“I Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God”—therefore, the Bible is God’s Word!” This is often heard, and may initially sound good, but it is guilty of circular reasoning—“begging the question.” This logical fallacy is a tricky one, and even gets the most careful thinker from time to time. So, let’s learn to identify and avoid it, in order to have healthy conversations and find truth!
Defining The Fallacy
When someone is begging the question, he smuggles his conclusion into his premise. Then, voila, the conclusion is “proven.” You are “stacking the deck” in favor of your conclusion.
However, a conclusion is only proven if the premises are true (see here). But for the premises to be true, they must exist logically prior to the conclusion. In other words, they must be true “before” or independently of the conclusion. Begging the question violates this principle.
Examples of This Fallacy:
Above I gave an example that can be “formalized” in this way:
Premise 1: The Bible is inspired by God, and therefore, all its statements are true.
Premise 2: The Bible states it is inspired by God.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is inspired by God.
By clarifying the premises and conclusion, we clearly see the fallacy. The conclusion is not proven at all, since the first premise (on which the conclusion is based) already assumes what is to be proven. (For an argument for the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy not based on circular reasoning see my series beginning here.)
Politicians often employ this fallacy in their rhetoric. For instance, one may say, “Discerning voters understand the real issue here is equality. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t be so committed to my policy.”
Premise 1: Voters who are discerning come to my conclusion.
Premise 2: Most voters are discerning.
Conclusion: Therefore, discerning voters will come to my conclusion.
The conclusion is that if a voter is discerning, he or she will agree with the politician. But this is already stated in Premise 1! So it is no wonder the conclusion follows—the “question has been begged.”
We also see this in advertising. A watch commercial makes the “argument” that if you have great taste, you will wear a Rolex. The formalized argument can be stated like this:
Premise 1: If you wear a Rolex, everyone will know you have good taste in watches.
Premise 2: So, you should choose to wear a Rolex.
Conclusion: Then, your good taste in watches will be evident to all.
Again, the conclusion is no conclusion at all—it is just a restatement of the premise. But that is question: is the premise true? Just stating it again as the conclusion doesn’t make it so. What is needed is an (independent) argument for the premise. And that is precisely what is lacking when someone begs the question.
This fallacy raises its ugly head often in classrooms and discussions of spiritual things. For instance, a friend or professor may “argue” that your inclination to believe in God can be fully explained by brain chemistry. Formalized, the argument goes something like this:
Premise 1: Since everything is material, everything can be fully explained in the language of chemistry and physics.
Premise 2: Your belief in God is something to be explained.
Conclusion: Therefore, your belief in God can be fully explained in the language of chemistry and physics.
Again, written out formally surfaces the question being begged.
How to Spot Question Begging
When you suspect question-begging is in the neighborhood, stop and think about what is really being said. The best way to do this is to “formalize” the argument. Identify the person’s premises leading to his conclusion. If you are not used to identifying premises and conclusions, you may need to grab a pen and paper.
Start by jotting down the conclusion he wants you to believe. Then list the supporting data (premises) given which leads to this conclusion. What is being assumed? What is the evidence in support of what is assumed? Jot these down as premises. If you re-write the conclusion in one of the premises, “Eureka”—you’ve found the question being begged. After some practice this will become easier, and you won’t need pen and paper any longer.
For example, in preparation to write this post I was consulting Logic: A Complete Introduction. In the section discussing question begging the author begs the question! She is giving this as an example of question begging:
[Premise] 1 Only things that have minds can think.
[Premise] 2 Computers do not have minds.
[Conclusion] 3 Therefore, computers cannot think.
She believes this is question begging because she assumes Premise 2 is simply a restatement of the conclusion. If so, she is right. However, if there are independent reasons to believe Premise 2 is true, this it is a valid and sound argument (and not question begging).
To show Premise 2 is simply a restatement of the conclusion she offers the first of two supporting arguments. Her aim is to show computers do have minds. She states:
We can determine whether a machine is intelligent prior to determining whether it can think or has a mind. Since thinking is a sign of intelligence, some may argue that a sufficiently intelligent machine indeed thinks.
In other words, intelligence is the same as thinking, and machines (computers) are intelligent. Therefore, machines think—they have minds.
But something sounds fishy here. When you get that feeling, it’s a good time to stop and formalize the argument. Let’s do that with her argument in the paragraph above:
Premise 1*: An indication of having a mind (thinking) is having intelligence (“... thinking is a sign of intelligence...”)
Premise 2*: Machines have intelligence. (“... We can determine whether a machine is intelligent prior to determining whether it can think or has a mind.”)
Conclusion*: Therefore, machines think—have a mind (“...a sufficiently intelligent machine indeed thinks...”) because thinking is an indication of intelligence.
Wait a minute! The question is whether a machine has a mind (can think, has intelligence). The conclusion is that machines do think (have minds). But this just restates Premise 2*: that machines have intelligence—which she has equated with having a mind (thinking) in Premise 1*! She is building her conclusion into her premises—begging the question—in order to defend her example of question begging!
Note: sometimes the conclusion is not smuggled into the first premise, but a subsequent premise(s), as in this case. She does this again in the second supporting argument she offers to show computers have minds:
Functionalism, a theory in the philosophy of mind, argues that a mind should be identified by its function, rather than what it is made of. Thus, if two objects exhibit the same function, then they should be granted the same status. It follows that if a machine performs with exactly the same intelligence as a human, then it is possible that it has a mind.
Formally, the argument can be stated this way:
Premise 1**: Functionalism (a philosophy of mind) says that “a mind should be identified by its function” (“rather than what it is made of”—the view known as Substance Dualism).
Premise 2**: If Functionalism is true, a machine performing the same functions as a (human) mind also has a mind—the machine also has intelligence. (“...if two objects exhibit the same function, then they should be granted the same status.”)
Premise 3**: Functionalism is true: a mind (intelligence) is identified by its functions.
Conclusion**: Therefore (“It follows...) Functionalism is true: since a machine performs the same functions as a mind (“...performs with exactly the same intelligence as a human...”) they are identical (they both have intelligence).
Premise 1** is true. This is an accurate description of the view in philosophy of mind known as Functionalism.
And Premise 2** is true. If Functionalism is true, a machine has intelligence, because having a “mind” or “intelligence” is nothing more than exhibiting certain functions.
But Premise 3** simply states the conclusion—that Functionalism is true and therefore, machines think (computers have minds).
Putting it this way the error becomes obvious. Premise 3** is asserted without argument, and this makes the conclusion (a restatement of Premises 2** and 3**) true. She again begs the question.
To avoid begging the question she would have to defend this assumption—which isn’t easy to do—there are many good arguments against Functionalism. As is, she simply asserts Premise 3**, and then reasserts this as the conclusion. (Note: she downplays the conclusion with the words “it is possible”—but logically, if her premises are true, this is not only possible, but shown to be true.)
How to Correct Question Begging
Once a case of question begging has been identified and the hard work of identifying the smuggled-in premise(s) is/are identified, this fallacy is relatively easy to correct. It is simply a matter of pointing out the person has smuggled his conclusion into the premise, the conclusion does not follow, and asking for independent reasons to think this premise is true.
Of course, this is the “science” of the conversation, but there is also an “art” to doing this—asking with tact, humility, and gentleness. You might say something like, “That’s interesting. I’m wondering how you came to determine that—what evidence has led you to that conclusion?” If he states the conclusion again as evidence, keep pressing the point: “But you are just telling me again what you concluded. It is not evidence that your conclusion is right. What other reasons do you have to believe that?” And so on.
By practicing both the art and science of good thinking and conversations about important issues of truth, faith, goodness, and beauty, Christians can model how to promote human flourishing and the common good. We can get conversations back on track—both in personal interactions and in the public square. We can also better fulfill the greatest commandment to “Love God with all our ...minds.” (Luke 10:27) My hope is discussing these six common fallacies are helpful to these ends.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading, see Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks’ Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking.