"Begging the question": we have examples

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In one of the comments on my recent "begging the question" post, Samantha asked:

Could someone give me a concrete example of this fallacy (the simpler, the better?) It would be especially great if it was an example like what Aristotle had in mind, something that showed "how such arguments can be disguised so as to appear persuasive." I've read the Wikipedia articles about the fallacy but I still can't wrap my mind around it.

As far as I know, Aristotle's discussion (e.g. in Part 16 of Book II of the Prior Analytics) is entirely abstract. However, others have supplied plenty of concrete illustrations of the concept over the centuries: here's an example from Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics for 1/5/2006:

Needless to say, in most real-world cases where someone accuses someone else of somehow smuggling the point to be proved into their premises, the structure of the offending argument is not nearly so clear-cut .

In my earlier post, I gave an example from Paul Krugman's blog ("Austrian Follow-up", 4/7/2010):

As predicted, many of the comments to my Austrian economics post are of the form “Well, of course employment rises when investment is expanding, and falls when the investment is falling — in the first case the economy is booming while in the second it’s slumping.”

As I tried to explain, however, that’s assuming the conclusion; there’s no “of course” about it. Why do periods when the economy is investing more correspond to booms, while periods when it’s investing less correspond to slumps? That’s easy to understand in Keynesian terms — but the whole Austrian claim is that they’re an alternative to Keynesianism. Yet I have never seen a clear explanation of this central point.

What happens, instead — or at least that’s how I read it — is that Austrians slip Keynesianism in through the back door. Implicitly, they associate booms and slumps with rising or falling aggregate demand — utterly unaware that their own theory doesn’t actually make room for such a thing as aggregate demand to exist, or at least to affect overall employment. So Austrians are basically Keynesians in denial — self-hating Keynesians? — pretending to themselves that they’re not using ideas that are in fact essential to their story.

But this example was clearly not clear enough to help Samantha.

The structure of Krugman's accusation is simple — "Austrians slip Keynesianism in through the back door". However, in order to understand the content of this claim, you need to understand two different classes of economic theories. At least, you need to grasp what it means to say that "Austrian" economic theories don't "make room for such a thing as aggregate demand to exist", and why this might be a problem for the Austrian version of an apparently common-sensical explanation of the connections among employment, investment, and demand. To make the situation worse, Krugman cites no specific instance of the allegedly question-begging argument, but only gives us his caricature of it. (I'm not saying that Krugman was wrong, just that the passage that I quotes was too complex and too allusive to be useful as an illustration of "assuming the conclusion".)

So here's another attempt.  In a (comment on his) blog post "Honest Science" (4/12/2010), David Heddle argued that

If free will is an illusion, then deterrents are an illusion. How can a deterrent make me choose not to commit a crime, unless I have the facility of choice?

This is a somewhat persuasive piece of rhetoric, in my opinion. I tried it out on a couple of random acquaintances, whose initial responses were something like "yeah, that makes sense". But Jeffrey Shallit's response ("Muddled Thinking about Free Will", 4/30/2010) points out the problem:

Let's pretend that humans are soulless computational machines, shaped by evolution [...] Now the human machine suddenly sees resources, for the taking, that belong to another. The human machine does a cost-benefit analysis to "decide" whether to take the resources or not. In the absence of a known deterrent, such as a dangerous dog or future incarceration, the human machine may decide to take the resource. In the presence of a deterrent, the human machine may make another decision.

How does this involve "free will"? You can call this decision-making "free will" if you like. But then a thermostat has free will, too.

Heddle's argument reasons from a premise like "The threat of punishment can make someone choose not to commit a crime" to the conclusion "Free will exists".  But as Shallit observes,  someone who sees human choice is an algorithmic response to circumstances has no difficulty in applying this analysis to the case of deterrence.  Heddle's argument works as a piece of rhetoric because its premise evokes a situation that most people think of as involving free will — in other words, it works by smuggling the conclusion, in a disguised form, into its premise.

[I've ignored the fact that Heddle's argument has the form of a reductio ad absurdum -- if free will is an illusion, then deterrents are an illusion, and deterrents clearly work to some extent, therefore ... The key point, however, is getting the reader to accept that "deterrence" -- making a choice that's influenced by potential punishment -- is an instance of "free will". Since the question at issue is whether human choices are ever instances of "free will", this is a clear example of petitio principii.]

[Tip of the hat to language hat.]



  1. Stuart F said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    Perhaps the most argued-over alleged logical fallacy in philosophy is a form of begging the question, the Cartesian Circle (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartesian_circle http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/descart1.htm etc). Descartes argued that we know we can have accurate perceptions and ideas about the world because God exists. This was how Descartes rejected the idea that we're being manipulated by an evil demon or living in Matrix-style tanks: God by definition as an all-powerful benevolent being would not mislead us. This argument assumes the existence of God. However, it is unclear how he can be sure God exists unless the existence of God (or the evidence for it) can be perceived accurately, which would require that we can have accurate perceptions. So has he proved anything? Discuss (for 300 years).

    Commonly-seen variations of the dinosaur's argument include

    "I like ice cream because it's my favourite food"

    "People should care for the less fortunate because it's the right thing to do"

  2. Mark P said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    The deterrence-free-will argument is a good example of another problem I see sometimes in arguments today: failure to define terms. Depending on how you define free will, a thermostat might well have it. I see this in arguments about whether the use of animals in medical research is ethical. What do you mean by "ethical"?

    [(myl) I agree that "free will" is hard to define, and that arguments about the concept are fruitless without a definition. However, you don't need an opinion about the nature or even the possibility of such a definition in order to see that the premise "Deterrence works because of free will" assumes that free will (whatever it is) exists.]

  3. Joel said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    The DC example is pretty good. I use this with my freshman comp students, which is basically T-Rex's example but in a practical context. It's from the UNC writing center.

    "Active euthanasia is morally acceptable. It is a decent, ethical thing to help another human being escape suffering through death."

    The free will example is good too but abstract. Here I think the problem is fairly clear. The premise given essentially states the exact same thing as the conclusion. There is no reason given why active euthanasia is moral, ethical, etc., thus "begging" us to ask, "Is it?" These types of arguments lead us to ask for evidence. I agree with your previous post that it's confusing, but I don't think it's as devoid of content as you say.

    Another way of thinking about begging the question is like this: "Murder is morally wrong. Therefore, active euthanasia is morally wrong." Clearly, this begs the question, "Is active euthanasia murder?" So the fallacy can also occur when a premise is omitted.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    The classic circular argument is, "We know God exists because the Bible says so. And we know the Bible is true because it's the word of God." I don't know whether anyone has used this seriously, but it's a nice simple example.

    Another example is, "Eagles have good vision because it improves their fitness. And we know good vision improves their fitness because they have that trait, and evolution selects traits that improve fitness." You can account for any trait of any organism that way.

    [(myl) These are good examples, but I was hoping to find cases of fairly obvious question-begging in simple arguments made in earnest, by people who believe that they ought to be persuasive, rather than in caricatures of such arguments.

    I actually looked for examples in arguments about "fitness", where it's easy to slip into circularity, but I didn't succeed in finding any simple cases that were seriously intended.]

  5. Sili said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    You continue to amaze me. I'd never expected to see Heddle put to good use.

  6. Theo Vosse said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    Let's ignore the free will debate (that particular road of soulless automatons is a road you don't want to walk), but I was taught a simple fallacy in my Logic 101, and it's a slogan the National Socialist Union used for the general elections in The Netherlands in 1937: Moskou of Mussert? (Eng. Moscow or Mussert; Mussert was the party leader). It suggests quite strongly that it has to be either one (if you don't vote for Mussert, then you're a commie), whereas in reality there was a whole gamut of political choices in between. Advertisements sometimes use this strategy too: "dirty clothes or <brand of detergent>?", "horribly uncool outcast or smoke our brand of cigarettes", although they usually disguise it better.

    Heddle's argument is, strictly speaking, nonsense , but did you notice that the reply snuck in the word soulless without any reason? Is that intended to make us think that the author does not really believe that, even though his arguments say so. "Don't worry, it's just an argument, the author is one of us". But what would it mean? That we do have a soul but no free will? There's a fallacy somewhere in there too.

  7. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    @Theo, that's a false dichotomy and it is extremely common in the political discourse (a particularly notorious example being Bush's "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."; amusingly enough, Hillary Clinton used a similar wording a week before during a tv interview).

  8. Mark F said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    Not only are these examples of question-begging, they're excellent examples of why nobody uses the term in its technical sense any more. Real world examples of its use tend to be esoteric and confusing, or at least to come across that way to a lot of people.

    Of course, that makes sense. It's much easier to smuggle the conclusion into your hypotheses when nobody can really understand what the hypotheses or the conclusion are. In the Krugman example, I think the experts have a handle on that, but I really don't. In the free will example, I don't think anybody really knows what it means for free will to be real, as opposed to its being an illusion. The refutation seemed to associate free will to dualism, but I don't think the two are equivalent. I for one am sure that I have free will, even though I don't know what that means. This of course makes it hard for me to reason about it. Under these circumstances, almost any argument can be said to be question begging, by asserting that the premise is really just what one means by "free will."

  9. Haamu said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    Free will is an illusion, but realizing that free will is an illusion is an act of free will — and, hence, an illusion.

    So free will is an illusion, but we are doomed never to actually realize it.

    (I debated not submitting this comment, but in the end I couldn't stop myself.)

  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    I for one am sure that I have free will, even though I don't know what that means.


    You're sure of something, but you don't know what you're sure of?

    (Myself, I'm sure that I don't know what, if anything, "free will" is, and that I'm therefore equally unsure of whether I have whatever it is.)

  11. Henning Makholm said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    "Active euthanasia is morally acceptable. It is a decent, ethical thing to help another human being escape suffering through death."

    This is not (absent some context to suggest otherwise) a circular argument. This is because it not purport to be an argument at all. If it had said "because" (or "therefore") instead of the full stop, it would be a circular argument, but as it stands it just asserts the same moral judgment twice with slightly different wordings for rhetorical emphasis. And there's nothing wrong with doing that.

  12. Barney said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    @Mark P: You can take statements like "the use of animals in medical research is not ethical." as being claims about the most appropriate definition of the term 'ethical', which I think makes more sense than the idea that they are claims about the nature of use of animals in research intended to be understood by someone with a shared, unchanging intrinsic definition of 'ethical'.

  13. Barney said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    Sorry, for "intrinsic" above please read "intentional". I found these notes very helpful in understanding the various types of definitions.

  14. Barney said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    Or even intensional. Apologies for flooding the thread with my inability to spell obscure words.

  15. Rubrick said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    My favorite example of the type (not well-disguised by any means, but very funny) is this (alleged?) Clarence Darrow quote: "I don't like spinach, and I'm glad I don't, because if I liked it I'd eat it, and I just hate it."

  16. Lane said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    There is apparently a school of "presuppositional apologetics" for Christianity which argues that Christianity is true because the Bible says it is:


    I discussed this and riffed on Mark's posting here:


  17. Haamu said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    Heddle's confused, but his opponents aren't much better at avoiding this sort of fallacy. "Free will is an illusion because the Universe is deterministic" is a succinct example.

    You don't have to read too far in this area to run into Roger Penrose's ideas, which are frequently dismissed by employing another template for this fallacy: "X's views on Y aren't worthy of consideration because experts in the field don't take him seriously."

  18. JL said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    Well, there's always Moliere's famous Doctor, who claims that opium puts you to sleep because it has "dormitive powers".

  19. Neal Goldfarb said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    Begging the question in the assuming-the-point-to-be-proved sense is fairly common in legal argument.

    Or at least accusations of begging the question are fairly common. Here's an example, from a case in which the issue was "whether the refusal to allow into evidence at Rivera's murder trial the confession of his co-defendant (who was tried separately), which exculpated Rivera, denied Rivera due process of law."

    At argument the state gave a different reason for excluding Norman's confession from the Rivera trial-that it was contradicted by Meger's testimony and therefore was unreliable. There is no “therefore.” Rivera's whole purpose in wanting to place the confession in evidence was to challenge the reliability of Meger's testimony. It begs the question to assume that Meger's testimony was reliable, implying that any contrary evidence would be unreliable.

    Here's another example, from a case about the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which applies only employers with a certain number of employees. The issue was "whether four physicians actively engaged in medical practice as shareholders and directors of a professional corporation should be counted as “employees.”

    Rather than looking to the common law, petitioner argues that courts should determine whether a shareholder-director of a professional corporation is an “employee” by asking whether the shareholder-director is, in reality, a “partner.” . . . . The question whether a shareholder-director is an employee, however, cannot be answered by asking whether the shareholder-director appears to be the functional equivalent of a partner. Today there are partnerships that include hundreds of members, some of whom may well qualify as “employees” because control is concentrated in a small number of managing partners. Cf. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 79, n.2, 104 S.Ct. 2229, 81 L.Ed.2d 59 (1984) (Powell, J., concurring) (“[A]n employer may not evade the strictures of Title VII simply by labeling its employees as ‘partners' ”) . . . . Thus, asking whether shareholder-directors are partners-rather than asking whether they are employees-simply begs the question.

    And I've certainly written briefs accusing opponents of begging the question, so actual question-begging clearly does occur.

  20. JL said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    "And I've certainly written briefs accusing opponents of begging the question, so actual question-begging clearly does occur."

    I'm frankly not sure whether this was meant as a joke or not, but is it not itself an example of question-begging? Thus: Does question-begging occur in courtrooms? — Well, it must, because I've asserted that it has.

  21. Romy Schneider said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    Heard on the news in Australia:
    Beggaring the question

  22. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    I think it's true to say that the Bible assumes the existence of God, rather than asserting it. The nearest thing I can recall to an assertion of the existence of God is the verse

    "the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God"

    which in context is probably rather a claim that an unethical person is defying God, than a reverse-Dawkins assertion that all atheists are stupid.

    Unfortunately this has not prevented its deployment as part of the stupid circular argument complained of above. I come across variations on this theme all the time, meant all too seriously. It's partly nerdspeak – the inability to think yourself into the shoes of anyone outside your own group.

    More broadly, I think there's quite a lot of petitio principii going on around us all, which we remain unaware of because the more broadly shared our assumptions are, the less we can readily identify them as assumptions. Indeed, what the rhetorical trick of (deliberate) petitio principii is trying to achieve is exactly to smuggle in assumptions under the radar as if we already had them in common.

    [(myl) In Schreiber's Aristotle on false reasoning, he suggests that

    I have argue that Aristotle's fallacy of Begging the Question is not an error in logic. It arises out of a failure to recognize which states of affairs properly explain (and thereby justify beliefs in) other states of affairs. [...] What appears to us to be known through itself may not naturally be known through itself, and things through which it appears to use that something is known may not be the things that naturally stand epistemically prior to that item of knowledge. There is an order of intelligibility built into the being of things, and the ignorance of that order by a dialectician renders him vulnerable to fallacies of Begging the Question.


  23. Dan T. said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    When you try to get drug warriors to justify the War on Drugs when other dangerous substances like alcohol and tobacco remain legal, you usually wind up in a circular argument of "Drugs are bad because they're illegal", and "drugs are illegal because they're bad".

  24. Monado, FCD said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

    I think that it is also begging the question when we phrase it in terms that assume our desired conclusion, e.g. calling a fertilized egg or early zygote an "unborn child."

  25. Philip Spaelti said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    My candidate for a simple example is the classic argument for "intelligent design". In this case the premise is an implication: "only an intelligent designer could have created the complex universe around us." It is often stated in terms that make is seem self-evidently true (e.g. the existence of a watch implies that there is a watchmaker). From this premise it is easy to argue that the universe was indeed created by an intelligent being. This argument has convinced many people for centuries, and continues to do so.

  26. TB said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    Thanks for the effort on this, as I feel like Samantha. But I'm not sure it really helped. I think I just don't have a logical enough mind to get it (which is OK with me) because every simple example people use seems so obvious that nobody would ever be convinced by it, but any more complicated one mixes me up completely. Good thing I'm not a philosopher!

    Really this (like the correct use of the term "irony") is making me very sympathetic to the "nervous cluelessness" most Americans feel about "grammar". I don't really know what the deal is (and not for lack of trying) but I know that the issue is contentious! So myl's original advice is very useful.

  27. Philip Spaelti said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

    Also, I find Dinosaur's example completely unhelpful as an illustration. Dinosaur claims that his logic is valid: "I'm friggin awsome" -> ""I'm pretty sweet". I find this supposed logical implication to be highly questionable. After that for the rest of the comic, I am left puzzling this supposed logic. So I find that this comic might leave the impression that "begging the question" is just a synonym for questionable logic.

    Of course it's just a comic, but still…

  28. Nathan Myers said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 4:20 am

    I have had the Bible argument above, cited as too trivial to take seriously, quoted to me almost verbatim, and in all sincerity. I wonder now whether it makes any sense to suggest that someone so blinkered is really capable of sincerity, or only a simulacrum of it. Shouldn't sincerity include having made some sort of good-faith effort to ascertain what one avows, before avowing it? Without, the bullshytter (using Stephenson's term) is as sincere as anyone.

  29. Joe said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 6:55 am

    I'm not sure if I am right, and I'm not sure if this example is too technical, but John Wells cites an e-mail he received that I would consider an example of question-begging:

    >I'm interested in doing some research on Estuary English [an allegedly >new variety of British English] and Received Pronunciation in order to do >my Thesis project… I would like to ask you if you knew or if you had any >information about the percentage of usage of these 3 characteristics of >EEthat are mentioned in the literature i.e. L-vocalization, the use of the >glottal stop in final position and before consonants, and Yod- >coalescence in tonic syllables. Is there any comparison between RP and >EE speakers regarding the use of this features?

    I would say that the question "is there any comparison between RP and EE speakers regarding the use of these features" begs the question of whether RP and EE differs in the use of those features in the first place. Granted, this is not the clearest example, but I still say that what makes this question-begging, as opposed to question-raising, is its circularity. To see this circularity, lets say that we find a speaker who has a lot of l-vocalization in their speech, and, on that basis, say that that person is a EE speaker. Now let's define EE speakers as those who use of l-vocalization. We will find that EE speakers use more l-vocalization more than RP speakers, but the reasoning would be completely circular.

    To me, question-raising (as opposed to question begging) involves the introduction of a (more fundamental) question that is left unanswered in the original analysis. So, for instance, let's say that X moves, and, as a result of that movement, Y moves. We can say that it is the movement of X that causes the movement of Y, but that raises the question of what caused X to move in the first place. There's no circularity in the analysis, but we haven't really "explained" anything until we explain what causes the movement of X.

    I think it is hard to find clear instances of question-begging for several reasons. First, as soon as one puts the question-begging statement in a the form of a syllogism, its circularity becomes apparent. So it is usually the caricature of a person's position, rather than the person's original formulation, that takes the form of question-begging syllogism (I sorta remember that Colin Powel's speech to the UN about Iraq contained a lot of question-begging statement, but I was too lazy to look it up). Second, I think as ideas permeate popular consciousness, they lose the explicit question-begging context and thus appear as question-raising to people who don't know the original context (as in the question Wells received concerning the difference between RP and EE). At one point, someone had to make the argument the RP and EE were two distinct varieties, but now (many) people just assume they are. So I could imagine someone saying to me, "no, this is an example of question-raising," because the original question-begging argument that there is a difference between EE and RP, and the evidence for that difference is X, Y, and Z features is assumed rather than stated. So I say that the inquiry is question-begging, but the original context that leads me to that conclusion is not transparent to those who do not know that context: the distinction between "question-begging" and "question-raising" thus becomes somewhat obscured. From there, it is a short step to an expanded use of "question-begging" to include all sorts of situations that infringe on those once exclusively the provence of question-raising . . .

    By the by, I hope no one interprets the distinction I draw above as some kind of prescriptive law. As I said, the phrase obviously now has an expanded usage.

    And everything above could be completely wrong :-)

  30. Joe said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 7:13 am

    Sorry, one last comment. What is really ingenuous about the cartoon is not the hypothetical example of "begging the question" (T-rex is a sweet dude) but T T Rex's claim that it is often used "incorrectly" (Well, I suppose that begs the question, T-rex . . . ).

  31. David Marjanović said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    You continue to amaze me. I'd never expected to see Heddle put to good use.

    "Nobody is useless – they can always serve as a bad example."

    You don't have to read too far in this area to run into Roger Penrose's ideas, which are frequently dismissed by employing another template for this fallacy: "X's views on Y aren't worthy of consideration because experts in the field don't take him seriously."

    That's only a fallacy if you fail to ask why his fellow physicists, let alone the cell biologists, don't take him seriously.

    One reason is that the microtubules are much too big for insulating a quantum superposition from observation ( = interaction with other particles). There's water in them.

    Another is that the microtubules don't influence the ion channels in the cell membranes in any known way…

  32. John Cowan said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    "Sir, we know our will is free, and there's an end on't." —Sam: Johnson

  33. aratina cage said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    "I don't think anybody really knows what it means for free will to be real, as opposed to its being an illusion." -Mark F @2:39 pm

    Dan Dennett made the distinction between real and illusory free-will as I remember it like so: Given a particular mind facing a particular choice in a particular context, a mind with free-will will be able to choose any one of the options despite the state of the brain and the state of the environment. That is, if we took a snapshot in time and replayed it, we would not be able to accurately determine the choice that a mind with free-will will make.

    We can envision a sort of experiment being done on an artificial brain that we can program where it is repeatedly being reset to an initial state and being given the exact same inputs calling for a decision each time and then observing the choice it makes; if it does not have free-will, it will always make the same choice, and this is where the illusion of free-will comes in.

    We cannot replay a moment in time in which a natural brain makes a choice because we cannot reset them to an exact former state and we really have no way to control all the input from the environment given how massive that input is, but we can reproduce an experimental setup that is in the neighborhood of a former situation, and when we do that we see that the choices natural brains (including human brains) make are predictable. The illusion of free-will arises from the fact that it is unusual for natural brains to experience relatively similar choices under relatively similar states.

    It really all boils down to, "Is there some part of the human mind that operates independently from the rest of the brain and the environment but significantly affects the decisions the brain makes all the same?", and that does not appear to be the case. If it were the case, then would that part of the mind not be called the soul? And I don't think you can replace "soul" with "random number generator" given the difficulty of such an equipped brain surviving evolution (e.g., a tiger approaches the field of view and the choice of fleeing is randomly selected).

    The concept of free-will itself is a way for theists to climb out of a hole they dug themselves into. God, they assert, is an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful creator, which means that God controls how the future pans out and knows everything that will happen in advance, so every decision humans make is already known to God; we are mere puppets of God since anything we do has already been determined by God. The whole idea undermined the problem of getting other people to believe in that kind of a god or punishing them for not believing in it or for not going along with the laws of that god, since not believing in God would be all part of God's plan were it true. So theists, undeterred by this fumble, came up with the idea that people have been granted free-will by God, which allows them to break from the determinism of God's plan at any moment. God allows humans to make their own choices, and God promises not to peek on the off-chance that humans will do what pleases God. In other words, how I see it is that in a universe where every human action is deterministic, we can't honestly blame people for their actions, so we first must magically separate the will to do something from all that is determined and only then can we assign guilt.

    So I think we do know what it means for free-will to be real, that it is inherently dualistic, and that it doesn't mesh with what we know scientifically about natural brains. Oh, and thanks to Sili for pointing me to this post.

  34. Mark P said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    I didn't really intend my comment to initiate thread drift. Unfortunately, I usually leave about 75 percent of my comment unsaid ("the rest is left as an exercise for the reader"). I think it's hard to find good, clear examples of begging the question because most everyday arguments are so ill defined. They typically don't follow any formal set of logical rules and often contain many fallacies. Assuming the conclusion can be so deeply hidden, or, as mentioned above, so commonly and almost unconsciously accepted that the fallacy is hard to identify.

    For example, in the free-will-deterrence argument, the assumption is not necessarily that deterrence only works if there is free will, but that free will is defined so that it exists if deterrence works. The argument might be something like, "If deterrence works, then free will exists." Free will could be defined as "the ability to do more than one thing given a certain set of conditions." The argument then assumes that deterrence is not counted as a condition. Thus there are two sets of conditions ("I need money, banks have money, I rob the bank and then I have money" and the set "I need money, banks have money, if I steal the money, I will go to jail"). The arguer considers those two sets of conditions as identical, because he doesn't allow the deterrent to count as a condition. The arguer says that in two identical sets of conditions, a person chooses one path in one case (I rob) and another path in the other (I do not rob). Thus deterrence works and free will exists.

    Of course the only thing that is really proved is that *if* deterrence works, then free will exists (as defined for this argument). However, the argument does not answer whether deterrence works, much less whether free will really exists.

    Since most real-life arguments don't follow any formal set of logical rules, there are often multiple fallacies, and it's hard to pin down a good, clean example of any single one.

  35. Haamu said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    @David Marjanović:

    You don't have to read too far in this area to run into Roger Penrose's ideas, which are frequently dismissed by employing another template for this fallacy: "X's views on Y aren't worthy of consideration because experts in the field don't take him seriously."

    That's only a fallacy if you fail to ask why his fellow physicists, let alone the cell biologists, don't take him seriously.

    That's sort of the point, isn't it? If we're allowed to go further and require examination and substantiation of the conclusion being assumed, then the fallacy disappears.

  36. peter said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    Despite the use of the word "fallacy" throughout this thread (a label traditionally applied to these arguments in argumentation theory), it is important to keep in mind that there is no logical fallacy involved in circular arguments. These arguments involve the inference of a proposition P as a conclusion from a premise comprising also P:

    From P, infer P.

    The truth-value of the premise (whether it be true or false) is preserved by this inference, and the conclusion carries the same truth-value as the premise. Step away, folks. There's no fallacy to see here.

  37. heddle said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    As I pointed out on Shallit’s blog (comment still in moderation at the time of writing) I was not arguing that altering behavior is only possible if free will exists. I was arguing that we cannot impose deterrents from outside the system, only from within. So the act of imposing the deterrent was also predetermined by the universe’s differential equation and initial conditions. In the absence of free will, deterrents are an illusion because the imposition of the deterrent is also predestined. The illusion is that we place the deterrent from outside the system (kind of like a god), and argue, absurdly in my opinion, that because of a choice we made (to enact a deterrent) behavior was modified–even if there is no free will.

    On Shallit’s blog, commenter Gingerbaker wrote:

    Arguing about 'Free Will' is an idiotic endeavor, one that gives great glee to the religiously motivated, because any argument reinforces their framing that god actually exists.

    This is spot-on. At least at this time, free will, if it exists in the form in which it is typically cast, it is a victory for theists. We can self-consistently impose a supernatural explanation: the soul. The pure materialist has, at the moment, no model for free will that resembles anything like what all of us, in every aspect of our judicial system, take it to mean. But few pure materialists are as honest, when it comes to free will, as William Provine—so they typically throw in a dash of quantum woo and pretend they have an explanation. Or they argue, just as absurdly, that even if free will does not exist we can "choose" to punish criminals for the benefit of society.

  38. Rodger C said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    @John Cowan: I thought Johnson said of free will, "All experience is for it, and all reason is against it."

    @aratina gage: Are you saying that belief in free will is confined to theists? That's empirically false.

  39. Joe said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    @peter: Good call. Statements with the form P=P as being tautological rather than fallacious. But every good empiricist knows that tautologies don't tell us anything about the real world therefore, while true, they contribute nothing to knowledge.

    I'm surprised that no one's proffered Hume's bombshell objection to induction, the mother of all question-begging: all true statements based on observation are justified because observation has reliably given us true facts in the past. This was a bombshell because if question-begging was indeed fallacious, then it would seem that all of science is fallacious. I don't think Empiricism was the same after this bombshell.

  40. peter said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    Thanks, Joe. You said: "But every good empiricist knows that tautologies don't tell us anything about the real world therefore, while true, . . . ."

    At the risk of further pedantry, tautologies are arguments, and so cannot be either true or false. Statements about the world (propositions) can be true or false, but arguments don't have truth-values. Arguments may be valid (whenever the premises of the argument are true, then so too are the conclusions) or invalid (otherwise), but not true or false.

  41. John said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    @peter: But, as pointed out in the comments on the previous posting, these seem to be examples of (P->P)->P, and not (P->P).

  42. Mark F said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    I think at least some accusations of begging the question in philosophy arise like this:

    A thinks that B believes q but not p, which are in fact equivalent. Believing that B doesn't realize p and q are equivalent, A points out that q –> p, as an argument for p.

    B, who knows full well that q p but doesn't believe q either, now accuses A of begging the question because A's hypothesis q is really just p in another form.

    In this case, A's only fallacy was in his model of B's prior beliefs.

  43. KevinM said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    "I've ignored the fact that Heddle's argument has the form of a reductio ad absurdum —"
    Grrr. That's ad absurdAm – ablative case, if memory serves.

  44. Sandra Wilde said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    Does this work as a simple example? I know my sister is psychic because she can read people's minds.

  45. Chandra said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    How about "The phrase 'begging the question' should not be used improperly because it is important to follow the rules of correct English"?

    Too obvious?

  46. eye5600 said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    Re: Samantha's problem about recognizing examples in the wild. One reason it's difficult is that a particular situation could be interpreted both ways. In the Krugman example, the analysis given has been on the hidden assumption that investment improves employment. It could also be interpreted as raising the question of whether investment always improves employment.

    The way I understood the phrase when originally taught, it describes an answer to a question. It means that the answer is not an answer. Give John some orange juice. Why? Because he is sick. Why give OJ to people who are sick? Because they have a fever? Why do you give OJ to people with fevers? The question may asked over and over (i.e. begged) until the unstated assumption about the beneficial effects of OJ is revealed.

    In cases where there isn't an initial answer, you are clearly in the new version.

    I found the original essay with the sources and translations quite interesting. I tend to think that the new usage spread like wildfire because the English words are naturally understood in the new meaning. No longer a phrase with an obscure meaning, it's now a phrase with an obvious meaning. I hate it, though.

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    Nobody's mentioned the on-topic one (and again I have no citations from the wild): "Our judgements on which English usages are good and which are bad are not arbitrary. The finest authors use the good forms and avoid the bad ones. We know they're the finest authors because they use the good forms and avoid the bad ones."

    By the way, though I think "beg the question" is as skunked as a phrase can be, you can always say "begs for the question", "begs us to ask", etc., as figurative ways of strengthening "raises the question".

  48. CWV said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    "Abortion is murder because is constitutes the intentional, unwarranted taking of human life."

    Well, sure — *if* abortion constitutes the intentional, unwarranted taking of human life, then it's murder. But whether abortion is in fact murder depends on whether what's taken is "human life" and whether the taking is "unwarranted." The statement purports to explain why abortion is murder, but the explanation simply asserts as true the very questions that are required to determine whether the conclusion is true. This strikes me as a pretty simple example of question begging.

  49. Doug said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

    The free will argument does not seem to me to be a good example of begging the question. (That might, of course, just be my own insufficient understanding.)

    If you phrase the premise as "Deterrence works because of free will", then it appears to be smuggling in the assumption that free will exists. But you could just as easily paraphrase the premise as "Deterrence would not work in the absence of free will." This amounts to a claim that "there are no adequate explanations of the effects of deterrence other than free will." The claim is false (as seen from the thermostat discussion), but it doesn't really seem to involve a concealed assumption of the existence of free will, just a failure to have thought of alternative explanations.

  50. Nat said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    FWIW (probably very little), Heddle's argument doesn't seem to be a reductio. Rather, it seems to be a straight-forward modus tollens. Or, to be a bit more accurate, whether it's a reductio depends on how one wants to reconstruct it. The simplest reconstruction seems to be as a modus tollens:

    If No free-will then No deterrence.
    There is deterrence.
    There is free-will.

    Also, @KevinM, it's accusative.

    And, @Peter, "tautology" can mean a few different things, but they're usually statements, not arguments. At least in most logic texts, the term is going to refer to sentences of the Propositional Calculus.

  51. Mattholamieux said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:52 am

    Although I doubt this forum is rife with fans of top 40 rap music, I believe the following lines from the 2007 hit single "This Is Why I'm Hot" may be applicable as an example of begging the question.

    "I'm hot 'cause I'm fly, you ain't cause you not."

  52. Ellen K. said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Mattholamieux, please explain. I've no clue what "fly" means here, and I can't find any definition of "fly" as an adjective where that comment is begging the question.

  53. ...just don't call me late for dinner! said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    "Abortion is murder because is constitutes the intentional, unwarranted taking of human life."

    This is an example of begging the question if the statement stands alone. In context, it may just be a thesis sentence of a paragraph. Placed in its most favorable light, begging the question is nothing more than "stating your conclusion at the outset," a good idea if you want your audience to easily follow along.

  54. Sandra Wilde said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    To paraphrase Louis Armstrong on jazz, "If you have to ask what fly is, you'll never know." But "sexy" would be a reasonable synonym.

  55. Boo said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    I have an actual example of the logic use in the wild!

    In the run-up to the UK general election, theyworkforyou.com has a simple "Do you agree with this statement?" survey that candidates can fill in.

    One of the national statements is "British troops should stay in Afghanistan as long as they are needed." and Nikolai Tolstoy (UKIP candidate for Witney) says:

    “'As long as they are needed' begs the question a little! I am opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

    And you know, it does! Doesn't make me want to vote for him, but still…

  56. y81 said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    My best example is from Matt Yglesias, who argued that supermajority rules (like the Senate filibuster) are bad because they require some arbitrary number (60, in this case) to operate. This argument breaks down once we ask, what number of votes for passage would not be arbitrary? The only non-arbitrary number (in the Senate) is 51. Why is it not arbitrary? Because it is a majority. So Yglesias's argument, restated, is that supermajority requirements are bad because they require something other than a majority. Which begs the question.

    P.S. I think this was Matt Yglesias. If not, it was someone else, begging the question.

  57. We beg you to stop “begging the question” « Grammar Guide « copydesk.org said,

    February 10, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    [...] is a Language Log post about "begging the question"  and here is another one. Here is Paul Brians on "begs the [...]

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