Sunday, June 26, 2005


Beg the question

Although I am not a diarist, a blog might give me an
emotional outlet for some pet peeves.

I find myself experiencing great anger when I hear people
use the phrase "It begs the question..." when they could say
"It raises the question...".

To "beg the question" is the logical fallacy of covertly
assuming the point you are presuming to prove. The argument
from design would be among the worst arguments for the
existence of God on the basis of this fallacy. To say that God
must exist because the world is too complicated not to be
created begs the question. If the world is so awesomely
complicated then the Creator of the world would have to
be even more awesomely complicated. Why does the
person not say: God is too complicated not to have
been created, therefore God must have been created?
There are better arguments for God's existence, although
whether they are valid is another question.

In my essay Why Life Extension I give a common answer to the question "What is the purpose of life?" -- the common answer being "To help others." This purported answer doesn't really answer the original question because it does not explain what is the purpose of the lives of others, ie, it still leaves the question open. A journalist reading my essay interpreted my comment that the question was being begged to mean that the "To help others" answer raises the question of the purpose of the lives of others, as if "beg"="raises".

If I am puzzled about a friend being madly in love with
someone who I do not find to be attractive or even likable,
I might ask "Why do you love him/her?" If I am given the
answer "Because he/she is lovable!" that would be begging the
question. It assumes the answer rather than answering the question.

Possibly a more marginal example is a debate I recently heard concerning the amyloid cascade hypothesis of Alzheimer's Disease. The defender of the hypothesis did little more than repeat the assertion "the amyloid cascade hyptothesis has stood the test of time". This assumes the evidence has been validated, rather than justifies the evidence.

Professional lexicographers have duly noted this new
corroded use of the phase "beg the question":

I believe that the abominable use of the phrase came from people who are ignorant of logic hearing the phrase "beg the question" being spoken by literate people and then used the phrase so they could pompously impress others by sounding literate. I resent the abduction and possible loss of a good logical distinction. There was no need to steal this phase when "raises the question" is an unpretentious and easily understood way of communicating the same idea.

Good lexicographers are descriptive and not prescriptive. I am not a good lexicographer -- I cannot control my emotions well. I am morally outraged by corruption of language grounded in pretentiousness. And yet at the same time I am somewhat shocked by the intensity of my own emotion, which is mostly futile. It only gets me upset and my upset accomplishes nothing positive. I know that I should have the wisdom not to waste my energy on things I cannot change. Perhaps now that I have expressed myself I can feel a little better about the matter.

Unfortunately, things have reached the stage that "begs the question" is so much more used "wrongly" than "rightly" that my listening now automatically interprets the "wrong" usage rather than the right one when I hear the phrase.

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