Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Logical Fallacies: "Begging the Question"

I am presenting the logical fallacy called "Begging the Question" today, because the name is awkward and counterintuitive, and because I recently encountered examples of this fallacy being employed.

In an earlier post, I introduced logical fallacies, and said that I would be discussing others in this blog. A logical fallacy is an argument, presented in an attempt to convince someone of a position on some issue, that inherently relies on false reasoning. I previously gave examples, such as "ad Hominem", "Post Hoc Ergo Proctor Hoc", etc. Aristotle classified many logical fallacies by type, and in the centuries since, philosophers, rhetoricians, computer scientists, scientists, mathematicians, and logicians have made great advances in the study of logic and further identified and categorized types of logical fallacies.

Identifying logical fallacies can sometimes be difficult because of the emotions attached to the issues at stake, sometimes because the person using them has authority or is subtle, and most of all because many arguments are composed of more than one fallacy at a time.

The utility of compiling a catalogue of logical fallacies is that having them at hand mentally enables one to identify dishonest arguments employed by others, and it is quicker than copying down a statement, translating it into symbols, then applying modern symbolic logic to check for the truth or falsity of the argument. That can be done, and is a wonderful skill to have...but it is slow, and in a public debate or a discussion with friends or classmates, it is not practicable. For analyzing a political speech the next day, symbolic logic is perfect, and will focus attention on the exact points of error. One can, however, respond immediately to a claim with counters such as "that's an ad Hominem!" or "you are Begging the Question." Being caught in a logical fallacy can cost one credibility in a debate.

"Begging the Question" sounds like it means that an unanswered question should be asked, but it does not. After all, "to beg" means to ask for something from a position of desperation, or to request something from a person in authority. "Doctor, I have no money, but I beg you--save my child!" In court, it means to request an action or forbearance from a judge: "Your Honor, the Plaintiff begs the Court's indulgence while I locate the exact passage in the document in exhibit." It is also used in very polite society: "I beg your pardon".

The phrase "begging the question" was introduced in a 16th-Century English translation of a Latin translation of Aristotle; the phrase in Latin was "petitio principii", which might also be translated as "petitioning the premise" or "requesting the beginning". It means that the argument begins as assuming as agreed-upon a point that needs to be proved:

  1. Skinny blondes are the prettiest women.
  2. Men prefer to be with the prettiest women.
  3. Therefore, blondes have more fun!

The first line begs the question. (Perhaps the second line, too?)

Here's another example:

  1. In 1947, a flying saucer crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.
  2. The Air Force collected debris and took it away.
  3. Therefore, the government possesses secret alien technology.

This is Begging the Question. Need I explain? :-)

Here's another example, not in syllogistic format: "Malicious ghosts are very bad, because they can move things around in your house and they have harmful intentions." This begs the question of the existence of ghosts; it also begs the question of whether ghosts could affect the material world if they were to exist; it also begs the question of whether there can be intent, good or bad, after death; also whether the dead would even have an interest in things post mortem.

A related logical fallacy is called "Circular Reasoning". An argument is circular when the conclusion is one of the premises, even if the wording has been changed: "The government hides the truth about UFOs from the people. That they deny having alien artifacts shows they are hiding something." [This is primarily Circular Reasoning, but it also begs some questions.]

  1. Scientists deny whatever doesn't fit in their world-view.
  2. Many people say they have encountered Sasquatch.
  3. Scientists deny Sasquatch because it doesn't fit their theories.

The conclusion is really a re-wording of line 1, rather than a conclusion that follows from lines one and two, making it an example of Circular Reasoning. (Of course, it is also an example of Begging the Question.)

  1. Skinny blondes are the prettiest.
  2. Many men like skinny blondes,
  3. because skinny blondes are the prettiest.
 What is this last one?

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