Word of the Day: Beg the Question

Novel of Christianity and atheismTo beg the question does not mean “to invite the question.”  Here’s a faulty use of the phrase: “Bill’s report shows too many returns on our Mark 20 widget, which begs the question, ‘How will we improve our manufacturing quality?’”  Or, “The weeds in this lawn beg the question, ‘Why is it so hard to get a good gardener?’”

As a rule, if some variant of “beg the question” is used in a sentence with an embedded question, the phrase is used incorrectly.

Used properly, begging the question (petitio principia) is a logical fallacy that means to assume the conclusion in your premise.

For example: “(1) The Bible is the word of God; therefore (2) it’s correct.”  This one leaves much unsaid:

  1. God exists [unstated assumption, and the reason for the fallacy]
  2. (1) the Bible comes from God [stated premise]
  3. therefore (2) the Bible is correct [stated conclusion]
  4. therefore the Bible is correct when it says, “God exists” [unstated conclusion].

Question begging often hides in convoluted prose.  Wikipedia gives this example: “To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments.”  In other words: freedom of speech is essential because it is good.  A simplifying restatement can often uncover this fallacy in both others’ arguments and our own.

Begging the question is similar to circular reasoning, but the difference is subtle.  The flaw with begging the question is that it depends on an unstated premise.  The flaw with circular logic is structural.  It is an argument of the form “A, therefore A.”  That is, the conclusion is a restatement of the premise.

An example of circular logic: “He is unattractive because he is so damn ugly.”  “He is ugly” is just a restatement of “he is unattractive.”  Or, “Dr. Smith’s Pink Pills are what you need because that’s the best treatment.”

The Wheel of Power” illustrates an example of circular logic with more steps:

  1. “How can you be sure it’s the word of God?”  Because the Bible tells us so.
  2. “But why believe the Bible?”  The Bible is infallible.
  3. “But how do you know?”  The Bible is the word of God.  (And repeat …)

You should know what “beg the question” means so that you can understand it when used correctly, but I recommend against using it.  If you use it correctly, many people won’t understand, and if you follow the crowd and use it to mean “invite the question,” you’ll annoy those who understand the correct usage.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Don’t Move the Goalposts

Moving the goalposts is a logical fallacyChristian apologists often bring up unresolved scientific questions and usually conclude with, “Well, if you can’t answer that question, Christianity can!  God did it.”  For example:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What came before the Big Bang?
  • Why does the universe look fine-tuned for life?
  • How did life come from nonlife?

Admittedly, there is no scientific consensus on these questions.  But a century ago, Christian apologists pointed to different questions if they wanted to put science in the hot seat: Okay, Science, if you’re so smart, how is heredity transmitted?  What causes cancer?  What caused the universe?

And centuries before that, Christianity asked, What causes lightning?  Disease?  Drought?  Earthquakes?  It used these questions to argue that Christianity had answers that science didn’t.

Not only is science the sole disciple that could provide answers, increasingly only science can uncover the questions.  That is, the apologist pretends to inform science of questions that science discovered itself.

If in hindsight “God did it” was a foolish resolution for the questions of previous centuries—the cause of lightning and disease, for example—why offer it now?  Why expect the results to be any different?  Wouldn’t it be wise to learn from the past and be a little hesitant to stake God’s existence on the gamble that Science will finally come up short?

What’s especially maddening is apologists like William Lane Craig putting on an imaginary lab coat and ineptly fiddling with beakers and turning dials, playing scientist like a child playing house.  He imagines himself strutting into a community of befuddled scientists and saying with a chuckle, “Okay, fellas, Christianity can take it from here” and seeing them breathe a sigh of relief that the cavalry has finally come to bail them out of their intellectual predicament.  He imagines that he can better answer questions that his discipline couldn’t even formulate.

This reminds me of the fable about Science scaling the highest peak of knowledge.  After much difficulty, Science finally summits and is about to plant his flag when he looks over and sees Theology and Philosophy sitting there, looking at him.  “What took you so long?” one of them says.  “We’ve been here for centuries.”

Uh, yeah, Theology and Philosophy can invent claims, but Science does it the hard way—it actually uncovers the facts and makes the testable hypotheses.  It gets to the summit step by step along the route of Evidence rather than floating there on a lavender cloud of imagination and wishful thinking.  Religion is like the dog that walks under the ox and thinks that he is pulling the cart.

To the Christian who thinks that science’s unanswered questions make his point, I say: make a commitment.  Publicly state that this issue (pick something—abiogenesis or the cause of the Big Bang or fine tuning or whatever) is the hill that you will fight to the death on.  Man up, commit to it, and impose consequences.  Say, “I publicly declare that God must be the resolution to this question.  A scientific consensus will never find me wrong or else I will drop my faith.”

If the Christian fails to do this (or rather, when he fails to do this), he then admits that when his cherished question du jour is resolved, he’ll discard it like a used tissue and find another in science’s long list of unanswered questions.  That is, he admits that this is just a rhetorical device, stated only for show, rather than being a serious argument.

He’ll just move the goalposts.  Again.

Photo credit: Graham Ballantyne

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