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.

Example:

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?

Comments

I appreciate your thoughtful response.

Your response, which contains several logical arguments, begs the question. It presupposes reason exists. Prove your presupposition.
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,

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:

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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