Assumptions

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Assumptions, Counterexamples, and Implications

Understanding assumptions, counterexamples, and implications is crucial to critical thinking. No argument can be fully understood unless you know what hidden beliefs underlie it, what alternatives exist to those underlying beliefs, and what the consequences of following that argument will be.

Assumptions

Assumptions are beliefs or attitudes. We all hold assumptions about many, many things in life. In fact, we couldn’t operate effectively without our assumptions, our beliefs. Examine, for a moment, your own assumptions. Many college students assume that they will get a better job if they have a college degree. What assumptions or beliefs do you have about college that prompted you to attend Dixie College? If you are a parent, what assumptions do you have about child rearing that drives the things you say and do as a parent? What assumptions do your parents have about child rearing that drove them to say and do the things they did while raising you?

Just as our assumptions or beliefs cause us to say and do certain things, assumptions motivate authors to say certain things. The assumptions authors hold drive them, either consciously or unconsciously, to write certain articles, but not others. Assumptions also drive authors to say some things, but not others, in a given argument. Some assumptions are explicitly stated by the author. For example, an author might state: "I believe that helping others is vitally important. That’s why I volunteer my time to the church, and that’s why I think others should too." In this quotation, we see the author’s belief (that she believes it is important to help others), and we see the author’s thesis statement (that others should volunteer their time as well. However, the most interesting assumptions are left unstated for the reader to imagine. For example, say that the thesis statement of someone’s argument is, "Without an increase in state taxes, Utah schools will fail in their objective to adequately prepare students for the workplace." Now ask yourself what beliefs must the author have in order to make such a statement. One obvious belief, or assumption, the author must hold is that Utah’s schools must depend substantially on state taxes. Why else would the author call for an increase in state taxes? Notice that in his thesis statement, the author didn’t say that Utah schools depend heavily on state taxes. It’s simply the reader’s guess that the author believes this.

Another assumption is that Utah schools are operating as efficiently and effectively as possible. This is another reasonable guess on the reader’s part. What reasonable author would ask for my money if current funds are being wasted?

It is important for you to understand that you, as a reader, must identify unstated assumptions. If the author doesn’t explicitly state a belief that motivated a particular passage in the text (and they usually don’t) then you will have to guess as to what assumption caused the author to say what he said. If you find yourself reading a passage and asking yourself, "Gee, I wonder why he said that?" then you are inquiring about the author’s assumptions. Your answer to the question will be your guess as to what assumption drove the author to say what he said. Now that we have identified two assumptions underlying the thesis statement about Utah schools, let’s turn to counterexamples.

 

Counterexamples

Counterexamples are examples that readers think of in order to refute, or counter, assumptions they have guessed the author holds. They are not part of the text itself. After all, no author is going to conclude his argument with a list of reasons as to why you shouldn’t believe him. So, just as you must think of unstated assumptions, you must also create examples that counter those assumptions.

The first assumption identified above is that the author must believe that the Utah school system  substantially depends on state taxes to support itself. Now, try to think of an example that proves the author is wrong in believing that. If the author thinks that Utah schools depend on state taxes, what could you say that would prove him wrong? One possible counterexample is that the Federal government provides substantial funds to each state school system, so Utahns don’t have to rely solely on state taxes to support their schools. Now you can use this counterexample to argue against raising state taxes by advocating increased Federal aid instead.

The second assumption identified above is that the author must believe that Utah schools are operating at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. But you may counter with an example, or examples, that prove Utah’s school system is actually very wasteful, and instead of raising taxes, all we need to do is cut wasteful spending. (Keep in mind, this is a fictitious example. I don’t know if this is true about Utah schools.)

 

Implications

Implications are  results or consequences; in our case, the results or consequences of following someone's recommendations. After identifying some assumptions and counterexamples of an argument, you now need to consider what would happen if everyone agreed with the author and carried out his recommendations. What would be the consequences of raising state taxes to increase funding for schools? Well, one obvious result would be more money for schools. This is a positive result, but I want you to test the strength of each argument you encounter by thinking of negative consequences because authors will always supply the positive things that may result from following their recommendations. It is up to you to think of the bad things that may happen. So, what negative implications may result in raising state taxes? Well, one obvious negative consequence will be that you, a Utah taxpayer, will have more money taken out of your paycheck. Is this OK with you? Another negative implication of raising state taxes is the possibility of a slower economy. Businesses owners, put off by higher taxes, may relocate to less expensive places to do business. Also, if schools are truly wasting money now, they will waste even more money if we give them more to spend. These are just a couple of many negative implications that may result from following such an argument. Think of as many as you can because you certainly don’t want to approve some action only to encounter its negative consequences sometime in the future. It is far better to think of them now and avert any problems.