Mapping the Future of Argument
of this essay appeared in The Australian Financial Review, May 2001
Imagine trying to find your
way around a big city with no street guide-book; having to rely on people
for verbal directions. Suppose that, having experienced for years the
time-consuming difficulties of getting around like this, you were told one
day that a street guide-book had finally been created. That would seem to be
a real breakthrough, wouldn’t it? Imagine, however, that the book is a
huge tome, thousands of pages in length, consisting of a description of the
street-layout in prose. Would this help or hinder your navigation?
Provided there was a very good index, it might be of some use. But
how cumbersome it would be, compared with what we all take for granted - the
indexed book of street maps.
Over the past few years, the idea has dawned on specialists that
we have such difficulty getting around complex arguments because
there are no maps for reasoning. So we engage in endless, often circular
verbal disputes, or rely on the maze-like structure of forbidding volumes of
prose. For scholarship, for public policy, for business management there
surely must be a less frustrating, clearer way of ‘doing’ argumentation.
There is. It is the map.
As human beings we are
creatures of argument. Around camp fires and in small assemblies, human
beings have discussed and disputed their practical affairs and their myths
and speculations for countless millennia. The capacity to communicate and
resolve differences verbally, to plan and to prognosticate, long ago
set us apart from other primates. It put hominids on the path to what we
like to call sapience.
After tens of thousands of
years of ingenious hunting and gathering, in some parts of the world,
sapient hominids invented agriculture. They started to create larger and
larger agrarian settlements and to trade with other such settlements over
long distances. Life became more complicated and arguments more complex.
Denise Schmandt-Besserat has shown that writing was invented, starting in
Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE, to create records enabling traders
and taxation officers to deal with complex arguments of a pecuniary nature.
Literature, history and philosophy came later.
Now, writing is an enormous advance over unaided verbal
processing, if you want to bring reliable memory and rigour of thinking to
bear on an argument. However, it suffers from certain disadvantages as far
as clarity is concerned. The more complex the argument, the more this is so.
Just think of the notional example of the prose street-guide, compared with
street maps. The problem with prose is that it is linear and abstract,
placing a considerable burden on our memories, in regard to grasping and
reproducing what a piece of prose ‘says’. By comparison, a map is holistic
and pictorial, enabling our minds to see at a glance the spatial
interrelations between locations, to see both the whole and the part.
Maps in the usual sense were
created to help us get around the physical landscape and may pre-date
writing. It took a huge amount of work and the development of specialised
tools, however, before maps became accurate and the world itself a ‘mapped’
place, as John Wilford showed in his book The Mapmakers. James Romm,
in The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought, shows how vague the
geographic knowledge of the world was even among Greeks and Romans at the
height of classical civilisation. Astonishing mathematical speculations by
the Greek natural scientists Aristarchos and Eratosthenes aside, it took
until the sixteenth century CE for the idea that the world is round
to begin to take hold. Over the last hundred years or so, however, a
universal cartography has come into being. It is no longer difficult to
discuss where places are or how to get there, at least in principle, from
anywhere in the world.
This is not yet true in
regard to argumentation, whether in general or in regard to the numerous
issues subject to ongoing dispute. Philosophers have been arguing for 2,400
years about what constitutes good argument. They have also been arguing
about many specific matters such as human nature and knowledge of the ‘real’
world. Their lack of decisive progress over many centuries led quite a few
philosophers - in the twentieth century - to suspect that there was some
fundamental problem with philosophy itself. They wanted, as Ludwig
Wittgenstein put it, to do philosophy in such a way that one could do
away with it. Do away with it and subsequently think better; not just
give up thinking.
One philosopher who was heir
to this suspicion, in mid-century, was Stephen Toulmin. In The Uses of
Argument (1958), he grappled with the puzzling fact that the
formal logic developed by philosophers since Aristotle did not work very
well when applied to practical, real-world arguments. This led him to a
novel and interesting theory about arguments in general. In the real world,
he observed, argument leads not to things true by definition so much as to “guarded
or qualified assertions or conclusions.” You can see this
at work in legal argument, in natural science and in moral debate. Yet
philosophers lacked a clear understanding of how such arguments actually
worked, as against a philosophical scorn for them as ‘impure’, in the manner
of Rudolf Carnap and the logical positivists. “What is required”, he
concluded, “is not epistemological theory but epistemological
analysis” and “to do this adequately will be a lifetime’s work for many
men.” He sought a new method for laying out the structure of arguments.
Arguments, he believed, have an organic structure which
can be dissected and laid out, as it were, on a table. Their structure does
not consist simply of the logical operators, premises and conclusions
postulated in formal logic, but of various claims supported on an informal,
probabilistic basis, by data and what we take to be warranted beliefs.
The challenge was to explore
more carefully how this kind of structure worked and then work with it,
rather than ignoring it with Carnapian disdain. Toulmin made a good start on
this project, developing a new method for diagramming simple patterns of
reasoning. For some reason, the metaphor of mapping did not occur to
him. When it emerged, forty years later, however, in the work of Robert Horn
and his colleagues in the U.S., the aged Toulmin was at once alive to its
significance in relation to his own work.
Toulmin’s insights might be
likened, looking back, to Eratosthenes’s third century BCE trigonometric
calculation of the circumference of the earth. It was Robert Horn who played
the role of Christopher Columbus. He applied Toulmin’s forty year old
insight experimentally, to see how one might navigate around arguments.
Horn was not prompted by Toulmin’s insight alone, though; any more than
Columbus was inspired simply by Eratosthenes’s trigonometry. Columbus’s
voyages were undertaken against the background of Western European
frustration with Ottoman control of the spice trade, after the fall of
Constantinople in 1453. Horn’s work was undertaken against a background of
frustration with the sheer complexity of serious debates in the late
twentieth century. Columbus’s voyages were made possible by advances
in sea-going navigational technologies. Horn’s pioneering work was made
possible by rapid advances in information technologies.
Building on Toulmin’s
insights and Gestalt psychology, Horn thought of laying out the structure of
arguments in a more or less pictorial or holistic format. This way,
the human mind finds them much easier to grasp and manipulate. After all,
our brains evolved to deal with the visual long before we invented
abstract symbols. Horn produced a seven chart “map” of the long-running and
highly complex debate “Can Computers Think?” In doing so for academic
purposes, like Columbus trying to reach India, he discovered something of a
“New World” epistemologically - a world which had, of course, been ‘there’
all the time. Using the argument map Can Computers Think?, any
intelligent non-specialist can see and understand very quickly why there is
a debate, what the experts disagree about, and where the cutting edge of
thinking is. It was never possible to do this before, using traditional
learning devices. It had always been necessary to read a mountain of
books, take folders full of notes and try to form a mental picture of the
matter. The latter is what, at the end of the day, we try to do with any
argument we enter into. This is why argument mapping is a breakthrough. It
is also why it is a better way to set out and discuss even quite simple
arguments than unaided verbal discussion or writing. We are so addicted to
verbal debate and equipped for writing prose arguments, however, that a
technological and educational breakthrough will need to accompany Horn’s
Argument mapping and Can
Computers Think? was featured in New Scientist, in July 1999.
Interestingly, Horn was there quoted as saying that an obstacle in the way
of argument maps being more widely used was the difficulty people would have
in learning how to create and use them. So might Columbus have queried the
feasibility of large numbers of Europeans ever settling in the New World.
Learning to read and write is difficult, but became so vital to the
working of complex societies that we now require every child to learn
For millennia reading and
writing were the monopoly of elites. They were an arcane mystery to ordinary
folk. In backward and disadvantaged societies, this is still so. What drove
universal and compulsory education in these skills was their utility.
The same may soon start to occur with argument mapping. Beginning as an
elite technique for comprehending the complex and the pressing, it could
well - and much more rapidly than reading and writing - become a mass
technique for thinking clearly and presenting arguments. It might come to be
used at every level of the curriculum in schools and universities, as well
as for intelligence analysis and strategic planning in both the public and
the private sector.
The key to having this happen
will be information technology and especially graphical software
facilitating the swift and elegant creation of argument maps and their
display on both screens and charts. The evolution of writing, from cuneiform
symbols incised on wax or clay tablets, to alphabetic script written in ink
on papyrus, to printed texts reproduced in books, took place over thousands
of years. The evolution of information technologies is now measured in
months. What is seen to be useful and to have a market will quickly evolve.
Horn’s peculiar doubts will dissipate as the “Americas” of diffuse and
cumbersome argumentation are rapidly overrun by the bearers of the “guns,
germs and steel” of argument mapping and its associated software.
While the utility of
being able to navigate around complex arguments, as casually as we drive
around large cities or across whole countries, is surely attractive, the
almost metaphysical significance of this conceptual breakthrough is
beautiful to contemplate. Human beings are thinking animals. Nothing
sets us so much apart from the rest of the animal world as the peculiar
properties of our minds. Our philosophies and our religions, both East and
West, are rooted in reflections on the nature of ‘mind’. Since before the
dawn of history, human beings have been awed and puzzled by its mysteries.
How is it that we are able to think in the ways that we do? What
is it that actually ‘thinks’? Is it something free and even immortal?
Is it a ‘soul’ that has somehow been placed inside ‘mortal clay’, like wine
in a clay jar, but has a ‘higher destiny’? How do we apprehend the thoughts
of ‘other minds’? Do animals ‘think’? Can computers do so?
In his superb study of the
nature of human intelligence, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in
the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Merlin Donald pointed out that
the road to the staggering technical and creative achievements of our kind
only begins with our inordinately large brain. It enabled us not simply to
process data, but to do two other, unprecedented things: to generate
metaphor and to communicate our thoughts to others of our kind through
speech. These two capacities, interacting with one another, made possible
the existence of cognitive collectivities and the accumulation
of insight. ‘Mind’, in the human sense, therefore, was something which was
intrinsically dependent on symbiotic interaction with external storage of
ideas. This is why oral cultures are so bound to their myths and epics.
The invention of pictographic skills and then written symbols, however, took
symbiosis to a radical new stage, challenging the cognitive world of orality.
As written records
accumulated and the first libraries were developed, the skills needed in
education systems, from ancient Mesopotamia or China to eighteenth century
England were the skills necessary to access and manipulate the ever larger
mass of material in the “external storage system” (ESS). There is nothing
especially original in this observation, taken in itself. What Donald shows,
however, is that the nature of ‘mind’ itself is bound up with the evolution
of this symbiosis between individual brains and the ESS. Thinking itself
evolves in a process governed by the feedback between the millions of human
brains and the technologies constituting the huge prosthetic and
collective brain - the ESS. ‘Mind’, in other words, equals neither brain nor
soul, but a sort of cognitive coral reef generated by millions of brains
interacting over time.
In this context, argument
mapping can be seen as both the product of ‘minds’ wrestling with the
complexity of the ESS and a further evolutionary leap of ‘Mind’ itself. It
brings together many convergent insights to reduce the difficulties
experienced by individual brains in accessing and manipulating the ESS. The
biological ‘big brain’ is not the thing which has evolved in historic time.
A rocket scientist has that in common with a Hottentot. What has evolved is
the collective, technological Big Brain. Argument mapping, rooted in
metaphor, like the first body decorations and cave paintings, the first
pictograms and the first poems, is another extraordinary creative leap of
the Big Brain.
Little ‘big brains’, under
the pressure of complexity and with an incentive to roam the ESS and hunt
for big game there, will use this tool and invent variations of it. The work
of Toulmin and Horn and Donald is part of this ‘big picture’. That’s what
makes even thinking about argument mapping fascinating. Using it, like using
any new tool, is a challenge to acquire skill and an opportunity to
perform in ways that were simply not possible before - as a ‘mind’
within ‘Mind’. The only real question now, as New Scientist pointed
out two years ago, is how rapidly the ‘cuneiform’ versions of argument
mapping software will be ‘alphabetised’. It will be thousands of days,
rather than thousands of years. Argument mapping really is a
thinking toll for those who are, in Don Tapscott’s phrase, ‘growing up
For more essays by Dr. Paul Monk, see http://www.austhink.org/monk