When it is OK to Beg the Question?
by Paul Gould
“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?
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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…
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