A circular argument against begging the question

A puzzle for the readers of the NonSequitur

Colin, John and I will be attending the upcoming Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA) conference in the coming weeks.  We're presenting a version of the Subjunctive Tu Quoque argument (Colin blazed the trail here). 

To the point, I'm slated to comment on a paper with the thesis that there are virtuous circular arguments.  I've posed a challenge to the author, with the following argument:

P1: There are no virtuous circular arguments.

C: Therefore, there are no virtuous circular arguments.

The challenge is to explain, if there are virtuous circular arguments, what is wrong with P1 being used to support C. Of course, the author doesn't get to say that P1 begs the question.

Is this out of bounds?  Moreover, if the challenge can't be met, what follows?

11 thoughts on “A circular argument against begging the question”

  1. It's a tautology. It would just be valid but unsound if there are virtuous circular arguments. amirite?

  2. Presumably the author will have some external standards to justify her/his claim. It is notable that the paper only argues for SOME circular arguments, not all. For an arbitrary example to qualify, the author's claim would have to be the universal one. Absent a detailed knowledge of the paper, it is impossible to know if your example would successfully meet those external criteria for the existential case.

  3. This is right, Gary.  Some, but not all.  So everything hinges on what that criterion is.  Now, say, it were something along reliablist lines:
    R: Arguments with premises provided by reliable belief producing mechanisms may be used to justify those premises.

    And so, some proposition, p, is produced by a Belief-forming-mechanism, X.  P is justified, and so can play the role of premise. P is part of a longstanding track record argument that X is reliable.  And so, S now has the track record argument that X is reliable, and so has justification for believing that p.  That's the circle.  (See, by the way, Sosa's defense of this form of argument in “Philosophical Skepticism and Epistemic Circularity”)
    Here's how the case goes, this time with a little more meat.  I'm reliable (mostly) with regard to beliefs about informal logic and epistemology.  I believe P1, and it is justified on the basis of that belief-forming process.  I then conclude C from P1.  I"m justified in believing the premise and it entails the truth of the conclusion. 

  4. As I understand it, P1 being used to support C violates logic in that nothing new is introduced to support the conclusion and the conclusion repeats the premise.  If we were talking in terms of math problems, you might use a virtuous circular argument to show that two equations are equal, but I don't see how the circular argument can be used to prove something is valid since the only proof you have that either of the statements are true is the other statement which in effect is a copy of the other, and not original.

  5. Brian that's the right idea.  Scott, am I right to repeat it this way: "I'm justified in believing that P because my belief-forming mechanisms are reliable.  They're reliable because they produce beliefs such as P."

  6. Hi Brian, your observation is right, but it is the same as Jem's above: that it is formally empty.  But that's not yet a criticism of the argument in terms of its support (all circular arguments are valid!).  I could alleviate this problem by introducing a different premise:
    P2:  No argument with its conclusion serving in its justificatory ancestry is a valid argument.
    C follows from P2, too, supplemented with an account of circular arguments.  Now, this argument, too, begs the question, but isn't a tautology.

  7. John,
    You've got the idea right– namely, that these virtuously circular arguments are ones that are used as anti-skeptical devices.  For example: There's a tree ouside my window — I know it, because I see it.  Is my visual system working properly?  Yes, because I see a tree out my window.  I've assumed the reliability of the system to make a track-record argument for the reliability of the system.  On the model, that works (speaking to Gary's point above) only for reliable systems.  The argument is vicious when the system is not reliable.  So the argument doesn't show its conclusion by virtue of circularity alone.
    My counter-example is that I (I presume) have a reliable belief-producing mechanism regarding informal logic, and it produces the belief P1 (or P2). 

  8. T he Ah Ha moment…A belief is not an argument, and beliefs do not represent facts, but the perceived notion that facts support your belief. Beliefs, faith, etc. are actually the surrendering of seeking the truth. Without factual evidence to support your premises, your premises become beliefs, and that I believe turns the circular argument into an existential fallacy. 

  9. Is it of any consequence whether the circular arguments are virtuous or viscious?
    Indeed, is it of any consequence whether the arguments are even circular?
    Try taking Scott Aikin's propositions and remove the word "virtuous" from P1 and C.
    Then go one step further and remove the words "virtuous" and "circular" from P1 and C.

  10. Sorry if I sound harsh below. That’s not my intention, though I can see that it can be read that way. No offense intended. (And sorry for replying to such an old post – I stumbled into it).

    Your argument is simply not virtuous. 🙂

    After writing everything below, I realized that my dolphin example is all that is necessary to demonstrate why your argument is not virtuous, but I put so much effort in writing it that I won’t delete it. To put it simple: “P1 therefore P1” does not in itself prove P1. If P1 is false, then P1 will also be false, even though P1 is true within the argument and the inference is correct. Therefore, you have failed to prove that “there are no virtuous circular arguments” is indeed true, you’re only asserting it. More information is required for the conclusion to be true.

    (Note: Supposing that P1 is meaningful, if P1 is [sentence] then “therefore [sentence]” is equivalent to “therefore P1”. When you spell it out, as i do above, it really looks silly.)

    First of all, you’re not making an argument. What you are demonstrating is that to say that there are no virtuous circular arguments is to say that there are no virtuous circular arguments.

    Secondly, you haven’t proven that P1 is true. P1 is not an axiom and hence C is not really because of P1 but because of P0, P-1, P-2 etc. Hiding implicit premises does not make them irrelevant. On the other hand, if we assume that P1 *is* an axiom, it cannot be true because of anything, rendering the “argument” invalid. (Or in layman’s terms: “there are no virtuous circular arguments” is not true *because* there are no virtuous circular arguments, but for other reasons. Therefore your “therefore” is nonsense.)

    Third, “virtuous circular argument” is meaningless, so the whole “argument” is meaningless. Try replacing it with something else meaningless such as:

    P1: There is no king of the USA who has purple hair.*
    C: Therefore there is no king of the USA who has purple hair.

    What does that even mean? It’s just a construction of words, not something that exists cognitively. There can be no thing such as the king of a republic.

    Heck, why not replacing P1 with something that is false:

    P1: There are no dolphins that are mammals.
    C: Therefore there are no dolphins that are mammals.

    Wow! I just proved that no dolphins are mammals!

    More generally, X=X (where X is an entity of any kind) is only true where X really exists. Therefore it is not true that “virtuous circular argument” in P1 = “virtuous circular argument” in C unless there exist virtuous circular arguments. Example: “The king of the USA is the king of USA” is untrue, because nobody is the king in a republic.*

    Another issue is that “p therefore q” is a premise, but you cloak that premise by disguising it as a conclusion.

    Additionally, supposing that you have demonstrated that there is at least one virtuous circular argument, P1 is false. Therefore your conclusion is false. Therefore you have not demonstrated that there is at least one virtuous circular argument – the liar paradox.

    Finally, you are trying to do the same as Anselm tried to do with his ontological argument – proving something from nothing.

    *Of course, one can play semantic games and redefine “the king of the United States to be some secret unrecognized king, a future king, an Elvis look-alike or something, but that’s merely semantics. That’s not what the term denotes in the examples above. Playing with words is not an exercise in logic.

    On the other hand, I think you can see the errors more easily if you rearrange the words in a more formal way, like “there is no X where X is an argument and X is virtuous”, “There is no X where X is the king of the USA and X is purple haired” or “There is no X where X is a dolphin and X is a mammal”.

    P.S. To believe P1 where P1 implicates C is not necessarily to believe C. It is possible to believe P1 and NOT C at the same time. Most, if not all, of us have such cognitive dissonances. (Example: Some people think that killing people is wrong, but at the same time that death penalty is right.) This is a psychological issue, not a logical one. The question of true justified belief (Gettier problem, anyone?) is therefore a completely different discussion.

  11. Hi Fredrick,
    I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood completely. And wasted a lot of time. Next time, ask a clarifying question before you start in like this.

    Now for the lesson. Remember: The argument I am giving is a *challenge* to someone who holds that there *are* non-vicious circular arguments. Please, at this point, go back and read the post carefully to see this.

    It is a challenge to those who hold that there are virtuous circular arguments. That means it is a form of objection to the view that some circular arguments are not fallacious. Understand that before you continue to read.

    The challenge is that those who hold there are non-fallacious (virtuous) circular arguments must defend that thesis against a circular argument against it. To do so requires that the person be able to say (a) why my argument is not only vicious, but (b) do so in a way that isn’t applicable to all circular arguments. If the person accomplishes (a) without (b), it’s not a defense but a concession that there aren’t virtuous circular arguments. (Read the last sentence twice. That’s where you aren’t understanding the challenge.)

    SO: Not all of the things you said above here are relevant to the challenge, but many of the things relevant to the assessment of circular arguments accomplish (a). Good for you! But none of the things you say accomplish (b) – showing that they don’t apply to all circular arguments. So you fail the challenge. Mostly because you didn’t understand what it was, but got on a high horse about circular arguments and wrote a very long and irrelevant post. {now I dust off my hands}

Comments are closed.