Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

The Fallacy of Question-Begging Definition

arroba Email

One of the issues that has come up in recent days is the fallacious misuse of definitions that beg questions at stake. Accordingly, I think it advisable to headline a comment from the Nihilism thread and give an example from origins issues:


KF, 262: >>Aleta (attn BA, LH, ES & WJM):

While a lot else happened, this is important:

[A, 227:] A definition, as a stipulation within a logical system, can’t be in error because we are just declaring that it is what it is.

Definitions, even in formal systems, can beg questions (etc. of course) and become dubious as a result.

The fallacy of begging the question in an explicit definition or a definition by discussion or a definition by principle/criterion (as with the old verificationist view) is just that, a fallacy. No true Scotsman will X is a simple case in point.

{NB: At 163, I gave an example from Logical Positivism:

. . . what I primarily had in mind is the case of Logical Positivism and its attempt to overthrow the credibility of metaphysics (which includes ontology), ethics etc.

As Wikipedia almost coyly summarises with an I have a secret introduction:

Logical positivists’ verifiability principle—that only statements about the world that are empirically verifiable or logically necessary are cognitively meaningful—cast theology, metaphysics, and evaluative judgements, such as ethics and aesthetics, as cognitively meaningless “pseudostatements” that were but emotively meaningful.[1] {–> this of course redefined “meaningful” in ways that begged big questions and in the end proved to be self-referentially incoherent . . . } The verificationist program’s fundamental suppositions had varying formulations, which evolved from the 1920s to 1950s into the milder version logical empiricism.[2] Yet all three of verificationism’s shared basic suppositions—verifiability criterion, analytic/synthetic distinction, and observation/theory gap[3]—were by the 1960s found irreparably untenable, signaling the demise of verificationism and, with it, of the entire movement launched by logical positivism.[4]

Why did it collapse?

In the end, as the assertion was self-referential and could not pass its own test. It was self-referentially incoherent and self-falsifying.}

A more serious context is where definition is not arbitrary game-playing in a sand-box but should seek to accurately describe reality in some relevant facet. Plato’s dialogues often pivot on such, e.g. what is justice?

In other words it is patently not an error to highlight cases where definitions must seek to precisely, coherently, accurately and materially completely describe an aspect of reality. Which is itself not to be question-beggingly equated to the physical, material world.

In short, the fallacy of the question-begging, often ideologically loaded and sometimes invidiously accusatory definition must be recognised and addressed. Yet another first steps in reasoning issue for UD.


The fallacy of the question-begging definition –> presentation of a definition as a part of an argument that embeds or directly implies — without adequate justification — a conclusion that is reasonably open to question or dispute, often thereby suppressing or seeking to disqualify, mischaracterise or lock out relevant views, arguments or concerns of one side of a matter in dispute. Such may be by way of manipulatively stipulative and/or persuasive [re-]definitions that are loaded. {Cf discussion of straight vs spin here.}

A case very relevant to origins science education is found in the US National Science Teachers Association Board statement of July 2000 . . . which I understand came about through a million dollar project:

The principal product of science is knowledge in the form of naturalistic concepts and the laws and theories related to those concepts . . . .

[[S]cience, along with its methods, explanations and generalizations, must be the sole focus of instruction in science classes to the exclusion of all non-scientific or pseudoscientific methods, explanations, generalizations and products . . . .

Although no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science, a number of shared values and perspectives characterize a scientific approach to understanding nature. Among these are a demand for naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence that are, at least in principle, testable against the natural world. Other shared elements include observations, rational argument, inference, skepticism, peer review and replicability of work . . . .

Science, by definition, is limited to naturalistic methods and explanations and, as such, is precluded from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge. [[NSTA, Board of Directors, July 2000. Emphases added.]

See how many ways there are loaded definitions that beg huge questions, impose agendas by ideological dominance, invidiously mischaracterise those who don’t toe the party-line and even hint at menace?

Definition  –> [even in formal, logical contexts] is not immune to error.

Genuinely self-evident truth, by contrast, once clearly understood, will remain true, seen as true once one understands, and so seen as true by necessity on pain of absurdity on attempted denial. One may indeed reject such, but at the cost of clinging to absurdities.>>


Another straight-thinking issue. END

F/N: I should add, that this fallacy is a particularly important one for civilisation-level agendas and issues (e.g. what is an unborn baby in the womb), and also for origins science . . . what is a science, why do ID thinkers generally hold that the design inference is properly scientific, and why do objectors such as NCSE invariably try to categorise it as "Creationism in a cheap tuxedo" or the like? And more. KF kairosfocus
Mahuna, there are legitimate definitions and even legitimate ones of limited scope. That does not mean that definitions cannot be abused to beg questions, improperly impose agendas and worse. For instance dehumanisation, marginalising, stereotyping and scapegoating are tactics that shift perceived definitions as a platform for oppression. It was a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who pointed out that redefining the tail of a sheep to be a leg cannot change the realities of what legs and tails are by inherent nature. KF kairosfocus
Well, yeah, but I've spent quite a few years writing Specifications, and when writing a Specification the reason you compose a Definition (i.e., a definition for use WITHIN the document) is to bound the discussion so that loose, generally accepted meanings for a term considered important in the document are excluded from evaluations of conformance and acceptability for compliance with the Specification. For example, I can declare in the document that "blue is as acceptable shade of red", which then allows unicorns commonly classified as "blue" to be acceptable when "red" is specified for contracts that invoke my specification. Or more to the point, if I DEFINE a "True Scotchman" to have certain specified characteristics (um, "eat haggis while smiling"), then all common and generally assumed definitions of "a true Scotchman" (note that Bobbie Burns spells it "Scotchman") have no bearing on my narrower use of the term as I defined it. Part of the problem here is perhaps the difference between Philosophy professors and lawyers. Lawyers will ALWAYS go with the Specifications. mahuna
F/N: Definition, of course, is closely connected to distinct identity. A is A . . . A = A . . . often is in terms that the RHS restates, definitionally, the LHS and gives key characteristics. Ostensive definition in effects points by way of example: that is the Moon, this is a red ball on a table, I have in my hand a red fountain pen that I have modified to be square nibbed 0.7 mm, by use of a stone; for purposes of "serious" writing by hand . . . e.g. of class notes to be scanned in a Riso then duplicated -- not by a long shot as good as Prof M's Geography notes (real works of art that will someday be collector's items!) but it will do. Where of course to dismiss that identity shown by example is not a good sign. And, so forth. KF kairosfocus
WJM, yes that is indeed a highly relevant context. KF kairosfocus
Thanks for the clarity on this issue! I've found that when A-Mats employ question begging definitions, it's because they wish to hide metaphysical assumptions. IOW, they just define a term to mean a thing, they don't have to defend the metaphysics. In the case of science, they hide their materialist metaphysical assumptions in the definition. In other cases, however, they hide incompatible metaphysical assumptions, such as in the case of question-begging definitions concerning morality. In one argument I had with Elizabeth Liddle about morality, she simply defined morality as "a system of producing the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people". Others defined morality as doing what one's empathy dictated, or as simply being physically-caused evolutionary social behaviors. The metaphysical questions begged by these definitions can only be answered by an objective, theistic morality with necessary consequences, but one can turn a blind eye to that by simply referring to definition. It seems to me that a lot of post-modernist, A-Mat apologetics concerning morality has to do with just this very thing - establishing assigned definitions as being as deep as one must go in order to justify their conclusions and worldview. They can simply define morality as X, and thus that definition can be used to fully justify any morality derived from X. They can simply ignore the begged questions by definitional fiat. William J Murray

Leave a Reply