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Mapping the Future of Argument

Paul Monk

A version 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 conceptual revolution.

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 these skills.

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 digital’.

For more essays by Dr. Paul Monk, see