A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: begging the question

12 May 2015
I agree with most of your analysis on question begging. However, I question your underlying, subversive argument.

The question begging examples are cherry picked from:

· The existence of God,
· Intelligent design,
· Right wing morality,
· The paranormal.

These are traditional areas that skeptics challenge. So your implied argument is:

· Our opponents use bad arguments,
· Therefore our opponents are wrong.

However, you could just as easily have chosen examples where the conclusion is friendly to your cause, but you didn’t. Your underlying intent is obviously an invalid argument.

Kevin Rogers

reply: You may be right that the implication of these examples is that people who beg the question this way are wrong in their beliefs about the existence of a god, abortion, and the paranormal, but that implication isn't a logical one; it is a contextual one. There is no implied argument being made here except in your head and I'm not going to speculate why you react to these examples the way you do. The examples themselves do not imply or claim that no god exists, that abortion is morally justified or should be legal. Nor do they claim that paranormal phenomena do not exist. If, however, you think that the examples of this fallacy that I present are the strongest arguments possible for the existence of a god or the paranormal or for opposing abortion, then you must admit that your positions are based on fallacious reasoning.

On the other hand, you are right about my being capable of choosing examples with conclusions favorable to skepticism. For example, I might have given this example:

We know a god does not exist because we can see the world is completely chaotic and lacks the kind of order you'd expect if a god created it.

I could have used this example, but I didn't and not for the reason you suggest. I didn't use this example because I've never come across this argument. It's completely artificial and does not resonate with the kinds of real arguments real people make. Likewise, I could have used this example:

Abortion is the justified killing of a human being and as such is not murder. Justified killings are legal. So abortion should be legal.

I've never come across this argument. It's artificial. I have come across a related argument that goes something like this.

Abortion is sometimes justified because in some cases killing the fetus is an act of self-defense. To save the life of the mother, the fetus must sometimes be sacrficed.

Whatever else you might think of this argument, it does not beg the question and does not belong with the examples I used.

I could have used the following example:

Paranormal phenomena do not exist because I have never had an experience that could only be described as paranormal.

I've never seen such an argument. Have you? I could go on but I hope you see my point by now. I understand the sensitivity people have to seeing examples of fallacious reasoning put forth in defense of positions they themselves hold dear, but I stand by my examples as real. I know that skeptics and atheists do not have a lock on cogent reasoning, but one reason I am a skeptic, and a liberal as well, is that I have seen such poor reasoning and argumentation in defense of religious ideas, quack medical notions, the paranormal, etc., and , yes, conservative political ideas.

One of the reviewers of my Critical Thinker's Dictionary didn't like it because his conservative beliefs take hit after hit in some of the examples. He writes:

Although there is much useful information in this book about critical thinking, the politically biased examples throughout this book were an extreme turnoff. The author is obviously a liberal democrat, and infused his political beliefs throughout the examples. This would have been a much better book if it had been politically neutral with examples that were less biased.

Another reviewer replied to the comments from the complainer about political bias in the examples:

This reviewer is correct in this assessment. There is decidedly a Progressive bent to the author, though this does not make any of the the points raised invalid. Moreover, Conservatives tend to be more anti-logic and anti-science, so there may simply be more fodder to employ.

There is also the bias the reader brings to anything he or she reads. I start the book with a case study of someone who reasons poorly about vaccinations. I see the example as non-political (the example does not address the issue of requiring vaccinations by the state), but I wouldn't be surprised if the reader who finds my examples too liberal would classify this example as favoring liberalism. Many of my examples have to do with science, religion, philosophy, and a host of topics I would consider politically neutral, but I'll bet there are some sensitive readers who find liberalism lurking behind every example, even the one where I use both Reagan and Obama as examples of benefitting from the cognitive bias known as the halo effect.

Anyway, I make no apologies for my examples in the entry on begging the question nor do I regret the examples used in my books on Critical Thinking, which term I've seen described as "code for liberal" by some conservatives, a bit of paranoia revealing a disposition I can't say I admire.

One reason I use examples of flawed reasoning from creationists, believers in alien abductions and cattle mutilations, defenders of quack cancer cures, parapsychologists, and the like is that I am familiar with them because I try to read as much as I can stomach of "the opposition." I taught critical thinking classes for 30 years and one lesson I tried to instill in my students was the importance of taking seriously those you disagree with. It is not natural to seek out people who have arguments that oppose what you believe. For example, I used books by Dean Radin and Gary Schwartz in one of my classes, two people whose views couldn't be further from my own. I taught many other philosophy classes; it is impossible to pick only philosophers to read that you agree with. Obviously, I think the positions I've come to hold are the most reasonable ones and have the strongest arguments in their favor. My biases--i.e., tendencies to believe one way or another--are, I believe, a result of my many years of careful analysis and evaluation of ideas. Finding fault with creationists, conspiracy wingnuts, ghost hunters, quacks, and political conservatives may be picking the low-hanging fruit, but it's what is most readily available to me, given my history and my laziness. It would require much more effort on my part to hunt down examples of bad reasoning for the positions I have come to hold.

However, I will make an effort in the future to try to find and present examples of bad reasoning from skeptics, atheists, and liberals. This is not totally unfamiliar territory for me. Read my entries on cogntive dissonance and the fantasy-prone personality and you will find that my position differs greatly from that of most skeptics.


Fri, 12 Nov 
Hi And welcome to your 1738th email of the day, which is about Begging the Question :-) I don't think all your examples work. For example:

A1.Abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being and as such is murder. A2.Murder is illegal. A3.So abortion should be illegal.

This has the same structure as:

S1.All men are mortal. S2.Socrates is a man. S3.So Socrates is mortal.

which for quite some time has been seen as a model of logic, not as an example of begging the question. 

reply: Begging the question is not a formal fallacy. There is nothing wrong with the form of the examples I have used. They are all valid arguments, or can be made so quite simply. Being valid only means that they commit no formal fallacy. Begging the question is often referred to as a fallacy of presumption or a fallacy of assumption because the error is in assuming what one asserts to be proving. The example you give is not a model of logic, but a model of a valid argument in predicate logic. Some would say that this model begs the question, but since its premises are not questionable, I would say it is a cogent argument. Validity is independent of the truth of the premises and vice-versa.

Look at this one step at a time.

A1 is the unsupported assertion that abortion is murder. S1 is the unsupported assertion that all men are mortal. The support for these assertions, if any support is to be found, lies outside the syllogism. In A1, the speaker perceives abortion to be a kind of murder; in S1, the speaker perceives men to be a kind of mortal creature.

Steps A2 and S2 don't seem to be very contentious.

reply: Neither does S1.

Steps A3 and S3 are interesting. Step S3 seems irrefutable, while I could well imagine an alternate A3:

A3':So we should legalise some kinds of murder.

reply: We call that a non sequitur. 

Hmm. Now that I've reached this conclusion, I don't know what to make of it! I wasn't expecting this at all. I still don't think it has anything to do with question-begging. Perhaps the topic of argument A is less cut-and-dried than the topic of argument S, which is why we spend more time discussing abortion than whether Socrates is, or was, mortal.

reply: If by topics, you mean the assumptions that abortion is murder and that all men are mortal, and if by cut-and-dried you mean warranted as an assumption, then you are right. Few people would be unwilling to grant the assumption that all men are mortal. (There are some, however, and you may read about them elsewhere in the Skeptic's Dictionary or seek them out on the Internet, e.g., Alex Chieu.) While many would call the assumption that abortion is murder unwarranted.

The "paranormal experiences" argument also does not seem to be circular. Substitute "reality" for "paranormal phenomena" to get:

"Reality exists because I have had experiences that can only be described as real."

Is that really circular? It seems to be no different from "reality exists because I can see and touch it, and it does not appear to be a dream" - which is roughly my day-to-day definition of reality. (Not that I need a definition, most days.)

reply: To continue this discussion would be circular. But....begging the question is not a formal fallacy and is not a claim as to the invalidity of the reasoning, etc. etc.

Anyhow, keep up the good work!
Norman Paterson, University of St Andrews 

reply: You've been hanging around the Central Bar, haven't you?

begging the question


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