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Fallacies: Begging the Question

In this video Matthew C. Harris of Duke University explains the informal logical fallacy called begging the question and the associated concept of circular reasoning.

Speaker: Matthew C. Harris, Duke University

Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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Video transcript

(intro music) Hello, I'm Matthew Harris. I'm a PhD student at Duke University, and in this video I'll be discussing the informal logical fallacy[br]called "begging the question," and the related concept[br]of circular reasoning. Begging the question is an[br]informal logical fallacy, which means it has to do with a flaw in the argument's content. An argument that begs the question assumes a proposition[br]that's in need of proof. The term itself can be[br]a source of confusion because it's often used to[br]suggest different things. Often, we say that an[br]argument begs the question to mean that it's inherently circular. In other cases, the same phrase indicates the presence of a questionable assumption. Sometimes people use it loosely to mean "raising the question." Accusing someone's argument[br]of begging the question is to suggest that they[br]have unjustly assumed a proposition that is in need of proof. Think of it like this. Suppose, instead of arguing,[br]that you and your opponent are on opposing teams[br]in a game of tug-of-war. Teams A and B are supposed[br]to pull on the rope. It'd be cheating if either[br]team arranged to have the line that is supposed to be drawn[br]to divide the two of them already on B's or A's side of the divide. Similarly, people engaged[br]in an argument can object that their opponent's[br]premises presuppose what's at stake during the disagreement, by accusing them of begging the question. Statements and arguments can be accused of begging the question[br]in different senses. The first sense we'll look at is when question-begging concerns[br]a questionable premise. Of course, a premise, like[br]the foundation of a house, cannot give support to its[br]conclusion if it itself is not supported on independent grounds. Next, there's the colloquial[br]sense of begging the question that can be used very differently. This sense is controversial[br]because it often is unrelated to the logical fallacy that[br]is the term's origin. For example, someone might say in response to a particular statement or argument that it begs the question,[br]to mean that it raises, relates, or introduces some other topic of question for discussion. However, the context of conversations are often complicated matters. Lastly, we have the most common sense in which the term begging[br]the question is used, which brings us back[br]to circular reasoning. When someone says that[br]an argument really is question-begging in this sense, they mean that there is a circularity in the chain of reasoning. typically about justification or meaning. We can distinguish these cases of circularity into two main sorts: circularity by equivalency and circularity by dependency. In cases of circularity by equivalency, one of the premises of an argument asserts a proposition that is equivalent to that argument's conclusion. For example, the premise[br]and conclusion might express the same proposition twice by substituting synonymous words to say the same thing. An example of this would be to argue that music is a superior[br]art to film; therefore, organized sounds are better[br]than organized images. And the other[br]type of circularity, circularity by dependency, is the charge that the conclusion and the premise are mutually dependent. For example, imagine that Cowboy Ted is claiming to have a five-thousand-pound horse. Now, he claims to know that his[br]horse weighs five thousand pounds because he used a highly[br]accurate scale on his ranch. But he also claims to know[br]that the scale is precise because he personally calibrated it by the horse's weight of[br]five thousand pounds. This argument is circular by dependency because the extravagant claims[br]about the horse's weight and the reliability of the scale are mutually dependent upon each other. Importantly, it is not the[br]presence of circularity that is problematic per se, but[br]the lack of an independently grounded source of justification. If the horse looked like it[br]weighed five thousand pounds, you might consider this[br]an independent reason. Or even better, if someone from the Federal Scale Inspection[br]Agency inspected the scale, we might have stronger independent reasons to accept his argument. Though the circularity would still exist, we would not consider it bad. For more videos like this one, be sure to check out the rest of the formal and informal fallacies in the critical thinking section. Subtitles by the Amara.org community