The "Begging The Question Fallacy" Fallacy

Ever run into the begging the question fallacy fallacy?

That is not a typo. The word fallacy is meant to be repeated. What do I mean?

Begging the question simply means that someone is using circular logic. They are using the conclusion of an argument to defend the premise of the argument.

Person A claims, pollution is causing the ice caps to melt.
Person B asks, how do you know?
Person A replies, because the ice caps are shrinking.

Person A used the conclusion to defend his claim. Perhaps some kind of planetary climate cycles are causing global warming rather than pollution. Person A begged the question. Circular reasoning is clearly a bad thing.

However, there are times when circular reasoning is unavoidable.


Person A claims: Logic makes rational sense.
Person B asks, how do you really know that?
Person A replies, because it is irrational not to think logic makes sense.

Person A's argument is circular. It begs the question, does it not? Does it invalidate person A's argument, however?

It turns out that circularity is unavoidable at some point for everyone but we have learned to make peace with it.

All knowledge requires a starting point (if you are sensing that I am begging the question in claiming that, you are right). Knowledge cannot accumulate without base assumptions. Those base assumptions, however, are assumed and used to defend themselves … circularity.

Why bring this up on an apologetics blog?

I have friends who are atheists who like to bring out the begging the question fallacy fallacy in worldview discussions. When I tell them, my starting point to knowledge is "God Is", for example, they throw a flag in hopes of assessing a 15 yard "question begging" penalty.

Should I be concerned?

Hardly. It is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. They are committing the exact same fallacy, they just are blind to their own infraction.

Implicit in their argument is that the assumed proper starting point for knowledge is "Reason Is", and that "God Is" must be proven using the bar of reason or it is a false claim. The problem is, of course, "Reason Is" begs the question. So does the claim "God does not exist until reason says so". Think about it.

Does this mean we should all go out and start ignoring this fallacy on a daily basis? No, of course not. Does it mean we should lose interest in demonstrating that Christianity is a reasonable faith? No, of course not. We should, and I applaud the work of my fellow apologists on this blog who do that on a daily basis. I am merely saying that this particular rejoinder loses it force when the discussion is centered on foundational questions.

For example, I was recently engaging with a nice fellow about the basis for morality being grounded in God's transcendence and holy character. He threw a penalty flag on me. He claimed that my argument only makes sense if one accepts my a priori assumptions. My response was (paraphrased), how is his rejoinder relevant? I asked him, how his naturalistic basis for morality escapes this same fallacy. His reply was an honest one … "I don't know." Exactly. He doesn't know because he is committing the same fallacy and it had never occurred to him.

A deeper question to ponder is, can "reason is" have a rational foundation in a universe where "God is" is not true? If your claim is yes, on what basis?


arendtian said…
I stumbled across this post by mere chance while looking for some examples of "begging the question" and thought I'd offer a critique/comments.

Pointing out a fallacy in an argument does not imply that the conclusion is wrong but merely that the premises used to support the conclusion are inadequate or fall short of the task. In your initial illustration of this fallacy, "pollution is causing the ice caps to melt," for example, the conclusion we should draw once we have detected this fallacy is not that this claim is false but only that we should look to other arguments to confirm or deny the conclusion. The premise "because the ice caps are shrinking" is not suitable evidence for us to draw the conclusion "pollution is causing the ice caps to melt." (To be honest, this might be better thought of as a post hoc fallacy)

You move from this example to the claim that "It turns out that circularity is unavoidable at some point for everyone but we have learned to make peace with it." The question to be asked, of course, is "why?" If it is indeed true that there are instances where the best we can do is argue from circularity then the logical conclusion is not to accept "X" as true (or for that matter false) but rather we should conclude that we simply do not have sufficient reason to draw a conclusion one way or the other. What I would like to suggest is that, while arguments for the defense of logic or the existence of God frequently fall into circular reasoning, a defense of neither is limited to such a defense. There are plenty of other arguments available (most bad in my opinion) to defend the existence of God, for example, as there are defend one's reliance on logic or reason. If you are confronted with an argument that ends in circularity then instead of simply "making peace with it" you should try looking for better arguments. If none can be found, best then to acknowledge one's own ignorance with an honest "I don't know."

The bulk of the remainder of your argument seems to rests on a "pot calling the kettle black" defense—that your use of a circular argument to show God's existence is justified because your opponent has also used a circular argument. This is itself a glaring example of a rather notorious and common fallacy: the ad hominem tu quoque. This is (as I imagine you know) a defense of one's conclusion by little more than pointing out the opposition's hypocrisy; that is, by arguing "you do it to." The logical problem with such a defense is that you are essentially avoiding the argument and instead attacking the person making it. If, for example, someone argues that "it is wrong to steal and thus you should not steal," you do not counter the truth of this proposition by saying "well, I’ve seen you steal so it must be ok." Simply put, you "begging the question" is not justified because the person you are arguing with also "begs the question." Neither qualify as a good argument.
I appreciate your thoughtful response.

Your response, which contains several logical arguments, begs the question. It presupposes reason exists. Prove your presupposition.
arendtian said…
You ask me to prove my presupposition . . . how shall I do that if not through the use of logic? Epictetus, in his Discourses, offered a satisfying reply to this request--When one of his audience said, "Convince me that logic is useful," he said:

"Would you have me demonstrate it?"
"Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument?"

And, when the other agreed, he said,

"How then shall you know if I impose upon you?"

And when the man had no answer, he said,

"You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this
much—whether it is necessary or not."

For my part, I openly concede that confidence in reason is a postulate of faith. We cannot say with unequivocal, unwavering certainty if something is logical that it is an accurate representation of reality or truth. But, I would argue, such "faith" is a practical necessity, and the rejection of reasoning presents us with a serious problem. What exactly is the alternative? Argumentation is little more than offering reasons for a conclusion or a claim and logic merely sets out to evaluate these reasons. If you are unwilling to consider and evaluate reasons for a particular claim then any claim is just as acceptable as any another. "God exists" is just as acceptable as "God doesn't exist."

One may approach a claim or proposition in one of two ways: he may look at (and evaluate with logic) the reason reasons given to support these claims OR he may accept or reject these claims in a knee-jerk fashion, based on caprice or simple whim. The later, is (to me) unacceptable and impractical.

Yes, I presuppose reason "exists" or at least that it is an acceptable means of intellectually approaching the world (as I imagine you do) and not merely because reason is inherently compelling but because I find the alternative to be unacceptable. I agree that all knowledge is grounded on presuppositions (I consider my self a philosophical hermeneut) but if we are debating God's existence it is precisely this presupposition that is being questioned and it is at this point that it becomes disingenuous to presuppose it. If you are debating God's existence and you point out that I presuppose "reason" the obvious reply is "do you also presuppose reason? If not then we must shuffle the debate back a step . . . but if so then please let us get on with the actual debate."
Sorry for the delayed response on my part ... if you are still reading ...

"But, I would argue, such "faith" is a practical necessity, and the rejection of reasoning presents us with a serious problem. What exactly is the alternative?"

In other words, you are allowed to "beg the question" out of practical necessity. Your circularity is permissible because you see no alternative (nor do I). It seems we will simply have to commit the fallacy together in order to continue the discussion.

So perhaps the begging the question fallacy is not really a fatal fallacy after all ... at least on the question "reason exists".

The question then becomes, when does is this fallacy really a fallacy we need to care about, and when is it a fallacy that can be ignored as you and I just agreed we would do.

There is still one nasty problem with presupposing "reason exists". We have no rational foundation to accept this claim. All we have is your statement, "what alternative is there?" Is that really a foundation or merely a fall back, philosophical god of the gaps approach?

Why should the laws of induction be trustworthy tomorrow? Is there any rational basis to presuppose they will? What guarantees it?

This is a rather nasty problem.

It seems we need to establish a rational foundation for "reason exists" if we are going to use reason as the bar to assess whether or not "God exists" is allowed a free pass on the begging the question fallacy or not.
arendtian_ said…
Sorry I didn’t respond any sooner . . . I have been thinking about the topic off and on but only just checked back in. (I had to re-register so the user name is slightly different)

You suggest that the problem with presupposing "reason exists" is that we have no rational foundation to accept this claim. I would like to first suggest (as an aside) that to say I presuppose "reason exists" is an inaccurate or at least a potentially misleading description of my basic position in that it reifies the concept of reason and suggests a sort of "reality" that shouldn't be applied to it. Particularly when set along side claims such as "God is," to say "reason is" suggests a sort of concrete existence that it does not have nor does it claim to have. The question is better put as such: "Why should I accept 'reason' as a credible medium of discourse, as an acceptable means of evaluating an argument?" And again, if something is illogical this implies merely that the premises used to support the conclusion in an argument are inadequate or fall short of the task—the argument is simply unconvincing.

A deeper problem with your position (that we have no rational foundation to accept reasoned arguments) is that you create a paradox, one that can only bring to an end to discussion and does nothing to actually look for an answer to the question. You ask that I give you proof, defend my position . . . but insist in the same breath that I can't give you any reasons for my position. You have disallowed any response from the outset. There is an old paradox that the accused alcoholic often faces:

Person A - "You are an alcoholic"
Person B - "No I'm not . . . I rarely drink and have only been good and drunk maybe five time in my life."
Person A - "Denial is the first stage of alcoholism and thus your denial only proves it."

Whatever evidence person B gives, Person A dismisses as simply denial. There is, in other words, no point in B discussing the issue with A at all. This is, by the way, an example of yet another fallacy called "Poisoning the Well." It is simply disingenuous.

I suggested earlier that in any discussion there are a good many presuppositions that are assumed at the outset. This is so because without such presuppositions we can never actually discuss any issue. If, for example, we are going to debate the "benevolence of God" then we need to begin with the assumption that God exists. If we cannot agree to accept this point (even if only for the sake of the argument) then there is no point in discussing His nature. Even in discussing whether or not "reason exists" we assume a good number things: that we both have a reasonably similar understanding of the language we are using, for example, or simply that the other person we are talking to really exists. Frankly, I see no problem with making these sorts of assumptions because if we do not then we can never really discuss anything—that is why I take it as a practical necessity. If we were going to go see a movie together and we were discussing which movie to see it would be rather pointless for me to say "well, how do I know you even exist? Lets get through that before we start discussing which movie to see" (and when we are done there we need to prove that movies exist as well).

You suggest

"we need to establish a rational foundation for 'reason exists' if we are going to use reason as the bar to assess whether or not 'God exists' is allowed a free pass on the begging the question fallacy or not."

I disagree. If we cannot get ourselves past the discussion of whether or not we should accept reason as a valid means of weighing an argument then we will never find satisfactory grounds to even begin to discuss the question of God's existence. If you bring serious doubts about the legitimacy of reason in a debate about the existence of God then you should not be discussing the issue just yet. By introducing this dilemma you have done nothing to advance your position. Rather, you have only postponed the discussion of it or shuffled it back a step.

I would also like to point out, as a practical issue for you, that your rejection of logic is as problematic to the apologist (if not more so) as it is to the skeptic. You wish a free pass to argue that "God exists because God exists." Well, I then take the same liberties to argue that "God doesn't exist because God doesn't exist" or that "God doesn't exist because I saw it asserted on a website that said so and so it must be true" or that "God doesn't exist because last week when I went to the store the price of my favorite beer had gone up 55¢" and so on. Whatever "reasons" you might give to suggest that these various lines of thought are unconvincing (even absurd) I need only point out that you are assuming that "reason exists" and until you can conclusively prove otherwise my arguments stand. There is as much cause to believe any of the above claims as there is to accept yours.

We are getting a little off topic in our thread. The original thread was about circular thinking. So far you have been unable to prove why reason is intelligible without appealing to reason to make your case. You begged the question, because you assumed the conclusion in your premises and in the construction of your argument.

Ok, now on to the side threads :)

Re: rational justification.

I think you missed the thrust of rational justification point. Let me try and ask a different way ... what are the preconditions for the universality of the laws of logic?

Re: Existence of God

Explain why, in your view, why God must be proven and not assumed? In your view, would it be irrational to assume God is there? Why or why not?

Re: rejection of logic

I am not rejecting logic ... I am asking what are the preconditions for it to make sense? Once you answer that, the question of God's existence answers itself, in my view.

Re: "God doesn't exist because God doesn't exist"

That argument for atheism makes as much sense as the argument that "God doesn't exist because there is no proof that he exists" ... at least until the atheist can defend how the preconditions of the universality of the laws of logic could exist in universe that is constituted by nothing more than matter in motion.
arendtian_ said…
The original topic was most certainly not just about circular reasoning—it was an attempt to justify the use of circular reasoning under select circumstances, the sort of sticky circumstances where you as an apologist would like a free pass from having to deal with the logical consequences of your argument. You only introduce the question of whether or not logic can exist without God in the last sentence and as a “deeper,” side question.

You keep asking me “to prove why reason is intelligible” all the while insisting that this is done “without appealing to reason to make your case.” That is like saying “I want you to sing me a song without making a single noise” or “I want you to jog around the room without moving a single muscle” (and then gloating over the inevitable failure). If you genuinely want me to “prove” why reason is intelligible then you are asking me to give you an argument and this in turn implies that I need to use reason (good or bad) to fill your request. If you insist, from the outset, that I can’t give you any reasons to prove the validity of logic then naturally I am left mute—but not because there aren’t reasons, rather because you are contradicting yourself. There is nothing special about a failure to defend reason under such superficial and constraining conditions—one would fail just as readily to prove anything. It is disingenuous to say the least.

Your argument reminds me of Xeno’s paradoxes. In one of his paradoxes he assert something to the effect that you can never actually cross from one end of a room to the other because before you can ever get to the other side you must first reach the half way point. And from this new position you must again first reach the halfway point between there and the other end of the room . . . and so on. These sorts of intellectual quandaries are fun but of little practical import. Reality quickly discredits Xeno’s Paradox and a person need only walk across the room and out the door to show that there is something amiss. Xeno drew from this (as a student of Parminides) that being (existing matter) is everywhere indivisible and the same, motionless and unchangeable. The conclusion hardly follows with any sort of certainty but, even if true, it has no real practical import—I am positive that Xeno still made his way from his bed to the breakfast table most every morning and that (whether mere appearance or not) he went about his business in such a way as to deal with constant change and motion. The un-provability of reason as an absolute, unquestionable certainty presents a fun sort of paradox but equally has little practical import. As I said before, if you want to debate anything (even the legitimacy of reason) you are going to fall back on “giving reasons” to make your case and (ideally) evaluating them in terms of logic. If you are genuinely stuck on whether or not we should use reason in a debate then there is no moving on from this point to even ask is God exists.

In regards to the attempt to justify your circularity in assuming “God is”:

What is so patently fraudulent about your various “arguments with atheists” is that you profess to agree with their “assumptions” about reason. Neither party in the dispute (about worldviews or the foundations of morality) is seriously questioning the validity of reason—not you and not the atheist. But you move from this shared conviction to claim that it is ok for you to assume what is a genuinely disputed point. Indeed, if the other “throws a penalty flag” and identifies your circularity you go so far as to claim that HE commits a fallacy (the “begging the question fallacy” fallacy). You say you don’t reject logic, then apply it. Logic dictates that “begging the question” is an inappropriate an fallacious means of trying to prove a point. But even if circularity in the defense of reason is unavoidable and excusable (as you seem to claim) why would this give you a “free pass” to assume whatever “foundational” (and clearly contested) position you want? If you accept reason, as you suggest, and actually apply it then clearly you have no grounds whatsoever to assume the contested point that “God exists.” If you do in fact reject reason (or, as it seems, selectively so) then we have no grounds to discuss the issue at all.

As a mere practical point for the apologist--you will never convince anyone that “God exists” if all you can offer to back up your claim is that “God exists” any more than I would convince you with the argument that “God does not exists because God does not exist.” Both are terrible and completely unconvincing arguments and far from making your case by insisting on such circular reasoning all you have accomplished is to put an end to the discussion. If you can assume whatever foundational point you wish without presenting an argument in its favor then your opponent is free to do the same.

You ask “why must God be proven and not assumed?” Within the context of an argument the question of God’s existence can reasonably be assumed either if both parties already are convinced of the fact or if there is a willingness to assume it ‘for the sake of argument’ by he who is not so convinced. If there is genuine doubt then of course you should not simply assume it—it is what you are debating. As a personal matter (and outside the context of an argument) I would still say the most acceptable position is still to not make such assumptions (which is why I am an agnostic). Why? Simply because it is genuinely unknown. (if it was known with reasonable certainty then what is the point of faith?) To attempt to defend this position imagine that you are at a theater watching a play and that the play is droll enough to let your mind wander. You notice on stage in the background a small bookshelf full of books and you cannot tell if it is a real bookshelf with real books set on stage or if it is merely convincingly painted on the backdrop. You ponder the question off and on for the bulk of the play and really cannot decide one way or another. At the play’s end, you leave with the rest of the crowd and never have a chance to go up on stage and find out. In such a situation does it really make sense to commit yourself to the belief that the books were real (or vise versa)? Or should you simply “suspend judgment” and admit that you don’t know and most likely never will?

In regards to the claim that God is a necessary precondition for the universality of the laws of logic:

Again, this was not the point of your original argument (or if it was it was this conclusion was quite skillfully hidden from view) but only tacked on as a question at the very end of your argument. You ask “what are the preconditions for the universality of the laws of logic?” and assert that “once you answer that, the question of God's existence answers itself.” Why do there have to be any preconditions? The “laws” of logic are simply compelling in their own right—they just make sense. And even if there are “preconditions” (which is hardly assumable) why would this imply the necessity of God? It sets up a rather absurd dichotomy to proclaim that there is either “God and logic” or “no logic at all.”

First of all, I have enjoyed our discussion. You have been quite cordial and enjoyable to chat with. I am glad we have stayed above the snarkiness that can sometimes ruin these comment threads.

Second, this discussion has reinforced a simple point, in my opinion -- without assumptions, we get nowhere ... conversation and thought become impossible without assumptions.

Third, though assumptions are unprovable, our assumptions can checked for consistency and can also be checked for correspondence with reality. To do this, of course, we must make general assumptions (like our perceptions are reliable, our cognitive processes work, the external world is real, logic always works etc). Therefore, even our tests for truth require assumptions.

Fourth, while you may find it absurd to assume that preconditions must exist for the laws of logic/knowledge to hold, others such as David Hume and Betrand Russell did not. They fully recognized the problem of faith in laws such as uniformity.

For example, Hume asked,

"What is the nature of that evidence which assures us of any real existence and matter of fact beyond the present testimony of our senses or the records of our memory.

By what logical right do we claim to know that some empirical generalizations are true?

What are we warranted in asserting based on our experiences?

Only in the past, in cases so far observed, such and such has been the case. We have no basis for projecting that into the future."

Hume questioned one of the most basic laws of science. The law of uniformity. He asked how we can use the past as the basis to prove the future. The past can only prove the past. Assuming it will work in the future is a leap of faith. There truly is no basis for doing so. Hume is right. Unless there is something else that transcends us which by definition guarantees that past laws will be future laws, we have no true basis for believing something as basic as the law of uniformity. We can simply choose to have faith in it, but nothing more. Without the law of uniformity, moreover, inference and therefore knowledge becomes restricted to whatever you can personally see and be aware of in the present.

Without some kind of transcendant force or law or being, there is simply no basis for our most basic assumptions with which we use to construct knowledge itself. At this point, it is just a matter of assigning a name to this transcendent object.

This is why I find the charges of begging the question so ridiculous and hypocritical -- because everyone must beg the question at some level in order to complain about begging the question :-)

Let me clear up one misunderstanding. Since logic is grounded in the character of God, I will gladly use it and understand why you will do the same. You and I are rational creatures capable of applying logic because that is how we were created to be. If it were not so, we would not be having this pleasant chat.

Have a great day.
Anonymous said…
I'm not sure if you are still at this or not ... but I thought I would post anyway. I have been teaching 'critical thinking' (among other things) for the last few years (at a private Jesuit university no less) and I had a student the other day ask me more or less this very question ... why should we accept logic at all; why trust it merely because it seems to make sense?

I found myself (1) thinking back to this particular discussion and (2) better suited to offer a response than I think I would have been without it. So, my humble thanks for making me think about the topic in far more detail than I likely would have if I had never stumbled across your post.

Having re-read the whole thing, I'd like to offer a belated response to your last post. I whole-heartedly agree that we cannot converse or even think without assumptions. As you put it, "without assumptions, we get nowhere ... conversation and thought become impossible without assumptions." Assumptions are (in a very hermeneutic fashion) a precondition to the whole of thought, discussion and debate. But (and there had to be a "but") ... I think that when you are in an argument (in the logical sense) it is simply unacceptable to assume as given the very point that is under contention. If we are arguing about whether or not life exists on other planets it would be rather ridiculous to take as given that "life does exist on other planets" and demand the argument start from this assumption. If we are debating whether or not "abortion is morally acceptable" it would be plainly absurd to demand we start from the premise that "abortion is morally acceptable." Likewise, if you are debating with an atheist whether or not God exists it really makes no sense whatsoever to demand that we presuppose God exists ... Simply put, God's existence is precisely what is under contention—that is exactly what we are arguing about.

Clearly we have to make assumptions whenever we have any argument ... if we are going to debate whether or not God exists, for example, I need to assume that we both essentially understand the English language (or the language we are speaking), that both you and I exist, and that if you or I are going to argue then we need to give reasons for our different positions. If we cannot agree to any of these assumptions then we are not really in the position to have the debate in the first place. If we cannot agree to some very basic "rules" for "reason-giving" then we cannot really even begin to debate the existence of God in the first place. We would first have to resolve that problem (or disagreement) before we can move on to the question of God's existence.

Where your original point goes awry, I would suggest, is simply that the "begging the question" fallacy does not reject making assumptions at all ... it only rejects assuming the very point that we are arguing. Again, if we are arguing about the morality of abortion it would beg the question to assume abortion is either moral or immoral ... but it would not beg the question to assume abortion exists, that fetuses exists, that there are moral standards or (if we both accepted it) that the source of morality is God. If we want to debate whether or not God is omnipotent, then it is perfectly acceptable (even necessary) to assume God exists or at least to suspend judgment over the question. Thus, I would suggest that your assertion "everyone must beg the question at some level in order to complain about begging the question" is just plain wrong. It would only "beg the question" to assume begging the question makes sense if we were arguing about whether or not "begging the question" makes sense. If I presuppose an answer to the very question we are debating and use that as a foundational premise then something is undeniably wrong. If we are arguing about whether or not God exists and you argue (in essence) "God exists because God exist" ... it does not beg the question to point out you have begged the question. At the very most it suggests that we have to stop talking about God's existence at all and first establish whether or not we accept circular reasoning as proof of anything. If we cannot agree about this question, then we cannot really even begin to have the discussion about God's existence in the first place. Once we have our "agreed-on assumptions" in place (even if they are uncritically assumed and whether or not they are right) only then we can start debating God's existence.

I have also enjoyed the discussion it has been both interesting and cordial.
re: "I think that when you are in an argument (in the logical sense) it is simply unacceptable to assume as given the very point that is under contention."

Absolutely agree ... with three exceptions.

1) It is acceptable to assume logic as given when arguing the existence of logic.

2) It is acceptable to assume rationality as given when arguing the existence of rationality.

3) It is acceptable to assume the existence of God when arguing the existence of God.

Since logic and rationality are impossible to ground in a cosmos without a rational God as a foundation, they presuppose the existence of God. Since logic and rationality must be assumed as given in any argument, then the existence of God must be assumed in any argument ... including an argument about the existence of God. :)

Whether we agree or not, you are a fine person and you made my day by your nice comments. Keep on teaching critical thinking and logic. I am sure you are an outstanding teacher.

Merry Christmas.

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