Saturday, 25 May 2013

Circular Reasoning

I'm amazed that anyone needs to explain the logical fallacy of the circular argument but the frequency with which you see it being employed, often in all seriousness by (presumably) otherwise normally functioning adults to defend religion, suggest many people either genuinely don't understand it, or are using in dishonestly, hoping their audience won't understand it.
Circular reasoning (also known as paradoxical thinking or circular logic), is a logical fallacy in which "the reasoner begins with what he or she is trying to end up with". The individual components of a circular argument will sometimes be logically valid because if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true, and will not lack relevance. Circular logic cannot prove a conclusion because, if the conclusion is doubted, the premise which leads to it will also be doubted. Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning.

Circular reasoning is often of the form: "a is true because b is true; b is true because a is true." Circularity can be difficult to detect if it involves a longer chain of propositions. Academic Douglas Walton used the following example of a fallacious circular argument:
Wellington is in New Zealand.
Therefore, Wellington is in New Zealand.
He notes that, although the argument is deductively valid, it cannot prove that Wellington is in New Zealand because it contains no evidence that is distinct from the conclusion. The context – that of an argument – means that the proposition does not meet the requirement of proving the statement, thus it is a fallacy. He proposes that the context of a dialogue determines whether a circular argument is fallacious: if it forms part of an argument, then it is. Citing Cederblom and Paulsen 1986:109) Hugh G. Gauch observes that non-logical facts can be difficult to capture formally:
"Whatever is less dense than water will float, because whatever is less dense than water will float" sounds stupid, but "Whatever is less dense than water will float, because such objects won't sink in water" might pass.
Source: Wikipedia - Circular reasoning
Incidentally, on that last point, not only is it logically suspect, it is technically invalid. Objects less dense than water float because they can't displace their volume of water because they don't have enough weight. This can only be achieved by objects with equal or greater density to water. (Archimedes principle).

Imagine a scientist writing a paper on, say, the aerodynamics of bumblebee flight. Instead of presenting carefully gathered evidence which is then analysed and discussed and a conclusion drawn from it, he or she simply stated that bumblebees can't fly and then cited his claim as evidence, and concluded that bumblebees can't fly.

Even if that got past the peer-review process - which it wouldn't - would you be convinced that bumblebees can't fly based on that paper?

I've had a blog up since October 2011 challenging Christians to say how they know that Satan didn't write the Bible. My followers on Twitter will also know I frequently issue that challenge. I have also made the same challenge to Muslims regarding the authorship of the Qur'an.

Almost invariably, those few who do attempt an answer quote the Bible or the Qur'an. The panel on the right shows a selection from a 'debate' on Twitter yesterday:

As can be seen, @IrishBloke seems convinced that quoting the Bible proves it can't have been written by Satan. Presumably, asked to proved the Bible was written by his god, he would use the same circular argument, convinced that it proves something. He seemed to get into a vicious circle himself as he replied three times to my last tweet, trying a different verse each time.

But if that logic holds for the Bible or the Qur'an it holds for any other book or written word. All one needs to do is state that everything in it is true, and it becomes true. And truth then becomes anything any writer says it is.

But what if those words were written by a liar? For the case in point, what if they were written by Satan to fool the reader? (Note: Of course I don't believe in Satan but those who believe in the Bible do. If they are trying to convince others to believe in it, don't they at least have a moral obligation to be sure they aren't doing Satan's work, even within their own moral framework? Or is it more important to get people to share your beliefs than what those beliefs actually are?)

Just like our failed scientist trying to validate his own claim by citing his own claim as evidence, no claim can validate itself in the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, an evidence-free claim can never be the starting point of any logical argument. Elephants can fly because elephants can fly. Convinced?

You may think this is all too obvious, yet circular reasoning is behind almost all religious claims for the simple reason that there is no incontrovertible, definitive evidence for any god - which is why all arguments for all gods bear a remarkable similarity. Admittedly, the circularity is often well hidden, and often designedly so, although some may be due to the limited intellect or over-eager confirmation bias of the proponent. The inability to believe that mummy and daddy could be wrong in their belief seems to be a powerful inhibitor of rational thought in many fundamentalists.

The Cosmological Argument, so beloved of Creationists is nothing more than a circular argument is disguise. It begs the question by presupposing that:
  1. The Universe was created.
  2. The supernatural creator god being promoted could have been the only possible cause.
Having so begged the question and set up an evidence-free premise, the conclusion is then derived from it. There is, and never was, any evidence that the universe was created nor that any supernatural being pre-existed it, let alone the only one that the premise permits.

The Teleological Argument, or Argument From Design, is yet another. How could conscious designed be the answer to a question without presupposing a conscious designer - in other words, presupposing the desired conclusion?
There must be an intelligent designer because an intelligent designer designed xyz.
Really!? "It's logic Jim, but not as we know it". Actually, it isn't logic at all, it's a conjuring trick; an intellectual sleight of hand intended to trick the gullible.

The Ontological Argument - basically the arrogant notion that, because you can conceive of a perfect god and a necessary quality of of perfection is existence, this god must exist. (No really! Many theologists have no problem with the idea that they can define a god into existence, apparently!)

The circularity here is in presupposing that your conceptions have any bearing on reality, that the only possible god is the one being promoted and, a lesser one, that perfection includes existence, which is merely an assumption, not an established fact. Believe it or not, Anselm, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, was canonised for disguising that circular reasoning as theology.

Because all religious arguments are essentially circular, and different religions always start from different unproven premises, no two religions ever agree on the details of any conclusion, which is why, unlike science which tends to converge on the same answer regardless of the starting point or the cultural background of the scientists, religions tend to fragment and diverge into myriads of conflicting 'truths' all of which can be 'proved' within the unproven axioms of the religion. Mohammed is Allah's profit because Mohammed said so. Belief in Jesus is the only way to Heaven because the Bible says so. Joseph Smith saw an Angel because Joseph Smith said so. Israel belongs to the Jews because the Torah says so, and so on, and so on... All religions have been able to 'prove' their gods and 'prove' that their rituals and prayers are right, and 'prove' their gods did this or that, because they say so.

And yet, as I argued in Gods Come And Go But Truth Remains, when religious belief disappears, there is nothing left by which to rediscover it. All there are are claims that no one now takes seriously because no one falls for the sleight of hand in the original circular reasoning that the priests and apologists used on the people who were pre-conditioned to accept them. No one now believes in Zeus or Wotan or Viracocha. No one believes they must have been real because they were written about by people who said they were real.

And yet on such flimsy and fallacious reasoning, the most grotesque of human rights abuses are perpetrated with zeal, the most intolerant of bigotries are enshrined in law, and children are brainwashed and indoctrinated to mistrust the evidence of their own eyes, to be satisfied with not knowing and grow up full of guilt for something they haven't done and in fear of something that doesn't exist. People are induced and bamboozled to live their lives like a rehearsal, hoping for jam tomorrow, instead of living for life, enjoying the thrill of finding things out, and not putting up with stale bread of squalor, hopelessness, ignorance and poverty today.

[Update 25 May 2013]
Here is a lovely example of what this blog is about, from a pastor, no less. Apparently, @PastorJWick thinks he's scoring some point or other over Atheists who want reasons to believe anything, by boasting that Christians believe it because it's written in the Bible. Apparently, he thinks this ability of Christians to fool themselves with the intellectually dishonest devices of circular reasoning and confirmation bias is actually something to be proud of!

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  1. This is great, and I'm saving the link.

    I noted on another blog yesterday that proving the truth of the Bible using the Bible was circular reasoning, and I was roundly attacked for it by multiple individuals.

    The attacks were along two lines:

    1) I was being a know-it-all by using the term "circular reasoning," and
    2) Refusing to use the Bible to justify the Bible was compromising with evil.

    I don't don't consider either of those criticisms to be valid, but it explains why we talk past each other so often.

    It's like two people yelling at each other while speaking two different languages. If we want to persuade another, we need to find a int of common ground first.

    Oh well.

  2. Circular reasoning I find most often relies on the atheist giving the theist a point to start off which both parties are upon. The problem with this is that the conclusions people then jump too are way beyond the original assumption. Thats why I try my best to get evidence for any claim, there is no staring point that is not valid.

  3. Circular reasoning is a diagram or explanation showing how an atheist perceive what a Christian is saying. Simply put, the atheist doesn't understand what the Christian is 'babbling' about. The atheist finds the Christian explanation to be illogical and foolish. That is exactly what the Bible says (For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)

    If you notice in the diagram, there is no mention of prophecies or about the Holy Spirit.

    1. Why would I include irrelevancies in the diagram?

      Love the way you confirmed everything I said by quoting the Bible as evidence that the Bible is the word of God, by the way. Are you sure you've understood the nature of circular arguments?

    2. irrelevancies? Ha! Ha! Ha!

      It is important part of the solution. That is the point I made. The diagram does not represent what we Christians say but what you perceive as we say. That is why it makes no sense to you which the diagram confirm.

    3. If you read the blog you'll maybe have a better understanding of the point being made, and why your irrelevancies were irrelevant to it. But then your use of circular reasoning tells people you don't even understand the concept being discussed.

      Thank you for your contribution, though.

    4. I am a Christian. And you are not a Christian. I am a Christian because I have concrete proof that God exists and that the Bible is the Word of God. And you are not a Christian because you don't belief that the Bible is the Word of God. Nothing we say makes sense to you. That is what the above diagram says. It does not represent what I know or say. It shows confusion on your part, not mine. When we say that the Bible is the word of God, it makes no sense to you. And the reasons we give to show that the Bible is the Word of God is not fully represented by the above diagram, it only shows the way you perceive what we say.

      To put it simply, it is written in the Bible that the Gospel is foolishness to those who perish not to believers.

    5. >I have concrete proof that God exists and that the Bible is the Word of God.<

      Do you have the date for the Nobel Prize ceremony yet? Strangely, your proof seems not to have made the world's news media but no doubt there will be an announcement soon so you can claim the fame and fortune which should rightfully be yours.

      Let's face facts here. You have no such proof do you. You have merely been fooled into believing there is some when there is not one single scrap. Maybe someone has just fooled you into believing that truth can be determined by your wishful thinking. Do you recall who tricked you into that delusion or were you too young to remember?

      Sorry, but no matter how upset you become, how patronisingly abusive you become or how much smug self-satisfaction you get from pretending to know things you don't know, circular reasoning is still circular reasoning and as such is a logical fallacy, no matter how easily you were fooled by it.

      Produce the evidence you claim to have in your next post or explain how you knew you needed to tell lies, please. If not, please desist from insulting my readers by lying to them or your false claims will be deleted even if they are for your imaginary friend, Jesus.

      Thank you again for your contribution and for reinforcing the point I made in the blog.

    6. Sorry you felt you needed to finish with a threat, by the way, but at least it shows us the morbidly paranoid theophobia that is inducing this delusional state in you.

      It also tells me you don't really believe you have any evidence, but we both knew that, didn't we.

  4. Obscene, threatening or obnoxious messages, preaching, abuse and spam will be removed, as will anything by known Internet trolls and stalkers or by known sock-puppet accounts.

    You broke your own rule?

    Why all this rage? What are afraid off? I just posted a verse? I didn't threaten you? You see how the Word spoke to you?

    You can delete what you want. I know how forums run by atheists are run. It is worst than North Korea.

    1. Oops! You forgot' to post the 'rock solid proof' that your god exists and so showed the world that you were lying. You also 'forgot' to explain how you knew you couldn't use truth and honesty to promote your superstition so set out to deceive us with lies.

      This means no one now need take seriously anything you say.

      I'll let your comment stand so people can see why the rest of your contributions here will be deleted, unless you either provide that evidence or explain how you knew you needed to lie about having it.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Judgmental abuse, threats and sanctimonious gibberish posing as Christian piety, eh? I expect readers can guess what you are using religion as a cover for.


Obscene, threatening or obnoxious messages, preaching, abuse and spam will be removed, as will anything by known Internet trolls and stalkers or by known sock-puppet accounts.

A claim made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Remember: your opinion is not an established fact unless corroborated.


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