Begging the Question

One meaning of the term "beg" is "to take for granted without justification." To "beg the question," then, is to attempt to answer a question, by taking for granted, or assuming without justification, the very point that is at issue. For example, if you were to ask me why I watch so many stupid movies, you would actually be taking for granted the point I am least likely to grant, namely that the movies I watch are stupid.  On the other hand, if you were to ask me why I like slapstick comedy and I replied "Because I think slapstick is funny," then I would be begging the point at issue which is why I find slapstick funny.  That is, ordinarily, when someone asks why why you like a form of humor, theassumption is that you find it funny. (Notice, by the way, that I would not have been begging the question if my answer had been "I just think slapstick is funny." In that case what I am really telling you is that I don't have an answer to your question at all.) Now, just as people rarely commit explicit contradictions, people are rarely very explicit in begging the question, either. You don't need any training in logic to see that answering a question in that way is unhelpful. The problem is that we often beg the question, or get the question begged against us, without realizing it.

The simplest way to beg the question is to use words that mean the same thing as those that occur in the question itself. For example, the question "How does one make money in the stock market?" can be answered "Buy low, sell high." That's an old joke that is supposed to be funny because selling stocks for more than you bought them for is just what it means to make money in the stock market. Of course, anyone who poses the question will already know that, what they really want to know is how to pick stocks that are going to rise in value. To take a similar example, suppose you asked one of your classmates how she manages to do so well in her logic course. Now you might expect her to answer that she studies hard, that she's had a logic class before, that she has a talent for abstract thinking, or even that she cheats. While these answers are not all equally informative, none of them actually beg the question. But if she were to say "I just do well on all the assignments," this would beg the question entirely.

The examples of begging the question we've given so far involve circular reasoning. To reason circularly is just to give a reason that brings you back to the conclusion, either by presupposing the truth of the conclusion or by restating the conclusion, usually in other words. We define the fallacy of circularity as follows:


Def.: Giving a reason for a conclusion that either presupposes the truth of the conclusion or simply restates the conclusion.

Circular reasoning can be difficult to detect for a few different reasons. The first is that sometimes we don't realize that the reason is just another way of stating the conclusion. For example, if Butch is afraid of heights, we say that he has acrophobia. 'Acrophobia' is just the technical term for "the fear of heights". Now there is nothing inherently wrong with using a technical term like this and substituting it for the more ordinary expression. However, it is circular to say that Butch is afraid of heights because he has acrophobia. Since the two expressions mean the same thing, this is no different than saying that Butch is afraid of heights because he is afraid of heights. Circular reasoning is actually very common in the practice of medicine. The reason is that we often give diseases technical names even though we don't understand what causes them. AIDS was once a good example of this. Before HIV was discovered, the term "AIDS" simply referred to a syndrome, which in this case was just a bunch of patients exhibiting similar symptoms. At that point in time it would have been circular to tell a person who was exhibiting these symptoms that it was happening because they had AIDS. However, doctors may well have said this sort of thing anyway because it sounds better than "We don't know what you have, but a lot of other people seem to have it, too." Another good example of this kind of circularity involves the concept of gravity. Almost everyone will agree that an object falls to earth because of the pull of gravity. However, the scientific use of the term does not necessarily justify that way of talking. For example, Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation is just a mathematical equation that tells us that masses move toward each other at a rate proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton himself insisted that the law of gravity doesn't tell us why objects do this, rather it just gives a precise mathematical description of the fact that they do.

A slightly different form of circularity occurs when a reason presupposes the truth of a conclusion without actually meaning the same thing. This can be difficult to spot. Consider the following example:

"I know Barb couldn't have stolen Butch's wallet because Barb is a close friend of mine, and I would never be close friends with a thief."

In this example, no reason has been given that simply means the same thing as the conclusion, but it is still circular. This is because, for the speaker, the statement, "Barb is a friend of mine" presupposes that Barb is not a thief. But it the speaker is simply presupposing that her friends are not thieves, then simply telling us that Barb is her friend isn't going to convince us of anything since we do not presuppose that at all; hence, it begs the question why her friends can't be thieves.

Circularity can be difficult to detect because the chain of reasoning employed is long or verbally complicated. For example:

Democracy is by far the best form of government because the alternatives, like professional bureaucracies, oligarchies, monarchies, or dictatorships do not allow private citizens to participate in the political process by electing their government officials.

In this case you may have to think a little while before you remember that democracy just is the form of government that allows the participation of private citizens. In other words, this sentence really just says that democracy is the best form of government because it is the only thing that is a democracy. It doesn't tell us why a form of government that allows for the participation of its citizens is better than one that doesn't.

Now consider the following statements:

1. People who have healthy diets do not need to take vitamin supplements.

2. One fifth of the world's population lives below the poverty line.

3. People with positive attitudes tend to live healthier, happier lives.

At the very least, these statements probably seem to you to claims about the world, claims that may be either true or false. But now, what if you were to learn that the person making these claims actually defines the key terms as follows:

1'. "healthy diet" means "a diet that renders all vitamin supplements unnecessary"

2'. "poverty line" means "the poorest one fifth of a given population."

3'. "positive attitude" means "attitudes that promote health and happiness."

You should be able to see that each of these definitions would render the corresponding statement utterly vacuous. For example, if "healthy diet" is defined as in 1', then 1 can simply be rewritten as:

1. People who have healthy diets have healthy diets.

The same sort of substitutions can be performed on 2 and 3 as well. The result is that in each case something that at first sounded very much like an interesting empirical statement, i.e., a statement about the world, turns out to be utterly without content and, moreover, necessarily true. In fact, we can say (non circularly!) that these statement are necessarily true because they have no content. Now we are in a position to understand a deep form of question begging known as A Priorism.

A Priorism

Def.: The systematic refusal to count anything as evidence against the truth of a (purportedly) empirical statement.

"A priori" is a Latin term meaning "prior to experience". A statement is said to be known a priori if no empirical claim can count as evidence against it. All statements that are true by definition have this property, but so do some other statements that are not mere definitions. For example, a mathematical truth like 2+2=4 is often said to be known a priori, even though it is not contentless.

The basic idea of this fallacy is just that people often say things like 1-3 above, intending for them to be understood as statements about the world. However, when these statements are actually called into question, they are defended in such a way that nothing seems to count as evidence against them. In other words, what was initially presented as an empirical statement, is defended as if it is necessarily true. Let's consider an example:

Butch: Everyone with a good sense of humor likes my jokes.

Barb: Actually, I think your jokes are puerile and rather offensive.

Butch: Well, you have a lousy sense of humor, then

Barb: And why do you think that?

Butch: Simple. You don't like my jokes.

This exchange invokes a standard a prioristic pattern, in which the mere fact that a person objects to what has been said gets counted as the best reason for thinking that the objection is wrong. The most important point to notice, however, is that Butch's reasoning suggests very strongly that what he means by "someone with a good sense of humor" is "someone who likes my jokes." And if this is the case, then what he is saying is necessarily true, and therefore without content.

Here is another example of a priorism:

I believe the AIDS virus was created as part of a government conspiracy to eliminate homosexuals and ethnic minorities from American society. This has been denied strenuously by the U.S. government, which, as far as I'm concerned, is all the more reason for believing it.

If you are familiar with the Salem witchcraft trials you might profitably think of this as "witch hunt reasoning," since it was precisely this pattern of reasoning that was invoked to produce evidence that someone was a witch: i.e., it was thought that the more strenuously an accused witch denied the charges, the more likely she was a witch. It is also sometimes called "Catch 22" because, in the book Catch 22, by Joseph Heller, the only way to be discharged from the military was to show that you were psychotic, however by definition, anyone who would attempt to get out of the military by showing they were psychotic, could not be psychotic.

Moral: People can be so convinced of the truth of things they believe in that they can not even imagine what it would be like for these beliefs to be false. This may  be a virtue when it comes to religious faith or certain kinds of moral and ideological commitment. But in the realm of empirical inquiry it is dangerously dogmatic. Philosophers sometimes say that a basic feature of any meaningful statement about the world is that it has to be possible to conceive of it as false. The point of the fallacy of a priorism is that any statement you are unable to at least conceive of as false is something that everyone else is perfectly entitled to ignore.