On Begging The Question And The Futility Of Circular Argumentation

Posted in Logic on  | 8 minutes | 1 Comment →

I was never impressed by people who argued the Bible was true because the Bible said so. Very long ago I decided that if I was to study any one religion, I should study them all. This eventually led to the expanded horizon of studying religion's absence, which to me is philosophically futile without an accounting for existence. Hence my lifelong study of evolution.

Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory is a fascinating tome that most certainly clarifies what is often intentionally distorted in America's religio-political tug-o-war. Scilla's coral is used as the basic metaphor for the triune structure of Darwinism denoted by agency, efficacy and scope, each forming an essential branch of contemporary evolutionary theory. As I was reviewing Gould's accounting for the problems of history and how they are dealt with in Origin, I came across the following:

"The Origin therefore focuses on the establishment of a methodology for making inferences about history from features of modern organisms, and then using these multifarious inferences to prove both the fact of evolution and the probability of natural selection as a primary mechanism of change." (Gould 2002, p. 103)

This makes perfect sense. The adaptations driven by natural selection we observe have been going for millions and millions of years, and this is the reigning claim of practically all biological science. However, in the aforementioned statement, I couldn't help but wonder if Gould's reasoning in this particular paragraph wasn't just an articulate form of begging the question as some religionists engage in to prove the Bible is true.

I believe it is.

Now in taking issue here, I do not wish to stoke the ire of either creationists or evolutionists who feel I'm attacking their little darlings. Note the topic of this post is logic, not science, faith or religion. I'm aware of Theobald's 29+ Evidences, especially the part where he explicitly states the contrary of this post's claim, and in all honesty I would love to hear a better defense of his position because I feel the supporting paragraph offered is insufficient. At any rate, psychologists attest to the fact that a mind prone to hostility when confronted with information perceived as threatening to existing world views is likely a mind not fully convinced of those world views, so should you find yourself getting upset at any point in reading, it is possible there may be some insecurity in your belief system. Root it out with knowledge. Besides, even if you think I'm wrong, who cares? I'm not running for office and I have no influence on what gets taught in schools.

Consider non-dogmatically the following two statements:

1) God's revelation to man in the Bible is true..Why? God's revelation to man in the Bible says so.

2) Common descent is true..Why? The adaptations driven by natural selection we observe today have been happening for millions of years.

Mainstream scientists are fully justified in taking issue here. Of course carbon dating complicates the discussion and that is more than we can address at this point. I am not making a truth-claim about either creationism or evolution in this piece. As stated above, although formally logical, both statements appeal to their conclusion in their premise, which renders them materially invalid circular arguments. From a strictly logical standpoint, such statements are not effective persuaders of truth.

Now that the argument has been made, let's shift the discussion in a pertinent direction.

Whenever we infer from a fact, there can be more than one interpretation, and Gould's inferences about history from modern biology remain open to interpretation because they are inferences from facts. To me, Genesis supports the idea that all life is genealogically related, and temporarily eschewing moral dilemmas such as the bloodsport argument, every single shred of evidence we have for evolution, which is quite an impressive array, can also be reasonably argued as evidence of some sort of special creation.

For example, homology was one of Origin's big guns and a common minor line of support for common descent involves Darwin's argument from homologous resemblance and vestigial organs. But does the phenomenon of homology accompanied by reduced function constitute a direct, exclusive line of evidence for evolution?

Regardless of how one feels, the phenomenon of homology accompanied by differentiation in function can also be used to persuasively support the argument from special creation, with nothing more than an analogy from computer science and a quick reference to scripture. Also note that to argue the converse in no way dethrones the previous Darwinian interpretation of homology in favor of special creation.

Presupposing an all-powerful, creative being, there is no reason to assume that being wouldn't have created the current panoply of life in a manner that was intelligent, efficient and resourceful. Any programmer worth his money knows to write a function for chunks of code that demand iteration. In doing so, the programmer enjoys the resourcefulness of simply calling the function rather than retyping the entire sequence of code, which is an enormous waste of time and also invites a large margin of error. This might be trivial if we're writing a simple script that spits an image to a browser upon refresh, but the amount of code needed to create even a simple living cell is immensely more complicated (I am not saying 'irreducibly complex'). If you as an all-powerful, creative being decided to create a different type or kind, would you want to rewrite the necessary genetic codes from scratch? Or would you create a function and simply copy and tweak existing code like an ES cell? Would it be heretical to postulate that an all-powerful, creative being didn't as a matter of intelligent resourcefulness copy then alter the genetic code from the latest primate to make the earliest hominid, only later to breathe human spirit unto it and call it man?

Now I might take him to task on occasion, but in Visions of Order, intellectual historian Richard Weaver offers the following and I think he raises some points worth discussing:

"First and most generally, the theory of evolution can be viewed as a form of the question-begging fallacy. It demands an initial acceptance of the doctrine of naturalism before any explanation is offered. Specifically, when the biologist is faced with the fact of the enormous differentiation and specialization in nature, he says that these were caused by the proximate method which nature would use, assuming that nature is the only creative force that exists. For example, it is admitted by biologists that complete empirical data for the descent of man from the lower animals is missing. The problem then becomes how to fit everything into a scheme where nothing is allowed to appear except through natural causation. Thus it is reasoned that if man possesses the largest brain found in nature, it is because it must have been utilitarian for him to develop a large brain. But how can this be proved except by reference to the a priori postulate that nothing develops except through organic need? Again and again in the literature of evolution one finds that things are viewed as necessary because they come from this assumed natural cause rather than as proved because they come from a known cause. In other words the fact that things have come into being is used as evidence that nature must have used the evolutionary process to bring them into being. I submit that this reasoning does not prove evolution a fact: it rather assumes that evolution is a fact and then uses it as both cause and effect in describing the phenomenon of nature." (p. 139)

Now I don't know exactly what happened. I am not an all-powerful, creative being, nor do I own a time machine. All of this serves to illustrate the lesson of moderation and the futility of using circumstantial evidence to promote circular arguments for whatever reason. As the great Sherlock Holmes reminds those who are ever so persuaded of their being right in any controversy, “…circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different…there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

One comment

  1. Brad


    Well, first off, I don’t see how Gould’s statement is circular. Clearly (2) is, but how would one relate Gould’s to (2)?
    Interestingly, the idea that an intelligence drove evolution – with the programmer analogy in mind – could entail that effort is required on the part of the creative mind. I have not seen that idea espoused by any theology I’ve ever read, which is intriguing. Then again, this could result in more arguing around what “all-powerful” means exactly.

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