Begging questions about philosophy, science and everything else

Those who know me well take great care not to say (at least when I am in earshot) “That begs the question…” and mean by that “That raises the question…”, or else they will get a dissertation delivered for a period on the right use of that phrase. That’s right, folks, I am a prescriptivist, at least about technical terms in philosophy. In fact it’s hard not to find prescriptivists in technical fields. Ask any random biologist about “gene” sometime.

So begging the question is something I feel strongly about. It means, technically, to use in your premises what you conclude in the argument. That is, you assume the truth of what it is you are arguing for in order to argue for it. Consider this classical gem:

The Bible is God’s Word, and God would not lie.
The Bible says God exists.
Therefore God exists.

Since the existence of God is what is at issue, presuming that the Bible is God’s word (therefore reliable on the matter) is circular reasoning. It “begs” the very question it addresses. The Latin phrase, for I greatly love Latin phrases to show how erudite I can pretend to be, is petitio principii, or assuming the beginning point [at issue]. It is widely thought to be a fallacy of reasoning, which I think it is in most, but not all, circumstances.

Suppose you encounter this argument: Science is worthless and a waste of time and resources, because science does not deliver beauty. Only art delivers beauty, and so only art should be given the resources and time that science now is. Why would you take that argument seriously? The unstated assumption in that line of reasoning is that only beauty is worthwhile striving for. Artists of course think that (or they would not be artists), but need we allow only the search for beauty? What about truth? What about meaning? What about chocolate?

A similar argument is apocryphally ascribed to the second Kalif, Omar: He is supposed (by a Christian 300 years after the fact) to have said of the Library of Alexandria’s holdings that “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” This myth indicates how religious authorities will often beg the question, even if in this case it didn’t actually happen (most of the Library was destroyed centuries before Omar’s army arrived).

But we expect better of the educated and cosmopolitan. It comes, therefore, as a continuing pain to me that scientists will often offer this piece of question beggary:

Science finds out things
Philosophy does not find out things the scientific way
Therefore philosophy is a waste of time and effort

The begged premise here is that only knowing things the scientific way is knowledge, or if the philosopher in question doesn’t say that knowledge is what philosophy offers, that only knowing things the scientific way is worthwhile. Some may even hint that only science delivers beauty, too.

Ever since I started doing philosophy I have been told, and have believed both on authority and on my own reflections, that the goal of philosophy is to make people think and to deliver clarity where before there was just confusion. Sometimes clarity means showing that confusion is inevitable, but I never thought, and most philosophers do not think, that philosophy delivers scientific knowledge. Instead they hope for insight, understanding, clarity and charity towards the ideas of others.

Generally, scientists do not. I know this sounds harsh, but it is true. Scientists want straightforward answers based on data, and will argue over meanings, interpretations and concepts only when they must, either to present or to defend a view. They want just so much clarity and understanding as they need to convince others their hypothesis, results or explanations are correct. Often, this is not, itself, very scientific. Having seen scientists argue over theories and doctrines of different research programs, I can say they use rhetorical and sophistical arguments as much as any political party when it suits them. Usually, though, scientists care very much about the truth of their claims. What they don’t care about is either history or interpretation.

Scientists live in a kind of self-contained hermeneutic bubble. They simply cannot usually see the point of any view other than their own. If they think science disproves religious beliefs, then so far as they are concerned, any person – scientist or not – who takes religion seriously is simply stupid. Anyone who grants, even for argument’s sake, that there might be pathways of knowing other than the mythical (since no such beast actually exists) “scientific method”, is a mental defective, a liar, or a self serving individual trying to get money out of someone. In other words, for that kind of scientist, they treat religion, philosophy and any non-scientific activity exactly the same way that some religious and science deniers treat science they do not like: as an act of faith that is simply false.

Now is this a criticism of those scientists? Yes, and no. Yes in that this approach simply abandons the canons of civil discourse that have been accepted in the western tradition for over 2500 years as being the best and most “rational” (i.e., requiring reasons for your claims, and not prejudging the debate one might have about those reasons). This is simply a matter of what used to be called “positivism”, a view that was invented by August Comte in the early 19th century. Science is al there is, and nothing else has worth unless it can be made scientific.

But on the other hand, if one thought there was something better than science, one might not be a scientist at all. Science is hard. It takes years to become a professional, and the return on investment is small. Few scientists end up wealthy; many end up doing something else. Almost none are ever remembered. So one cannot fault scientists for not being philosophers, another profession that takes most of your formative years to become competent in (contrary to many popular writers’ apparent belief), and which ends up with little to no remuneration (again, contrary to many popular writers’ experiences).

But still the begging of that question bugs me. When scientists try to extend science to cover all human activity, when they deny that other people who might disagree on the specific views they think are true (but which are not scientifically verifiable, like the value of art) have any standing or sense to them, when they simply denigrate anything that isn’t what they do personally, yes, that really is scientism.

This post is inspired by, and illustrated by, scientists Larry Moran’s and Jerry Coyne’s posts attacking philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Elliot Sober. Because the latter attend to questions of clarity of concepts, logic and meaning, and do not deliver “knowledge” (and what is knowledge one might philosophically ask?), Larry and Jerry accuse the philosophers of “arrogance” and “denigrating science”, neither of which seem to me correct. Moreover, arrogance seems to be inherent in the broad dismissal of a profession simply because it doesn’t do what the accuser’s profession does. Yes, Larry, that really is scientism. It is treating science as if it were a belief system that supersedes and excludes, by some sort of divine right, all other human activities.

42 thoughts on “Begging questions about philosophy, science and everything else

  1. I was hoping you’d address this.

    Larry and Jerry accuse the philosophers of “arrogance” and “denigrating science”, neither of which seem to me correct.

    I think that is understating it. Both Larry and Coyne have appealed to philosophers who agree (or seem to agree) with them when they want to to advance their own philosophies. Philosopy only becomes worthless when it doesn’t support their own beliefs. Hey, who does that remind me of? Some ism that begins with “C” …


  2. I don’t think it’s scientists that try to extend science to cover all human activity, but only some of the scientist that also have a the background conviction that only ‘the mythical scientific method’ is reliable.

    I was just reading someone saying: “I still regard the scientific method as the best way to model reality, and reason as the best way to uncover truth.” (Why I’m no longer a skeptic

    Clearly this person has a certain understanding on how ‘reality’ can be, and what truth is.


  3. Painting all scientists with such a broad brush stroke seems to me (a scientist) as just as silly and erroneous as a particular scientist trying to argue that there is no merit in philosophy. Just as there is not The scientific method there is not The scientific mind.


    1. Scientists are usually better observers than that, Tom: Notice that I made all kinds of qualifications. “Generally”, “usually”, “if…”. I did not paint all scientists with a broad brush.


  4. Scientists live in a kind of self-contained hermeneutic bubble. They simply cannot usually see the point of any view other than their own.

    That seems to be the kind of sweeping generalization that you are criticizing in others.

    Yes, Jerry Coyne, Larry Moran, and others do sometimes say things that seem to suggest a kind of tunnel vision. But there are usually comments on those threads, presenting different view. In my experience, there are many scientists who do not fit your generalization.


    1. Like Tom, you missed all the qualifiers and focussed on the one statement I made where I didn’t qualify. Perhaps I should have but repeated qualification to “most”, “some” and so on is bad style and one presumes the reader will read carefully and not over-interpret. Was I being overly optimistic?


      1. I also disagree with some of the places where you do have qualifiers, but decided not to comment because the issues are more complex. For example:

        Scientists want straightforward answers based on data, and will argue over meanings, interpretations and concepts only when they must, either to present or to defend a view.

        Scientific concepts are usually defined quite narrowly, so there isn’t much to argue over in that case. Once we get to more poorly defined folk concepts, it seems to me that your distinction between scientists and non-scientists mostly disappears.


        1. “Scientific concepts are usually defined quite narrowly, so there isn’t much to argue over in that case.”

          Ha – bless you for adding the qualifier “usually!” Else go to any research field where there’s turmoil and discovery and see.


  5. Isn’t this issue encapsulated in the is/ought problem? Science can tell us what is but it has no special authority for telling us how we ought to be.

    If we take as a specific example the row over abortion, which is rumbling on here in the US, science can provide a wealth of information – or knowledge, if you prefer – about human biology, the human reproductive process, human development, both pre- and post-natal and what we have learned so far about how the human brain is formed and phenomena like consciousness and personality emerge. What it can’t tell us is under what circumstances and up to what point – if any – we are justified in performing an abortion, not without trespassing in territory that is properly one of the provinces of philosophy. There is no bridge between what is and what ought to be.

    My view on abortion, for example, is rights-based not religious. I see rights as entitlements granted by society to each of its individual members. The universe does not recognize my right to life, only the society of other human beings in which I happen to find myself. But If a society acknowledges a right to life then it seems only reasonable to me that it covers the whole period of an individual’s existence as such – and that runs from conception – or perhaps implantation – to death. For me we are not just the discrete three-dimensional spatial objects we see, we are also four-dimensional events extended through spacetime – Heinlein’s “pink worms”. There is no discontinuity in those events, no specific point where you can say with certainty “Here there be consciousness!” or “Here there be personality!”. Even if there were, why should that be the cut-off point? Pro-abortionists, of course, strongly disagree.

    The question I would put to Larry Moran or Gerry Coyne or any other scientist so dismissive of philosophy is how would science – not you personally, I’m not asking for your views – but science itself resolve such a questions?

    I would say that it can’t, that it is no more able to “ground” moral prescriptions in what it has learned about objective reality than I am. .


    1. Is-Ought and the Naturalistic Fallacy are a good case study, but I had it in mind that philosophy was a good deal wider as a tradition than “discovering meaning”. However you illustrate my point nicely.


    2. @Ian: I’m not dismissive of philosophy, but let me answer your question nonetheless: Science can resolve such questions by encouraging you to state your premises clearly and then work out which conclusions follow from those premises. Of course, this is exactly what you did above. The puzzling thing is why you choose to imply that this process (basic reasoning) is somehow non-scientific or not admissible in science. Are only philosophers allowed to reason?

      Or perhaps by “resolve” you mean that you want science to establish the premise itself – to provide objective moral prescriptions? But the notion of a “correct” premise for moral prescription is nonsensical, as any half-decent philosopher or scientist would agree. If you are arguing against a hypothetical scientist who does not accept that, you’re constructing a _really_ weak straw man, and certainly not Moran or Coyne.


  6. I strongly disagree!!!

    – on the idea that artists pursue beauty.

    Anyway, who coined that phrase “to beg the question?” It’s misunderstandable. To beg means to ask for something (in a timid way). Any foreign speaker will by translating word for word arrive at the conclusion that is must mean to raise the question. Simply saying “to assume the conclusion” would be so self-explanatory.


    1. I think you might be right about artists. I am an aesthetic black hole – much goes in but no useful information comes out – so I perhaps misunderstand the goals of that discipline…

      And yes, despite my best prescriptivist efforts, language will insist upon changing. Damn them all!


  7. I avoid using ‘begging the question’ in blog posts because it is guaranteed to bring out the technical pedants. My personal bugbear is ‘quantum leap’ being used to signify a very large leap, rather than a very small one.


  8. While I agree that there are some people who have the belief that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge worth having, I’ll also point out that there are plenty of philosophers whose ability to think and to deliver clarity manages to arrive at wildly different conclusions.

    There are plenty of philosophical views which can be bent into supporting either side of most arguments, and unlike the scientific method, no way of falsifying those philosophical views.

    Take the issue of abortion. The science is pretty well understood, but the philosophy hasn’t helped much to clarify the ‘ought’ question. Take the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. There doesn’t appear to be any consensus philosophical view on the *appropriateness* of this event. Both things involve different ways of valuing particular human lives – you would have thought this should be an ‘ought’ issue that was well understood.

    Personally I cringe at the phrase ‘different ways of knowing’. I think it hides a great deal of laziness of thought. YMMV.


  9. I think the sci guys do protest too much. But maybe it makes an easy blog post.

    I recall the first time I ever went to Coyne’s website he pulled out Plato to make an assertion about the genealogy of morals.


    1. Had a few minutes so I found it. Here’s Jerry Coyne pulling out the old Plato. And giving him the status of geometrical truth, apparently.

      Posted May 21, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink
      Who said I was turning to Plato for general moral insight? But he was the one who showed that if we think God is good, we MUST have independent standards of good that are secularly derived and logically prior to God.


      I think it’s one of the problems scientists have with this, that they don’t know enough about philosophy to realize when they’re mumbling it.

      “The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach, and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth.”
      Paul Feyerabend


  10. Please don’t mention “chocolate”; I am giving up chocolate for September.

    I intend to follow your debate/discussion with Larry Moran, and I may need some relief, so please don’t mention c——te.


  11. Why don’t you just use the Latin petitio principii? The only reason we have a phrase “begging the question” that doesn’t mean what it should mean (it should mean “raising the question”) is because of a series of poetical translations from Latin to Greek to English.

    It’s sort of like if everyone agreed that instead of using a perfectly good and descriptive existing phrase, they would run it through Google Translate a few times and use whatever came out at the end.


  12. Back to the accusations of generalization – you paint a caricature of scientists that is definitely not charitable and (in my experience) mostly false. It is not clear that qualifiers like “most” (meaning more than half) or “generally” (again meaning more than half?) get you off the hook.

    “insight, understanding, clarity and charity towards the ideas of others” – the first three of these can be seen as _defining_ characteristics of science, and is certainly aspired to by most (perhaps all) of the scientists I know; the fourth is not a defining characteristic, but in my experience it is both common among scientists and extremely useful in practicing science (advances are often made by finding charitable interpretations of others’ ideas). So when you say “Generally, scientists do not [hope for the above characteristics]”, this is completely false in my experience as a scientist. Am I just consorting with the wrong (or should I say right) kind of scientist?

    Finally, “Scientists…will argue over meanings, interpretations and concepts only when they must”. Again this is totally contrary to my experience – to me, and many of my colleagues, arguing about these things are _the whole point_ of science. Yes, there is also the necessity of basing one’s arguments on empirical fact, but the process of collecting those facts is seen by many as just a tedious precursor to the _real_ process of doing science (which involves thinking/arguing about meanings, interpretations, concepts, and conclusions).


  13. In my experience many scientists need taking down a peg or two. They often make the mistake that their narrow specialty equips them to expound on matters without learning much about it. I heard the tape of Lawrence Krauss trying to debate William Lane Craig. It was embarrassing. And I disagree with Craig about quite a bit. It was clear Craig had prepared for the debate and Krauss hadn’t. Hearing him try to bluff his way through on condescension diminished the respect I used to have for him.

    Scientists should be informed of the limits of their branch of knowledge so they don’t make the mistake of believing it’s capable of things it clearly isn’t.


  14. “When scientists try to extend science to cover all human activity, when they deny that other people who might disagree on the specific views they think are true (but which are not scientifically verifiable, like the value of art)…”

    That is a rather large assumption…


    1. Au contraire. Non-cognitivist stances with regards to value judgements are a fairly safe bet for any analytically minded philosopher. To argune for the opposing, cognitivist standpoint, is exceedingly difficult and has not been satisfyingly done by anyone in the history of western philosophy.


      1. That is cool and all, but could you make an argument?
        I’m not inclined to go research the words you used on wikipedia and try to infer the meaning of what you said.

        Right now your comment reads to me: “I disagree, because [references to things], this is a fact.”


        1. Excuse me, but no. For “making an argument” would take a lot of time and space. In the paragraph you quoted, Mr Wilkins refers to one of the central questions of philosophy which bears upon a plethora of other questions and positions. It is, in fact, a deciding point for all sorts of worldview-related disputes. I recommend the SEP article on this very discussion for anyone who is interested in it:

          The article also gives non-philosophers an idea about what philosophers do and how they do it.

          By the way: Mr Pigliucci, as far as I know, takes a cognitivist and realist stance in this dispute (at least as far as moral judgements are concerned). This is both interesting (for the discussion’s sake) and annoying because a moral cognitivist and realist has a harder time defending philosophy against militant positions like naive positivism or unsophisticated scientism (which Mr Wilkins criticises). Additionally, Mr Pigliucci’s stance is, in my opinion, metaphysical nonsense that would have earned him Otto Neurath’s “M”-card. 😉


  15. I am dyslexic. My brain prefers to work in pictures. Words bother me. I love reading though – possibly because a good author (to my standard of good) creates a clear picture for me.

    I love your blog. – You put clarity into the philosophical pictures I hold in my brain – but am I not allowed think philosophy in pictures?

    LV though, in the nicest possible way, does make his comments in a manner to send the average dyslexic running for the hills screaming.

    Tradamtm however would benefit by doing a little bit of work – courtesy alone should lead him to Wikipedia to check a few definitions before he decries the efforts of others – and he would learn a fair bit on the way. (Try it Tradamtm my friend.)

    To words though. – Is it that ‘begat’, rather then ‘beg’, begs the question more correctly?


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