Arguing in Circles is a type of Begging the Question fallacy, because imbedded in the question is the conclusion. Oftentimes arguments are long, and may be presented in book or chapter form, thus separating the assumptive premise, by some time and space, from the conclusion. A careful analysis of the argument may be necessary to discover the fallacy, if it exists. Simply put, Arguing in a Circle says: “A is true, because A is true.” Thus, the question asked of the Reformed Presbyterian about how they resolved theological disputes arising when parties interpret the Bible, cannot be answered by referencing back to the Bible without arguing in a circle. Interestingly, the Reformed Presbyterian theologian touched on the solution, which is to look to the authority of individuals in the Church to resolve such difficulties. But when pushed further about when those authorities disagree, his escape was to return to the issue under question as the answer to the issue. It makes me dizzy.
For the Catholic, the answer is indeed in the Bible. But interestingly the Bible points to a hierarchy of authority outside of itself, and in fact the same hierarchy of authority that established the Bible as an authority in the first place — the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the Pope and Church as a whole. The Bible passages that do this remarkable thing are clearly stated in every Protestant Bible I’ve ever looked at, and in fact here are the verses from perhaps the most popular American Protestant Bible translation, Zondervan’s New International Version:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19; Matthew 18:18).
Catholicism holds that:
(a) the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and we thus trust them;
(b) that fallible men wrote the infallible Scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and
(c) that fallible men also SELECTED the Scriptures infallibly, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The hierarchy was (1) the Holy Spirit working through, (2) fallible men, who then (3) wrote and selected the Scriptures. Then the Scriptures establish the fourth level, again, through the Holy Spirit, (4) the power to INTERPRET Scriptures and moral law infallibly. Here is the verse. Notice the Holy Spirit’s inspired involvement:
And with that he [Jesus] breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven“ (John 20:22-23).
So, the Bible can be used to end the circular argument, but you have to be articulate about where the buck stops — not with the Bible, but with the Holy Spirit inspired leadership to infallibly interpret.
Related to this, a number of non-Catholics have taken me to task, and have argued against papal authority by saying: “I just don’t believe that.” When pressed they end up saying something like: “I just don’t believe that because, well, that’s not what I believe.” Unfortunately it is times like that when I destroy all opportunities to be reconciled with my brothers and sisters. Why? Because I yell at the top of my lungs: “ARE YOU NUTS?!”
I’m sorry, but I have no other argument.
Reversing the Argument
As much as Catholics may pound Protestants for inconsistent thinking, Catholics are guilty too of this fallacy. Have you heard this critique? “Protestants are not good theologians because they interpret the Bible incorrectly.” That is a classic example of circular reasoning. There is no real evidence presented here. The only thing the statement establishes is the same opinion stated two different ways. The phrase “not good theologians” is the near equivalent of “interpret the Bible incorrectly.”
The problem with the current poor and fallacious condition of social communication is the lack of time to mount and establish good arguments. Broadcast news wants soundbytes. They especially like provocative headlines soaked in opinion and a lack of evidence. Here’s the main headline from CNN.com today: Haagen-Dazs: Vanishing bees could sting business. The article describes how Haagen-Dazs ice cream relies on bees to pollinate fruit to flavor 40% of its brands. The begging the question here is that the headline assumes bees are vanishing. While I’m not an expert on bees, I did spend some time a few months ago talking at length to the owner of a bee-keeping farm about the problem. He said, “There is no problem; the headlines are the fabrication of ignorant reporters who do not understand the natural fluctuation in bee population they read about in trade journals, and are anxious to create ‘news’ to sell papers.” Thus, a natural variability becomes a fallacious headline in the hands of an uneducated corps of reporters.
I recently read a very entertaining novel about nuns and the mafia which I had been requested to carry among our other Catholic products at Nineveh’s Crossing (http://www.ninevehscrossing.com/). The author is a Catholic nun who has a problem with the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Without going into the detail, the argument she posed in the otherwise good and entertaining story was an argument that went something like this:
Premise A: The Church is composed, like the mafia, of cold-hearted patriarchal hierarchies. Premise B: People more easily pour out their hearts to compassionate mother figures than father figures. Conclusion: Women would make better priests because they are not male.
Apologist Dave Armstrong points out that Premise “B” is likely a true premise for most people, which helps the fallacy succeed, because there is some truth in the argument. “The fallacy lies more so in making compassion the sole component for the priesthood.”
Regardless, the essence of the circular argument is summarized in the above conclusion. Elsewhere, the circular reasoning is cloaked under the anecdotal, and unrelated, evidence that the mafia is a male hierarchy over which we have no control, and women are generally more compassionate. That is, as the nun argues, the male patriarchal groups are evil, and women would make better confessors. Never mind that Jesus was male, that the apostles were all male, and that it is Jesus (a MAN) and God the FATHER who Catholicism teaches are more merciful, compassionate, and gracious than imagination can conjure. And while God’s merciful character does not mean that, as a whole, men are as, or more, compassionate than women, it suggests that perhaps, in God’s eyes, too much compassion isn’t good for the confessional. I have seen more than one mother, for instance, sympathize with a disobedient child, and not correct his behavior, allowing the child to sink further into sin and “Gimme! Gimme!”
Nineveh’s Crossing will not be carrying that book.
Lastly, I had a discussion with a friend who was a supporter of a current political candidate. The friend is a Christian, and the candidate advocated abortion on demand. Our discussion went like this (here summarized because it went on over several e-mails):
Me: Why do you believe (your candidate) has the characteristics to be the president? Her: Because (my candidate) is credible. Me: Why is (your candidate) credible? Her: Because the current president lied. Me: How does the current president’s actions relate (your candidate’s) character? Her: Because I trust (my candidate) totally, implicitly.
This last example is perhaps more indicative of the kind of discussion you’re likely to get into. In the actual case, the back and forth was perhaps five times lengthier and the circular reasoning was harder to spot. In the end, the EVIDENCE for the candidate was the same as the CONCLUSION, just sated in different words — “My candidate is credible and would make a good president because I trust him totally.”
The underlying problem was my friend’s inability to address the candidate’s stand on abortion. She knew I was right about the abortion issue and she had no other “evidence” other than her dislike of the current president — and another unmentionable reason, that had she mentioned it, would have unraveled her credibility. She was not willing to bring up the unmentionable trait, and I wasn’t going to bait her, so she was forced to embrace the only thing left: circular reasoning.
I had contacted a well-known Evangelical historian about my documentary project mentioned earlier. After a little dialogue he wrote me, “The reasons I am not Catholic are entirely personal.” Let these examples be a warning to you. Often, you will find yourself in situations like these where your opponent will not be forthcoming about the real, underlying reasons for their position. No amount of logical persuasion will convince them. They are blockaded by a combination of fear of the unknown, family tradition, deep-set prejudices, and pride — all of which conspire to hold them just out of reach of real truth.
All you can do is smile, be gracious, and say a silent prayer for them. You can’t convince them. That will have to be done by the Holy Spirit, and perhaps not until they come within sight of the pearly gates.
Guarding against Circular Reasoning
Here are some tips about how to avoid being swept up in such circular reasoning:
1. Be sensitive to the “evidence” presented in all arguments, and be sure it’s not just the conclusion stated another way. It is easy to hide such circular evidence in arguments that are long and connected by a convoluted series of “logical” connections.
2. When you recognize the circular thinking, try politely to point out to your opponents how their “evidence” is in fact also their “conclusion.” Try not to yell. Don’t be like me. Remind them that it’s not a good idea to use in the definition the very word they’re trying to define.
3. If your opponents seem to be open, but can’t seem to grasp the concept of circular reasoning, offer to work with them and write down on a piece of paper their “evidence” in an agreeable short hand; and then do the same with their “conclusion.” Line up the evidence phrase with the conclusion phrase, one above the other, and try to point out how they are the same, and thus no evidence has been presented.
4. Remind your opponents that a person’s opinion, without outside objective evidence, is hardly convincing evidence that something is true or false. Try to encourage them to find the real evidence for their position, give them time, and see what happens.
5. Finally, be enlightening, try not to force a change in conviction. Your job is not to convince (leave that to the Holy Spirit) but to simply provide good evidence. The change in their minds must come internally, and will take time for their minds to sift through and assimilate what is true and false. When people come to conclusions on their own, the resulting conviction is much stronger.
Yes, we may persuade some people. Indeed, we sometimes do.
Copyright 2007, Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
This article is based on Dr. Williams’ Catholic Home School Conference presentations on Logic, Fallacies, and Good Arguments. Dr. Williams is the Executive Producer of SWC Films (www.swcfilms.com), and Director of Catholic media distributor Nineveh’s Crossing (www.ninevehscrossing.com). He hopes you’ll visit and buy stuff so he can keep writing this series