sympathetically inhabit a different worldview, as best we can, for a period of time.

This is much easier said than done, especially if we feel committed to the view that we want to defend. Because the stronger we feel that commitment, and the more drawn we are to identification with the group on the “right side” of the issue, the more vulnerable we become to a host of cognitive biases that can distort our perception of reality.

So we need to find ways of empathizing with other people and their point of view. Not for the sake of multiculturalism or other liberal political values, but to maximize the clarity and accuracy and completeness of our understanding.

This is more important than you might think at first. It’s easy to underestimate how challenging it can be to immerse ourselves in a worldview that is very different from our own.

Part of the challenge is the fear that, if we stay in that place for too long, it may change the way we think about the issue, and maybe more than that. We may lose faith in the beliefs and values that define who we think we are.

I’ve been a teacher in classes where we’ve spent three or four weeks on a unit on the philosophy of religion, or political philosophy, and students come to see me in office hours and confess that they’re having a hard time with this material. No because it’s hard, but because it’s forced them to consider a point of view that runs counter to everything they’d been raised to believe, and they’re struggling with the feeling that they’ve lost their bearings.

That feeling, of not knowing what you believe anymore, can be very stressful. Our brains don’t like it.  We look for ways of making sense of our experience, and if we don’t have an interpretation ready at hand to do the job, we’ll try to manufacture one, just to relieve the stress.

I’m just as subject to this as anyone. But there are ways of cultivating a mindset that doesn’t recoil from doubt and uncertainty, that finds purpose and meaning and value in the critical journey itself, in the search for answers, without always having to settle on an answer.

I’d like to do a whole episode on mindset issues because there’s a lot more to say about this topic.

In the Argument Ninja program that I’m developing, I’ll be including some units on mindset, for all these reasons.

But this is enough for now.

Let’s move on to talk about technology.

We’re living in an unprecedented age of access to information. Say what you will about Google as a company, there’s no denying that it’s brought a universe of information within the reach of ordinary people.

Are you a pro-gun-control person? You’re familiar with at least some of the gun control arguments? But to build out your Argument Matrix on gun control, you need to look carefully at the anti-gun-control arguments too. Maybe you’re not as familiar with those.

Well, today, I can type into Google the words “arguments against gun control”, and Google will give me over a million results, ranked by Google’s judgment about the importance of a site with respect to those search terms.

The first hit on Google, on my browser at least, is from a site called “Listverse”, and it’s a list article called “10 Arguments Against Gun Control”. In the first line it states “This list serves as a rebuttal of the Listverse list “10 Arguments for Gun Control” by Morris M.”, and it give a link to that article.

So right away you’ve got two articles, pro and con, with the con list framed as a rebuttal to the pro list.

This is not a bad place to start.

But you could lose a couple of hours reading just these articles and chasing down the dozens of supporting links inside each one.

It’s better to approach this more systematically. You’re on the Google search results page for “arguments against gun control”. Most people will click on the first or second link on the search page and stop there. That’s a mistake. The top ranked articles aren’t necessarily the most comprehensive or the best written or the most fair-minded. Google has given you ten links out of a million. Trust me, there are gems further down this page.

Also, you need to look at multiple sources, and compare the arguments across multiple sources. The ones that show up on every list you know are central to the debate. And it’s only by looking at multiple sources that you’ll find the best objections and replies.

Now, some of the links will look like they’ve done all the work for you. They’ll give you a systematic ordering of pro and con arguments. There’s a site called “” that does this for dozens of controversial social issues. It’s a great site, you should check it out.

But these sites, and most internet sources, quite frankly, are still quite shallow, from an argumentative depth standpoint. They give you an argument, and an objection to that argument, and then they move on. Pro and con.

What’s missing is how a supporter of the pro argument would reply to the con objection.

If all you’re given is an argument and an objection, you don’t yet have a dialogue. Remember what I called a “dialectic unit” is a three-argument structure: argument, objection and reply.

When you start looking at the issues in terms of these kinds of dialectic units, you’re modeling a real argumentative exchange. And you’ll also notice how rare it is to find online.

The risk of these sorts of pro-con lists is that they give you the feeling of understanding, but they do that by feeding your confirmation bias. They make you feel satisfied that you can now say something in defense of your view.

But if that’s all you’ve got, it’s the argumentative equivalent of junk food. Someone who really knows their stuff will know how to identify the areas of weakness in your argument, and if you don’t know to respond back, then you’re stuck.

So, you’re going to need to spend more time on this than just perusing the first article you come across.

You’re going to want to bookmark the search page, and you should bookmark all ten links on this page, so you can go back and look at them more thoroughly at your leisure.

Now, right away, we see a need to have some system for capturing and recording and organizing links to internet sources, ready to go, at any time, when you’re online.

This is why software apps like Evernote were built. It’s a dedicated app that you can use for capturing and organizing web content. It comes with a browser toolbar extension so that if you’re in Chrome or Safari and stumble on a web page or an article that you want save or bookmark, you can just hit the Evernote button on your browser toolbar.

You can also use your browser’s toolbar to create folders for bookmarks. In Chrome I can create a folder, right on my browser toolbar, called “Gun Control”, and whenever I find an article or a website I want to save, I just highlight the URL and drag it into the folder. I can create sub-folders inside, for pro and con arguments, if I want to.

There’s a dozen other services or apps you can use to capture and organize links. Which ones you use doesn’t really matter, as long as you have something set up that makes sense and is convenient and does the job.

I really like an app service called Workflowy. It’s a browser-based list-making app. I use it almost every day, and when I’m on a research mission I’ll often start making lists here and leave it open as a tab when I’m working, so when I find something I just cut and paste the url from one tab into my Workflowy list, and then organize the links into different headings and subheadings, and make notes to myself inside the list items.

If I’m writing something on this topic, I’ll generally switch over to Scrivener, which is a writing app, and load up the links in the research folder, so I can look at the original source and open up a panel for taking notes, side by side.

With a list organizer you can start to build out the structure of an Argument Matrix, by intentionally focusing on arguments, objections and replies.

As you work through the articles in your link list, you’ll see the same issues brought up about over and over, and you’ll see how the common argumentative moves are presented and framed, and you’ll learn to anticipate how each side will respond to these moves.

Along the way, you should allow yourself to comment on what you’re reading, and ask yourself questions that you might want to follow up on.

In Workflowy, when I’m making notes on a source that I’m reading, if I want to add a comment or a question of my own I’ll put it as a list item in square brackets. If I think the objection I just summarized is a weak objection, I’ll say that, and add a line or two about why I think so. This is like making notes in the margins of a book. It’s a way of inserting myself into the dialogue, and developing my own point of view on the issue.

So, these are some of the ways that I go about the process of researching and organizing information about a topic. In most cases, the argument structure of the debate doesn’t reveal itself as plainly as you would like. You need to impose that structure yourself — you need to demand to see it — by setting up those argument categories in the system you’re using and actively work at reconstructing how those exchanges would go, based on your current understanding of the positions. As your understanding grows, you’ll tweak how you present these arguments, you’ll add levels to them as you go deeper, and you’ll add branches to your argument tree that you had never considered before.

And it’ll change the way you think about the arguments, and the issue. Your own positions will evolve over time, as a result of this process.

But that’s how you build an Argument Matrix.

In the pre-internet days you would do this using books and library sources and photocopying articles and making notes by hand or on a desktop computer. Now we have different tools, but the process is the same.

And I’m sure there are academics listening to this and saying to yourself, this is nothing new, this is just research. This is what research looks like.

And that’s exactly right. What I believe is informative in what I’ve been describing here, what many students don’t appreciate, is how real research isn’t so much about learning facts as it is about reconstructing arguments. That’s not something that students are told, and in my experience it takes a long time to figure out.

Okay, we’ve talked about mindset issues, and we’ve talked about technology and the mechanics of reconstructing the argument structure surrounding a debate, using the tools we now have at our disposal.

The third item on my list of topics that are relevant to building Argument Matrices is literacy.

This process that we’ve been talking about is not an easy one. When you’re searching for information online, you have to make judgments about what’s a quality site and what’s not a quality site. Then you have to read the sources and figure out what they’re saying and reconstruct the reasoning behind it. Then you’ve got to find some way of presenting and recording this information for yourself, in such a way that it will still makes sense to you if you come back to it a year from now.

None of this is easy.

When we’re searching for information on the web, and we need to make judgments about the information we find in different sources, that requires media literacy and information literacy.

Do you know what kind of information is found in dictionary entries versus encyclopedia entries? Do you know how Wikipedia entries are written and edited, and how that affects the quality of the content? Can you judge the reliability of a website resource by the way it looks? How do you find the resources that experts rely on for reliable information? What are the pros and cons of YouTube as a source of information? How can we assess the quality, or the objectivity, of a YouTube channel? Do you know what a “filter bubble” is? Do you know how corporate control of web platforms affects the content that you find there?

This is media and information literacy and it takes time to develop.

Then you’re asked to read a text or watch a video or listen to a podcast, and from that experience, extract the argument structure. Do you think that’s easy? It’s not. This is argument literacy, and despite what the public education teaching profession wants you to believe, you get almost no training in this in school. Only about 1 in 5 graduating high school seniors can pass an argument literacy test at a reasonable standard. Many high school seniors can’t read a newspaper editorial and consistently identify the conclusion of the editorial. They misjudge the main point that the editorial was trying to communicate. And even when they do get it, they have a hard time reconstructing the reasoning behind it.

If you don’t have a good sense of what an argument is or how to identify premises and conclusions or how to extract the argument structure from a text that has a lot of other things going on at the same time, then you’re going to struggle with this process. There’s no getting around it.

There are other forms of literacy that can affect how easy or hard it is to reconstruct an Argument Matrix on a given topic.

Science literacy is important, when you’re trying to investigate a topic that has a science component. If your science literacy is poor, and most people’s is, it can be very hard to interpret scientific information correctly.

And you can’t underestimate the significance of basic reading and writing literacy. Do you understand the vocabulary that’s being used? Do you have a habit of looking up words that you don’t understand, as you read?

Can you process the meaning of more complex sentence structures, that use logical connectives, like “if A then B, otherwise C or D”.  Or sentences that use nested clauses?

Can you follow shifts in voice, when the author stops speaking for him or herself and starts speaking for someone else, like when an author is summarizing the views of someone else, before commenting on it. I can’t tell you how common it is for students who aren’t reading carefully to miss these shifts, and think that the view that an author is presenting is the author’s own view, when it’s not.

And when you write, or speak, can you efficiently summarize or paraphrase what you’ve just read, in your own words?

All these different kinds of literacy tend to hang together. Basic reading and comprehension skills are a prerequisite for most other forms of literacy. Argument literacy feeds back and make it easier to read and understand more complex forms of writing. As people become more educated these different forms of literacy develop together, mutually supporting one another. This process, the evolution of literacy, is the scaffolding that makes more advanced forms of learning possible.

So, let me sum up.

Building an Argument Matrix is a sophisticated intellectual activity. Any reasonably intelligent person can do it, but you should think of it as a skill that takes discipline and commitment to develop. Like learning to play chess well, or become proficient on a musical instrument, or become a good writer.

If you want to build an Argument Matrix, you need to have the right mindset, you need to have a system in place for capturing and processing the information that you come across, and you need to have the right literacy skills, developed to a level that is sufficient to support the activity.

There’s no shortcut to any of this. It’s better to think of it as a lifestyle choice, that reflects a commitment to life-long learning and the values of critical thinking.

Now, do I think that schools are doing a good job of developing the foundational skills and mindset and values that support this lifestyle choice?

Absolutely not. But the mistake is to think that this was ever their job. Raising critical thinkers has never been the primary function of formal schooling, and certainly not public schooling.

The primary function of public schooling, just for the record, has always been to develop a labor force that can support the economic activity that government and business finds valuable, and to instill a set of shared social and political values within the population. The goal, in other words, is to produce good citizens, not independent critical thinkers.

Once you realize this, it explains a lot about how school curricula are determined, and why there’s such a preoccupation with test scores and performance rankings.

And you see that there is no social institution that we can hand our kids over to that is responsible for educating critical thinkers.

That burden falls on us — individuals, parents, teachers, all of us.

I don’t know if it will ever be a popular choice, to support education for critical thinking and personal development, rather than for economic value.

It may always be a minority lifestyle choice. But the tools are in our hands, and there’s nothing to stop us from developing our own programs and support systems.

I’m working on a program of my own. Not the Critical Thinker Academy, as it operates right now. Something more structured, that takes advantage of the features of a true learning management system, with assessments and assignments and level upgrades and gamification features.  A real, structured education program that is organized around the Argument Ninja and martial arts themes that I’ve been developing in this show.

I’ll let you know more about the program as it develops, but if you want to keep on top of updates, I urge you to visit and sign up for the Argument Ninja newsletter, where I’ll send you information about updates as they come out, including how you can lock in a subscription to the Argument Ninja program at a fraction of the rate that it will go for when it’s launched.

That’s it for this week’s episode. Thanks very much for listening. Take care, and I’ll talk to you next time.

Read More

009 – The Argument Matrix (or “How to Know What You’re Talking About”)

In this episode I introduce an important concept, what I call the Argument Matrix, and two related concepts associated with the Argument Matrix, which I call “argumentative depth” and “argumentative breadth”.

These concepts are central to my views on the role of background knowledge in critical thinking.

Or to put it more plainly, they’re central to my understanding of what it means to really know what you’re talking about.

In This Episode:

  • How do we know that we know what we’re talking about?
  • Critical thinking education’s Dirty Little Secret (critical thinking can’t be taught)
  • The definition of an argument
  • Basic principles of argument analysis
  • The challenge of evaluating the truth of premises
  • The definition of an Argument Matrix
  • Objections and replies
  • Argumentative depth vs argumentative breadth
  • Example: the fossil record and common ancestry
  • Example: the ethics of abortion
  • the Argument Matrix and the goals of critical thinking
  • Expertise is relative
  • pro tip: assume we know less than we think
  • Two kinds of Argument Matrix: the Map vs the Terrain


“Logic is great, logic is important … but all the logic in the world can’t make up for ignorance.

“The Argument Matrix gives a model for a certain kind of background knowledge that is very important for critical thinking. It’s a model of the space of intellectual debate on a topic. The more of this space you can access, the greater your background knowledge. “

References and Links

Subscribe to the Podcast

Play or download the mp3 file for this episode

This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 009.

Hi everyone, this is the Argument Ninja podcast, where we talk about the art, science and ethics of rational persuasion and what it means to be a true Argument Ninja.

I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante, and in this episode we’re going to turn our discussion back toward the argument part of “Argument Ninja”.

I’ve talked a lot about the need to take seriously the psychological and social dimensions of persuasion and argumentation. And in my martial arts analogies, like the one I developed last episode, I’ve argued that at the center of the Argument Ninja approach to rational persuasion must be a set of core principles that aren’t primarily about winning arguments, but rather are about cultivating the intellectual virtues that direct our innate capacity for rational thought toward the goals of critical thinking.

But so far I haven’t said much about these intellectual virtues yet, or the role that argumentation plays in relation to the goals of critical thinking.

So that’s what I’m going to talk about this episode.

And in this episode I’m going to introduce an important concept, what I call the Argument Matrix, and two related concepts associated with the Argument Matrix, which I call “argumentative depth” and “argumentative breadth”.

These concepts are central to my views on the role of background knowledge in critical thinking; or, to put it more plainly, they’re central to my understanding of what it means to really know what you’re talking about.

I can say with confidence that if you know what you’re talking about, the quality of your reasoning is going to be higher than if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

The question is, how do we get to the point where we actually know what we’re we’re talking about it?

And hiding inside this question is a deeper and maybe more troubling question:

How do we know that we know what we’re talking about? How do we know that our knowledge is sufficiently broad and deep that we can be confident that our judgment is reliable, that it’s informed by all the relevant facts? How we do know that we’re not still reasoning from a position of ignorance?

What I want to do in this episode is introduce the Argument Matrix concept as a tool for addressing questions like this.

Okay. One of the dirty secrets of critical thinking education is that, in spite of the thousands of critical thinking courses being taught in colleges and universities around the world, critical thinking can’t be taught in a single class.

Let me explain.

I can teach basic logic in a classroom. I can teach logical fallacies and cognitive biases in a classroom. And these are important components of critical thinking.

But in a critical thinking class, I can’t teach students the necessary background knowledge that is required to make critically informed judgments about all the topics they might care about.

I can if my course is dedicated to a specific topic, and that’s the topic they want to think critically about. If I’m teaching the evolution/creationism debate, sure I can teach them the necessary background, if I’ve got a whole term to dedicate to it.

But in a general critical thinking class, that’s not possible. There are some general level skills and knowledge you can teach, but in the real world, critical thinking is always critical thinking about some particular subject or domain. You need to know something about the subject in order think critically about it.  Otherwise you’re going to make all kinds of mistakes, that will never go away until you’ve acquired the right sort of background knowledge.

Logic is great, logic is important, but I’ve said it before — all the logic in the world can’t make up for ignorance.

So what can I do in the classroom, to help students with this problem?

Well, I can help them understand why having the right background knowledge is important, and what kinds of background knowledge are particularly important if our goal is to become good critical thinkers about a particular subject.

And I can help them understand how easy it is for us to delude ourselves into thinking we know enough when we really don’t.

So let me tell you I approach this problem.

The first important point is that any solution needs to focus on arguments. Facts are important, but it’s only in the context of arguments that facts become relevant to the kind of understanding that we’re going for.

So let’s back up and review the definition of an argument.

As we use this term in logic and argumentation, an “argument” is a set of statements that are being offered as reasons to accept or believe some other statement, which we call the “conclusion”. The statements that are being offered as reasons, we call the “premises”.

So, schematically, an argument is a set of premises and a conclusion, with the assumption that we should interpret the premises as offering reasons for accepting the conclusion.

Now, in any real argument there’s some context that frames how the argument is going to be interpreted.  Typically there’s some issue over which there’s disagreement, and we’re to imagine that the premises are being offered to some audience that isn’t already convinced of the conclusion.

The issue could be, whether smoking should be banned in public spaces, or whether the United States should build a wall on the border with Mexico to help deal with illegal immigration, or whether sugar is better or worse for your  health than saturated fats.

The conclusion of the argument usually expresses a stand on the issue, a contention, like “Smoking should not be banned in public spaces”, or “Sugar is worse for your health than saturated fats”.

The persuasive goal of the argument is to get the audience to accept the conclusion, or to otherwise become more favorably disposed toward the conclusion, on the basis of the reasons given in the argument.

Now, in argument analysis we have to distinguish two very different features of arguments.

The first is about the truth-status of the individual premises of the argument. Are the premises true or not? Does our audience have good reason to think they’re true?

The second is about the logical relationship between the premises and the conclusion. If the premises were all true, would they give us good reason to accept the conclusion? In other words, does the conclusion “follow from” the premises?

It turns to that this second question is much easier to answer than the first question.

Here’s a very simple example. Consider this argument:

1. All swans are white.

2. My friend Julie bought a swan.

Therefore, Julie’s swan is white.

Now, let’s ask the second question. Does the conclusion follow from the premises? In other words, in a world where all swans are in fact white, and Julie bought a swan, do we have good reason to think that Julie’s swan is white as well?

And the answer, of course, is “yes”. It follows as a matter of brute logic. If all swans are white, and Julie bought a swan, then her swan has to be white. To deny this implies a contradiction somewhere. If the conclusion is false, then one of the premises must be false. Either not all swans are white, or Julie didn’t buy a swan. There’s no escaping this.

This is the kind of basic logical intuition that we rely on in our audience when we deploy arguments. In this case, we’re relying on our audience’s ability to recognize a logical contradiction when it’s explicitly presented to them, and we rely on their intuition that if a set of statements entails a contradiction, then they can’t all be true — at least one of them must be false.

And for the most part, people are pretty good at recognizing simple logical relationships. And most people are not comfortable indulging in contradictory beliefs when the contradiction is presented to them in an obvious way that they can’t escape. This is why certain kinds of logical moves, like showing that a set of beliefs entails a contradiction, can be persuasive for real audiences.

Now, when I teach students logic, I’m teaching them to recognize the logical properties of different patterns of reasoning. Some patterns are like this one, where the conclusion follows with necessity from the premises. In logic we call these “valid” arguments. In some patterns of reasoning, the conclusion only follows with high probability from the premises; we call these “strong” arguments. And in some patterns, the conclusion doesn’t follow either validly or strongly, and we call these “weak” arguments. This is the category of arguments where the conclusion does NOT follow from the premises.

And all of this, students can learn in a classroom setting, or out of a textbook. It’s like learning the rules of chess. You learn which moves are legal and which are illegal, and then you learn how to assemble sequences of legal moves that push the game in the direction you want it to go. As long as your opponent is playing by the same rules, you can have a productive match.

But now let’s go back to that original argument. All swans are white, my friend Julie bought a swan, therefore Julie’s swan is white.

The logic is valid, but we’re not done with the analysis. All we’ve said is that IF all the premises were true, the conclusion would follow. But now we have to ask — ARE the premises all true?

And there’s one premise in particular that we need to look at: is it actually the case that all swans are white?

Now think about this. What am I asking you to do? This question has nothing to do with the logic of the argument. This question has to do with the relationship between what the premise is asserting about the world, and the facts of the matter in the world. Does it accurately describe the facts, or not?

And how do we answer questions like this? I’ll tell you how. We consult our experience and our background knowledge about the subject.

What do I know about swans? Are they all white? Do I know they’re all white? Have I ever seen a swan that wasn’t white? How confident am I that all swans are white? How confident should I be?

These are questions about the facts of the matter, whether our beliefs accurately correspond to these facts, and whether our degree of confidence in a belief is properly calibrated to the degree of uncertainty that’s appropriate to that belief.

In general, these are very hard questions to answer. Much harder than the purely logical questions.

Now, if you survey people about their beliefs about swans, some will be very confident that all swans are white, and some will be unsure, and some will be very confident that not all swans are white.

It turns out that not all swans are white. In the northern hemisphere, swans are typically all white, but in the southern hemisphere there are mixed black and white swans, and in Australia there’s a species of all-black swan appropriately called the Australian black swan.

If you grew up in the north it’s easy to go your whole life never encountering or learning about non-white swans, so it would be understandable to assume that all swans are white. But you would be wrong about this.

And this highlights the problem of teaching this component of critical thinking. Assessing the truth or falsity of premises is a fundamental part of argument analysis. But how well you can do this depends on the extent and the quality of your background knowledge.

And in a critical thinking class you can’t teach all the background knowledge a person might need to think critically about all the subjects that interest them. A single teacher doesn’t have the time or the expertise to do that.

This is the dirty secret of critical thinking education. There’s a real sense in which critical thinking can’t be taught.

Now, in spite of these limitations, there is a lot that can be taught in the classroom that can be very helpful for students who are looking for the most efficient way of acquiring the background knowledge they need.

The approach that I favor, as I said earlier, places arguments at the center of our understanding.

What I’m going to do now is introduce a concept that I call an Argument Matrix.

The answer that I want to propose to our problem is this: what it means to know what you’re talking about, on a given subject, is that you’re able to navigate the structure of an Argument Matrix that is rooted in the subject in question.

But let’s get the basic idea on the table first.

When you’re asked to justify or defend one of the premises in an argument, what you’re asking for is another argument, with that premise as the conclusion. It’s an argument that offers good reasons to accept that premise. It’s an answer to the question, “but why should I believe that?”.

So, there’s the level 1 argument, the main argument, with a certain set of premises.

And then you can imagine a series of level 2 arguments, radiating outward from the level 1 argument, that are designed to support the premises and assumptions of the level 1 argument.

But then we can ask the same questions about the premises of the level 2 arguments. Why should we believe them?  And we can imagine a series of level 3 arguments, radiating outward from each of the level 2 arguments. And so on.

This hierarchical ordering of arguments is the basic structure of what I’m calling an Argument Matrix, that is rooted in the conclusion of the level 1 argument.

The conclusion itself is level 0. The argument for the conclusion is level 1. The arguments that support the premises of the level 1 argument are level 2. The arguments that support the premises of the level 2 arguments are level 3, and so on.

Now, in practice, when you’re engaged in an argument and you’re trying to persuade an audience to accept your conclusion, there are always natural objections that your audience might raise and that you need consider, and you need to think about how you would reply to those objections.

This is how good argumentative essays are organized. You’ve got a main argument, and then you need to raise the strongest natural objections to your argument, and you need to offer some kind of reply to those objections. You’re building into your argument an imaginary dialogue with someone who is skeptical of your conclusion, but open to reason. You’re anticipating their objections and how you would defend your argument against those objections.

So, in our Argument Matrix, in addition to the main arguments, we need to add the natural objections to a given premise or a given line of reasoning, and the best replies to those objections.

The whole thing will still have a roughly hierarchical structure, but it’ll be a more complicated structure, a messier structure, than the strict hierarchy that I was describing originally, because objections and replies are themselves separate arguments, and they can cross-cut and be multiply-connected in various ways.

But you get the idea. The basic elements of the matrix are propositions or statements, collected into sets and related to other statements by relations of logical entailment, either positive or negative. Positive means it gives reason to raise one’s confidence in the entailed statement, negative means it gives reason to lower one’s confidence.

You could call this an Argument Web if you wanted, but in my head I call it a matrix, so I’m sticking with that.

Now, some of you who are familiar with the technique of argument mapping might say that all I’ve described is an argument map, and there are formal tools for constructing such maps, like the program Rationale (which is a very good program by the way).

So, am I talking about argument maps? Yes and no. An argument map is one way of formally representing the kind of structure that I’m talking about.

But argument maps have to follow certain rules for how the arguments are represented, and I don’t believe that everything relevant to argumentation can be captured by a formal tool like this.

Let me finish my introduction to the Argument Matrix, and maybe then it’ll be more obvious how I’m using this concept.

There are two features of an Argument Matrix that I want to talk about now. I call them argumentative depth and argumentative breadth, and we can use them to describe different types of background knowledge and how they relate to the fundamental goals of critical thinking.

What I call argumentative depth is the ability to answer questions of the form “but why should I believe that?”, at increasingly deeper levels.

So for example, if we’re talking about Darwinian evolutionary theory, I might claim that the ordering of different types of fossils in geological rock strata — where fish appear first, then amphibians, then reptiles, and then mammals —  counts as evidence for evolution from a common ancestor. If I really understand this claim, then I should be able to fill in the argument for this conclusion.

In response to this argument, you might ask, “what reason do we have to think that the rocks that are lower in the geological strata are older than rocks that are higher in the geological strata?”. This was a presupposition of my argument. Now I’m being asked to justify this presupposition. That’s pushing me to a second level of argumentative depth.

Now, let’s say that I can answer this question, and my answer appeals to radiometric dating methods for estimating the ages of rocks. Now, if you ask me, how do I know that those dating methods are reliable, that would push me to a third level of argumentative depth, and so on.

All other things being equal, the farther you can go in justifying the premises and background assumptions of your arguments, following the chain of justification backwards, the better your understanding of the arguments in question.

That’s argumentative depth.

In our Argument Matrix, argumentative depth is easily represented by identifying the central claim and then moving outward, starting with the level 1 argument and then moving out to the level 2 arguments that support (or challenge ) the level 1 argument, and so on. How far you can go is a measure of argumentative depth.

Argumentative breadth is different. Argumentative breadth is about understanding the range of relevant arguments that bear on a subject.

For example, it’s common for people to think that the fossil record is the primary source of evidence for the hypothesis of common ancestry, the belief that all species of organism on earth are evolutionarily descended from a single ancestral species, a common ancestor.

But it turns out this is false. There are many other sources of evidence that are much more compelling than the fossil record. Now, if you didn’t know this, then your understanding of the arguments for common ancestry is too narrow. For one reason or another you’re failing to consider important arguments that are directly relevant to the subject.

Let me develop another example that illustrates all of these concepts. Let’s talk about abortion.

In debates about the ethics of abortion, the issue often focuses on the moral standing of the unborn fetus. Does the unborn fetus have a right to life? If so, does it supersede the rights of the mother to make choices about her body, or is it subordinate to those rights?

So you can imagine a root claim: the unborn fetus does or does not have a moral right to life. And then imagine different lines of argument that could be offered to support or challenge this claim. These different lines of argument could be seen as branches radiating outward from the central claim, and then splitting into smaller branches as you start to consider objections and replies at different levels of depth.

Now, in the abortion debate there’s a line of argumentation that is explicitly religious or theological.  If you believe that human beings are endowed by God with a divine soul at some point between conception and birth, and that the possession of this divine soul is what grounds the special moral status of human beings — what makes it morally wrong to kill a human being — then the issue becomes, what reasons do we have to think this is true, and when in the developmental process does the fetus acquire a divine soul? The moral issue is going to turn on the answers to questions like this.

So you can imagine arguments over these questions, and there is in fact a long history of theological argumentation on these very questions.

One can imagine becoming something of an expert in this line of argumentation — the intellectual history of debate over the moral status of the unborn fetus, within different theological traditions.

When the subject comes up and is framed in this way, the person who is familiar with the line of reasoning can be said to know what they’re talking about.

But notice that expertise on this topic is confined to this particular branch of the Argument Matrix.

There are other lines of reasoning on the ethics of abortion that are non-religious. One such line focuses on the concept of personhood, and whether the fetus can be said to be a person, because on this view, the concept of moral rights, like a right to life, is attached to the concept of a person. So the issue becomes, what characteristics does a thing have to exhibit to qualify as a person, and does the fetus have those characteristics?

These questions define a whole other branch of arguments that radiate outward from the central claim, a different branch of the Argument Matrix from the religious arguments branch.

Now, let’s say you become familiar with the structure of this branch of the Matrix. You learn the standard arguments and the standard objections and replies, and you can move down a couple of levels along a particular branch.

You can say, with respect to the abortion issue, when framed as a question about the personhood status of the unborn fetus, that you know what you’re talking about.

But notice that this person may not know what they’re talking about when it comes to the religious arguments. And vice versa. An expert on the religious arguments may not have much exposure at all to secular debates over the personhood status of the fetus.

In both of these cases, the background knowledge of the expert may be deep, but not necessarily broad. You know your way around your local branch and its various sub-branches, but you haven’t spent much time investigating that other branch over there.

Now, if someone becomes familiar with both branches, the secular arguments focusing on whether the fetus counts as a person, and the religious arguments focusing on whether the fetus possesses a divine soul, then their understanding is both deep and broad — broader than each of the other’s understanding, at least.

So, argumentative depth is about how far along a chain of reasoning you can go — how far from the center you can travel along a particular branch.

Argumentative breadth is about how many different branches you’re familiar with, how wide your field of vision is, how many different kinds of considerations you’re able to recognize and reason about.

And you can play around with different combinations. My knowledge might be deep in some areas but more shallow in others, and broader in some areas and more narrow in others.

And here’s another possibility.

We’ve got our two experts on each of the individual branches. And we’ve got our third expert who has mastered both. Each of them can legitimately claim to know something, and the third expert definitely knows more than the first two.

Now, assume that each of these experts is only aware of their local branches of the Argument Matrix. It’s a bit unrealistic with these particular topics, in this day and age, but for the sake of the point let’s imagine it’s true.

Religious Arguments Guy thinks that his branch of the Argument Matrix is all there is, there’s nothing more that we need to think about, when considering the ethics of abortion.

And Secular Personhood Expert thinks that her branch of the matrix is all there is.

And Double Branch Guy sees both branches, but doesn’t see anything else beyond that.

From the perspective of Double Branch Guy, the other two experts are ignorant of the true size and structure of the Argument Matrix. They know their local branch, but their reasoning, from his standpoint, is always going to be limited and incomplete.

But this observation should raise a question in the mind of Double Branch Guy.

If these two experts can be so mistaken in their beliefs about the structure of the Argument Matrix, how does he know that he’s not in a similar position?

How can he be sure that he’s not sitting in a small corner of a much larger Matrix — that there aren’t many other branches that he’s not even aware of — and from this perspective, his knowledge of the abortion issue is narrow and incomplete?

What I’m describing is a very real situation for many people who are raised to have certain beliefs and to think about issues in a certain way, and are never exposed to other ways of thinking that in fact may be quite common in certain segments of the public, or among experts.

This is certainly the case with the abortion issue. I don’t know how many times I’ve taught the abortion issue in an ethics class and encountered smart students who are very confident in their views and in their sense of what questions are important to consider.  These students are surprised and sometimes dismayed to learn that there are other ways of framing the ethical issue that are taken very seriously by many people.

For example, there’s a whole branch of argumentation that focuses on the rights of the state to intervene in the rights of individuals, in the service of the common good.

In this case, the question is about the state’s interest in regulating practices that involve the killing of human beings, and whether those practices promote or undermine social norms about the value of human life, all human life.

I won’t get into the details here, but these arguments tend to be non-religious and they don’t engage the debate over personhood. It’s a different branch of the Argument Matrix.

And there’s another whole category of explicitly feminist arguments that focus on the relationship between the legality of abortion, the history of patriarchal oppression, the role of state control of women’s bodies and reproduction in enabling that oppression, and the concept of group or class rights — rights that women may be entitled to claim as members of an oppressed group, that they would not be entitled to claim if they were not so oppressed.

For some feminists, abortion rights fall within this category, and the arguments for allowing abortion and providing state funding for abortion services have nothing to with religion, nothing to do with personhood, and nothing to do with state’s interests per se. They have to do with the moral status of women’s interests, as a class.

So, arguments that relate to this line of reasoning define a whole other branch of the Argument Matrix.

Now, in the classroom it’s not surprising that students aren’t familiar with all of this, because almost no one is.

But it’s easy to find real life experts in some of the branches of the abortion debate, like constitutional scholars on abortion rights law, whose understanding of the arguments in the other branches is very shallow or non-existent.

I suppose this is just a byproduct of specialization, but there’s a lesson in humility to be learned here, for all of us.

Now that we’ve got this concept of an Argument Matrix on the table, let me say a few things about the role that I think this concept can play in our critical thinking practices.

1. The Goals of Critical Thinking

The first point is that this concept helps to show why argumentation is central to the goals of critical thinking.

Critical thinking has two main goals. The first is to improve the quality of our beliefs and decisions. The second is to be able to claim ownership and responsibility for our beliefs and decisions — to be able to say that these are my beliefs, my choices, that I can thinking independently and critically about this topic for myself, that I’m not just parroting the opinions of parents or peers or the media.

If this is our goal, then just knowing the facts isn’t enough. Having true beliefs isn’t enough. We also want some understanding of why they’re true; we want to be able to give an account of why it’s reasonable to think they’re true.

This ability, to give an account of our beliefs, an explanation for our beliefs, a defense of our beliefs — it all comes down to argumentation in one form or another.

The Argument Matrix provides a model for what this ability looks like, in practice. It’s about being able to navigate the various branches of the Argument Matrix that are relevant to a particular subject or topic.

It’s clear to me that if you’re in command of the best arguments in favor of a position on a particular topic, and those arguments exhibit both depth and breadth, then your judgments about that topic are going to be better than if you aren’t familiar with these arguments, and you’re in a better position to claim ownership and responsibility for those judgments.

2. Expertise is Relative

The second point is about the quality of our background knowledge and the nature of expertise.

The Argument Matrix gives a model for a certain kind of background knowledge that is very important for critical thinking. It’s a model of the space of intellectual debate on a topic. The more of this space you can access, the greater your background knowledge.

But the Argument Matrix model, by itself, doesn’t tell us how large this space is, or how much of that space we can access. It allows us to make a number of concrete judgments about how deep or broad one’s understanding is, relative to the branches of the matrix that we’re familiar with.

Like with the abortion example, we can say that Double Branch Guy is better informed than Religious Arguments Guy or Secular Personhood expert, because he has access to both branches of the matrix. But Double Branch Guy was unaware of the existence of several other branches of the Argument Matrix. So relative to the perspective that includes all four the branches that we talked about, he’s not nearly as informed as he could be.

The upshot is that we’re justified in making comparative judgments about the quality of our background knowledge, and consequently the level of our expertise. Expertise, in this sense, is always relative.

But we should be much more cautious about making categorical judgments about how much we know, or how much there is to know, about a subject.

That would imply that we have access to the maximal Matrix, as it were, with respect to that topic. We’ve got access to the whole history of intellectual debate on a topic. But for any substantial topic, we don’t have this. In general, we only have access to some portion of the Matrix.

If you dedicate your life to a topic, more and more of the Matrix opens up to you, and your knowledge becomes deeper and broader over time. But there are limits to how much any single person can learn and retain. And we should expect the Matrix to continue to grow and evolve over time as people come up with new arguments.

3. Useful Defaults Assumptions

The third point that I think is useful has to do with useful default assumptions about our own standing in relation to the whole Matrix.

Our general human tendency is to overestimate how much we know about a topic, and to be overconfident in the rightness of our judgments. There are several distinct types of cognitive biases that drive us to these conclusions. These biases make us less likely to seek out new perspectives or to explore an issue more deeply.

Another way to think of this is that we’re probably accessing a much smaller portion of the Argument Matrix than we think we are — it’s very likely that there are branches of the matrix that we aren’t even aware of.

And within the branches that we do have access to, our understanding is often much more shallow than we think it is. We can’t move outward along a branch as far as we think we can.

Let me give a couple of examples.

I ask you, is stealing wrong? You say yes. I ask why. You say that it’s on one of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not steal. That’s a level 1 answer — it’s wrong because God says it’s wrong. Now I ask you, why should I believe that the Ten Commandments are a reliable guide to right and wrong? You say, because God wrote the Bible, and what God says is true. That’s a level 2 answer. And now I ask, why should I believe that God wrote the Bible, and even if he did, why should I believe that everything in it is true? That’s a level 3 question, and that’s a much harder question for most people to answer. You’re entering into the world of Christian apologetics, which you can spend years studying, but which most people don’t study.

But the limits of our knowledge are even more obvious if I ask you about objections and replies. Because remember, these are supposed to be part of the Argument Matrix too. So if you say, it’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong, and the Bible is the Word of God, I might ask you, what’s the best argument against the view that the Bible is the Word of God, that the Bible is divinely inspired?

There, I’m testing how broad your understanding is. And this isn’t a trick question. If someone is really confident in their understanding, they should be familiar with the best and most common objections, and have some idea of how they would respond to those objections.

Now, it’s just a fact that most people are not well-versed in the best arguments against their cherished views. Confirmation bias draws our attention to arguments that reinforce our beliefs, and we tend to ignore or diminish arguments that run counter to our beliefs.

This is bad enough, but it’s made worse by the fact that we tend to be very confident that we do understand the opposing side. If I ask you what the opposing side believes, people are often very confident that they know what it is. But more often what they’ll give you is a straw man version of the opposition’s position, not an accurate reconstruction of their actual reasoning.

So, from a critical thinking perspective, it’s just wise to assume that our knowledge is narrower, and shallower, than we intuitively feel it is. It’s wise to assume that the true Argument Matrix is bigger and more complex than the one have in our heads, and that it will take time and effort to reveal these unexplored branches.

4. The Map and the Terrain

The fourth point I want make follows directly from this this distinction between what a person knows and how much there is to know. This is important.

This is like the difference between a map of the terrain, and the terrain itself.

So yes, some Matrix explorers have mapped out more of the terrain than others. But the terrain itself is going to be much larger. Why? Because it’s a product of many minds.

I’ve been using this term, the Matrix, to refer to two very different things. So let’s clarify this.

On the one hand, you can talk about the network of arguments that you, as an individual, are carrying around with you in your head right now, on a particular subject.

That’s the map — your personal map — that represents the state of your background knowledge about the subject.

On the other hand, we can talk about the network of arguments on a given subject that are contributed by people all over the world, from all historical times, that constitute the history of intellectual debate on the subject.

That’s the terrain. That’s the world of ideas to be explored and discovered, through learning and experience. And it’s the world that is continuing to grow as people come up with new arguments and contribute to the dialogue on that subject.

Both the map and the terrain have the structure of what I’ve called an Argument Matrix, because that’s how I’ve stipulated it — argument structure is the structure I’m interested in.

But your personal map, your personal Argument Matrix, is much smaller and more limited than the Matrix corresponding to the terrain, because it represents your understanding of the terrain from your limited point of view. For any substantive topic, the terrain itself is inevitably going to be much larger and more complex structure.

Imagine, for example, the difference between what a Phd in physics has learned by the time they get their doctorate, and the collective body of knowledge that constitutes physics as a whole.

That’s the scale of the difference that I’m asking you to imagine, between the Argument Matrices we carry around in our heads, and the Argument Matrices that comprise our collective reasoning about the world.

Now, if you circumscribe a topic narrowly enough, then you’ll reduce the scale difference for sure.

If I’m an expert on the physics of neutrinos and neutrino detectors, and specifically on the operation of the detectors at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada, and someone asks me a specific question about the operation of these devices, then the gap between what I know, and all there is to know, about the operation of these devices, is going to be much smaller than if the question was about neutrino physics in general, or physics in general. The map and the terrain will be closer in scale.

But they’re still two very different things.

Well, I’ve gone way past my usual time, and I think this is a convenient place to stop. So let’s stop here.

If you’ve got questions or comments about this episode I’d love to hear about them. You can leave comments at, episode 009. I post the podcast on our Facebook page too, and that’s a great place to talk about the episode, so please visit I have links in the episode description to both of these sites, and to the Critical Thinker Academy.

If you want to learn the basics of logic and argument analysis, I’ve got video courses over at the Critical Thinker Academy that can give you a solid foundation.

I’ve also got a great deal for those interested in getting access to all of the video courses at the Academy. You can get access to over 20 hours of video training, over 600 pages of pdf ebooks, plus early access to videos that I’m developing for new video courses … for just $3 a month.

For the price of a cup of coffee a month, you get access to all this, and you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re supporting this podcast and my work and the continuing existence of the Critical Thinker Academy.

If you find any value in what I do, you should know that I do need your support, and I’m asking for your support.

Please visit to learn how you can become a Sustaining Member.

Thanks, take care, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Read More

008 – WANTED: Mixed Martial Arts for Argument Ninjas

If we think of rational persuasion as a martial art, what kind of martial art should it be? In this episode I argue that a mixed martial arts approach is the only one that makes sense.

But there’s a problem. Philosophical principles play an obvious and important role in traditional martial arts practices. They don’t seem to play an important role in mixed martial arts (or if they do, it’s not obvious.) An MMA program for Argument Ninjas needs a philosophy grounded in core critical thinking principles.

In This Episode:

  • The clash of martial arts styles and the emergence of mixed martial arts
  • Taekwondo as an example of a traditional martial art
  • Rules of Taekwondo sparring
  • Why would anyone choose to train in a single martial art style?
  • Lessons learned from sparring and competition
  • Examples of Taekwondo philosophy
  • What would a philosophy of mixed martial arts (MMA) look like?
  • Bruce Lee’s influence on MMA
  • Bruce Lee’s philosophy of martial arts
  • Persuasion Ninja vs Argument Ninja


“When you train in a martial art you will face opponents who are more skilled than you in every way, and you will lose to them, over and over and over. The only way to continue, and improve, is to get over yourself. Let go of your ego, let go of your fear of failure, and learn to see things as they really are. Learn how to be okay with failure and to learn from failure. Because when you interpret failure in this way, it’s not really failure anymore. It’s just learning.”

“There’s nothing preventing a martial art from having both a strong emphasis on effectiveness as a combat art, and a guiding philosophy that transcends the goals of combat.”

“If your focus isn’t solely on persuasion, but also on persuasion for good reasons — actually having good reasons for the beliefs you have, and the decisions you make — then this is similar to an MMA program where the ultimate goal isn’t just to become a better fighter. You’re also committed to something else, something that transcends combat, and even the physicality of training. Something that aims at truth and wisdom.”

References and Links

Subscribe to the Podcast

Play or download the mp3 file for this episode

This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 8!

Hi everyone this is Kevin deLaplante and you’re listening to the Argument Ninja podcast. I’m a philosopher and critical thinking educator, and on this show I talk about argumentation and what it means to become an independent critical thinker, filtered through our growing knowledge of the psychology of belief and persuasion.

I’m interested in developing a program of instruction in critical thinking that is grounded in the study of rational persuasion. This is the main point of this podcast, to provide a forum for me to work out the elements of such a program.

Whenever I try to explain what I mean by a theory of rational persuasion, I find myself falling back on analogies with traditional martial arts practices.

In these martial arts disciplines there’s often a dual emphasis: there’s an emphasis on combat techniques and other physical aspects of the martial art, and there’s an emphasis on ethical or philosophical principles that serve as governing ideals for the practice. I’m interested in how these two dimensions of martial arts practice interact with each other.

For me this is helpful to explore, because I see parallels in the relationship between methods of persuasion, on the one hand, and principles of rational argumentation on the other. I’m interested in how persuasion and argumentation interact in the practice of rational argumentation, and I’m looking to the philosophy of the martial arts as a resource for insights and ideas that I can apply to this other case.

On this episode I want to talk about the differences between traditional martial arts disciplines, which have a particular style and focus, and what we now call “mixed martial arts”, which combines techniques from a variety of martial arts styles.

I like the idea of a mixed martial arts approach to rational persuasion. I think this is how a program of instruction ultimately has to be structured.

But there’s a problem that faces any attempt to model a theory of rational persuasion on mixed martial arts. Philosophical principles play an obvious and important role in traditional martial arts practices. They don’t seem to play an important role in mixed martial arts; or if they do, it’s not obvious. The program that I’m developing needs a philosophical dimension

So in this episode I’m going to explore this question, and see if I can’t resolve this problem in a satisfying way, for myself if not for everyone.

The episode is longer than usual so I hope you’ll bear with me. Get yourself a drink, clear some time in your schedule, and let me share some time with you.

I’m going to start out with a little history on the comparison of different martial arts styles, the emergence of mixed martial arts in the 20th century, and raise the question of why anyone trains in a traditional martial art anymore.

I use taekwondo as a case study to explore this question. I talk about what people can learn from practicing a martial art, even if it’s a restrictive and stylized martial art like taekwondo.

We get into the philosophy of taekwondo, and then I raise the question of what a philosophy of mixed martial arts would look like.

I talk a bit about Bruce Lee and his influence on mixed martial arts, and Bruce’s Lee’s philosophy of martial arts.

And then I bring the discussion back to persuasion and argumentation. I define what I call a “persuasion ninja”, and how I distinguish that from an “argument ninja”.

And finally I describe an MMA approach to learning the art of rational persuasion — MMA for the Argument Ninja — and how this approach solves the problem that I just raised.

Okay, let’s begin.

You know there are traditional martial arts styles like shotokan karate, taekwando, judo, wing chun kung fu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and so on, that each have their particular style and training methods.

One of the oldest pastimes of martial arts enthusiasts is to argue over which style is better or more effective against which other style. If you can take a person to the ground, a style that emphasizes grappling is going to have a huge advantage over one that doesn’t. If you’re forced to stay on your feet and slug it out, a trained boxer has some real advantages over some other styles.

In the history of martial arts competition, the idea of pitting one style against another isn’t anything new. You see French savate fighters squaring off against English bare knuckle fighters in the late 19th century. You’d see wrestling against boxing, boxing against karate, and so on.

In these match-ups there was a lot invested in being a representative of your style, so if the boxer started throwing kicks, that wasn’t something that was encouraged in these matches.

But over time this philosophy started to shift, and the idea of combining elements of different styles became more acceptable.

Bruce Lee was one of a number of people who were instrumental in introducing this idea into the West. He famously said that “the best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style, to be formless, to adopt an individual’s own style and not follow the system of styles”.

In this respect, Bruce Lee anticipated what has now become the standard training regimen for mixed martial artists. Fighters tend to start out in one field, like boxing or judo or jiu-jitsu, and they may end up favoring that style of fighting, but they all train to be able to strike from a standing position, they all train to do takedowns and throws from a clinching position, and they all train in submission holds in a ground position.

It makes you wonder why anyone still trains in a single school or style. I remember having this conversation with a student of mine in one of my office hours, back in the day when I had office hours. He was an MMA fan and thought it was just obvious that training in taekwondo or judo all by itself was a mistake, that the only training that made any sense was training that made you an effective fighter in a standing position, in the clinch and on the ground, in realistic fighting situations.

In his view, spending all that time in taekwondo learning a specific set of forms and how to do absurd spinning kicks was not only time wasted; it left you systematically weak and vulnerable in other areas.

And so I asked him, if it’s so obviously wrong-headed to train this way — why do you think people do it? Why do people train for years to get their second and third and fourth degree black belt in specific style like taekwondo?

And he paused, and he said, “I guess they just enjoy the challenge of mastering the techniques. Their goal isn’t to be good at fighting, their goal is to be good at taekwondo”.

And I replied that I think there’s some truth to that. But it would be odd to say that they don’t care about getting better at fighting, when, as it is in some schools, a certain portion of every training session is dedicated to sparring, and they often compete in sparring tournaments. It’s clear that fighting is an integral part of what they do.

Here’s how I would describe this situation now, and see if you can anticipate how I’m going to frame the analogy with argumentation and persuasion and critical thinking.

When you train in a martial art, you’re entering a ritualized space where certain rules are imposed, and in choosing to train in that martial art, you agree to abide by those rules.

The training you do is simultaneously constrained by those rules, and an expression of respect for those rules, because the rules are intended to help you achieve certain higher goals. These goals are the primary purpose for studying the martial art. And this primary purpose is almost never about winning fights.

So, when you’re sparring in taekwondo, for example, you wear a full set of protective sparring gear, and the rules are very restrictive.

You can punch, with a clenched fist, and you can kick, with any part of your foot below the ankle. That’s it. No other techniques are allowed except punches and kicks.

You can kick to two places. Your opponent’s chest protector or their head. You can punch the chest protector but you can’t punch the face or the head.

You can’t kick or punch your opponent’s spine or below their chest protector.  You can’t grab, hold or push your opponent. You can’t attack below the waist. You can’t strike with your elbows or knees.

You get one point for a basic hit to the chest protector. You get two points for a kick to the chest protector if the kick involves a spinning technique. And you get three points for a kick to your opponent’s head.

Now, it’s easy to see why someone who is really interested in fighting might dismiss this kind of combat as so restrictive and ritualized that it has almost nothing to do with a realistic self-defense or street fighting situation.

There’s obviously some truth to this. But it’s also clear that this kind of practice does develop some important combat-related skills.

You’re facing a real opponent after all, you’re not shadow-boxing. You’re trying to physically hit someone while avoiding being hit by them, and vice versa. To do this well you have to learn how to assess an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, how to read their strategy, how to conceal your own strategy, how to control the distance between you and your opponent, how to time your attacks, how to throw combinations, how to respond in the moment to changes in the combat situation.

You also learn how to discipline your emotions, how to conserve energy, how to implement a long term strategy.

These skills apply to any martial sport, from boxing to fencing to MMA sparring. And learning these skills can be exciting and fun.

But we can push this a little further. For those who train in a martial sport for any length of time, you know that there are deeper psychological lessons that can be learned, about yourself, your identity, through sparring and competition.

Let’s admit that we spend much of our lives inhabiting different personas and playing different roles, and it’s easy to get caught up in the fictions we tell ourselves and the games we have to play. We’re afraid to acknowledge our fears and our insecurities. Many of us live our lives behind walls of inauthentic bullshit that we present to the world, and that we come to believe ourselves. We walk around with egos that are simultaneously inflated and fragile.

But in the ring, on the mat, when you’re squaring off against an opponent, none of your bullshit matters. You can tell people outside the dojo what a skilled martial artist you are, but inside the ring, or on the mat, the truth will be revealed, one way or another.

I call sparring a bullshit eraser, and it can be very liberating. It has the power to destroy an ego, but it also has the power to free us from fear and build a stronger, healthier sense of who we are and what we’re capable of.

When you train in a martial art you will face opponents who are more skilled than you in every way, and you will lose to them, over and over and over.

The only way to continue, and improve, is to get over yourself. Let go of your ego, let go of your fear of failure, and learn to see things as they really are. Learn how to be okay with failure and to learn from failure.

Because when you interpret failure in this way, it’s not really failure anymore. It’s just learning.

So, let me get back to what inspired this digression. We’re talking about why anyone would choose to devote themselves to training in a particular martial art, in a particular style, when it’s clear that you would become a more effective and well-rounded fighter by training in a variety of different styles.

And my answer so far is two-fold. The first part is to say that, even if the combat styles are highly ritualized, they still teach skills that are essential to combat. The second part is to show that, for many people, training in ritualized combat of any kind can be both fun and psychologically transformative. And that’s one of the reasons why people become dedicated to training even in highly ritualized and artificial combat styles. They enjoy the challenge, they enjoy mastering new skills, and they see it as a continuing opportunity for growth and self-improvement.

But there’s more to say than just this, and it’s the part that I really want to get to.

I’ve said it before in previous episodes, and it’s important for the analogy that I’m trying to develop here.

When we’re talking about a traditional martial art, there’s always an associated philosophy that is part of its origin story. Another reason why people devote themselves to a particular martial art is that they identify with the philosophy, and they view their training as part of, and a means toward, a broader philosophical practice.

And that philosophy rarely has anything to with fighting per se.

Since we’ve been talking about taekwondo, let’s use that as an example.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art. Modern taekwondo was developed in the 1940s and 50s by martial artists who incorporated elements of karate and Chinese martial arts with indigenous Korean martial arts traditions. These were styles that were adopted by the South Korean military, and that led to a national effort to create a unified style of Korean martial art.

The modern history has as much to do with Cold War politics as anything else, but by the late 60s there was an International Taekwondo Federation that was responsible for institutionalizing a common style of taekwondo, and by the early 70s there was a World Taekwondo Federation, which institutionalized the sport aspects and promoted the sport around the world.

Today, in every taekwondo school, the first thing that is taught to students is a set of virtues that are known as the Five Tenets of Taekwondo. At the school where my daughter earned her Black Belt, they were listed as courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. Part of class time, especially at the younger ages, was devoted to talking about how these virtues are expressed in the dojang and in one’s training, and in everyday life.

Look a little deeper you see that the various taekwondo federations and associations promote a variety of ethical principles. There are common themes among these principles, and historically they have roots in what is known as the code of the Hwarang, which was a class of warrior-scholars in middle-ages Korea. This was a protector class that had a close association with martial oriented Buddhist monks who lived in the area.

So in the resulting philosophy you see a combination of self-development virtues and social justice virtues, and this combination has carried through to the present day.

For example, let me read you a statement of the philosophy of taekwondo, as expressed by the founder of the International Taekwondo Association, Grandmaster James Benko. Pay attention to the different types of value commitments that are expressed in this statement.

“The philosophy of Tae Kwon Do is to build a more peaceful world. To accomplish this goal Tae Kwon Do begins with the foundation, the individual. The Art strives to develop the character, personality, and positive moral and ethical traits in each practitioner. It is upon this “foundation” of individuals possessing positive attitudes and characteristics that the “end goal” may be achieved.

Tae Kwon Do strives to develop the positive aspects of an individual’s personality: Respect, Courtesy, Goodness, Trustworthiness, Loyalty, Humility, Courage, Patience, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, an Indomitable Spirit and a sense of responsibility to help and respect all forms of life. This takes a great deal of hard training and many do not reach far enough to achieve perfection in all of these aspects. However, it is the physical, mental, and spiritual effort which the individual puts forth that develops the positive attributes and image of both the individual and how he or she perceives others.

In order to help build a more peaceful world, Tae Kwon Do starts with one person at a time. Gradually groups form, dojangs (schools) emerge, organizations develop, until Tae Kwon Do’s philosophy has influenced, in a positive way, enough persons, families, communities, and nations, to someday bring about, or at least help bring about, the unification of nations dedicated to helping each other.

The task is not easy. Just like the metamorphosis an individual goes through from white belt to black belt and eventually Master, so the transition of the unification of nations united by laws of peace, is a long and hard task. Tae Kwon Do strives for this unification. Race, creed, and nationality have nothing to do with Tae Kwon Do. They are all one in the same. Tae Kwon Do reaches toward the total development of the individual and the founding of a peaceful world.

The physical aspects of Tae Kwon Do are merely a by-product of Tae Kwon Do. It is the mental and spiritual development of a person which Tae Kwon Do nurtures and helps give birth to.”

So, here we see a martial arts philosophy where the “martial” part — the physical training and combat part — is treated not as an end in itself, but as a means to other ends, which are spiritual, ethical and sometimes even political in character.

Historically, one of the important influences on taekwondo was Buddhism, and some instructors emphasize this aspect as part of their philosophy of taekwondo. Here’s how one modern school master, Yeon Hee Park, expresses it:

“Tae Kwon Do is not just training in kicking, punching and self defense. It is far more even than training in mental and physical coordination. A major feature of the art is the development of a certain spirit which carries over into all aspects of life. If there exists a means through which one could secure a stable, peaceful life, it would have to be based upon a harmony between oneself and nature. Do in Korean means “art,” “path,” “way,” “way of life.” It is the way of the universe. The philosophy of Tae Kwon Do has as its roots in many of the tenets held by religious masters and devout laymen throughout history. These qualities can be traced back to the influence of Buddhism, and its aim of the “Mastery of Life.” The focus of Tae Kwon Do philosophy is to offer a means by which the student can rid him or herself of the ego, or what Zen-Buddhists call “discriminating mind,” in order to live in harmony with the universe.

At the core of this philosophy is the concept of ‘duality’ in nature. Duality refers to the interaction of opposing forces. Harmony is achieved when opposite forces are distributed equally, resulting in balance. When one force dominates however, discord is the result. For example, when an adversary uses positive (aggressive) energy, or in other words initiates an attack, the defender should use negative (yielding) energy to respond, by stepping aside to allow the energy of that attack to flow past harmlessly. In this manner, what was once hard (the assailant’s attack) becomes soft (non injurious), and what was soft (the defender’s passivity) becomes hard (an effective way to counter a potential dangerous assault), allowing balance to return.

Ultimately, the philosophy of Tae Kwon Do seeks to bring students to a level of consciousness known as “Present Time.” This occurs when one is completely in tune with oneself and nature to the degree that one’s actions and reactions are always perfectly coordinated with the forces in life, whether that be in the sparring ring, in a social setting or even when alone. Such a person cannot be made upset by anything they encounter in life. True masters of Tae Kwon Do are noted for their serene personalities, which stem from their living in Present Time.

Every person is capable of coordinating him or herself with the forces in life more perfectly. By centering oneself and balancing the dual forces through living in “Present Time,” students can begin to touch the true goal of all human life which is the aspiration to and application of perfection.”

Now, this statement of the ultimate goals of taekwondo is quite different from the one we just read. There’s no talk about a unification of peaceful nations here. The focus is more on moving individuals toward a Buddhist version of self-realization.

But what they have in common is they see the practice of taekwondo as a means to a greater goal, and when you move closer and closer to this goal, the martial aspects of the practice begin to fade, and even more, the physical aspects begin to fade. What comes more and more into focus are higher ideals — virtue, character, self-realization, enlightenment, justice, harmony, universal peace.

I’m not going to say that every traditional martial art tells the same story, but I will say that every traditional martial art has a story like this.

Now, let’s return to my office where I’m talking to that student, the fan of mixed martial arts. Let’s imagine that I’ve just told him this story about the reasons why people dedicate themselves to training in a particular martial art style, like taekwondo, in spite of it being a less effective system for learning self-defense and realistic fighting ability.

What do you think his response will be?

If he’s a real fan of MMA, he’ll probably say, “that makes a lot of sense, but it just proves my point. People who study taekwondo for years want to become great at taekwondo, whatever that means — but they don’t want to become great fighters. If they wanted to become great fighters they would learn other styles.”

I actually think this is a fair description. If one of your goals is to be able to confidently handle yourself in a wide variety of self-defense or personal combat situations, it would be foolish not to train in a variety of styles, there’s no question about that.

But here’s my question. What should I do if I care about both? What should I do if I want to become a more effective fighter and learn from lots of different styles, AND I want to use my training as a means to attaining higher spiritual and ethical goals?

There are two things to say about this.

First, you will have a hard time finding a martial arts school that has just this combination of features. There is no official philosophy of MMA, it doesn’t have that kind of history. There’s the competitive philosophy of successful fighters which can be inspiring in its own right, and there’s the ethics of respect and the rules of the training hall that most good schools demand. But you’ll never walk into an MMA studio and start talking about working toward universal peace or finding the right balance of opposites while living in “present time”.

But second, there’s nothing in principle preventing these two goals from coming together. Arguably this is what Bruce Lee was after. He studied Wing Chun kung fu when he was a teenager in Hong Kong, but in the US he studied judo grappling and taekwondo kicking and Western style boxing and even fencing, and tried to synthesize them in his own fighting style. The practical, physical side of combat was very important to him.

But at the same time he was driven to look for deeper insights and a higher meaning to his practice. Lee’s writings can be a challenge to interpret because ultimately he was an atheist of sorts, and he didn’t identify with any organized religion or spiritual practice. But he was drawn to this philosophy of “no style”, to resist the pull to codify your practice into a specific style, and by extension, to resist the pull to identify with creeds and doctrines and philosophies of any kind, any system that does your thinking for you, that stifles your unique creative ability and prevents you from acting with genuine freedom.

That’s quite different from the philosophy of taekwondo, or many other traditional martial arts. But it’s still a philosophy that transcends the goal of fighting — in his case, it’s a way of being in the world.

So, to reiterate my point, there’s nothing preventing a martial art from having both a strong emphasis on effectiveness as a combat art, and a guiding philosophy that transcends the goals of combat.

This is something that I believe more people are looking for today. There are lots of people who are fans of MMA training, but not fans of the bloodsport aspects of MMA competition, and they would like to see more options like this.

Now, I said that I would tie this all back into argumentation and persuasion, so let’s do that now.

When you study logic and argumentation, you’re learning how to identify genuine strengths and weaknesses in arguments.

When you study rhetoric and debate strategy, you’re learning how to exploit broader psychological, social and strategic factors to maximize the chances that your message will be successful.

We can think of verbal debate as kind of martial art, a type of combat that is played out with words and other forms of communication, rather than physical contact.

The study of persuasion methods and rhetorical strategies is an important part of training in this martial art. It can serve as a foundation for logical self-defense, a way of defending ourselves against the many forces that are conspiring to influence our perceptions and our beliefs and our values. And it can ground an effective offensive strategy, when you’re setting out to persuade an audience to accept a particular point of view.

So what’s the analogy with different martial arts styles?

Well, we all have a default persuasion or communication style. It’s the style that we’re naturally disposed toward, in a particular situation, without the benefit of explicit training or instruction. How do I relate to people, communicate with people, at work, at home, in public, online?

Our default communication styles can change from situation to situation, and they can evolve over time, but we all have these default modes. Sometimes they’re effective, but often they’re not.

They’re like our default responses to threats of conflict or aggression, without the benefit of martial arts or self-defense training. Sometimes we respond well, but often we don’t.

Now, we can imagine a structured, intentional program of instruction in persuasion, in communication, in argumentation. Not unlike a structured, intentional program of instruction in a martial art.

But any such program is going to emphasize certain techniques and methods and ignore others. It’s inevitable, because (a) the space of possible techniques and methods is huge, and (b) anyone who is offering such a program is going to have made these selections for you, based on their background and experience, their theoretical understanding of how good persuasion works, and the type of context where these persuasion skills are going to be applied.

And this is what you see when you look at what persuasion coaches are offering, or what is taught in communications programs, or what a marketing firm is selling to business clients, or how formal training in stage magic is structured, or what a university class in logic and argumentation is teaching, or what training in the art of speech writing looks like. It’s a set of skills and concepts that are tailored for a specific range of applications.

Taken altogether, these various training programs are a motley collection that range widely in their style of teaching, in the scope of what they teach, and in the goals that they serve.

There’s an analogy with martial arts instruction. When instruction is really informal, and one-on-one, it’s like the uncle who takes his 10 year old nephew out to the garage to show him a few tips on how to handle himself in a fight if that bully harasses him again. Do a little wrestling in gym classes, that’s another level of organization. Join a martial arts program with an international association and a standardized curriculum, that’s a much higher level of organization.

With persuasion training it’s similar. When a parent talks to their kid about how to talk to other people, that’s persuasion training. Learn how to write a good argumentative essay in school, that’s persuasion training. Join a debate club, that’s persuasion training. Learn how to write a publishable research paper, that’s persuasion training. Sign up for a weekend seminar on Neuro-Linguistic Programming and sales techniques, that’s persuasion training.

These are all analogous to different styles of martial arts programs, except even more diverse and varied than you see in traditional martial arts.

Now, let’s bring our MMA fan back into the picture.

Just as we can imagine someone saying that if you really want to learn how to fight, you shouldn’t stick with one style, you should train in multiple styles, we can imagine someone saying that if you really want to learn how to be persuasive, you shouldn’t stick with just one style or school of persuasion, you should train in multiple persuasion styles.

This would be like the MMA of persuasion.

I can imagine people being very interested in something like MMA for persuasion skills. I know I would be.

Now, there really isn’t anything like this out there, in terms of a structured program. But there are individuals who fancy themselves students of persuasion in general, and devote time to reading and learning as much as possible about a wide range of persuasion methods, including what I would call ‘critical thinking’ methods, like classical logic and argumentation, scientific reasoning, and so forth.

I think that some of the NLP gurus think they’ve got the broadest, most comprehensive program of instruction out there, but that’s mostly bullshit. Most of them have no background in real logic and real argumentation, for example, so they have no concept of what a good argument is, as opposed to a merely persuasive argument.

But now we’re getting closer to home.

An MMA of persuasion and argumentation is something that I would like to see built. A program of instruction in foundational concepts and techniques that can apply to a wide range of scenarios, that draws from different persuasion styles that are known to be effective across these different scenarios.

Now, at this point I’m going to need to draw a distinction. There are two ways this MMA idea can go, and both are viable, but we’re going to have to pick sides.

If the exclusive focus of this program of instruction is persuasion — successfully getting people to accept your conclusion or make the choice you want them to make, then this is similar to an MMA program where the ultimate goal is to become a better fighter.

In my notes to myself I’ve been calling the person who is a master of diverse styles of persuasion, a Persuasion Ninja. You rise up the ranks of the persuasion MMA, you eventually become a Persuasion Ninja.

However, if your focus isn’t solely on persuasion, but also on persuasion for good reasons — actually having good reasons for the beliefs you have, and the decisions you make then this is similar to an MMA program where the ultimate goal isn’t just to become a better fighter. You’re also committed to something else, something that transcends combat, and even the physicality of training. Something that aims at truth and wisdom.

The person who rises through the ranks of this MMA program, who masters a variety of persuasion styles while also remaining dedicated to the goals of genuinely good argumentation, and the intellectual virtues that go with it … I call that person an Argument Ninja.

We saw examples like this when we looked at the philosophy of taekwondo, where it’s quite explicit — the ultimate goal isn’t to become the best fighter, it’s to achieve some other spiritual or ethical goals.

In standard MMA training you don’t normally see this kind of explicit philosophical commitment, but the example of Bruce Lee illustrates how it’s possible to be committed to caring about the effectiveness of the combat system, and be committed to philosophical goals that transcend combat.

What I’m talking about isn’t any more unrealistic. It’s just that no one is doing it. Looking at the scene today, the people who are most interested in persuasion tend to be uninterested in, or ignorant of, genuinely good argumentation. Or if they do, they spend no time teaching it or discussing its importance. They figure that’s someone else’s job.

It’s a modern day version of what the Sophists were teaching back in the days of Plato. How to win friends and influence people, how to master yourself and achieve personal and professional success, how to become irresistible to the opposite sex, how to convert visitors to fans and fans to customers, how to hypnotize the masses and win an election, how to deflect attention away from the criminal activities of governments and large corporations.

Some of these uses are good and worthwhile, some are not so good, and some are terrible.

The MMA program for Persuasion Ninjas wouldn’t take a stand on how these persuasion skills are used. Individual Persuasion Ninjas may care, according to their conscience — you can have good ninjas and bad ninjas — but they view the skills themselves as neutral. How you use them is up to the discretion of the individual. If you want to use your persuasion skills to fight for peace and justice, that’s great. If you want to use them to get young women hooked on binge drinking, that’s your business.

The MMA program for Argument Ninjas does take a stand on how persuasion skills are used, it has to. If we imagine the overarching goals of this MMA program to include the basic goals of critical thinking — to improve the quality of our beliefs and judgments, and to promote the rational agency of individuals — then there are certain forms of persuasion that, all other things being equal, we should avoid. These are like the Five Tenets of Taekwondo, in the sense that they serve as ideals that constrain the practice, but also are served by the practice.

For example, if I’m using persuasion techniques that systematically bypass your reasoning faculties in ways that you cannot detect, to compel you to believe or do things that undermine your capacity for independent critical thinking, all other things being equal, that’s a bad thing.

So, I’m on the side of a mixed martial arts approach to teaching persuasion and argumentation, where the goal is to produce Argument Ninjas, not just Persuasion Ninjas.

The analogies go beyond traditional martial arts.

When you have these skills in your possession, you’ll be able to do things that other people can’t. You’ll be tempted by the Dark Side, to cultivate influence and wield power for personal gain. The Jedi are ambassadors for the Light Side. Yoda and Obi-Wan and the Jedi are Argument Ninjas of the Star Wars universe.

In the Harry Potter universe there are good wizards and bad wizards. But there are schools of magic, like Hogwarts, that are run by wizards who are committed to the good. Yet in order to teach their students properly, they have to teach them the Dark Arts as well, so they understand how magic can be bent to evil purposes, and how to defend against it. Harry and Hermione and Ron are training to be Argument Ninjas of the Harry Potter universe.

In these fictional universe where there’s a struggle for control between a light side and a dark side, the question always arises: which is stronger?

I’ll let Master Yoda answer that question for me.


Run!  Yes.  A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force.  But beware of the dark side.  Anger… fear… aggression.  The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.  If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.


Vader.  Is the dark side stronger?


No… no… no.  Quicker, easier, more seductive.


But how am I to know the good side from the bad?


You will know.  When you are calm, at peace.  Passive.  A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.


But tell me why I can’t…



No, no, there is no why.  Nothing more will I teach you today. Clear your mind of questions. 

Mmm.  Mmmmmmmm.

Thank you for listening.

If you want to leave comments or questions, please visit and look for episode 008.  I’d love to get your feedback on this episode.

If you’d like to support this podcast, and the creation of a real life MMA for Argument Ninjas program, please consider becoming a Patron. Visit to learn more about incentive bonuses for Patrons and the other work I do at the Critical Thinker Academy.

By the way, if you’re listening to this and you’re on Facebook you should definitely go over to and like that page, because I share comments and videos there that I’m sure you’d appreciate knowing about.

Thanks again for listening. Hope you have a great week.

Read More

007 – When Rational Debate is Impossible

In This Episode:

We do some housekeeping, I answer a student question that updates one of my most important lectures on the rules that have to be satisfied to have a rational conversation, and I tell you about a new project I’m working on and how you can get exclusive access to it.

  • The problem that Sam Harris is struggling with
  • A Q&A question from Essi on what to do when people “just don’t get it”
  • my original answer to the question “what conditions must be satisfied to have a rational conversation with someone?”
  • my first amendment: (1) what to do after you’ve recognized that there’s a problem
  • my second amendment: (2) what to do in light of the fact that our capacity to reason comes in degrees
  • my latest video course project (“Is Your Brain a Computer?”) and how you can get early access to those videos


“The reality is that this is a skill that requires a high degree of judgment and self-awareness, and some people are a just better at it than others. They read the temperature of the room better. They’re better at not triggering defensive reactions. They’re better at helping people to see an issue from a different point of view, without being alienating or threatening. They’re better at the dance of conversation that bring people closer together rather than pushing them apart.”

“What I’m describing here is exactly the skill set that I think is missing when we teach argumentation and rational persuasion…. That’s the skill set that I’m trying to deconstruct in this podcast.”

References and Links


Subscribe to the Podcast

Play or download the mp3 file for this episode

This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 7!

Hi everyone this is Kevin deLaplante and you’re listening to the Argument Ninja podcast, the podcast dedicated to the art and science and ethics of rational persuasion, and to the notion that logical self-defense and rational persuasion can be viewed, and should be viewed, as a martial art.

On this episode: we do some housekeeping, I tell you about a new project I’m working on and how you can get exclusive access to it, and I answer a student question that updates one of my most important lectures on the rules that have to be satisfied in order to have a rational conversation.

This episode is going to be a little bit of a break from the most recent series of episodes. I’ve been working my way through a  list of topics on different domains where the goals of persuasion are front and center. So we talked about persuasion and the art of getting people to like you, persuasion in selling and marketing, and in the last episode, persuasion in the seduction and pickup artist community. Next on my list was persuasion in the context of magic and mentalism and hypnotism, but I’ve decided to delay that topic.

I’ve been listening to Sam Harris’s podcast and he has a habit of starting off shows with some housekeeping comments that take about 10 or 15 minutes where he explains why he has to have the conversation he’s about to have, and then apologizes in advance for everything’s he’s about to say.

I don’t think I need to apologize for anything, but maybe some housekeeping comments are in order.

First, I’d like to give you listeners an opportunity to weigh in on the format of the show. Topic-wise, I admit that this show hits on themes that might seem a bit random if you’re just dipping into it and haven’t been following it from the beginning.

I’ve got a small handful of themes that I’m trying to explore, that are tied together in my mind, but that individually may not seem to have much to do with each other.

One is the martial arts theme, and the advantages of thinking about being trained up in rational persuasion by analogy with being trained up in a martial art. I have lots to say about this, and I’ve really just touched on it so far.

Another theme that I’m exploring is about the science and practice and psychology of persuasion. Again, I’ve really just started talking about this, but I’m aware that it may be confusing to listen to a discussion about the sacred space of the martial arts training hall in one episode, and the history of seduction methods in the next episode. How is this supposed to fit together?

And a third theme, that I haven’t really gotten into yet, is about standards of good argumentation — what good reasoning actually looks like, in general and in specific cases. When I add that in, it might make it even more confusing for new people.

Actually, I don’t think it’s all that confusing for the people who are fans of the show and listening through, because I’m confident that you’re picking up the connecting threads.

I guess my main concern is that, while the show isn’t long as podcasts go, it is fairly dense. And the question I have is whether I should restrict myself to one topic per show, and maybe keep the episodes shorter, or continue as I’ve been doing and take on more than one topic, and make them a bit longer. For me, shorter is in the 15 to 20 minute range, and longer is in the 30 to 40 minute range.

Like in the last episode, for the first half I talked about the difference between teaching logic and argumentation in the classroom, and what it’s like to actually engage with people in the real world outside the classroom, and how different that can be. Then in the second half of the show I talked about Ross Jeffries and Tom Cruise and the seduction community and whether these speed seduction techniques actually work.

The question is whether I should stick to one topic per episode or keep up with this patchwork thing that I’ve been doing so far.  Do you find the subject matter shifts jarring or are you okay with them?

Let me know in the comments what you think, I’m really quite interested in your feedback on this.

But I’ll tell you up front, I’m leaning toward sticking to a single topic per show, with some framing commentary at the beginning and the end.

One of my reasons, I’ll admit, is that a shorter show on a single topic per show is easier for me to produce on a regular schedule. And this is important because while I’m producing the podcast, I’m also producing videos for courses that I’m developing.

For example, I’m currently working on a video course on the philosophy of cognitive science, called “Is Your Brain a Computer?”. So I’m writing and producing videos on arguments for and against the view that the brain functions like a computer, that thinking should be viewed as a computational process of some kind, and all the related topics about the possibility of strong artificial intelligence, conscious robots, and so on.

I’m doing that while I’m producing this show. I want to keep on a regular weekly schedule for both, so that’s a reason to keep these shows shorter and more focused, so that it’s easier for me to maintain this schedule.

Anyway, I wanted to be up front about that. And by the way, at the end of this episode I’ll let you know how you can get early, exclusive access to the videos in this brains, minds and computers course that I’m doing.

Okay, I’m going to return now to Sam Harris. My earlier comment about Sam’s podcast won’t make much sense to you if you don’t listen to Sam, but I’ve been thinking about the general problem that he’s been struggling with, which is about how to have productive, civil conversations with people with whom one might have ideological or political disagreements, or when the issues themselves are highly politicized within the culture. In Sam’s case, he’s talking about Islam and religion and atheism and race relations, and he himself is a politicized figure, which makes all of this even harder.

Sam’s had a couple of guests on his show offer him free advice on rhetorical strategy for approaching these conversations. Neil Degrasse Tyson did it a while back, and most recently, at this time I’m recording this, in his conversation with Eric Weinstein.

One of my goals with this podcast is to shed some light on this phenomenon of conversations that start out promising and then get bogged down or hijacked. This happens to everyone, but it’s a particular problem for those of us who fancy ourselves intellectuals or rationalists of some sort, who find ourselves looking for opportunities to engage with people on important topics. And then we’re frustrated when people don’t always respond in the way we’d like them to, or don’t adhere to the rules of rational conversation that we would impose on ourselves, like not attacking straw men or not ignoring your last point and changing the subject.

Over at the Critical Thinker Academy, which you can find at, I have a question and answer section on the site where people can submit questions. Here’s a question I just received this morning, the morning that I’m recording this. This is from a woman named Essi. I won’t give her last name because I didn’t ask her permission to talk about her question on the podcast, but here’s what she sent me.


I have been studying logical and critical thinking and I feel I can recognize some bad arguments etc. However, some people just “don’t get it”. It may be that they don’t understand the difference between valid/strong/deductive/non-deductive/irrelevant/etc.  arguments. Sometimes they simply mix everything and reach some conclusion that is only partly true, or valid, but they think they have proven their point. Sometimes they simply wander around and end up “some place else “. This is very frustrating and I feel they need more than a five-minute explanation of why they haven’t proven what they think they have. Unfortunately I am not very patient and I wouldn’t make a good educator. But I don’t want them to feel all smug thinking that they were right all along.

What do you suggest in such cases?

This is an example of what I’m talking about. Lots of us can relate to this.

In this particular question, Essi is concerned about not having enough time or patience to educate someone about the problems with their reasoning. And she doesn’t like that feeling of frustration when someone leaves a conversation with you and they think they’ve won the day or gotten the upper hand, and you feel the exact opposite, or you feel like you had to keep your mouth shut or patronize them because you don’t see a way of productively engaging with this person.

Time can be a factor, but the problem usually isn’t just a matter of not having enough time. Sam Harris has lengthy conversations with smart people, hours of conversation, and he can come away feeling the very same frustration.

So, let me offer some comments on this general problem.

I talk about this issue a little bit in my course on informal fallacies, which again you can check out at

There, I talk about a class of fallacies that involve a violation of what I call the rules of rational conversation. These are minimal rules that have to be satisfied for a rational conversation to even be possible. In order to have a rational conversation with someone, you have to assume three things:

One, the person knows about the subject under discussion. They’re not ignorant about the subject.

Two, the person is able and willing to reason well.

And three, the person is not lying.

If any of these are not satisfied — if the person is ignorant about the subject, if they’re unable or unwilling to reason well, or if they’re willing to lie or distort the truth, then you can’t have a rational conversation with them.

If a person is ignorant about the subject, they have no grounds for having reasoned opinion. If my mechanic says my car needs the tie rods replaced, and I don’t know anything about cars, I’m not in a position to argue with him about the point. If my physics professor says that we’ve confirmed the existence of the Higgs particle, and I don’t have relevant expertise in physics, I can’t get into an argument with him about it. And if I did challenge his opinion, he couldn’t have an argument with me. He could try to educate me about the science, he could try to explain why the evidence for the Higgs is strong, but he and I couldn’t have an argument about the evidence, if I don’t know enough about the subject under discussion.

Now, when might a person be unable to reason well? An obvious case would be a parent talking to a child. If a child is too young to understand and process the reasons why it’s in their best interest to drink less pop and eat more vegetables, there’s no point in the parent trying to argue the point with them. You can’t have a genuine argument about it.

Another case is when you find someone temporarily in a highly emotional state. Under those conditions, it may not be possible to reason with them. You can offer reasons, but they aren’t in a position to process and assess them properly.

Or you might find yourself in a situation with a person who wants to reason well, but doesn’t have the capacity to follow reasoning that is too complex or abstract. There’s a wide range of aptitude in the population on this. And one’s reasoning ability can vary from topic to topic. Some people are better at following ethical arguments, and worse at following mathematical or abstract logical arguments. A lot of this comes down to familiarity and practice.

And finally, it goes without saying that if you suspect a person is consistently lying or misrepresenting positions that you know  they understand, or if they have a strong motivation to lie, and a track record of lying about a particular topic, then you can’t have a genuine argument with this person.

Rational conversation, rational discussion, has rules. These rules are a precondition for having a rational conversation at all. It’s not that different from sitting down with someone to play chess. If you discover that the person across from you isn’t willing or able to play by the rules, then you stop playing. Continuing to play, under the mistaken belief that you’re still playing chess, is a mistake.

Okay, what I just said here is the position I take in my course on informal fallacies. With the examples I gave, it’s obvious to see how the criteria apply. I picked them because they’re obvious.

And the tone of this position is pretty definitive, it makes the situation seem fairly black and white. Either it’s possible to have a rational conversation with a person or you can’t, and the trick is to become sensitive to when you can’t.

I think this way of thinking is important and has its uses. These are useful concepts to have in your back pocket. Way too many people get into trouble trying to argue with people in conditions that make genuine argumentation impossible.

But it’s also obvious, I think, that this picture I just gave, is very incomplete.

First, it doesn’t really address the question of what to do after you’ve recognized that there’s a problem.

And second, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in real people, these attributes — background knowledge, willingness to reason, ability to reason, truthfulness — these attributes come in degrees. The quality of our rational conversations comes in degrees, it’s not always black and white.

So, to complicate things, let’s talk about this first point.

Let’s say I decide that the person I’m talking to isn’t able or willing to reason well about this particular topic, and it’s pointless to argue with them about it.

Now, what do I do?

Do I give up and change the subject? Or do I change my approach to the interaction I’m having with this person? Maybe they’re not in a position to reason well right now, but are there things I can do to change that?

The range of possible responses can be huge. What you do will depend on the context, the details of the relationship, the nature of the the issue at hand, and what you want to get out of it.

Is this person a family member that you’re going to have long relationship with anyway? Is this someone you’ve just met and may not meet again? Is this an anonymous commenter on the internet?

Do you think the person is reacting defensively? If so, maybe there’s a strategy for de-escalating the stakes and getting inside those defenses.

Do you think the person has a real cognitive deficit that keeps them from reasoning well about this issue? Or is this a temporary or situational issue that could be improved by changing or reframing the context in some way?

And how do you feel about the outcome of this interaction? Why does their reaction frustrate you? Why are you invested in this?

These are questions that pull us deeper into the psychology of the person we’re interacting with, and deeper into our own psychology.

In some situations, the problem may not lie with the other person. The problem may lie with us, with what we’ve invested in the success or failure of these interactions.

It may be that we’re attached to something that other people pick up on. Maybe they’re reacting defensively to something that we’re manifesting in our demeanor, in our speech, in our questions.

I think we all know people who seem overly invested in winning arguments and changing minds. Sometimes they come across as overly intellectual, overly formal. They’re obviously bright and good arguers, but we find them annoying or off-putting.

Maybe that person is you, or me.

These are just questions to get us thinking about how complex the situation is that we’re discussing. When you sit down with someone to have a rational conversation, it’s not just a meeting of arguments … it’s a meeting of people.

The more you know about people — people in general, the specific people you’re interacting with, and maybe the most important person to know, yourself — the more you know, the more tools you’ll have at your disposal, and the more options you’ll be able to explore, in creating productive conversations.

Now let’s look at that second point. In most cases, our capacity to have a rational conversation comes in degrees, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.

What does this imply for how we should respond to frustrating interactions with people?

Does it invalidate the black-and-white picture that I presented, with those three criteria that need to be satisfied for a conversation to qualify as a rational conversation?

I don’t think it does, but I’ll tell you how I rationalize the black-and-white picture with the picture where our capacity for rational communication comes in degrees.

The key is to think of this line that separates conversations that can be rational and productive and worth pursuing, and conversations that are compromised and no longer productive and no longer worth pursuing, as a choice.

There’s nothing in logic or theories of rationality that specifies where this threshold lies. We make that choice.

The line represents a decision that we’ve made about whether it’s worth it to continue this conversation with the hope of bringing about some rational resolution or change of opinion.

Different people can have good reasons to draw that line in different places.

If I’ve never met this person before and we’re talking over drinks at a party, my investment in the debate will be different than if this is a friend or a colleague of mine that I’ve known for years, and the issue is an important one that affects our relationship.

It will be different if this is an issue that really matters to me, where a resolution or a change of mind really matters to me, or if it’s just an academic issue that really doesn’t matter to me.

It will be different if the debate is public or if it’s private.

It will be different if I know I have to pick my battles, and I’ve decided whether this is a battle that needs to be fought or that I can let slide.

It will be different if the person I’m engaged with has a high tolerance for debate or a low tolerance for debate.

There are all sorts of reasons that can matter to whether I think this conversation is worth pursuing.

So yes, our capacity to have a rational conversation comes in degrees, but our decision to pursue a conversation is, by its nature, an all-or-nothing thing.

In hypothesis testing, something similar is going on. The support that a body of evidence affords a hypothesis comes in degrees, but the decision to accept or reject a hypothesis based on this body of evidence is a decision we make.

In argument analysis, the basic definition of a strong argument has a similar structure. Here’s the definition. An argument is strong if it satisfies the following condition. If all the premises were true, they would provide good reasons to accept the conclusion.

Usually this notion of good reasons is translated into some degree of probabilistic support. If all the premises were true, the conclusion would very likely be true.  What counts as “very likely” isn’t specified. Logical strength comes in degrees. What counts as strong enough — strong enough to count as ‘good reasons’ to accept the conclusion — is not a matter of logic, it’s  a decision we make, and we can have different reasons for setting that threshold higher or lower.

So the upshot is that there’s no cut and dried formula for deciding whether it’s worthwhile to pursue a conversation in the hopes that it might have some rational resolution.

The reality is that this is a skill that requires a high degree of judgment and self-awareness, and some people are a just better at it than others. They read the temperature of the room better. They’re better at not triggering defensive reactions. They’re better at helping people to see an issue from a different point of view, without being alienating or threatening. They’re better at the dance of conversation that bring people closer together rather than pushing them apart.

What I’m describing here is exactly the skill set that I think is missing when we teach argumentation and rational persuasion.

Yes, logic and evidence matters, but rational persuasion is never just about logic and evidence. It’s about rhetoric, it’s about psychology, and it’s about relationships, and it’s about knowing yourself.

When you bring all these skills into alignment, and you’re optimizing your effectiveness as a rational persuader … that’s what it means to become an argument ninja.

That’s the skill set that I’m trying to deconstruct in this podcast.

So, Essi, this is my answer to your question. I hope it was helpful in some way.

Questions can be a great way to organize episodes of the podcast, so I welcome them. You can send me an email at , or use the contact form at, or leave questions in the comments section at

Now, earlier on in this episode I mentioned this new course that I’m working on, called “Is Your Brain a Computer?”. It’s a course on the philosophical and scientific issues surrounding this concept, that minds are related to brains in something like the way that computer software is related to computer hardware. This has been a driving metaphor of the cognitive science revolution, and it it underwrites many of our assumptions about the plausibility of creating machines that can think and be conscious in the way that we are.

The only people who will have access to the videos in this course, as they’re being developed, are my supporters on Patreon. So for as little as a dollar a month, you can get exclusive access to this content, before it’s ever published. At higher support levels you also get access to courses at the Critical Thinker Academy. Like the Informal Fallacies course that I mentioned. This course is part of a four-course bundle, that you get access to if you pledge just $3 dollars a month on Patreon.

I link to my Patreon page on all my sites, so you can find it at or, or you can visit directly at

You can also support this podcast by leaving a rating and/or a review on iTunes. iTunes is still the biggest search engine for podcasts and it would really help the profile of the show if it got featured in the new and noteworthy section on the homepage, but that won’t happen without ratings and reviews.

Thanks so much, take care and we’ll see you again next week.

Read More

006 – Defense Against the Dark Arts II – Seduce and Destroy

In This Episode:

We look at persuasion through the eyes of seduction experts and the pickup artist community.

  • why critical thinking educators need to talk about persuasion
  • why scientific rationality is a social achievement that takes effort and vigilance to maintain
  • preparing students for life outside the dojo
  • summarizing our list of persuasion topics
  • Ross Jeffries as pioneer of the seduction community
  • NLP, hypnosis and “speed seduction”
  • Tom Cruise, Frank T.J. Mackey, and “Seduce and Destroy”
  • the seduction community’s approach to the science of persuasion
  • the difficulty of answering the question “does it work?”


“Science is a progressive social achievement, and like all such achievements, it takes social capital and collective effort to maintain. And it can be disrupted — by disaster, by war, by regressive ideologies, and by complacency and forgetfulness.”

“The last clip with the voiceover shows a table with all the products in the Seduce and Destroy system, including VHS tapes and instructional booklets and branded Seduce and Destroy water bottles, like you’re going to need to hydrate frequently with all the epic sex you’re going to have.”

References and Links

Subscribe to the Podcast

Play or download the mp3 file for this episode

This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 6!

This one is titled “Defense Against the Dark Arts – Part II – Seduce and Destroy”, a continuation of last week’s episode where I walk through a series of topics that I would include on a syllabus for a course on the philosophy and methods of persuasion, if someone were to ask me to teach such a course.

This is just an exercise of course, but it’s a useful exercise because it’s a way of exploring the terrain of persuasion science and persuasion practices, a way of getting familiar with what’s going on in this space.

But why do we need to talk about persuasion at all?

Because this show is all about what it means to be skilled in the art of rational persuasion, and before we can get to the rational part, we need to understand the persuasion part.

And who better to teach us about persuasion than the people and the communities that are dedicated to learning and practicing the art of persuasion, within their particular domain or niche?

Hi everyone and welcome to the Argument Ninja podcast. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante, and I’m a philosopher and critical thinking educator, and on this show I’m trying to work out the foundations for an approach to critical thinking education that I’ve never seen implemented before.

Yes, we can teach logic and argumentation and principles of good reasoning, but how useful is this if people are naturally inclined to resist them? As human beings we’re naturally wired to use argumentation, first and foremost, as a tool of social persuasion, not as a tool for pursuing truth and wisdom. An argument doesn’t have to be good to be effective.  You can use argumentation very successfully as a tool of persuasion if you’re allowed to employ fallacies and manipulative rhetoric, and use debate strategies that are intellectually unfair and disingenuous.

Of course, our capacity for argumentation can be recruited into the pursuit of knowledge and truth and wisdom — that’s what philosophy and science, at their best, have been doing trying to do for 2500 years — but these achievements don’t just appear spontaneously. To discipline our thought, to conform our reason to standards of good logic, of good argumentation … that’s a social achievement that reflects the commitments and shared values of a community.

If the community is large enough and has enough support, logic and reason can thrive and accomplish wonders. We can explore the boundaries of our universe and unlock its fundamental laws. We can cure disease, extend life and create technological marvels. We can identify unjustifiable and irrational beliefs, and give them less weight in our evolving network of beliefs, to the benefit of everyone.

But none of this is inevitable. Science is a progressive social achievement, and like all such achievements, it takes social capital and collective effort to maintain. And it can be disrupted — by disaster, by war, by regressive ideologies, and by complacency and forgetfulness.

When I was a university teacher, I thought that by teaching logic and good reasoning in the classroom, and having students graduate and go off into the world, we were helping to disseminate these principles of good reasoning into public society at large.

But I realize now how naïve I was. I failed to appreciate how culturally and normatively specific these principles are — principles of good logic, sound argumentation, proper evaluation of evidence, and rules for managing disagreement through rational dialogue and debate.

And I failed to appreciate how different the rules are outside the classroom, and outside the institutions that actively protect and support these principles. The natural psychology of human reason and judgment is different from the idealized norms of good reasoning that we teach in the classroom. If we don’t teach our students how they’re different, in what ways they’re different, and how to engage with people in the real world on their terms, in ways that will resonate with them, I believe we’re setting our students up — and indeed all of us — for discouragement and frustration.

In episode four I argued that the rules of good argumentation are similar to the elements of a martial art that is normally practiced within the sacred space of the martial arts training hall, the dojo.

The world outside the dojo is very different, and a good martial arts instructor understands the difference. When they teach practical self-defense techniques for situations you may encounter outside the dojo, on the street, they’re not going to teach you how to split-kick two opponents at once.

No, they’re going to spend time talking about environmental and situational awareness, how to recognize signs of danger and avoid danger, how to manage stress and project confidence, how to assess the psychology of the aggressor and work with that psychology to reduce the risk of a physical confrontation, how to deescalate situations with an aggressor, and if a physical confrontation seems inevitable, how to end that confrontation in the most effective and decisive way possible.

When it comes to traditional martial arts, self-defense training is quite different from the core training of the martial art. But most schools do train for self-defense, because they know that their students are going to walk out that door and into a world that follows its own rules, and they need to be prepared to meet the world as it is, not as they would like it to be.

I feel the same way about teaching students how to reason well and argue effectively. We need to prepare them for the real world, not just the idealized world of the classroom, or the debate hall, or the academic peer review process, where you can safely assume that everyone understands the rules of the game and there’s incentive to follow the rules.

In the real world the incentives are very different, and people’s natural psychology is driven by confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, cognitive dissonance, and a host of other biases and situational factors that operate unconsciously to influence how we respond to disagreement and to efforts to persuade us.

That’s why I think it’s important that we speak more openly about these psychological realities, and make that discussion part of our training in critical thinking and argumentation.

Right now, this discussion is not happening. With very rare exceptions, it’s not happening in the standard textbooks, and it’s not happening in the classrooms.

In many of the standard, logic-oriented critical thinking textbooks used in college and university classrooms, you won’t even find the term “confirmation bias” in the glossary or the index. I just did a quick check of ten textbooks that are on my bookshelf, and only three of them had a reference to confirmation bias. And in each case, if you turn to the page reference, the term only appears on one line of one page of a textbook that has between 500 and 700 pages.

And in none of the standard standard critical thinking textbooks that I’ve looked at is there an entry for the term “cognitive bias”, or any discussion of the psychology of cognitive biases in general.

It’s important that we not just mention these psychological concepts, but actually look at them in some detail, and understand how they operate in the context of persuasion, how they actually influence what people think and feel.

These are the Dark Arts of persuasion.  An “argument ninja” has studied the Dark Arts and respects their power.

So, with that preamble out of the way, let’s continue the discussion we started last episode.

Just to catch up, my list of persuasion topics is organized around the different domains where persuasion methods are applied.

I’ll walk down the list first.

  1. people skills — how to make people like you
  2. selling and marketing skills — how to get people to say “yes” to an offer
  3. seduction skills (including “pickup artist” skills) — how to attract a romantic or sexual partner
  4. magic and mind reading skills — how stage magicians and mentalists control the mental states of audience members
  5. confidence games and the skills of the con artist — how people can be strategically manipulated, deceived and defrauded
  6. persuasion in advertising — how ad campaigns create desire and demand for a product
  7. persuasion in politics — how to influence public perception of a politician or a political issue
  8. persuasion in the internet age — how the integration of digital technologies in our lives influences what we think and believe and value
  9. power and propaganda — how larger institutions can influence social behavior and beliefs on a large scale, as a means of maintaining power and social control

Last episode I talked about the first two on this list: people skills, and selling and marketing skills.

The third on the list is seduction kills, so let’s talk about this a bit.

There’s a thing called the “seduction” community, sometimes called the “pickup artist” community”, though I think it’s more accurate to say that the pickup artist community is focused on techniques for attracting a sexual partner and actually having sex — closing the deal, as they say — within a short period of time — like, four to eight hours, or at most a weekend. There are other longer term seduction tactics, where the goal is to attract a real, long term romantic partner who genuinely loves you, but in that context no one uses the language of “pickup” tactics.

The pickup artist community emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, and the pioneering figure here is probably Ross Jeffries. Jeffries was the first to develop and market a system, what he called the “speed seduction” system, which he turned into a successful business, selling books and DVDs and workshops to men, teaching men how to improve their “game”.

Recall, last episode we talked about Neuro-Linguistic Programming and its two founders, Richard Bandler and John Grinder. NLP took off in the 1980s and it continues to be popular in the sales and business and personal development industries.

Well, in the late 80s and early 90s, Ross Jeffries trained with Richard Bandler and became a devotee of NLP and Ericksonian hypnosis. Jeffries applied this training to a specific challenge — how to teach men who are not naturally good with women, a method for successfully attracting a sexual partner.

So, in the early days at least, Jeffries’ “speed seduction” method is basically NLP and Ericksonian hypnosis applied to dating and seduction.

As he would describe it, his course taught men how to use NLP and hypnosis to lead women into the right psychological states. For example, even if you weren’t a particularly good looking guy, his techniques were designed to induce in women the same psychological states they would experience, in the present of a genuinely good looking guy.

If you were to look at the list of techniques that he teaches, you would see terms like “embedded commands”, “trance words”, “anchoring” and “deep rapport building”.  This language comes right out of the NLP and hypnosis playbooks.

Jeffries’ method was especially famous for the use of rehearsed language patterns or stories which were meant to be memorized and performed in order to elicit specific emotional responses such as intrigue, or a feeling of connection, or arousal. I think in his later years he’s dropped most of this script memorizing and focuses more on getting men to come up with their own scripts and stories that fulfill these functions, and he spends more time working on men’s inner narrative and self-confidence.  Actually I think he’s a practicing Buddhist now, and works more on self-development and transformational change than speed seduction.

Another feature of Jeffries’ early method was this persona that he cultivated, and that he performed in his workshops and public talks, as a man who is uncompromisingly frank about men and women’s sexual desires and true motivations, and who takes pleasure in manipulating women and boasting about his sexual conquests and selling this dream of sexual mastery to men.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie Magnolia. It’s from 1999, it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood and a bunch of other really great films. In this movie, Tom Cruise plays this outrageous seduction expert named Frank T.J. Mackey, and if you’ve never seen it, you should go to YouTube and search for Magnolia and Tom Cruise, because this is a really great performance. I mention this because Ross Jeffries was the inspiration Tom Cruises’ character, who teaches a method he calls “Seduce and Destroy”.

The filmmakers produced a fake late-90s-era seduce-and-destroy infomercial, something you meet see on late night tv. It’s on YouTube, I’ll link to it in the show notes, but here’s the audio. This is Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey.

The last clip with the voiceover shows a table with all the products in the Seduce and Destroy system, including VHS tapes and instructional booklets and branded Seduce and Destroy water bottles, like you’re gonna need to hydrate frequently with all the epic sex you’re going to have.

And I just checked and that URL,, is currently available for the low price of 3600 dollars.

Well the seduction community has changed since the 1990s. Jeffries launched internet forums for people interested in pickup artist techniques to share their stories, and he inspired a new crop of seduction gurus to set up their own programs. So within a few years there was a proliferation of figures in the industry selling their own systems and a proliferation of underground workshops and classes and bootcamps, where guys would get together in someone’s apartment or basement or cottage and talk about the methods, how many women they had approached within the last week, how they did, and what what was successful and what wasn’t.

Initially, a lot of these systems were pretty straight copycats of the NLP/hypnosis model that Jeffries had pioneered, but another interesting feature of the community is that in many cases it was a self-teaching community that wasn’t wedded to theoretical purity. The gurus were more concerned about purity because they were selling a system, but the audience … these nerdy guys were reading all the sales and marketing books and all the new stuff coming out of the social science of persuasion, like Robert Cialdini’s work, and new information on cognitive biases coming out of behavioral economics, and talking about how bits and pieces of this information could apply and help improve their game.

So, over the past ten or fifteen years, persuasion theory in the seduction community has become more pluralistic, more pragmatic, less homogenous. From a theoretical perspective, Milton Erickson and Robert Bandler and Robert Cialdini and Daniel Kahneman couldn’t be more different, but the seduction community is more focused on practical success than theoretical purity so they’re not afraid to pick and choose items that they think might work together.

But there’s still an affinity, within the community, for system-building, for working out strategies that string together techniques borrowed from a range of disciplines, into a program that can be learned and taught. It’s the sort of activity that computer programmers and nerdy gamers might naturally find attractive.

How successful these programs are, is another question. It’s been observed that men in the pickup artist community often spend more time with each other, talking about their programs than they do getting to know actual women.

It goes without saying that it’s quite difficult to test any of this. There are plenty of cases of men who became more successful with women after taking these courses and implementing their techniques, and who genuinely feel that this information has transformed their lives. But it’s hard to know what exactly is responsible for this success.  A little confidence can go a long way. Does a positive interaction with a woman mean that you’ve successfully deployed an NLP technique? Or that the positive response is due to the technique operating in the way that NLP theory says it does? Of course it doesn’t follow.

There’s also a numbers game element to this, where if you go from never approaching women to approaching ten or twenty women a week, by the odds alone your chances of having a successful encounter are higher, even if none of the methods are working the way they’re advertised.

But that said, I don’t want to dismiss these methods out of hand. I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction among people who are strongly critical of the seduction community — for the way it views and treats women, for example — to assume that everything it says about gender dynamics or the psychology of seduction must be wrong. That would be a mistake.

I also think there’s plenty of reason to think that some of these psychological methods, when deployed by someone with enough skill, are demonstrably effective. You just have to look at magicians and mentalists who specialize in methods derived from hypnosis to see that there’s a very real phenomenon here, that attention and perception and belief and emotion can be influenced in a deliberate and controlled way. There may be disagreement about why it works, what the underlying psychological mechanisms are — but there’s no question that it works in a predictable way.

This phenomenon alone is worth taking time to study more closely.

So, next episode we’re going to talk about the tools of the professional mentalist, hypnotist and mind reader, and see what we can learn about persuasion from them.

I want to thank you for listening.

You can find show notes for this episode at, episode 6, with links to the references mentioned in this episode, including that great Seduce and Destroy informercial, a complete transcript of the episode.

This show is brought to you by … me. I work on this podcast, and produce videos for the Critical Thinker Academy, full-time. All the revenue I earn, to support myself and my family, comes from people like you, who appreciate the content and want to see it continue and grow.

You can help support this podcast by subscribing to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts, and by leaving a review on iTunes. ITunes is still the big gorilla for podcast exposure, and more subscriptions and reviews means that it ranks higher in iTunes’ search rankings, and a good surge can make it be featured in the  “new and noteworthy” category in the iTunes store, which is great for exposure.

You can also help to support the podcast financially through Patreon.

Patreon is a platform that allows fans to support a creator’s work by pledging small monthly amounts, as low as a dollar per month.

There’s a link to my “thanks and support” page in the main menu of the argument ninja site, or you can visit directly at

As an incentive, I’ve set up rewards on Patreon so that patrons who pledge support at different levels, like three dollars a month, or five dollars a month, will get access to special bonuses, including access to video courses at the Critical Thinker Academy, for free, with higher pledge amounts giving you access to more courses.

So, please check that out at

Thanks again, have a great week, and I’ll see you back here next week for another episode.

Read More