Ethical Realism

June 14, 2011

Philosophical Thought & an Illustration of a Supporting Argument

It’s often a lot easier to pick apart someone else’s argument than to come up with a supporting argument of your own. Additionally, it’s usually a lot harder to present a philosophical argument for a controversial position than an uncontroversial one. It’s not as hard to argue that bread is nutritious or that killing people is wrong than it is to argue that God exists or abortion is wrong. One way to learn more about how to create supporting arguments of your own is to read philosophy and examine the thoughts of a philosophical thinker who develops such an argument. It’s a good idea to pay close attention to the kinds of questions and answers a philosophical thinker comes up with. I will try to do that here and present the thoughts involved with developing a supporting argument. In particular, I will discuss an argument against the existence of ghosts.

What’s a supporting argument?

A supporting argument is contrasted with a negative one—an objection. A supporting argument puts forward a justification or evidence for having a belief that isn’t primarily meant to be used to challenge the justification of another argument. An example of a supporting argument is “we know bread is nutritious because people who eat bread as food seem to do well compared to those who eat certain other things, such as grass or sand.” An example of a negative argument is “the argument that bread is nutritious assumes that we can know the future from what happens in the past, but such an assumption wasn’t properly justified.”

Positive arguments have a variety of different kinds of conclusions, and they aren’t all meant to prove that something is true. You can argue that a belief is plausible, probable, accurate, or reasonable; or you can merely provide some consideration in favor of a belief.

Additionally, supporting arguments don’t have to be for a belief. They can be against a belief instead. The common saying that “you can’t prove a negative” is false. You can use a supporting argument to try to prove that a belief is implausible, improbable, inaccurate, or unreasonable; or you can merely provide some consideration against a belief.

Step 1: Initial thoughts

First, consider what belief you want to support and what reasons you have for having the belief. Imagine that Lisa doesn’t believe in ghosts and she wants to persuade others that ghosts don’t exist. She can’t prove that ghosts don’t exist for certain because they might be invisible, ethereal, and very difficult to find. However, she thinks rejection of ghosts is justified because the existence of ghosts seems far-fetched, just like beliefs in fairies, unicorns, and goblins. Any of these beings could exist, but they seem unlikely to exist based on a lack of tangible evidence of their existence. The existence of ghosts seems analogous to those other beings—it seems unlikely they exist for similar reasons. So far Lisa’s argument looks like the following:

  1. Ghosts are far-fetched.
  2. Therefore, we have reason to disbelieve in ghosts.

Step 2: Find your assumptions

This argument might look good, but we are actually missing something. The argument is logically invalid because the premise isn’t enough to prove the conclusion. Even if the premise is true, the conclusion could be false. Perhaps an entity can be far-fetched, but we might have no reason to disbelieve in it—perhaps we shouldn’t believe either way. The argument requires the assumption that if an entity is far-fetched, then we have a reason to reject the existence of the entity. Lisa can add this assumption to the above argument to correct it:

  1. If an entity is far-fetched, then we have a reason to disbelieve in it.
  2. Ghosts are far-fetched.
  3. Therefore, we have reason to disbelieve in ghosts.

Step 3: Why agree with the premises?

Philosophical arguments can be logically valid, but that’s not sufficient for them to be philosophical. An argument can be valid, but the premises could lack the justification they need. Controversial premises are especially important to justify. (e.g. “All dogs are mammals, some cats are dogs, therefore some cats are mammals” is valid, but we know one of the premises is false.) We need to know why people should agree with the controversial premises. This can be explained, in part, by why we hold a belief. Lisa should consider why she agrees with the two premises to tell others why they should agree with her. She comes up with the following justifications for her premises:

Premise 1: If an entity is far-fetched, then we have a reason to disbelieve in it

Lisa thinks that we have a reason to disbelieve in far-fetched entities, such as goblins, fairies, and unicorns. However, why should we disbelieve in such things? What makes these beings analogous?

Lisa should examine the terminology she uses. What exactly does it mean for an entity to be far-fetched? Lisa decides that an entity is far-fetched when it’s a substantial claim about reality that is used to explain various phenomena when the phenomena could be substantially better explained without it. Goblins, fairies, and unicorns seem far-fetched; but dogs and cats aren’t far-fetched.

Consider the following illustration of something that’s not far-fetched. We know that many people live in houses and we could explain why a light is on in a house by saying, “A human being is in that house.” We are positing a substantial claim about reality—the existence of a human being—but the existence of such a being is plausible rather than far-fetched given our knowledge of houses and the humans who live in them. There isn’t a substantially better option available.

We could say that we have a reason to disbelieve in far-fetched entities because they conflict with Occam’s Razor insofar as they “multiply entities beyond necessity.” Some substantial claims about reality don’t actually violate Occam’s Razor because they might be the best explanation for the phenomena given other considerations. For example, many people thought germs seemed far-fetched, but germs were still the best explanation for various illnesses. Nonetheless, a far-fetched entity that is meant to explain something, but a different explanation is significantly better seems to violate Occam’s Razor. Germs seemed far-fetched to people who didn’t know the facts, but germs were the best explanation for various phenomena. Goblins, fairies, and unicorns aren’t the best explanation for any phenomena.

Consider the following illustration of Occam’s Razor. Whenever my keys aren’t where I left them, I might blame a “keyblin,” a goblin-like creature that moves our keys when we aren’t watching. The belief in this entity violates Occam’s Razor because there are better explanations (e.g. my mind is playing tricks on me) and it seems wrong to posit the existence of an entity to be used as an explanation when better explanations are available. Instead, it’s appropriate to disbelieve in keyblins.

Occam’s razor is perhaps the best reason to endorse premise 1, but it doesn’t disprove the existence of keyblins, goblins, or anything else. The best explanation for phenomena is based on our current information and ignorance, and sometimes we find out that far-fetched entities really do exist. (e.g. Gorillas used to be thought to be mythical beasts.) Instead, premise 1 merely attempts to show that we have a reason to disbelieve in certain far-fetched entities, such as goblins, fairies, and unicorns. Such a reason can be merely one consideration among others.

Premise 2: Ghosts are far-fetched

Lisa thinks that ghosts are analogous to goblins, fairies, and unicorns; but it’s not obvious that they are analogous. Are ghosts far-fetched? Do ghosts also violate Occam’s Razor?

Lisa decided that entities are far-fetched when they are substantial claims about reality that are used as explanations when there are significantly better alternative explanations. Ghosts are a substantial claim about reality, and such a claim about reality seems like it violates Occam’s Razor because any relevant observations used to support ghosts are significantly better explained in some other was. Lisa thinks an entity violates Occam’s Razor if there are better alternative explanations. There is anecdotal evidence for ghosts based on personal experience, but such experiences are not be best explained by ghosts. The experiences could be based on misidentification (mistaking one entity for another) or misinterpretation (thinking an experience is best described in a certain way when it’s not). In extreme cases an experience of a ghost could be based on a hallucination or a dream.

Again, Occam’s razor seems like a reason to disbelieve in ghosts, but it doesn’t actually prove ghosts don’t exist once and for all. Lisa merely wants to present us with a consideration to disbelieve in ghosts rather than prove that ghosts don’t exist in any strong sense.

Step 4: Presentation of the argument

Lisa has thought of her argument and the justification for her premises, but it still needs to be written out and explained. She writes the following:

I will present an argument against the belief in ghosts. We have reason to disbelieve in ghosts because (1) if an entity is far-fetched, then we have a reason to reject it and (2) ghosts are far-fetched. Ghosts are analogous to goblins, fairies, and unicorns; and we have reason to reject the existence of all of these things for the same reason. They all violate Occam’s Razor—we should reject far-fetched entities because better explanations are available.

What does it mean to say that an entity is far-fetched? Entities are far-fetched in the relevant sense when they are substantial claims about reality that are used to explain something, but significantly better alternative explanations are available. Goblins, fairies, and unicorns are all possible explanations for various phenomena, such as legendary stories. It’s possible that they really do exist and that the legendary stories of these beings exist because such beings really do exist, but it seems more likely that these stories were just made up by people. We know that people make up stories involving beings that are also made up, and goblins, fairies, and unicorns are probably in legendary stories for that reason. That seems more plausible than to require that these entities really exist. There is no need to posit such substantial claims about reality when there are better alternative explanations available that don’t require substantial claims about reality.

Occam’s Razor states that we shouldn’t “multiply entities beyond necessity” and it’s not necessary to posit the existence of a far-fetched entity because better alternative explanations are available, so the belief in far-fetched entities is a violation of Occam’s Razor. Instead, Occam’s Razor gives us a reason to reject the existence of far-fetched entities by favoring the alternative explanations.

Why should people agree that we have a reason to reject the existence of far-fetched entities? One reason is because we know that we should disbelieve in far-fetched entities, such as goblins, fairies, and unicorns because they are far-fetched. If we have no reason to disbelieve in far-fetched entities, then it’s not clear why it’s rational to disbelieve in goblins, fairies, or unicorns. None of these three entities has uniquely offensive characteristics other than being a substantial claim about reality that are used as explanations for various phenomena that could be better explained in some other way.

One possible explanation for why we should reject far-fetched entities and accept Occam’s Razor as a theoretical principle is that substantial claims about reality involve more assumptions than insubstantial claims, and fewer assumptions have a higher chance of being true than several assumptions. If I claim that a light probably turned on at a neighbor’s house because a human is in the house, then I am making a substantial claim about reality—a person exists in a house—but it’s not far-fetched because we know lights often turn on in people’s houses because people turn them on. What would be far-fetched is to claim that a goblin must have turned the light on. That claim requires more assumptions. Both claims require the assumption that an intelligent being turned a light on in a house, but only one of these claims requires us to accept that goblins exist. It’s more likely that the first option is true than the second because the assumption that goblins exist is less likely to be true than no assumption about goblins at all. Occam’s Razor doesn’t prove that goblins don’t exist, but it gives us a reason to find it unlikely that they exist, and that seems like a good enough reason to think that they don’t when it’s combined with our knowledge of people making up stories (involving beings that are also made up).

Why should we agree that ghosts far-fetched? Ghosts seem analogous to goblins, fairies, and unicorns. Ghosts are in stories and people claim to have testimonial evidence of ghosts, but such stories are likely made up, and such testimonial experiences are better explained in other ways. Such alternative explanations include misidentification (e.g. people can mistake an animal under a cloth for a ghost), misinterpretation (e.g. people can interpret their experiences in outlandish ways), hallucinations, and dreams. We know that many people have misidentified entities, misinterpreted their experiences, thought hallucinations were real, and thought dreams were real. One common and relevant form of misinterpretation is when we attribute human-like qualities to nonhuman entities. This is well documented in psychology. For example, people often attribute human-like thoughts to their pet dogs and cats. These various explanations are ordinary and to be expected, and the explanation involving the existence of ghosts adds an extra layer of assumptions that don’t seem necessary. In particular, the existence of ghosts is a substantial claim about reality positing the existence of yet another intelligent being that is less likely to be true than the rejection of such a claim. When we combine that fact with the fact that we know people often make up stories involving entities they make up, it seems more likely that ghosts don’t exist, and we have a reason to think that ghosts don’t exist.

If we accept my two premises, then the conclusion follows—we have a reason to think that ghosts don’t exist. I haven’t proven that ghosts don’t exist because far fetched entities can exist, but I have proven that there’s at least one consideration against the existence of ghosts.

Step 5: Consider counterarguments

Although Lisa has explained her argument in detail, not everyone will agree with her. There are people who believe in ghosts and they might try to find fault in the argument. Perhaps ghosts aren’t analogous to goblins, fairies, and unicorns; or perhaps being far-fetched isn’t a reason to reject the existence of an entity after all. Lisa should try to put herself in the shoes of her critic and see both sides of the debate. She could then discuss objections to her argument and try to reply to these objections to show why they aren’t serious.

One counterargument in particular is that the belief in ghosts is culturally universal, which adds to the credibility of ghosts. This could mean that ghosts are significantly less far-fetched than goblins, fairies, or unicorns. We could have a reason to reject far-fetched things, but ghosts wouldn’t necessarily be included. Lisa will respond to this objection with the following:

First, it is unclear that ghosts are culturally universal. What each culture believes in that we equate with “ghosts” could be quite different from how we think about them.

Second, culturally universal beliefs aren’t necessarily less far-fetched. The belief that what’s culturally universal is less far-fetched seems like an illegitimate appeal to popularity—a logical fallacy when we assume something is more likely true when many people believe it to be true. We know that what’s culturally universal is often false, which is evidence against the view that what’s culturally universal is more likely to be true. For example, logical fallacies are persuasive to many people found in every culture, but they are still examples of poor reasoning; and in the same way many wrong-headed beliefs could very well be found in every culture. One possible explanation for why people experience intelligent beings, such as ghosts, where they don’t exist is that we are instinctively made to look for signs of intelligent beings, and it would be a reproductive advantage to sense signs of intelligence when they don’t exist rather than to fail to see the sign of intelligence (such as a tiger). We could decide that ghosts moved our keys as a practical joke much like how a human being might play a joke, that our pets have similar thoughts and feelings to human beings when they might not, and that weather is controlled by an intelligent being that rewards and punishes us with rain and drought.


Philosophical thought starts out small and simple, but it builds based on the various questions and answers we find relevant. Arguments have assumptions, logical implications, terminology, justifications, and strategies that should be discussed in detail. Finally, we must be careful how we we use language and what we claim to prove with our arguments.

(Updated 11/25/2013)


  1. Stay excellent!

    Comment by Kristin Brænne — June 14, 2011 @ 11:16 am | Reply

  2. Great article! Please keep it up!

    Comment by Branko — June 15, 2011 @ 9:02 am | Reply

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