The Non-Expert

Begging the Question

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we explain the phrase nobody understands in terms everyone can understand. For the most part.

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Question: I don’t understand the term “begs the question.” I know I use it incorrectly—or so I’ve been told—but I don’t know what I’m supposedly doing wrong. Can you explain? —Sarah

Answer: Because it’s been years since I’ve taken any sort of logic class, and since I wholeheartedly disagree with (read: do not understand) the tenets of prescriptive linguistics, I’m going to do some in-depth research on the subject and get back to you.

One Wikipedia… Two Wikipedia… Three Wikipedia…

My understanding is that the term “begs the question” has essentially been bastardized, whereby laymen (i.e., us) have misconstrued or broadened its meaning, and in the process have pissed off a very small group of anal-retentive, scholarly types (i.e., them).

Now, I assume that when you use the phrase, like most other people, you use it to mean something like, “Well, that opens up another can of worms.” For example: Your 16-year-old son gets in a fight with a bouncer at a strip club. Sure, it’s bad enough he’s rumbling with bouncers—and you are probably in need of some parenting books—but you might say the whole situation begs the question: How did he, being underage, get into the strip club in the first place? And did he at least get a lap dance before he was thrown out? (Let’s hope so.)

But that would be the incorrect use of “begging the question.” In a nutshell, “begging the question” refers to a certain fallacy in syllogistic argument where the very thing you are trying to prove (your conclusion) is presupposed in the supporting argument (your premises). This is sometimes called “circular reasoning.” For example:

  • You wouldn’t have come to the Non-Expert unless you were really desperate.
  • You have come to the Non-Expert.
  • Therefore, you are desperate.

My conclusion—“you are desperate”—is not very convincing here, because I have assumed in my argument precisely what I claim to be proving. Therefore, I would be accused of “begging the question”—of arguing for a conclusion based on inconclusive evidence. After all, I know nothing about you: Aside from asking me this question, you may otherwise be perfectly content. (Though I have been accused of far worse. In fact, as I have cheated on my taxes as recently as 15 minutes ago, we can reasonably conclude I may be accused of far worse in the future.)

Structurally, the above argument would look something like this:

  • x implies y
  • Assume x
  • Therefore, y

Make a little more sense? Good. Let’s move on to a slightly more complex version of this type of argument:

  • Barack Obama will beat Hillary Clinton in the California democratic primary this coming Tuesday provided young people like me just get off their lazy asses and vote!
  • It was?
  • Fuck.

While circular arguments are technically valid, they aren’t really recommended unless you are trying to prove the theory of intelligent design or something comparable. Again, I’m no logician, but it’s a basic explanation that I hope will suffice.

If you’re more of a visual learner, I’ve included a diagrammed version of this type of argument:

Argumentative logic is pretty tough to wrap the brain around at first, so I think we should delve deeper into the territory—or at least due west, then up, then right—because there are all sorts of argument variations you could feasibly encounter under everyday circumstances. From politicians and CEOs to professional scholars and news anchors, there are vast numbers of self-proclaimed pundits putting our tricky language to optimal use in the hopes of convincing you that the very absurd things spewing from their mouths actually possess an iota of truth. Often these linguistic smoke and mirrors prove quite effective—just have a look at that last sentence for proof of that.

Other examples include the flip-flop argument:

  • I am a mortal being.
  • Mortal beings die.
  • Therefore, I am now an immortal being.

This particular argument was originally postulated by John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. I consider this a sound argument. That is to say, I believe it, personally. Although I will allow that it seems a tad fishy.

You might find the following argument, originally posed by my abusive uncle to his teenage stepson, a bit more useful—if not way more convincing:

  • I am a mortal being.
  • Wait, no, I am an immortal being.
  • Make me a grilled-cheese sandwich, asshole, or I’ll incinerate your Datsun.

My Uncle Grant is tough to step to in a cage match of the mind (also, I think he’s a demigod). You see how he just made a singular point, and then completely reversed his stance on that point, and then threatened his opponent’s livelihood? That is rad, and also known as a non-linear argument, because it doesn’t go in a straight line or make any fucking sense whatsoever.

Conversely, there are also linear arguments, which progress logically from point to point, and look something like this, I imagine:

It should be noted that there aren’t just circular and linear arguments, but all sorts of other differently shaped and cleverly named arguments you can use—or that smarter, more vindictive persons than yourself can use against you. For example, the triangular argument, so named because it has three sides: your significant other’s, yours, and your significant other’s:

  • Honey, you need to take out the trash now.
  • But I’m totally kicking that Dragonforce song’s ass on Guitar Hero!
  • Now.

Or, the Popeye-Cartesian proof of existence:

  • I think what I think.
  • Therefore, I yam what I yam.

Also, there are inductive arguments, which develop their conclusions through inference (micro to macro, so to speak). These are used both in everyday speech and in scholarly debate, and, like their deductive counterparts, are virtually incontrovertible when executed correctly. Allow me to demonstrate:

  • King Crimson still haven’t gotten inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
  • For the love of God!
  • What do these assholes have against 9/8 time signatures, anyway?

Pretty tough to argue with something like that, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?