Inductive Arguments Study Guide (page 2)

Updated on Sep 19, 2011

Causal Arguments

The previously mentioned inductive arguments relied on the similarities between two things. Causal arguments rely instead on finding a key difference to determine the probable cause of an effect. Why is it important to determine cause? If you believe that one thing is the reason (cause) that another thing happened (effect), you may want to either (1) reproduce that relationship and cause that effect again, or (2) prevent the relationship from happening again.

For example, every time you study hard for a test, you get a good grade. If you want to keep getting good grades, you want to know if there is a link between studying hard and getting good grades. When you can determine cause and effect, you can repeat the effect. In this case, that means figuring out that the studying really does result in good grades. To continue to get good grades, therefore, you need to continue to study hard for every test.

On the other hand, what if you have been studying and getting good grades and there is a test coming up? You are busy with other things and don't study for it. You get a D on the test. The argument goes like this:

Every time I have a test coming up, I study for it and get good grades. This time, I didn't study, and I got a D. If I don't want to get more Ds in the future, I'll prevent the unwanted result by preventing the cause. In this case, the key difference means if you don't want bad grades, you must study. Remember that in order to determine cause, an argument must be formed that looks for a key difference between two otherwise similar events.
Here is another example:
Jen had a stomachache on Thursday and is trying to figure out why. Every morning for breakfast she eats bran cereal with skim milk and a banana. But on Thursday she was out of milk and had toast for breakfast instead. By midmorning, she had a painful stomachache. She picked up milk on the way home from work and had her usual breakfast on Friday. The stomachache did not occur on Friday. Nothing else in her routine was out of the ordinary.

What caused the stomachache? Chances are it was the breakfast she ate on Thursday. It's the key difference. Every morning when she eats her regular breakfast, she feels fine, but gets a stomachache the one morning she eats only toast instead. Perhaps she was hungry, having had less to eat. However, not all examples are this easy to spot. It may require an inference based on information in the argument.

Real-life situations can get complicated. Our lives and the world around us are affected by thousands of details, making the finding of one key difference difficult. That said, if there is a strong likelihood of causation and there are no other obvious causes, you can make a convincing causal argument. But you need to have the following:

  • The effect must occur after the cause. This sounds like common sense, but there are many arguments that place the effect before the cause.
  • Example

    You are blamed for a computer problem at work. However, you did not use the computer until after the problem was detected. The argument against you has no strength.

  • You need more than just a strong correlation to prove causation. Coincidence can often explain what might first appear to be cause and effect.
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