By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Question-Begging Fallacy, God’s Word, and Apologetics
A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning or argument. Some fallacies are so common that they have been given their own names. The fallacy of question-begging occurs when an argument assumes as proven that which is at issue. In other words, the conclusion, which is the claim in dispute, is used as a premise, which is provided as support for the claim in dispute—and the result is that the disputed claim is provided as support for itself. Appropriately, the fallacy of question-begging is also known as circular reasoning.
Sometimes the question-begging fallacy is easy to spot. Consider the following lone argument presented by a lawyer whose job is to establish the defendant’s guilt in a murder trial: “Joe is the murderer, therefore he should be found guilty of murder.” Clearly, if the issue is whether Joe actually did the crime, then merely asserting that Joe is the murderer is to assume as proven that which is at issue, which is to beg the question.
In other words, the argument is circular: Joe is guilty (conclusion), because Joe is guilty (premise). [The disputed claim is offered as support for the disputed claim, i.e., the conclusion is offered as the premise.] What is needed is evidence of Joe’s actual doing of the crime, that is, what is needed are grounds which establish Joes’ guilt. Such evidence could consist of an accumulation of the following: Joe’s footprints at the scene of the crime, Joe’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, gun powder residue on Joe’s hand, the victim’s blood on Joe’s jacket, credible testimony from a witness who saw Joe commit the killing, etc. (For more about this sort of evidence, see TV shows such as CSI New York, CSI Miami, CSI Las Vegas, CSI Ad Infinitum, CSI Ad Nauseum.)
Sometimes the question-begging fallacy is not quite as easy to spot, especially when it comes to religious or worldview matters. Consider the argument set out in the following discussion:
- Believer: “The Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) is the Word of God.”
- Skeptic: “Why should I think that?”
- Believer: “The Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) says it’s the Word of God, and we should believe whatever the Bible (Qur’an, etc.) says, because it’s the Word of God.”
- Skeptic: “Umm, there’s something wrong here.”
It seems to me that the skeptic is correct here. If the issue (point of dispute) is whether the Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) is the Word of God, then simply restating the issue (point of dispute) as a premise—i.e., that the Bible (etc.) is the Word of God—in support of the conclusion—i.e., that the Bible (etc.) is the Word of God—is to commit the question-begging fallacy. It’s to assume as established that which is at issue. It’s to argue in a circle.
In such a dispute, what is needed is some way to break out of the circle. That is, what is needed is some evidence or grounds for thinking that the Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) is true or at least contains important truths—in the mundane, everyday, lower-case “t” sense of “truth”. Such evidence or grounds could consist of an accumulation of the following: the book’s historical accuracy (especially concerning its central figure), its fit with what we know of the cosmos (especially the findings of the sciences as well as the very possibility of doing science in the first place), its accuracy in understanding the human condition (including our apparent brokenness or penchant to fail at love), plus its moral fruit (that is, its overall impact on the world in spite of the obvious failures of those who don’t practice its core doctrines).
In a world in which various worldviews (whether religious or secular) compete for our deepest allegiances, but are in their core tenets mutually contradictory (e.g., the Bible teaches that Jesus is God in the flesh and that Jesus was killed and subsequently resurrected; the Qur’an denies both of these teachings), to commit the question-begging fallacy in defence of one’s worldview is not at all helpful for those who desire to know or reasonably believe which worldview (if any) is really the way, the truth, and the life.
Hence, there is a need for truth-seeking apologetics, done by Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and whomever—and, of course, done with gentleness and respect.
P.S. On a more personal note, in my journey through life I have come to believe that the New Testament documents of the Bible provide us with good publicly-accessible historical reasons for thinking that the man Jesus, who identifies himself as the biblical God, actually lived and died and resurrected bodily from death. This, it seems to me, is good grounds for taking Jesus’ teachings to heart and worshipping Him as Lord.
Hendrik van der Breggen, Ph.D., is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.