On Knockdown Arguments

Abstract

Nathan Ballantyne (Erkenntnis 79, 2014) argues that the knockdown status of certain non-philosophical arguments can be transferred to arguments for substantive philosophical conclusions. Thus, if there are knockdown non-philosophical arguments, there are knockdown philosophical arguments. I show that Ballantyne’s argument is unsound, since arguments that are knockdown in non-philosophical contexts may become question-begging when used to argue for philosophical conclusions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See e.g., the Introduction of Lewis (1983) and van Inwagen (2006), ch. 3. Timothy Williamson defends a similar conclusion in Williamson (2007). What counts as a substantive conclusion is itself a substantive question that I cannot address here.

  2. 2.

    See Keller (2015a).

  3. 3.

    In Ballantyne (2014).

  4. 4.

    On p. 542 Ballantyne restricts his thesis to “certain sorts of arguments”, but we can bypass this complication by focusing on arguments that Ballantyne himself discusses.

  5. 5.

    The philosophical conclusions Ballantyne discusses are things that almost everybody believes without argument, and so seem to be (at best) borderline substantive theses.

  6. 6.

    I say this reluctantly, since charges of question-begging are often confused [See Sinnott-Armstrong (1999) for a nice discussion.] And indeed, I think that some “question-begging” arguments are perfectly good arguments. After all, many philosophical arguments seem to be intended merely to measure the cost of denying their conclusions, rather than to convince anyone. Some good arguments show that the costs of denying their conclusions are unacceptably high, even though the premises of those arguments obviously presuppose the truth of their conclusions (See e.g., the discussion of anti-skeptical arguments in Sect. 4). But arguments with premises that obviously presuppose the truth of their conclusions cannot rationally produce belief in those conclusions, and hence cannot be knockdown.

  7. 7.

    The argument is also needlessly complicated. The following argument is stronger and more straightforward: Foucault Pendulums move, therefore there is motion. See Sect. 4 for discussion of arguments like this one.

  8. 8.

    See p. 541.

  9. 9.

    See Objection 2, on p. 538, of Ballantyne (2014).

  10. 10.

    I want to reiterate that I think that some arguments that “beg the question”—that obviously presuppose the truth of their conclusions—are perfectly good arguments, without being knockdown. See fn. 6 and Sect. 4.

  11. 11.

    More carefully: if skepticism about motion is rationally permissible for those who understand the arguments for the rotation of the earth, and lack defeaters for thinking they understand those arguments, then etc. I’ll ignore these niceties from here on. Thanks especially to Nathan Ballantyne and Steve Petersen for pressing me to address this objection.

  12. 12.

    By ‘transparently valid’ I mean that its validity is rationally undeniable (for those that understand the argument and lack defeaters for thinking they understand it).

  13. 13.

    As noted above, many philosophical arguments seem to be intended to merely measure the cost of denying their conclusions, rather than to convince anyone. Perhaps the Short Motion Argument is such an argument.

  14. 14.

    See e.g., Keller (2015b), Leslie (2007), Sider (2012) and Williams (2012) for further discussion of such metaphysical “requirements” (metaphysical truth-conditions) and their relation to semantically specified truth-conditions.

  15. 15.

    Some contemporary nominalists say that ‘there are numbers’ is true, but not fundamentally true. This is just a way of saying that ‘there are three prime numbers between two and eleven’ doesn’t entail the philosophically interesting reading of ‘there are numbers’. See Keller (forthcoming) for further discussion.

  16. 16.

    See Williamson (2007), Ch. 7.

  17. 17.

    See e.g., Kelly and McGrath (2015). But Kelly and McGrath are primarily objecting to van Inwagen’s argument for the conclusion that there are no knockdown arguments for substantive philosophical conclusions. Nothing they say undermines some of the other reasons for doubting the existence of such arguments, many of which can be found in Keller (2015a). For example, if evidence is, in general, non-neutral, in the sense of Williamson (2007), it is doubtful that there are arguments that will convince all rational comers. Likewise, if, as subjective Bayesians hold, it is rationally permissible to have different priors, we can hardly expect that there are often arguments such that, when exposed to them, all rational people will reach the same conclusion.

References

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Nathan Ballantyne, Lorraine Juliano Keller, and Steve Petersen for helpful comments and discussion.

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Keller, J.A. On Knockdown Arguments. Erkenn 80, 1205–1215 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-014-9720-z

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Keywords

  • Meta-philosophy
  • Ballantyne
  • Lewis
  • Van Inwagen
  • Knockdown arguments