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.