Sunday Meditations: Begging the Question

“Begging the question” is not the same thing as “raising the question.”

Raising the question means that something happens or occurs to you that makes you want to ask a question.

Begging the question means you assume the truth of your conclusion as part of trying to prove your conclusion.  The phrasing is confusing because “begging” sounds like you’re asking for something and there actually isn’t a literal question involved.  You don’t actually ask a question when you beg the question.

Wrong:

“My roommate, who has been unemployed the whole time I’ve known him, just walked through the door wearing a Rolex and carrying a new plasma TV.  This begs the question: how did he afford all this?”

No, it raises the question, “How did he afford all this?”  It would be perfectly ok to say, “This raises the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or, “This prompts me to ask the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or even, “This demands that all right-thinking individuals ask themselves the question: how did he afford all this?”

But “begs the question” is the wrong expression to use because there’s nothing there about assuming the truth of unproven conclusions.  Something provokes you to ask questions; that is not begging a question.

Right:

“My roommate told me his brother never lied to him.  I asked him how he knew this.  He told me that, once, he accused his brother of lying, and his brother looked him in the eye and said, ‘I would never lie to you.’  I told him he was just begging the question.”

Here, your roommate has made a claim: My brother has never lied to me.  To prove this claim, your roommate refers to his brother’s statement that he has never lied to him.  The proof of the claim rests on the claim already being true.

See, if your roommate’s brother is a compulsive liar, of course he would still say, “I’ve never lied to you.”  And that would be a lie.  It doesn’t work.  You can’t prove the honesty of someone on the basis of their own insistence that they are honest.

In order to use the brother’s own statement that he has never lied, you have to believe he isn’t lying.  The evidence depends on you assuming that the conclusion is already true.  This is what it means to beg the question.

Another example:

“Jesus never existed.  I know because there is no evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus ever existed, like there is for other historical figures.  The mentions of Jesus outside of the Bible are obviously forgeries by Christians, because Jesus never actually existed.  Obviously they were made up.  Therefore, there’s no real evidence.”

This is begging the question.  In order for the arguments to work, the conclusion already has to be assumed to be true.  Once the question-begging train has left the station, it becomes an almost impenetrable argument.  What could you possibly show such a person to demonstrate extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence?  Nothing, obviously, because it will always get rejected.  Such a person is assuming the truth of their conclusion and using it to evaluate evidence for that very conclusion.

Christians, themselves, are guilty of their own versions of question begging.

But this is not truly about claims about Jesus or the Bible or anything particularly spiritual.  I just get tired of people using the phrase “begs the question” wrongly.

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