Begging the Question
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Consider the image of a Ferris wheel. As you know, a Ferris wheel is a large rotating wheel with many passenger cars along its border. As the wheel rotates, the passenger car in which the passenger sits moves the passenger upward toward the highest point of the wheel, only to then move it downward toward the lowest point of the wheel once the highest point is reached. It's obvious that the rotation of the wheel, then, is a circular motion and that it is as if the single passenger car is moving along the perimeter (or outside border) of that circle.
Let's pick any point on that border and call it Z. Let's say that Z is the location along the border of the circle, formed by the Ferris wheel, at which your passenger car currently hangs. Let's say that, for whatever reason, as the wheel rotates, you decide that you'd like to be back in location Z (maybe the view of the pier is amazing from that position). Would you request that the Ferris wheel start rotating in the opposite direction? Would you shake your head in despair, knowing that you'll never return to Z? Of course not; that would be absurd. Instead, you would just wait. Because of the nature of the movement of a Ferris wheel, you can be sure that, however long it might take, you'll be back at Z. That's nature of circular movement.
Why bring up Ferris wheels and circular movement in this post about a logical fallacy? Because this fallacy, begging the question, goes by another name: arguing in a circle. Arguments that beg the question (or argue in a circle) assume the conclusion that they set out to prove. In other words, they start at Z only to end at Z. And it is intuitively clear that such an argument won't convince anyone unless that person already believes the conclusion. It is also intuitively clear that such an argument cannot provide any basis or reason for believing a claim, since the argument has assumed that claim in defending it.
How do you spot when someone is begging the question? This is one of those fallacies that, in my opinion, is hard to spot. Generally speaking, arguments that beg the question fall into two categories: the completely obvious and the very subtle. People are, even without an education in logic, generally able to catch the completely obvious and try to avoid it when they make arguments. Therefore, most instances of begging the question are subtle. You have to pay attention to the structure of an argument and how various claims in the argument relate to one another.
Let's do what we've done before and imagine a sample conversation between a Christian and non-Christian:
Non-Christian: You believe in the Bible, right?
Non-Christian: That's just one of my problems with Christianity. How can you believe that the Bible has been given to you from God? Muslims believe the same thing. So do other religious people about their texts and their gods.
Christian: Well, I'd say that it's reasonable to believe the Bible because of 2 Timothy 3:16, which says, "All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be fully capable, equipped for every good work."
Non-Christian: That's hardly convincing! You're saying that I should believe the Bible because the Bible says so!
Is the non-Christian right here? Is there something wrong with defending the Bible with the Bible? There is an important distinction to make here between a reason for believing a claim and an argument for a claim. A reason for believing a claim is not necessarily an argument. You look outside and see a tall oak tree in your front yard; you believe therefore that "there is a big oak tree in the front yard." Your perceiving the oak tree is a reason for believing that it is there, but it is not an argument for the existence of the oak tree.
Similarly, Christians regard the Bible as the Word of God. Therefore, they trust that when 2 Timothy 3:16 tells them that the Bible is inspired by God, this claim is true. Therefore, they believe that God inspired the Bible. This is a reason for believing that the Bible is from God, but it is not an argument for inspiration. If it were an argument for inspiration, it would beg the question.
Let's put it another way. Let's say that you were to make this claim:
Claim 1: The Bible is God's Word because 2 Timothy 3:16 says that.
Let's say that someone were to ask you why it is that 2 Timothy 3:16 is trustworthy or worth listening to. This person may suggest that, for all we know, Paul was lying to us when he wrote that verse. To defend claim 1, you then affirm a second claim:
Claim 2: 2 Timothy 3:16 is true because it is God's Word.
And now the circle is complete. Your only reason for affirming what 2 Timothy 3:16 says is that you already believe that the Bible is inspired. Therefore, an argument for inspiration from that verse is question-begging and is therefore invalid. Does this suggest that believing that the Bible is inspired by God is unreasonable? Not at all. It just means that such a claim cannot be defended in that way with an argument from 2 Timothy 3:16.
Question-begging arguments tend to work only for people who already agree with the conclusion of the argument. And, as Christian apologists, we want to (as much as we can) make arguments that are compelling for those who disagree with us. Another important point should be raised here. Since question-begging arguments tend to work only for people who already agree with the conclusion of the argument, all groups of like-minded people have a tendency to make question-begging arguments. Thus, in trying to catch question-begging arguments, two things are necessary:
A good understanding of the worldview of the person with whom we're interacting. What are their basic presuppositions, and how do those presuppositions inform the claims that they make?
A solid understanding of how propositions logically relate to one another. Stay tuned to this blog for more training in that regard.
A good understanding of what it means to beg the question will help you to sense when others' arguments assume their conclusions and when you do the same. Thus, it helps us to become better in these discussions all-around.
That's it for this post! These posts are intended to very short and easy to read. I want them to a helpful resource for reference and an introductory resource for people who haven't been exposed to these concepts. I hope that the content will be edifying to you. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!
For the sake of full disclosure, this is the main resource that I will be using for this series. This is an excellent textbook and worth checking into if you want more information on the subject:
Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.