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Archive for the ‘Intelligence Augmentation’ Category

The free online magazine The Reasoner has recently published an interview with me in their February 2010 issue.  Much of it is discussing argument mapping and its uses.  However the first third or so of the interview covers my earlier work in the foundations of cognitive science (distributed representation, dynamical systems and such topics).

Thanks to Kevin Korb for initiating and conducting the interview.

Excerpt:

KK: What are argument maps and why are they important?

TvG: Typically an argument map is a box-and-arrow or node-and-link diagram showing the relationships among propositions in some piece of informal reasoning or argumentation. Argument mapping is thus “semi- formal”, blending formal graph structure with natural language. You can think of argument mapping as addressing a design challenge: come up with a maximally transparent way of representing informal reasoning and argumentation for human thinkers, one that makes the reasoning as explicit, rigorous and yet easily comprehensible and communicable as possible.  From this point of view, the various forms of argument mapping around today—such as the one embodied in the Rationale software—as particular attempts to come up with that optimal format. No doubt improved schemes, supported by more sophisticated technologies, will arise in coming years.

KK: How does your understanding of their importance relate to what you know about human cognition?
TvG: The diagrammatic format of typical argument maps is useful for humans with cognitive machinery dominated by powerful visual systems. Diagrammatic argument maps complement the idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses of our evolutionarily-endowed cognitive equipment. For example, argument maps compensate for our limited short-term memory, providing a stable external representation of complex inferential webs. At the same time they facilitate access to this externally represented information by exploiting our powerful visual scanning capacities. In computer terms, our eyes constitute the high-capacity bus connecting the argument map, stored in external RAAM, to our brains as the CPU…

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Draft magazine piece.  Comments welcome.

In the late 1950s, a young engineer by the name of Douglas Engelbart made a decision that was to have a immense effect on all of our lives. Engelbart realised that the massive challenges faced by humanity, such as hunger or nuclear war, would place unprecedented demands on our thinking capacities – indeed, they may be so complex that our finite human brains may be unable to find solutions. With youthful idealism, he wondered how he could fix this problem.

As an engineer, his natural inclination was to build something – in this case, something that could expand our innate thinking capacities, much as a shovel or an excavator can greatly extend our digging capacities. In short, his mission in life became building tools which augment human intelligence. Over the following decades, he and his co-workers developed the key aspects of the personal computer, including innovations such as the mouse, hyper-linking and videoconferencing. Via Apple and Microsoft, these innovations rapidly became a standard part of every office worker’s equipment.

These days it seems hard to imagine how a management consultant could function without spreadsheets, presentation software, email, and so forth, all incorporating the basic functionality developed by Engelbart. These tools obviously help speed up various activities, thereby helping us get more done. An email or an instant message is immensely faster than “snail mail,” so turnaround is quicker and results can be delivered earlier.

However a focus on speed and convenience obscures the most profound change here. A consultant with a spreadsheet can perform analyses that would have been practically impossible fifty years ago. The spreadsheet magnifies the consultant’s effective thinking capacities. The sum of consultant plus spreadsheet is more intelligent than the consultant – or spreadsheet – alone. This is Engelbart’s dream become reality.

Yet, as profound as the changes to date have been, they are probably only the beginning. There is still plenty of scope for human intelligence, in its diverse manifestations, to be further augmented.

This is of great significance for management consulting, since consulting is, more than any other profession or industry, a matter of applied intelligence.

It is a curious fact that the computer aids or “cognitive prosthetics” used by management consultants are for the most part the same as those used by other knowledge workers. Excel and PowerPoint are found on most office computers, not just those of consultants.

To be sure, management consultants have some distinctive conceptual tools; the McKinsey 7S framework, the BCG matrix, and the Minto Pyramid Principle are well known examples. Yet as useful as these may be, they are not realised in hardware in the way a spreadsheet is and so can’t share the cognitive workload in the same way. Bluntly, they don’t “do” anything. We are now, however, starting to see new thinking tools which dovetail well with consulting work, and which may be adopted earlier in the consulting domain than in most others.

One characteristic intellectual skill of the management consultant is hierarchical structuring. Whether it is building logic trees, issue diagrams, pyramid structures, or any other type of “tree,” hierarchical structuring can bring rigour and depth to thinking, and experienced consultants develop facility with this technique. While hierarchical structuring can to some extent be done in the head, when things get complex it helps to lay them out visually – hence the familiar tree structures on whiteboards, with sticky notes, or on-screen using presentation or drawing tools.

But these aids, while handy, have their limitations. Most importantly, diagrams created by these manual methods are not easily modified. Organising information hierarchically is a process. A good hierarchical analysis typically evolves through a number of drafts; observing one attempt suggests a better way it might be done. The more quickly you can reshape the structure, the more quickly your thinking advances. But with whiteboards, sticky notes and generic drawing tools, this reshaping can be slow and frustrating; thinking is interrupted, and thinking has lost “flow.”

New tools designed specifically for hierarchical structuring largely remove these speedbumps. When you can build and modify a visual tree structure almost as fast as you can think, the visual representation becomes like an extension of your own cognitive equipment – a “mind’s eye” that just happens to be outside the head. A consultant using such a tool produces a logic tree better and faster than a similar consultant working on a whiteboard. The net result is that the former consultant is, for practical purposes, smarter.

Another area where new thinking tools can augment consultants’ high-level thinking is in argument construction. Very often a consultant’s primary task is to provide recommendations backed by compelling arguments. Those arguments consist of information organised in evidential or logical relationships. As with hierarchical structures, when it helps to lay arguments out in diagrams when they become complicated.

Back in 1962, in a landmark report, Engelbart described a system in which a user could, on a screen, organise propositions into complex argument structures. To have envisaged such a system well before computers even had monitors, let alone contemporary graphical user interfaces, was a remarkable achievement. Fast forward to this decade, and research teams at universities and software companies around the world are exploring argument visualisation and developing new software applications for this unique task. Just as spreadsheets support calculation, new commercial-grade “argument mapping” applications are supporting argumentation.

In a consulting context, argument mapping applications can be used to construct, refine, evaluate and present the thinking behind a recommendation. The visual display reduces the cognitive load involved in maintaining a complex argument structure in one’s head alone — freeing up mental resources for the more interesting and valuable thinking tasks involved in improving or critiquing an argument.

You can see for easily yourself how powerful this effect can be. Play a game of tic-tac-toe with a friend or colleague. No problem. But then play again, this time without using pen & paper or anything similar. Each player should hold the state of the board in her mind and call out her move in turn. Played the normal way, the game is trivial. Played without visual aids, it is far more laborious and error prone.

Remarkably, consultants usually carry out one of their most central tasks – the development of clear, compelling arguments – either without a “board” at all (i.e., in their heads), or by making do with generic tools such as word processors and presentation software. It is a bit like a carpenter trying to work without a saw.

The main reason for this is that until recently the “saw” for argument construction had not been developed. Going forward, however, we will see consultants increasingly using argument visualisation to augment their inbuilt reasoning abilities. A particular benefit of argument mapping is that, once an argument has been laid out diagrammatically, simple, almost mechanical checks can uncover hidden assumptions which might be critical weaknesses in the case. Extensive research at the University of Melbourne and elsewhere has shown that practise based on argument mapping can dramatically accelerate critical thinking skill gains in university students. This suggests another role for these new thinking tools.

A major challenge for consulting firms is helping new recruits come to “think like a consultant.” There are many aspects to this, but cultivating the two skills already discussed – hierarchical structuring and argument construction – is at the heart of it. Introducing suitably-designed software tools into training can speed up the process whereby new consultants develop understanding and mastery of these skills. The intuitive visual format promotes comprehension, the interactivity supports “hands on” practice, and inbuilt assistance helps provide guidance.

Finally, using these tools can help consultants collaborate on solving tough thinking problems. Traditionally, each consultant on a team holds in her head her own “take” on the evolving state of the group’s thinking about an issue. The trouble is that each take may be somewhat different, leading to confusion, error and wasted time. A better way is to have the thinking shared in a visual display, on a screen or projected onto a wall, with every contribution immediately and transparently incorporated into the common understanding. Such software can make this happen.

Management consulting has long had a reputation for snapping up the best and the brightest. The raw human intelligence of these young minds is greatly magnified as they come to master consulting’s “tools of the trade”. Despite the kind of inertial and conservative tendencies found in any profession, this toolkit does evolve over time. The latest additions are increasingly aiding consultants in some of the most distinctive of their intellectual tasks.

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 Now available – the final version of my paper prepared in connection with the conference Graphic and Visual Representations of Evidence and Inference in Legal Settings in January this year.  The paper is now called The Rationale for Rationale™.

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The eminent journalist and author James Fallows writes an influential technology column, and in the latest one has discussed Rationale, in the context of software tools to help people “develop, refine, and express ideas”.

I didn’t realise it upon first reading, but buried in the article is an account of the various kinds and levels of intellectual work. By implication, at the peak of this intellectual pyramid is… deliberative thinking of the kind supported by Rationale.

Some quotes:

    “Do computers make us smarter? Probably not. But they can reduce the burden of some largely mechanical processes through which we develop, refine, and express ideas—which is a lot of what it means to think… In a surprisingly wide range of other ways, the simple, brainless efficiencies offered by computers can assist in the tasks that make up intellectual work. Before considering one especially ambitious new offering of this sort, it’s worth reviewing the practical, chore-like components of high-level modern work and the corresponding programs that, in my view, handle each chore best…”

“An elementary step is capturing thoughts—ideas, obligations, possibilities—when and where they occur to you…The next largely mechanical task is saving material you come across in your work, whether it is something unexpected on the Internet or the result of more purposeful research…The next practical task involved in thinking is finding things when you want them—the right citation for your legal argument, the right chronology to remind you who said what when…Next is sorting, the important and subtle task of grouping items according to similarities and differences. In a sense, this kind of pattern recognition is the highest level of human intelligence… Both sorting and the next step, outlining, take us closer to the point where mechanical processes merge with intellectual ones. Assigning something to a category inevitably affects our conception of that category, and arraying ideas visually, as in an outline, inevitably affects our view of how the ideas fit…”

“This leads to the newest ambitious entry: Rationale, an “argument processor” from a start-up company in Melbourne, Australia, called Austhink…”

“In operation, the Rationale program is quite simple. You state a main contention you are trying to test—I should buy a new house, we should invade Iran—and then systematically list each of the supporting claims for it. Then you list the objections to each claim, and the rebuttals to those objections, and so on until you’re down to first principles—all of which are shown as connected boxes on a map…”

“The more factors there are to weigh in making a decision—and, especially, the more views there are to reconcile when more than one person is involved in a choice—the more helpful this logic map can be.”

You need to be a subscriber to Atlantic Monthly to access Fallows’ full column online. (In the US, everyone should be a subscriber, because it is such a great magazine and subscriptions cost almost nothing.) Non-subscribers can email me, and I’ll email you a link from the magazine website which should work for three days.

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Last weekend I finally managed to finish off the paper, chunks of which were appearing in previous posts.

It is being submitted for possible inclusion in a special issue of the journal Law, Probability and Risk, which will include papers coming out of the Graphic and Visual Representations of Evidence and Inference in Legal Settings conference held back in January.

Here’s the abstract:

Rationale: Making People Smarter Through Argument Mapping

Abstract. Complex reasoning and argumentation are central to legal practice. Software-supported argument mapping may be able to help lawyers reason and argue more effectively. This article describes Rationale, a generic argument mapping software package, and reviews some evidence that using it can help improve reasoning, i.e., make people smarter. It then explores three different explanations for this potential benefit: usability, complementation, and semi-formality. First, argument mapping software can be more usable for reasoning activities than traditional methods because it can inherit the wisdom gained through decades of research and experience into usability; can exploit a wider range of representational resources; and is designed specifically to support reasoning activities. Second, such software works by complementing the strengths and weaknesses of our natural or inbuilt cognitive capacities. Third, it helps shift reasoning and argumentation into a semi-formal mode, a kind of “sweet spot” between the laxness of everyday reasoning and the straightjacket of formal logic.

The paper can be downloaded here. Comments welcome.

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Another installment of the in-progress paper.

Draft only. Comments welcome

3.2 Complementation

A second theme in understanding how a tool such as Rationale can make us smarter is complementation: the tool complements our minds’ natural strengths and weaknesses.

Our reasoning abilities are a function of our basic cognitive capacities, which depend in turn on our brains. Those brains are the result of a long, accidental, accretive and incomplete process of evolution. They were “designed” not for the sublime arts of logic and disputation but to enable us to survive and propagate in the physical and social environments of our ancestors going back long before the emergence of homo sapiens. Our reasoning abilities are a late acquisition, due not to any newly-crafted reasoning module but rather to our learning how to exploit in a new way cognitive capacities which had already been wired in for other purposes. That pre-given set of capacities includes some remarkably powerful and useful functions, but does not provide everything that might be needed for flawless, general-purpose reasoning.

In light of this, a sensible strategy for improving human reasoning is to provide tools which, on one hand, provide ways to bypass or make up for the deficiencies or limitations of our innate capacities, while on the other, taking advantage of their distinctive strengths. Rationale makes use of both these strategies.

The most important respect in which a tool like Rationale compensates for inherent cognitive limitations is by augmenting our short-term memory (STM). The need for such augmentation can be summarised in three points. First, reasoning and argumentation can become very complex. Second, as we standardly do things, that complexity places huge obligations on memories. However, third, our innate STM is quite limited – much more so than people usually realise.

The standard cliche about human STM is that it can hold “7+/-2” items. Thus 8 digit phone numbers are quite a bit harder to remember than 7 digit ones. The 7+/-2 figure originated in famous research in the 1950s (Miller ref). However the figure should be treated with caution. The original research concerned our capacity to recall random sequences of meaningless items. Recent research suggests that for such sequences, Miller’s figure may be an overestimate. At the same time, STM can be increased when items are “chunked” or meaningfully grouped. And with intense training, people are able to perform remarkable feats of short-term memorization, such as remembering dozens of random digits.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, in normal circumstances, human STM has quite a low ceiling. This can be easily illustrated by asking two people to play tic-tac-toe without using pen and paper or any equivalent – i.e., to record moves in their “mind’s eye” rather than on a board. Most people find that completing the game is a fun challenge, in part because it is hard enough just keeping track of the state of the game, let alone making moves.

Meanwhile it is obvious that arguments can be very complex – far more so than a mere game of tic-tac-toe. For example the case put forward by Jim Garrison in the trial scene of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK consists of dozens of pieces of evidence woven into an intricate web. Even this case (let alone the galaxies of arguments and responses in the larger “Who killed JFK?” debate) is more complex than can be held, organised and evaluated purely in the head by anyone other than, perhaps, an idiot savant.

This point holds true even in the mundane territory of our everyday disputes or academic altercations. The issues and arguments are often if not always larger than our unaided minds alone can easily embrace; and retaining even some of that material is effortful and prone to loss, confusion and confabulation.

Yet we do presume to think through such complex cases, and so by practical necessity we make use of external aides de memoir; for example, recording and organising our thoughts in notes, essays or books – i.e., in some form or other of prose. Similarly, a central function of an argument mapping program such as Rationale is to function as an external “memory”, or memory-extension, for reasoning. Maintaining stable structured representions of arguments or debates of effectively unlimited complexity is trivial for an appropriately-programmed computer. Thus, when using such a package to help us think our way through a set of arguments, we are taking advantage of a great strength of computers to compensate for an inherent weakness in our own capacities.

For external representations of reasoning to be useful in our thinking, they must be such that we can interact with them fluidly. On one hand, we must be able to create and modify the representations easily; this was touched upon above in the discussion of usability. On the other, we need high-bandwidth access to the information contained in those representations. Ideally, we’d be able to “read” the representations faster than we could think about what they are representing. Here, argument maps are designed to exploit some remarkable strengths of our standard cognitive equipment. I claimed above that an argument mapping software package can be more usable as a tool for reasoning because they exploit representational resources which are neglected by typical argumentative prose – resources such as colour, shape, line, and position in space.

The use of these resources is a great advantage because our “hard wired” mechanisms for visual cognition are designed to process information coded in these basic dimensions with extraordinary efficiency. When you look outside the window and see a tree, your perceptual system accepts and processes a vast amount of basic visual information and reliably delivers a correct high-level interpretation in a fraction of a second and with no perceptible effort on your part. This is an example of what psychologists often call “pre-attentive processing” – information being taken up and utilised so fast that you didn’t even have time to shift your attention to it.

Colour, shape, line, and position in space are all aspects of a scene which are, or can be, pre-attentively processed. Any tool for reasoning which wants to optimize the transfer of information from external representations to central cognitive processes ought to exploit pre-attentive processing as much as it is effectively able. Argument mapping software does exactly this, with the result that representations of complex reasoning can be accessed, and hence utilized in thinking, much more quickly and easily than in standard prose formats.

The most obvious example of this is the use of colour to code for “polarity,” i.e., whether one proposition is (taken to be) supporting or opposing another. In standard argumentative prose, polarity is something which must be “computed” through slow, effortful and error-prone high-level interpretative process. Consider for example this passage:

Like us, dogs, wolves, chimps, and macaques are all social animals. They show that we are not unique inventors of empathy and morality.

It contains two propositions. Assuming that together they constitute a simple argument, which one is evidence in relation to the other? And is it supporting or opposing? Answering these questions requires a bit of careful attention. We must understand the sentences, and think about how they relate to each other. If however the argument is presented in a standard argument mapping format:

then, assuming you are well-versed in the relevant conventions, you will pre-attentively process the green on the lower claim, and know that the lower claim is being presented as a reason for the upper one, even before you’ve actually read and understood those claims. In other words information about evidential structure is being conveyed in manner which is extremely fast, requires almost no effort, and unambiguous – much like seeing the tree outside the window.
This example focused on the use of colour to indicate polarity, but shape, line and position in space are working here in much the same way. Indeed, the visual design exploits all four of these dimensions simultaneously, with each reinforcing the message conveyed by others.

Thus, an argument mapping software package is exploiting an impressive strength of the human mind, namely its ability to process and interpret certain kinds of basic visual information very rapidly, effortlessly and reliably.

More profoundly, the greatest strengths of the human mind are its abilities to comprehend natural language and evidential relationships. Despite the valiant efforts of computer scientists over many decades, computers still lack anything seriously resembling human intelligence (notwithstanding world-champion chess programs and the like, which are at best electronic idiot-savants). Thus a software package designed to improve human reasoning must still rely on our minds to do core “heavy lifting” involved in the performing and evaluating reasoning.

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As mentioned a few posts ago, I’ve been resisting the temptation to write in this space, due to an academic paper demanding completion.

The paper is about Rationale, for a legal journal; here is the “table of contents”:

Rationale: A Generic Argument Mapping Tool
Introduction
1. Rationale Overview
2. Making Humans Smarter.
2.1 Educational
2.2 Professional
3. Why Does It Work?
3.1 Usability
3.2 Complementarity
3.3 Semi-Formality
4. Conclusion: Rationale and Legal Reasoning

Here is the current draft of a section. Comments welcome.

3. Why does it work?

Assuming that Rationale really does (or at least can) make humans smarter, it is interesting to ask why this is so. What is it about the Rationale, or argument mapping software more generally, which helps us reason more effectively? Because argument mapping is a new phenomenon, there has so far been little serious research in this area. We are only gradually developing an understanding of the relevant issues. At least three main themes are emerging: usability, complementarity, and semi-formality. These are not three independent explanations; they are better thought of as overlapping “takes” on how or why Rationale achieves its intended effect.

3.1 Usability

In a nutshell, the first claim is this: a tool like Rationale improves reasoning because it is highly usable for reasoning activities, or at least more usable than relevant alternatives. This is not simply the assertion that the software is “user friendly,” which usually means that the software is attractive to, and easily used by, naive users. Rather, the technical notion of usability concerns the degree to which a tool or system enables standard users to conduct their activities or achieve their goals effectively and efficiently, and perhaps also with some measure of pleasure or satisfaction. A usable tool may not be very user-friendly to naive users. A good analogy here is windsurfing. There are basically two kinds of windsurfing boards. Beginner boards are large, stable, and float with a person standing on it even when not moving. They are very “friendly” to windsurfing naifs. Regular or advanced boards are smaller, less stable and more nimble; they are very difficult for beginners to use but support a far better windsurfing experience for those who are competent. The assertion that Rationale is highly usable means primarily that, like the advanced windsurfing board, it enables people who are competent in the use of the tool to engage in reasoning activities more effectively, efficiently and satisfyingly.

The claim that Rationale improves reasoning because it is highly usable plays out differently in each of the two main contexts of use. In the educational context, Rationale’s usability for reasoning helps improve reasoning skills by enabling a student to do more practice, and practice of a better kind, than they can do using traditional techniques. Just as you can become a much more skilful windsurfer through lots of practice on an advanced board, so you can a better reasoner through lots of use of a tool like Rationale, even if it takes some training to get “up to speed.” There is an important disanalogy however. In windsurfing, the skill you acquire can only be deployed on a suitable board; whereas in reasoning, the skills you acquire a more generic and transferable, and can be deployed even without the software tool which enabled the development of those skills.

In the professional context, the claim that Rationale improves reasoning performance because it is highly usable is a tautology, since to be usable is, by definition, to enable better performance. However invoking the notion of usability still helps because it points in a certain direction. Exploring the issue from a usability perspective can help us better understand why and how a software package like Rationale improves performance.

When we claim that a tool like Rationale is highly usable, we are not measuring Rationale’s usability on some independent, objective scale. Rather, we are saying that it is significantly more usable than relevant alternatives. Thus to make sense of the claim, we need some understanding of what the relevant alternatives are. What tool or tools do we standardly use to help us engage in informal reasoning or argumentation? If engaged in a complex debate over, say, carbon trading, or the war in Iraq, what do we use to help us organise and evaluate the arguments?

The answer is that, overwhelmingly, we use prose. By this I mean that we articulate our arguments using sentences organised sequentially on a page or pages, and using various strategies such as indicator words (“therefore” etc.), paragraphs, indentation and dot points to help illuminate how the parts of the arguments hang together. We use prose as a tool to help us develop arguments, as when we figure out what our argument is through producing and editing drafts; and to present arguments to others and even ourselves.

Argumentative prose can be considered a very generic or abstract kind of tool. Our use of prose is supported in turn by various more concrete technologies. For example we can use pen and paper, or we can use a word processor running on standard personal computing hardware. The support technologies have changed substantially over time but the way we use those technologies to support reasoning and argumentation has remained essentially constant from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers through to the present day, which is why works of Plato and Aristotle can still be part of the standard canon studied even by undergraduate philosophy students.

A tool can be very widely used even if it is not particularly usable. There are innumerable examples; thus, not so long ago, fountain pens were widely used for writing on paper, but they are less usable than ball-point pens, even if the result is sometimes more aesthetically pleasing. In the case of prose, people are generally so accustomed to using this tool, so ignorant of any alternative, and so blind even to the idea that prose is the tool they are using, that they fail to realise what its usability problems are or even that it has usability problems. Any deficiencies in a person’s reasoning, or presentation of reasoning, are attributed to deficiencies in their education or their intellectual capacities rather than being traced, at least in part, to inadequacies in the tools.

An “argument processor” such as Rationale, based not around prose but around custom diagrams, is an alternative to prose. Importantly, it is an alternative that was developed with the deliberate goal of being more usable than prose, so it would not be that suprising if it turned out in fact to be more usable. The interesting part is how it manages to be so.

First, any contemporary software tool is able to take advantage of the wisdom accumulated in decades of research into how interactive tools should be designed so as to best support our activities, particularly our cognitive activities. The lessons learned from this research are increasingly encapsulated in authoritative sources (textbooks, etc.) and embedded into the tools and conventions used to develop contemporary applications. They concern diverse issues in the design of a tool meant to maximize performance and an experience of “flow”: when and how to use (or avoid) “modes” or dialog boxes, how to use size and colour; how to align behavior with user’s mental models; etc. Rationale is in the fortunate position of being able to exploit this accumulated general wisdom and apply it, almost “off the shelf,” to the case of a tool to support reasoning activities.

Second, a tool like Rationale is adapted or tuned to the unique demands of reasoning and argumentation activities. Prose, and supporting technologies such as word-processors, are generic; they can be used for reasoning but are not designed specifically for such use. A purpose-built tool provides distinctive ways of representing reasoning structures and “affords” appropriate kinds of operations on those representations. Its design is constrained by the nature of reasoning activities, and at the same time not distorted or diluted by the need to support activities other than reasoning.
Third, an argument mapping package can take advantage of a wider range of basic representational resources. Consider some typical argumentative prose – for example, an opinion piece in a major newspaper. What means does the author use to help convey to you, the reader, how the various key claims hang together as an argument? Most obviously, the author might use explicit verbal indicators – phrases such as “This is because…” and “Hence…”. Other tactics include word and sentence ordering; paragraph breaks; and subtle cues based in the meaning of terms and the context in which the piece is written. That’s it. Upon reflection this is a remarkably meagre set; it almost wilfully ignores a range of other resources available not just to the contemporary computer user but even to a child with just a pad and a bag of coloured pencils. These resources include:
symbolic argument structure markers, such as the philosophers’ standard “P1, P2, … C”
colour; for example, using colour to represent the “polarity” of one proposition in relation to another, i.e., whether it supporting or opposing;
shape,
lines or arrows
position in space
If your goal is to produce displays of reasoning which maximise comprehension, manipulation, evaluation and communication, why wouldn’t you take advantage of such cheap but powerful visual aids? If we can break the shackles of convention and habit, we are free to exploit any resources which in practice can aid the process of reasoning. Argument mapping software helps itself to these resources, thereby gaining an “unfair” advantage over traditional argumentative prose.

Current packages such as Rationale are just stages in an ongoing process of redesign, the ultimate goal of which is a tool so usable that it becomes like an invisible extension of our cognitive apparatus. Just as we are not aware of our own brains when we are thinking, but are aware of what our brains are helping us think about, so an ideal argument mapping package would be like the blind man’s cane, something “through which” our minds engage in complex deliberation, conscious only of the reasoning itself, not of any issue or difficulty in dealing with the tool. No package has reached that goal yet, and perhaps no package ever will; but the best of the current generation are at least, by design, getting significantly closer to that goal.

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