Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
begs the question
I was with my sisters this weekend and one of them said that something 'begged the question'. I thought she was using the expression wrong and she thought I was. So does it mean, something that begs for a further question, or does it mean something that manages to avoid the question entirely? I don't think I really need to go into who thought what in this case, as I'm perfectly willing to expose my own ignorance, but not so big on pointing a finger at others, should that prove to be the case--at least on the internet. (Okay, okay--there have probably been exceptions.) Let's just shoot ahead and find a meaning for the term.
Well, safe to say that we were both wrong to one degree or another. In any case, there is no winner. To beg the question, as I'm sure any logic student reading along here will already know, is actually a specific form of logical fallacy in which an argument is assumed to be true without reference to anything outside itself.
Here are some examples from the Nizkor Project, which apparently is attempting to educate us on logic in order to help us not be bamboozled by Holocaust deniers:
Bill: "God must exist."
Jill: "How do you know."
Bill: "Because the Bible says so."
Jill: "Why should I believe the Bible?"
Bill: "Because the Bible was written by God."
"If such actions were not illegal, then they would not be prohibited by the law."
"The belief in God is universal. After all, everyone believes in God."
Interviewer: "Your resume looks impressive but I need another reference."
Bill: "Jill can give me a good reference."
Interviewer: "Good. But how do I know that Jill is trustworthy?"
Bill: "Certainly. I can vouch for her."
I think some of us may recognize this logical fallacy more easily under the heading 'circular reasoning'.
Basically, 'to beg the question' has nothing to do with questions. It is a (some would say clumsy) translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, which in post-classical Latin turns out to be a rough translation of Aristotle's first description of this logical fallacy, 'assuming the conclusion'. For a fascinating discussion of all the language transformations involved, go here. The comments are mostly quite informed, so there's a lot of material here. Both 'beg' and 'question' have very ambivalent roots, which is what has led us to all get so mixed up about this.
The question remains--what are we to do? The wrong meaning has slipped into the vernacular. Do we just accept and go on? Not according to Beg the Question.info They have even incited the mobs to take up their pickets and march on Washington at one point.
Apparently many failed to notice that this impassioned plea took place on April Fool's Day.
But despite kidding around, their advocacy is not all tongue in cheek. To wit:
"While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous "modern" usage. This is why we fight.".
Apparently, you can even get a T-shirt in support of the cause, so don't let me keep you...