A premise is a statement taken as fact for the purposes of a discussion. This differs somewhat from an assumption in that a premise is usually taken as the starting place for a discussion, while an assumption is often something which is discovered in the course of an analysis. So, for example, Christianity may have the existence of God as a premise, while the belief that people are inherently evil is an assumption, which may be discovered by realizing that this thought lies at the root of many of traditional Christian doctrines. (Certainly not all, but that is an issue for another post.)
It isn’t possible to develop a theory of any sort without some stated premises. Scientific theories all share a certain set of fundamental premises, such as the belief that effects must be verifiable by more than one party in order to be valid observations. One of the differences between a good theory and one that is not-so-good is that a good theory will state its premises up front – it is then up to the reader to accept or reject them. If the reader can accept the premises, then s/he can continue to follow the discussion and, if the theory is well crafted, the reader is drawn inevitably to the conclusions. It is also possible for a reader to disagree with the premises, yet still follow the discussion for purposes of analyzing whether the conclusions have been validly drawn. However, the premises themselves are not a subject for analysis. The premises are seen as ‘given.’ Why a premise is not the subject for analysis can be seen in the following story:
A mathematics professor begins to present a concept to his class. “Suppose,” he says, “that x is the number of miles between here and New York.” A student’s hand shoots up. “But professor,” the student asks, “what if it isn’t?”
But, just because a premise is not a valid subject for analysis does not mean that it is not a valid subject for discussion. To be effective, a theory’s premises must be either obvious or justified in some way – otherwise, the theory is in jeopardy of being simply an intellectual exercise. However, what is obvious to some people is not necessarily obvious to others (obviously).
Although people often don’t realize it, heated arguments can occur because the people involved assume that they share fundamental premises, when in actuality they do not. So, most arguments of this sort can be diffused by discovering the fundamental premises of each participant. This is one of the most useful aspects of philosophic analysis: enabling people to discover the fundamental premises of their own, and other’s, theories. Once the fundamental premises are named, often what was a heated argument is quickly diffused – or would be, in an ideal world.
Most of our heated political rhetoric could be moderated if we simply accept that many people don’t share the same fundamental premises: the individual v. the collective, for example. I remember being shocked to hear some screenwriter had put the words “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” into the mouth of the character of Spock in The Wrath of Khan. I completely disagree (but, more on this in another post…). However, if someone truly believes this bromide, then it’s easy to see how other — otherwise nonsensical — hogwash could follow. At this point, it’s best to just walk away.
I remember being shocked to hear some screenwriter put the words “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” into the mouth of the character of Spock in The Wrath of Khan. I completely disagree.