Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Enhancing Deliberation Through Computer Supported Argument Mapping

Tim van Gelder
Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne, Australia; and Austhink

Tim van Gelder defines deliberation as "a form of thinking in which we decide where we stand on some claim in light of the relevant arguments." Although this is a common and important process, it is complicated and often conducted poorly. Gelder contends that deliberation can be improved by mapping out arguments, especially when the methodology utilizes the new computer tools available. An argument map is a presentation of reasoning in which the evidential relationships among claims are made wholly explicit using graphical or other non-verbal techniques. Argument mapping is producing such maps.

This fairly minimal or broad definition recommended by Gelder allows for enormous variety in argument maps. The point of an argument map is to present complex reasoning in a clear and unambiguous way, and mappers should use whatever resources work best. Currently, argument maps are mostly comprised of "box and arrow" diagrams. With technology expanding, other presentations are likely to count as argument mapping. For example, somebody may develop a way to present arguments in virtual 3D or through a virtual reality environment.

According to Gelder, at least four main factors explain the superiority of argument maps. These points concern the limitations of prose which are partly or wholly overcome by argument maps. 1) In prose, the reader has to figure out what the relationships among the claims are. In an argument diagram, in contrast, all relationships are made completely explicit using simple visual conventions. In practice, this relieves a huge burden. Readers can devote their mental energy to thinking about the argument itself rather than trying to figure out what the argument is. 2) Prose is a monochrome stream of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Prose does not use any color, shape, line, or position in space to convey information about the structure of the argument. We know, however, that our brains can process huge amounts of color, shape, and space information very quickly. In an argument map, color can be used to indicate in a matter of milliseconds whether a claim is being presented as reason or an objection. 3) Prose is sequential in nature. However, arguments are fundamentally not sequential. Arguments are more than just one thing after another; they are more complicated. 4) Using diagrams, we can to some extent take advantage of the way humans learn and understand. "We can place all the reasons over here and all the objections over there, or we can make stronger reasons bigger, or place them underneath (supporting) the conclusion."

Until now, argument maps have not really taken off as a practical tool for argument deliberation. Creating these diagrams by hand can be quite difficult. However, new computer software (both free and commercial) is making this method easier. New argument mapping pieces of software include Araucaria, Athena, and Reason!Able.

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