Logical Fallacy of the Day: Begging the Question

In an effort to become a better writer, I’m trying to think critically about the way I construct my arguments. Ultimately the stronger argument will not always win; sophistry often wins out over logic. Still I want to write and speak with integrity and let the chips fall where they may. I’m trying to catch myself in the act as I write an article, chapter, sermon, or blog post, and force myself to always play fair. One of the ways I’m doing this is to constantly review the principles of logic, admitting and hopefully arresting the ways in which I constantly abuse them.

So, in that spirit, here is today’s logical fallacy of the day: Begging the Question.

The fallacy comes from the Latin phrase petitio principii, which means something like “assuming the original point or starting point.” Begging the question, also known as the circular argument, happens whenever a person’s conclusion is embedded in the premise of the question itself. I actually think begging the question is extremely difficult to recognize. Typically this logical fallacy can be disguised with a large vocabulary  and a good laugh line or sound byte.

I once overheard three brothers dividing two candy bars. The oldest one gave each of the two younger ones half of a candy bar, and kept a whole bar for himself. When asked why he got more candy, he said he was the smartest. A few minutes later, one of the younger ones asked why he was the smartest, and in reply the oldest said, ‘Because I have more candy.'” Ernest J. Chave, Personality Development in Children (Univ. of Chicago, 1937), 151.

We beg the question anytime we assume any controversial point that is not also assumed by the other side. We will often begin to explain our own beliefs by standing on ground we have not yet won logically. That’s begging the question.

The phrase “beg the question,” is often misused in common speech. Begging the question is not the same as raising the question. For example: “The young boy fell out of the tree, which begs the question, ‘what was he doing up there in the first place?'” This is not a correct usage of the phrase “begging the question.” One should say, “which raises the question…”

So much of what I read in modern Christian apologetics is a form of begging the question. Begging the question is particularly effective among those who share the same assumptions. The problem comes when they present this argument to those outside the group who do not share the same assumption.

The most common example is, “God’s word is true because it says so in the Bible.” I have often heard someone appeal to the complexity of the human body as a proof of intelligent design. If the question under consideration concerns whether human beings were created by God, or evolved naturally, you might hear this: “Consider the human eye. Could evolution produce something so incredibly complex as the human eye and its interconnections with the brain, reflexes, and cognition? I don’t think so! Something that complex would have to be designed by an intelligent creator.”

Two keys to avoiding this logical fallacy are: 1) exposing our own assumptions. I have found that I must often enlist the help of another person, someone objective who can look at my argument and help expose the ways in which I include my conclusions in our original premise. 2) using data to support the premise. Data means research; research takes time and resources. Perhaps this is why we beg the question so often?

I’m pretty sure I beg the question a lot in my writing. I’m going to have to work hard to avoid this fallacy.

15 Great Gift Ideas for Book Lovers
Wolf Blitzer Moderates Thanksgiving Dinner Like a Political Debate - Happy Thanksgiving Everyone
Logical Fallacy of the Day: The Straw-man
John Jeremiah Sullivan Drills Down on Soft White Liberal Upper-middle-class College Types
About Tim Suttle

Find out more about Tim at TimSuttle.com

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of RedemptionChurchkc.com. He is the author of several books including his most recent - Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band's most recent album is "Straight Back to Kansas." He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • J. Thomas Johnson

    My reading of Hauerwas, for instance, seems to imply that the very essence of a narrative-formed community is to ‘beg the question’. Inter-community dialogue is a challenge, but I think Hauerwas might say that we should compare products and not presuppositions. What say you?

    • Tim_Suttle

      I like it J. I think you might be right that to be a Christian is to live within a story that has been given to us and cannot help but be self referential at some point. This is perhaps why Hauerwas’ idea of evangelism would not be apologetics and logical argument, but transformed lives that are lived in relationship with those outside the shire.

      One of my favorite things about Hauerwas is that he never wants us to appeal to universals – especially not reason as a universal – he wants us to point to Jesus. If we need something more practical then he’ll point to specific people. It’s analogous to the way continental philosophers use stories and parables. It can be frustrating at times, but terribly effective.

  • joncarllewis

    Thank you for this. This will be quite useful, especially in writing sermons!

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

    [The phrase “beg the question,” is often misused in common speech. Begging the question is not the same as raising the question. For example: “The young boy fell out of the tree, which begs the question, ‘what was he doing up there in the first place?’” This is not a correct usage of the phrase “begging the question.” One should say, “which raises the question…”]

    Thank you for including this — though I fear it is too late to correct the problem — language seems to have a life of its own…

    Glory be to God for all things! :)