Petitio principii

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Begging the question, which goes by the technical name petitio principii, is a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument implicitly assumes its conclusion in a premise.

For example, consider the following argument:

  • I know God exists because of all the good things He has done for me in my life.

Arranging this argument in the usual premise–conclusion sequence reveals the problem with it:

  1. God has done good things for me in my life.
  2. Therefore God exists.

The premise assumes that God exists in the first place, otherwise he couldn't "do" anything.

A more subtle example, perhaps, is the following:

  • I believe in the paranormal because I've actually seen a ghost.

The problem here is the assumption that what one saw was indeed "paranormal". As far as we know, everything that we "see" is either made of ordinary matter (i.e., emits photons) or is the result of the faulty interpretation of chemical signals by the brain (e.g., hallucinations) — neither of which are paranormal in origin.

Sometimes the phrase "begging the question" refers to using a premise that requires at least as much justification as the intended conclusion — that is, that the use of the premise to justify the conclusion is at least as problematic as simply asserting the conclusion without the premise at all. For example:

  • The teachings of Jesus should be followed because he was the son of God.

In this case the premise, that Jesus was the son of God, requires at least as much justification as the claim that the teachings of Jesus should be followed. That is, the argument begs the question, "How do you know Jesus was the son of God?"

Grammar note

People often refer to "begging the question" when they really simply mean "raising another question". For example:

"You say that theism makes more sense than atheism, but that just begs the question of which religion/philosophy I should choose to believe."

This is not an appropriate use of the term, since the question being raised is not implicit in the preceding statement.

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