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Colloquium by Floris Bex and Paul van den Hoven: Discursive strategies in the construction of reality

You are cordially invited to participate in the second colloquium of the series ‘Encounters between Humanities and Computing’. Presenters are Floris Bex, http://www.florisbex.com/, Assistant Professor at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences, and Paul van den Hoven, http://www.uu.nl/staff/PJvandenHoven/0, Professor of Language and Communication at the Department of Media and Culture Studies. Their shared interest is in argumentation, both from a computational and a rhetorical viewpoint. For their abstracts see below.

The colloquium will be held on Thursday 7 April, Janskerkhof 15A, room 0.01, starting on 16:15. There will be ample room for discussion, before and during drinks.

This colloquium series is part of an intiative to strengthen the ties between the Humanities Faculty and the Department of Computing and Information Sciences. Whereas the presentations will be first of all aimed at researchers in both fields, students who are interested are encouraged to attend an participate in the discussions as well. Please mark the following date in your calendar:

Thursday 19 May: Mehdi Dastani and Els Stronks (Buys Ballot Building), speaking about the Golden Agents project.

Discursive strategies in the construction of reality


Making decisions based on evidence and explaining these decisions has always been a staple of Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems. In my work on this subject I apply techniques from two sub-fields of AI that have become prominent relatively recently, namely computational argumentation and computational narrative. (Floris Bex)

Making decisions based on evidence and explaining these decisions is a task that inherently has a strong rhetorical tension. Most of these explanations are defeasible and therefore justifications tend to be rhetorically modeled to compensate for this defeasibility. I try to catch these rhetorical moves. (Paul van den Hoven)

Abstract Floris Bex

In a legal context, the study of evidence is often equated with the study of the law of evidence, such as the rules of evidence about which types of evidence are legally valid or admissible. However, a large part of the study of evidence, and particularly reasoning with evidence, constitutes the study of the process of proof, in which the facts of the case are determined. In the literature, at least two approaches to reasoning with evidence can be distinguished: the argument-based approach and the story-based or narrative approach. In an argument-based approach, arguments are constructed by performing consecutive inference steps from the evidence and towards a conclusion, a fact that has to be proven. The narrative approach involves constructing stories, coherent accounts of the facts about “what happened” in the case, that causally explain the evidence.

I have argued that both arguments and stories are needed in order to do justice to all the relevant reasoning mechanisms as they are recognised and used by legal decision makers and investigators. Hence, I have proposed a logical “hybrid” theory of reasoning with causal rules (c causes e) – the basic elements of stories – and evidential rules (e is evidence for c) – the basic elements of arguments. I further show that from a formal logical point of view, causal stories and evidential arguments are interchangeable: we can express the same knowledge or reasoning as a story or an argument and get the same results, at least from the perspective of non-monotonic logics for argumentation.

Abstract Paul van den Hoven

Floris Bex in recent work shows that in the context of a (formalized) theory about the process of legal proof stories and arguments can be considered “two sides of the same coin”.

From a rhetorical point of view indeed there exists a systematic relation between narration and argumentation. Therefore it is predictable that a ‘call for action’, even an abstract one as accepting something as a plausible representation of reality, can be conveyed by means of a predominantly argumentative discourse format, or a predominantly narrative discourse format. However, does that mean that these formats are to be considered or ought to be considered as equivalent as far as they convey an appeal to reason?

Generally speaking, it seems that rhetors makes a deliberate choice to predominantly employ one of the options. Also Floris Bex considers the one format in specific situations intuitively as ‘more natural’ than the other. Judges in their written opinions prefer argumentative formats, while parties seem to prefer narrative formats. Persuasion research strongly suggests that subjects prefer information about underlying mechanisms that explain causal relations (‘stories’) above information about the extent of covariance between (presumed) cause and effect (‘evidence’) and that such narratives are also more convincing.

Are these preferences and these empirical effects rational components in human decision making, and do they therefore plea against a model that treats stories and arguments as two sides of the same coin. Or are they signs of the ‘irrational component’, and do they therefore support a (normative) model that treats stories and arguments as interchangeable?