“Begging the Question”

When the increasingly common misuse of that phrase itself begs the question.

…or how I came to hate Gandelman.

“… and that begs the question.”

I hate it when people say that, and I hate it for two reasons:  One,  because it’s using that phrase completely erroneously, and two, I hate it because I hate it, which is to say I’m not proud of hating it, because there’s no good reason to hate it, but I just do, and it’s all Gandleman’s fault.

Gandleman.  I’ll get to him…

People say something “begs the question” when what they really mean is that it gives rise to a question;  that given what you’ve just said,  an obvious additional question to ask about it would be…

Like this:

Somebody says, “The other day Joe went into a bar with a frog on his head, and Phil the bartender hit it with a frying pan and gave Joe a concussion.”

And then the next person says, “Well, that begs the question:  Why did Joe have a frog on his head?”  As in:  The first sentence is practically “begging” the second one to be asked.

But that’s not what “begging the question” is, or what it refers to.

“Begging the Question” is a specific logical fallacy propounded in formal Aristotelian logic (with a parallel in symbolic Boolean logic, too) that has nothing at all to do with “begging” in the sense of supplication, importuning or asking.

“Begging” is used in the old, antiquated sense to mean “lacking”.  Did you ever hear the expression that something “beggars the imagination”?  Same sense, same root.  It means you lack enough imagination to even conceive of whatever preposterous thing you have been confronted with.  “How people would react if Dolores wears that hat into church beggars the imagination.”

So, “begging the question” doesn’t mean fervently and obviously requiring further inquiry; it means that the question that should be there in the first place, isn’t, making the original statement logically fallacious at the outset.  Huh?

I know, I know, that’s sort of the way I felt about it at first, and if you think that’s bad, you should see St. Anselm’s proof of God.  My suggestion?  Find Gandelman.

I’ll explain:

For a short time when I first went off to college I had the ludicrous notion that I would be a philosophy major.  Looking back these many years later, it is easy to see how insane an idea that was, but, at the time, it made a great deal of fractured sense to me, I guess because I found it interesting and I was naïve enough to think that perhaps some of these twisted, obsessive over-thinkers might actually lead me to some kind of path out of my own pall of confusion and despair, something I was in favor of at the time.

And who knows?  Had it not been for St. Anselm and Gandelman, I might have continued on and been reciting epistemological truisms to this day as I work on the road crew of the State highway authority.

It seems I was constantly running into Gandelman.  If I signed up for a class, he would be in it, too:  The Philosophy Major track.  He was a squat, pear-shaped fellow, swarthy with a full goatee, the better to adopt a contemplative pose as he stroked it, looking into the middle distance, absorbing and digesting the complex, labyrinthine trains  of thought being delivered to us by the shovel full.

One of those classes was “Introduction to Logic” with the first half devoted to classic Aristotelian stuff (you know:  “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal”) and the second half to Boolean “symbolic” logic, which basically takes Aristotelian logic and turns it into X’s and O’s and equal signs and so on, and which would (who knew?) become the basis for all the early computer programming.

It was in that class that I got my mind poisoned forever by taking a bite of the apple and learning what “begging the question” actually means.

Aristotle called it petitio principia which roughly translates into “assuming the initial point” and it complains that what you’re doing is making a big deal out of supposedly proving something that doesn’t actually need proving because you’ve already established it as true, or at least assumed it as true, right at the outset in the first thing you said.

So quit waving your arms and thumping your desk and dishing out all these histrionics:  You’re not proving anything ‘cause it’s already in the premise, Big Boy.

It’s sort of like a circular argument, although Aristotle would be annoyed if you said that because, when you really get into the nitty gritty (which we’re not going to do), it’s actually pretty different, in a nit-picky sort of way, but then, what was Aristotle if not nit-picky?

In the main, “Begging the Question” is the fallacy of sneaking into your premise as an assumption the very thing you are making great show of proving, and you see it all the time.  One really simplistic (and therefore somewhat unfair) example would be “God exists (conclusion) because the bible says he does (premise, with the unspoken, “sneaked in” assumption that the bible is the unchallenged word of God).”  There’s a “missing” question here, one that is going a-begging, having to do, obviously, with the reliability of the truthfulness of the bible.

Like I say, that’s a very simplistic example.  Usually they are much, much more subtle, but no less fallacious.  Now, bear in mind that “fallacious” doesn’t necessarily mean “wrong”—it just means unproven, from a formal logic point of view.  And you see these arguments all the time, on some of the most contentious issues of our day:  The Death Penalty, Abortion, Gay rights, Affirmative Action and so on.  Maybe we’re going to work all this stuff out someday, let’s hope so, but constantly “begging the question” about them isn’t going  to help matters much because, on some level, everybody senses that there’s something not quite right about the arguments, even if they can’t put their finger on what it is exactly, unlike Gandelman.

Gandleman could put his finger on anything, and he could do it in a millisecond.  We’d all be sitting in class, struggling with the nuances, going back and forth with the professor, getting more and more confused as we went along, trying to tease out an understanding from the dense text and the opaque examples, until, at some point, Gandelman would raise his hand and explain it all, simply and concisely in a seemingly disinterested monotone, as if he had finally had enough and it was time to move on.

There is no way I can overstate how annoying this was.  It was both a discussion stopper and a buzz kill, believe me, and it happened in class after class, from Ontology 101 to Introduction to Theology, from Epistemology to Ethics:  We all struggle; Gandelman falls off a log.

The final straw for me, in two respects, was St. Anselm’s Proof of God.

I was beginning to believe all these dusty philosophers and theologians were using very different methods and traveling a great variety of avenues—to all arrive at pretty much the same place, and that was at some kind of crossroads or chasm or wall that was the furthermost point they could travel with their minds, with logic, but that point was never where they intended to wind up, they had a lot further to go than that, but in each and every case they hit a block that couldn’t be overcome with logic.  Yes, they all needed to get past that point and, presto chango, they all managed to get to the “other side” and then continue on with logic, but for each and every one of them there was a spot in their thinking that they couldn’t get past just by thinking about it.   For Kierkegaard, he referred to the block point as a “chasm” and the process of getting over it “the leap”.  Only then could you move on to the places he wanted to take you, now back to using logic.  Others used different terminology, but it was all the same.  For the theologians it usually involved some kind of “faith” or “willful belief” that got you from the front end, over the hump, and then on your way on the other side. Pascal called it a “wager”.  Hobbes was big on boredom.

For Sartre it was “utter despair”:  Until you reach that point—an emotional abyss that you arrive at intellectually and by “knowing” (an odd way to arrive at a feeling)— you’re stuck on the near side.  But when you’ve crossed that point, when you have literally not one shred of hope left, then and only then you can start acting “in good faith” to embrace real “freedom” instead of doing what most of us do which is run like hell away from true freedom, because we haven’t figured out, yet, that there’s no point.  To anything.

Even Descartes, Mr. “I think therefore  I am”,  had to do a triple axel to get to a proof of God, one that could not be arrived at until you prove your own existence but which is (are you ready?) “logically prior”.  Huh?

Every single one of them arrived at a spot that you had to get over but which couldn’t be accomplished by applying classical philosophical or logical methodologies.  If you didn’t find some other way to get over it, around it or through it, you were stuck.

I found this disconcerting.  It was one thing to struggle through all this painful stuff, constantly having my own intellectual inadequacies highlighted by Gandelman’s contrasting facile brilliance, if it was actually going to get me someplace in terms of figuring out my own universe.  But that was becoming doubtful, more so by the minute.

And then came St. Anselm’s proof of God.

Here’s a little taste:

Even a fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Get it?  Me neither.  At least, not at first.  So I spent all night parsing the sentences, putting parentheses around phrases like “that than which a greater cannot be thought to exist” and calling that “A” and “that than which a greater can be thought to exist” calling that “B” and so on and so on.

Then I went to class the next day, pretty much as confused as when I started, and the professor opened by asking, “Has anyone been able to figure out what St. Anselm is getting at here?”

Profoundly bored, Gandleman slowly raised his hand, heard his name called, and without looking up from the book he was reading (why, after all devote one’s whole attention to something as simple as St. Anselm?) and said, “If you can think of it, it isn’t God.”

He was right, of course, and it was at that moment that I said to myself three things:

1.  I hate this guy, Gandleman.

2.  Gandelman is the perfect philosophy major.

3.   I am not.

He should be a philosophy major.   I’m not sure what I should be, but, based upon a simple comparison to Gandelman, I should not be a philosophy major.  Clearly.  And so I moved on, with some reluctance, deciding to see if maybe folks like Melville or Apollinaire had a better lever for tapping in to what I was after, but, still, I retained a residual interest in the theological aspects of what I had been studying, probably because I was suffering from a kind of “cognitive dissonance” that I was interested in resolving.  That dissonance flowed from the contradiction between what I was reading and learning about theology and religion, most of which strained credulity, I thought, but which was at war with a restless and ill-formed but intense and very real sense of the existence of a spiritual component to life that I had discovered deep within myself at a very early age, for reasons I couldn’t explain, and despite a home life that would have been likely to propel me in the opposite direction (and which, to some degree, did).

I was listening carefully and with an open mind to those who argued that belief in God was an act of weakness flowing from a lack of courage, the courage to face life honestly, an inability or unwillingness to look the reality of our corporeal existence and eventual death and nothingness square in the eye. According to them, and it made some sense to me, belief in God was a Feuerbachian projection of our deepest wishes onto some manufactured God, a perception cobbled together by our interior selves to be whatever we needed God to be.

But it didn’t feel like fear to me, not then and not for many years to come as, from time to time, I would find that this core belief of mine in the existence of God and the goodness of God and, maybe just this, the presence of God, whether rooted in reality or in wishful thinking, not only served me well but was, at times, the singular engine of my survival.

Throughout that time, and to this day, in an age in which there are those who argue with great fervor and persuasiveness that, yes, belief in God is an irrational manifestation of fear, I have returned always to that original contention that it doesn’t feel like fear, and then one day I knew and I understood why it didn’t feel like fear and that for me at least, my firm and unshakeable, and, yes, extremely helpful belief in God was and is not an act of fear:  It is an act of humility.

Just that; simply that.

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