Friday, January 18, 2013

Begging the Question

You've probably heard this colloquial phrase before. Since many arguments have premises and conclusions that result in disputes between speakers, answering one question many times naturally leads to another. For example, take a look at the following exchange:

Q: "Sugar is a toxic substance that should be regulated by the government."

R: "What evidence do you have for believing that sugar is toxic? It doesn't seem toxic; people eat it everyday and nothing bad happens.

Q: "In the short term nothing bad happens. Long term effects are very bad. There's new research that suggests eating concentrated amounts of sugar, say, drinking a can of soda or even drinking a glass of fruit juice throws our digestive and neurological system into a state of confusion. From an evolutionary point of view, sugar and fiber are a package deal. Take away the fiber? Consume only the juice? We're getting massive infusions of sugar that our bodies can't cope with in a healthy manner."

R: "Maybe you're right. Maybe in the long run sugar is toxic for the human body. But that only begs the question: Should the government regulate every substance that is toxic in the long run for the human body?"

As I said mentioned earlier, it makes sense that the phrase beg the question is so common. Discussing one issue of contention, many times leads to another issue of contention, which then leads to another issue of contention. Despite its usefulness in everyday discourse, begging the question does have a more specific meaning in logic.

In logic, begging the question is also known as circular reasoning. According to Robert  J. Gula, "When an argument uses one of its premises as a conclusion, that argument is said to be circular" (110). The conclusion to an argument could also be referred to as a thesis. Basically, a conclusion or a thesis is the proposition that is being supported by other propositions. Take the following argument:

1. Michael Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.
2. Michael Jordan won six NBA Finals MVP awards.
3. Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever.

1&2 support 3. Thus, 3 would be the conclusion of the reasoning chain. Because 1&2 support the conclusion, they would be the premises of the argument. The premises support the conclusion; they do not affirm it or restate it. To restate a premise or a collection of premises as the conclusion would be to commit the fallacy of circularity. To take our previous example as illustration:

1. Michael Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.
2. Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever.
3. No basketball player was ever better than Michael Jordan.

Here we have a premise (1) that supports either (2) or (3). The problem is that (2) and (3) restate the same conclusion. What a speaker is interested in is why should a person believe that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. (1) provides evidence to support such a belief. (2) simply affirms that the belief is true in words that are slightly different than (3).

Suppose a skeptical person is having a conversation with an acquaintance and is presented with (2). Suppose the skeptical person asks: "Why should a person believe that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever?"
"Well," the acquaintance sips his beverage. "There are many reasons."
"Do you happen to have any on hand?"
"The most obvious reason I can provide is that no basketball player was ever better than Michael Jordan."

In this dialogue, the acquaintance has commit the fallacy of circularity with his last sentence. In an argument, premises and conclusions perform difference functions. Premises support a conclusion--of course, as arguments get more complex, one conclusion can be used to support another conclusion, but that's a topic for a different blog.

Using a premise to restate a conclusion using different words is not an acceptable form of reasoning.

Even when dealing with obvious truths like (2), a supporter of (2) must be ready to provide evidence if a skeptic asks for it. You may be stunned to find a skeptic, but they are out there. When you do find a skeptic, remember to keep your wits about you. Remember that (3) does not support (2), and (2) does not support (3).

The same logical rule holds when you write papers for your classes.   

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