My white-haired physicist friend assured me he could prove there is no life after death.
That certainly caught my attention. He knew it would. That’s because I do believe in human immortality. I think, God willing, that being dead will be a lot of fun.
My friend’s bold challenge left me no choice but to hear him out. Would he (I wondered) be marshaling arguments from Skinner? Dawkins? Russell? Had he constructed new and better arguments of his own? Had the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry just demolished some new report from the Institute of Noetic Sciences?
So I asked my friend to share his proof. Within myself, I pledged to consider his reasoning with an open mind, following his evidence wherever it might lead, and adjusting my metaphysics in any way necessary.
Even if that meant renouncing my belief in afterlife. Even if this elderly scientist brought my world-view crashing down around my head. What’s an existential crisis or two among friends?
Here was his proof:
1. Self-aware human consciousness is purely a function of physical brain activity.
2. All brain activity ceases when the brain disintegrates, and its component atoms are scattered.
3. Therefore, there is no life after death.
With exasperation, I thought: That’s it? For this he had me all ears, all perked up? What a waste of good adrenaline!
Reasoning in Circles
You see the problem, of course, with my physicist friend’s “proof”: His opening premise merely paraphrases the conclusion he sets out to prove.
Saying consciousness is nothing more than brain activity is just another way of saying there is no life after death. These are two different ways of saying the same thing.
That won’t cut it. That’s because the whole question at issue is whether self-aware consciousness is identical with brain activity – or whether it is something more. To believe in afterlife is to believe that consciousness survives brain-death and dissolution. In other words, it is more – much more – than brain activity.
Well, maybe it is. And maybe it isn’t. But we don’t prove it’s true just by saying it’s true. Nor do we prove it isn’t simply by saying it isn’t.
My friend’s “proof” (as I gently told him) is a textbook example of circular reasoning. That fallacy is also known to logicians as “assuming the conclusion one wants to prove”. We convince ourselves of some cherished belief, that is, simply by repeating it often enough and with enough conviction.
Logicians used to like to give Latin names to logical fallacies. This one’s Latin name is “petitio principii”. A good English translation of that name is “appealing to the initial point”. (Although it’s really the end-point or conclusion to which we’re wrongly appealing.)
A Translation Goes Begging
Not all English translations, however, are good. Someone, somewhere, awkwardly translated “petitio principii” as “begging the question”. Not quite wrong, but misleading, since begging and appealing have quite different connotations.
But the bad translation stuck. To say you “beg the question” became a standard way of saying you “reason in circles” or you “start by assuming as true the very thing you’re setting out to prove”.
For hundreds of years, “begging the question” had this meaning, and only this meaning. It denoted the logical fallacy of circular reasoning.
This figure of speech occurs in countless books, magazine articles, scientific papers, philosophical treatises, theological discourses, and other writings.
For most of my own life, I only ever saw “beg the question” used in describing circular logic. Logic in which premise and conclusion chase each other around a tree, so to speak.
We might refer to circular reasoning as the “historical” meaning of begging the question. That is, that’s what the expression meant (and all it meant) throughout its history.
Begging Your Pardon?
Some years ago, however, “beg the question” came to be misused, at least once, by some individual who had heard or read it, but didn’t quite understand what it meant.
That well-meaning person assumed that begging the question means raising the question, or prompting the question, or suggesting the question, or perhaps forcing upon us the question. As in:
“You say you love me? That begs the question, when are we getting married?”
“This empty cookie jar begs the question of who’s been raiding it.”
“Climate change begs the question: How rapidly can we switch to green energy?”
The expression “beg the question” had never before been part of popular speech. In its historical usage (referring to circular logic), it was used mainly in academic and technical literature.
But overnight, with its brand-new, unprecedented meaning of question-raising, the phrase exploded into our vernacular. Suddenly, everyone was looking for opportunities to say “this begs the question of” (whatever question they were dying to ask).
In other words, the original meaning became lost and forgotten.
Some dismayed pundits insist that this new usage of “beg” is incorrect. Good luck making that rule stick! It appears to me that the revised definition is here to stay, for better or worse. We may as well get used to it.
But this begs the question: What are we going to do with hundreds of years’ worth of scholarly literature, in which “beg the question” refers to reasoning in circles?
Here’s the answer: We’re going to read it and completely miss the point! Almost no one nowadays uses, or even understands, the original meaning, nor will anyone do so in the decades and millennia stretching out ahead.
One wrinkle is that in the original usage, people didn’t say “This begs the question of” such-and-such. That is, they didn’t spell out the question being “begged”. It was simply “This begs the question.” So future readers are going to scratch their heads and ask, “What question? Why doesn’t this writer say? Are we supposed to read her mind?”
If any of the old books and articles that use “beg the question” are ever republished, maybe editors will add footnotes explaining the original usage. After all, there are reference books that preserve this. There’s a Wikipedia entry. It’s possible to look it up. (But how many people will do that – or even suspect they might need to?)
But here’s one twist you might not expect:
I – personally – like the new usage of “beg the question”. And I always hated the old, original usage.
The new one is shorthand for “What you’re saying practically begs us to ask” blankety-blank. It conjures up the image of a question simmering just below the surface, straining to leap out and demanding to be dealt with.
Conversely, I never liked – or used – “beg the question” as a way of referring to circular logic. Why not (I wondered) simply say “You’re reasoning in a circle” or “This argument’s premise is just its conclusion in different words”?
So that’s what I always said or wrote, anytime the need arose. My words won’t be among the ones rendered suddenly incomprehensible by this latest shift in language fashion.
Nor do I really feel sorry for all the writers who used “beg the question” in its old, quickly-becoming-forgotten sense. To me this usage – murky as it was, on its best day – always seemed pretentious and elitist. It struck me as little more than a way of showing off the educational and literary attainments of the writer, at the expense of clarity.
Now those writers, along with their future readers, are paying the price.
The lesson seems clear: Always use the simplest, most straightforward way of saying whatever you want to say. That gives you your best shot at being understood not just today, but in a few decades or centuries.
Because languages change. And as they do, whatever can be misunderstood, will be!
(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)