When it is OK to Beg the Question

“You are begging the question;” “You are arguing in a circle;” (or for the more self-consciously sophisticated:)  “you are guilty of the petitio principii fallacy.” Such assertions, commonplace in philosophical dialogue are meant to undercut an opponent’s argument. After all, if you assume from the outset what you intend to prove, you are engaged in a kind of circular reasoning, which, most of the time we ought to avoid.But, is it ever ok to beg the question? I think that in one case, it is not only ok, but it is absolutely necessary. Consider, there are clear cases of knowledge. I know that I am now typing this blog post; I know that there is a tree in front of me; I know that I am having a pain in my knee; I know that I ate Cheerios for breakfast; I know that 2+2=4; I know that I exist (thanks for the reminder Descartes); and I know that I have two hands (thanks for the reminder, G.E. Moore). But, how do I know these things?

Take my claim to know there is a tree in front of me. Presumably, I know this is the case because I am having a sense perception of a tree. But how do I know that my sense perception is veridical (that is, capable of reliably providing me with knowledge)? I can’t verify that my perception of the tree is veridical by having another (different) sense perception of the tree to compare it, for then I would be begging the question (in assuming my sense perception is reliable in the first place)—and that is bad, remember? It seems I could only know that there is a tree in front of me by appealing to some other criterion of knowledge. But which one (Introspection? Memory? Rational Intuition? God?)? And how to I know that one? The answer is not obvious….and now I begin to doubt whether I know anything in the first place. Perhaps we should just be skeptics and claim that we don’t know anything. How can we get off of this wheel? Is there any way out of this epistemic circularity?

The problem here isn’t, as odd as it may sound, the fact that we beg the question. For anyone who wants to escape from the perilous hold of skepticism must admit the fact that there is no non-circular way out. Commenting on the problem of skepticism, Roderick Chisholm states, “What few philosophers have had the courage to recognize is this: we can deal with the problem only by begging the question.”[1] More recently, the philosopher Michael Bergmann has argued that we shouldn’t think that all epistemic circularity is a bad thing. Rather, given “the plausible assumption that justified belief isn’t impossible, it follows that justified EC-belief [i.e., beliefs infected with epistemic circularity] is possible-which entails that epistemic circularity is not, in itself, a bad thing.”[2] So, in this one case, when claiming to know things, it is ok to beg the question—for we all do it—and anyway, again, we do know things.

Here is how Chisholm, in an important article called “The Problem of the Criterion,” addresses the problem of the wheel:

Chisholm distinguishes between two pairs of questions:

(A) What do we know?

(B) How are we to decide whether we know?

The skeptic says you cannot answer question (A) until you have an answer for question (B), but you cannot answer question (B) until you have an answer for question (A). Therefore, says the skeptic, you cannot answer either question and there is no possibility of knowledge (NB: note the self-refuting nature of the skeptical claim). Chisholm identifies those who think they have an answer to (B) and that, given their answer to (B), they can figure out their answer to (A) as “methodist.” And finally, there are those, called “particularist” who have it the other way around:  they think they have an answer to (A) and that, given their answer to (A), they can figure out the answer to (B).

The problem with the methodist, says Chisholm, whether an empiricist, a rationalist, or a mystic, is that the criterion used (i.e., question B) is “very broad and far-reaching and at the same time completely arbitrary.”[3] For how can one begin with a broad generalization?

Following Thomas Reid, Chisholm offers what he takes to be a better way out of the problem of skepticism. For Reid, it is a first principle that our faculties are reliable and therefore able to confer justification: “Another first principle is, that the natural faculties (e.g., sense perception, memory, introspection, etc.), by which we distinguish truth from error are not fallacious.”[4] Thus, Reid takes it that all our natural faculties are reliable, and therefore the senses (e.g.,) should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. The Chisholmian particularist then, says that there are just some things we know and to find out whether or not we know does not require the application or test of any criterion. Michael Bergmann states, “We don’t seem to formulate to ourselves arguments that our faculties are reliable.  Rather, we seem just to take it as obvious (without inference) that our faculties are reliable.”[5] So, in the clear cases of knowledge derived from natural faculties (sense perception, memory, introspection and so on)—it is ok to beg the question.

[1]Chisholm, Roderick, The Foundations of Knowing (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1975), 75.

[2] Bergmann, Michael. 2004. “Epistemic Circularity: Malignant and Benign.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69: 711.

[3] Chisholm,  67.

[4] Reid, Thomas, Essays on the Intellectual Powers, edited by Baruch Brody (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969), 630.

[5] Bergmann, 723.

6 Responses to When it is OK to Beg the Question

  1. AP Armstrong says:

    Does “in the clear cases of knowledge derived from natural faculties (sense perception, memory, introspection and so on)” [where “it is ok to beg the question”], intrinsically limit one to the natural world? In other words, does this limit one to sure knowledge only acquired “scientifically” and so to sound knowledge only about the material world?

    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Excellent question AP. THere is considerable debate on this. Alvin Plantinga, following Calvin, thinks that we do have a faculty for perceiving God–hence, our belief in God is properly basic, hence justified, apart from evidence. See his Warranted Christian Belief. Apart from this, I still think we can have knowledge of a non-material reality and be justified in this belief. For example, we believe that there are other minds besides our own. I think this is a clear case of knowledge. But, if minds are immaterial, then we have sound knowledge (as a matter of fact) of a non-material world. Or take Descartes famous–I think, therefore I am. We know that we exist. But, if this is the case, and as a matter of fact, we are partly immaterial, then we have knowledge that is not purely scientific. Or again, I know that “torturing babies for fun” is wrong, but that knowledge is not knowledge of a scientific fact, rather it is a moral fact that is nonphysical. So, I’d say, all is up for grabs, not just empirical knowledge. warmly, Paul

  2. Zachary Leonard says:

    Great post, Dr. Gould!
    I am reading through Aquinas’ Summa for HOI3 and the tree analogy in your post got me thinking:
    From your understanding of Aquinas, could his theory of knowledge (ideas as means by which the intellect understands sensory images of real things) be applied in the same way as the question-begging?

    I mean, as with the tree: I know a material thing. I know that I know a material thing. I know that I am a knower. If that’s the progression, wouldn’t real material things (concrete and knowable) then be needed to generate a sensory perception, which is itself necessary for abstraction of an idea in the first place? As in, “We live in a real world and we know things because real objects are providing our minds with knowledge.”
    Or is there an implict question-begging in this scholasticism/realism itself?


    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Hello Zach–great to hear from you. I’m not super familiar with Aquinas’ theory of knowledge and sense perception. But, in general, I understand that Aquinas was a kind of empiricist. If so, then he was (using Chisholm), a methodist and not a particularist. But, as Chisholm points out in his “Problem of the Criterion”–the methodist selection of a criterion is arbitrary–hence, hence, in a sense, the empiricist doesn’t get off the wheel without begging the question either. warmly, Paul

  3. Andrew says:

    Hi Paul,

    Doesn’t Descartes offer a non-circular way out of this? I rarely find any form of skepticism so global as to rule out the possibility of *ANY* justified beliefs. Rather, I always find that the skepticism is limited to a particular subset of beliefs e.g. those about reality external to our minds.

    It seems to me after all, that even global skeptics will want to say that we can have knowledge of at least logical and mathematical truths for instance. Having granted that, it may be that there is a successful version of the ontological argument which works simply from logical truths known a-priori. Granting that there is such a successful version of the ontological argument, we can work back from the goodness of God to the reliability of our sense perception.

    Now granted that this seems to be a big task, but it seems to me to be a non-circular means of deriving epistemic justification.

    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Hello Andrew–good to hear from you–interesting thoughts! I would like to think on this more, but my initial thought is that yes, this would be a non-circular way of avoiding skepticism, on one level, but I wonder if it will fall pray to the critique Chisholm gives in his article on the Problem of the Criterion with respect to methodism. That is, how do we know that our rational faculties deliver us knowledge, even a priori, unless we assume that they do. In which case, we have not gotten off the wheel. But, I shall think on this–I hope you are well! warmly, paul

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