Regardless, that is usually the first order of business in Socratic questioning: find the unconscious judgment that is the “root and nerve” of whatever claim is set forth. You want to get to the bottom of what the argument is really about. Socrates doesn’t usually enter a debate on the terms where it is being fought. He moves it to the level of principle, then goes to work there.
The point can be restated more formally. A classic deductive argument contains a major premise and a minor one. The stock example of a major premise, first used in these words by Mill, is All men are mortal. The stock example of a minor premise is Socrates is a man. Those two premises, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal. The major premise is a general principle. The minor premise is a statement about a particular case. Why is this useful to understand? Because the general principle at stake in an argument often goes unstated and unexamined—the “inarticulate major premise,” as it’s sometimes called. The first thing Socrates does is smoke it out.
—Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook
I loved that about the Socratic dialogues when I encountered them in Philosophy 101. Geometry, on the other hand, was a subject I loathed when I took it a few years earlier. Still, credit where due: it always stuck with me that when constructing a proof, it doesn’t matter how intricate the individual steps of your proof are if your given is faulty. So much futile effort could be saved if we thought about our given, or our major premise, more closely.
Speaking of philosophy, a subject I still adore in a general-interest way, I’ve been making my way through two of Peter Adamson’s books recently. Adamson writes clearly and entertainingly, but when dealing with a subject like medieval philosophy, say, there’s only so much that can be done to make the ideas and reasoning seem coherent, let alone relevant. I admit that I sometimes feel my eyes crossing and my mind wandering while trying to follow the circuitous logical trails. Take, for example, just one passage I read the other day:
And make no mistake, God does have a choice about what He creates. Scotus’ idea of simultaneously open possibilities is meant to apply to God’s freedom as much as to ours. This is despite the fact that God is a necessary being. Scotus, being Scotus, in fact has a clever and complicated proof of God’s necessary existence. I’ll avoid the complicated bits and cut straight to the most brilliant part. After a lot of work, Scotus is able to demonstrate to his own satisfaction that there could possibly be a cause for all other things, which is first and therefore uncaused. In other words, God might exist. From this Scotus thinks he can immediately infer that God does exist. For just consider: obviously a first cause does not come to exist by being caused to exist by something else. So the only way for such a cause to exist is by being necessarily actual. But we know that there is a way for the cause to exist, since we established that it might exist. Therefore, the cause is necessarily actual, so God does in fact exist. As Scotus notes himself, his proof is reminiscent of earlier attempts to demonstrate the existence of God. The move from God’s possible existence to His actual existence may remind us of the move at the center of Anselm’s ontological argument. Scotus’ proof also recalls Avicenna, and his idea of God as a necessarily existing first cause.
Like I said, it may be intricate, and it may be clever, and it may follow logical rules, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this, and so many similar examples, are just instances of what we now call motivated reasoning. “I want this to be true, so let me assume that it’s true and then develop a post-hoc justification for it.” Well, I don’t wish to be rude, but I think I see your problem.
How many there are who still conclude: “life could not be endured if there were no God!” (Or, as it is put among the idealists: “life could not be endured if its foundation lacked an ethical significance!”) — therefore there must be a God (or existence must have an ethical significance)! The truth, however, is merely that he who is accustomed to these notions does not desire a life without them: that these notions may therefore be necessary to him and for his preservation — but what presumption it is to decree that whatever is necessary for my preservation must actually exist! As if my preservation were something necessary! How if others felt in the opposite way! If those two articles of faith were precisely the conditions under which they no longer found life worth living! And that is how things are now!