Question Begging Thought Experiments

I really should be thinking about the excellent comments made on some of my other posts but for some reason I am stuck on the zombie stuff right now. I promise I will get back to Berkeley and the analyticity of moral truths soon!

During our fast and furious discussion of my reverse-zombie argument yesterday RC invited me to look at a recent post of his where he discusses when it is appropriate to call an argument question begging. He there argues that begging the question should be reserved for cases where ‘the argument does not advance the dialectic’, or alternatively where the argument is not ‘rationally persuasive to anyone who does not already accept the conclusion’. This is contrasted with the typical view that begging the question is employing one’s conclusion as a premise. So, according to RC it is fine to simply assume without argument that there could be a complete microphysical duplicate of me which lacked consciousness because doing so makes the issue ‘vivid’ and ‘draws out our implicit commitments’ which in turn can serve to rationally persuade. This is partially right and partially wrong. Let me take a minute to explain.

Consider the following argument.

All men are mortal

Socrates is a man

therefore, Socrates is mortal

As everyone knows, this is a valid categorical syllogism. Does it beg the question? Well, in a technical sense one might think that it does, since the conclusion is contained in in the premises. But this argument is question begging in another sense as well. To beg the question in this sense is to beg it against someone. So, this argument begs the question against someone who does not believe that all men are mortal, and against someone who does not believe that Socrates was a man (if there are any such people, that is). Typically no one in a logic class challenges these premises and we all go about our merry business but should someone challenge our claim that all men are mortal we would have to provide a seperate argument to establish that premise. Of course this is nothing new, it is simply soundness under another name. That is why we say a rationally compelling argument is one that is both valid and sound. So to beg the question in this sense is to employ premises in your argument which your opponent does not accept.

So I agree that to call an argument question begging is to complain that the argument is not rationally compelling but not in the sense that RC points out; it is to complain that there is a premise in the argument that one does not accept and which has not been argued for. This RC admits to doing and so he admits to begging the question against the materialist. But what of his counter suggestion? Isn’t the zombie argument rationally persuasive to some and therefore doesn’t it advance the dialectic and so not beg the question in RC’s sense. No. As he himself points out, what the zombie argument does is to draw out one’s implicit assumptions and commitments. But if it only serves to draw out one’s implicit assumptions and commitments then it should be obvious that the argument will only be rationally persuasive to someone who already has implict dualist commitments and so the zombie argument is question begging in RC’s sense as well. It does not serve to advance the dialectic between the materialist and the dualist; what it serves to do is to alert one to which side of the debate one has allegience to but it cannot, and does not, rationally persuade someone who is not already implicitly harboring dualist commitments.

So what we need is an actual argument that the zombie world is conceivable …just as I have said all along.  Notice, though, that I have never denied, and have no quarrel with, the claim that the zombie argument is useful for making a certain issue very vivid. What I deny is that it is anything like an argument against materialism.  

Notice also that RC’s preffered way of characterizing the zombie argument not only begs the question against a materialist of my ilk who thinks that the microphysical facts do entail the qualitative facts (since qualitative facts just are physical facts), but also against someone, like Davidson, who endorses anomalous monism. This is because the anomalous monist denies that the microphysical facts entail any mental facts at all (yet the mental and the physical are identical nonetheless). This is why the debate between the materialist and the dualist is not a debate about reduction and why RC’s way of framing the zombie argument is bad. The better way to do it is in terms of conceiving of a creature physically identical to me which lacks consciousness. But then, as acknowledged by RC, the dualist is in danger from the reverse-zombie argument…that is unless it is question begging in some way…

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10 thoughts on “Question Begging Thought Experiments

  1. So to beg the question in this sense is to employ premises in your argument which your opponent does not accept… if it only serves to draw out one’s implicit assumptions and commitments then it should be obvious that the argument will only be rationally persuasive to someone who already has implict dualist commitments and so the zombie argument is question begging in RC’s sense as well. It does not serve to advance the dialectic between the materialist and the dualist

    So, on your account, every valid argument is question begging. (A valid argument will only persuade someone who is already implicitly committed to the conclusion, after all. A steadfast opponent will always simply reject one of the premises.)

    But not every valid argument is question begging. Thus, your account is wrong.

  2. More generally, if you all you mean when you accuse me of “begging the question” is that you don’t accept one of my premises, then this is a far less weighty accusation than I might have imagined. After all, a question begging argument is supposed to be (ipso facto) a bad or defective argument. But obviously the mere fact that you reject one of the premises does not make an argument bad or defective. It just means that you don’t agree with it.

    (I would be bothered if my arguments were question-begging in my sense, i.e. if they were not rationally persuasive to anyone who didn’t already explicitly accept my conclusion. Whether a stubborn opponent might reject one of my premises, on the other hand, is not something I see any reason to care about.)

  3. RC,
    I think you are using a nonstandard definition of what a question begging argument is compared to any of the main reputable sources.
    And are you not a believer in the fact that there are philosophical truths? If so then your first comment is curious.

    RB,
    its a bit off topic but I think that this reflects a little of what you and Roman were debating recently (although its also possible I misunderstood the main point of hte debate). Because RC has infused ‘begging the question’ with a specific but not necessary value judgment (that it implies the argument is wrong), when you mention it he is tempted to disputing the definition (rather than the point) and that results in a much more confused debate than is required.

    I believe if you have a large number of non standard words it will be come difficult to engage with other people.

  4. “I would be bothered if my arguments were question-begging in my sense, i.e. if they were not rationally persuasive to anyone who didn’t already explicitly accept my conclusion.”

    It is question begging in your sense, as I argued above. You never responded to that charge.

    Also I wouldn’t say that every valid argument is actually question begging (remember you have to beg the question against someone in my sense). But I would accept that every valid argument is potentially question begging. But that’s no big deal IF one can give an argument for the questionable premise.

    ” a question begging argument is supposed to be (ipso facto) a bad or defective argument.”

    Yes, I agree. It is bad in the sense that it does nor advance the debate. The zombie argument does not advance the debate because it relies on a premise that is unargued for and which no one but a dualist would except (hence it is question begging in both senses). How much worse can an argument get without committing a formal fallacy? What is needed is to provide some argument for the question begging premise. In this case you have never even attempted to provide support for your claim that the qualitative facts do not follow from the physical facts or to address my argument against that premise. You (admittedly) simply assert that and then say ‘see, materialism is false’. When the materialist complains that your argument unfairly just assumes the crucial premise you respond ‘so what, that’s not something I see any reason to care about.’ Wow; and yet you pretend to care about rationally informed discussion and advancing the dialectic…I gues what you’re really concerned with is advancing the dialectic between people who already agree…Nothing like preaching to the choir, eh?

    I guess I should mention also that whether or not the reverse-zombie argument directly parodies your version of the zombie argument or not, I am capable of conceiving of a non-physical duplicate of me which lacks qualitative consciousness and this is enough to show that dualism is false.

    GNZ,

    yeah I think I agree. A lot of what passes for debate in philosophy is probably really just cross-communication due to different definitions of key terms that go unnoticed…

  5. It is question begging in your sense, as I argued above. You never responded to that charge.

    It seemed too silly to merit a response. But okay. My view is that an argument is question-begging if it would not rationally persuade anyone who didn’t already (explicitly) accept the conclusion. You respond that my argument (actually, this is true of any argument whatsoever) will only persuade someone who is already implicitly committed to the conclusion. That’s obviously compatible with it being a substantive, valuable, dialectic-advancing argument, which persuades a great many people. This will be the case, for example, if a great many people who call themselves “materialists” are actually implicitly committed to dualism.

    So I’m not just “preaching to the choir”. I expect many people to be persuaded by these arguments, just as I originally was. What I don’t care about is persuading a dogmatic or staunch materialist, with whom I share no common premises. Some people just can’t be argued with.

    Again, your only real complaint against the zombie argument is that it is valid. That’s no complaint at all. Sure, you’re dogmatically committed to rejecting the conclusion, and so you also reject the premises. But many others are more inclined to accept the premises, and so the argument has rational traction for them. (What more could you ask for? You can’t force everyone to accept your premises… )

  6. You want to give an account of the difference between implicit and explicit belief? Or is that too silly to mention? But at any rate, even if we accept your claim that an argument is only question begging only if it persuades someone who explicitly holds believes the conclusion, it still isn’t really an argument against materialism. It doesn’t SHOW that materialism is false. A good argument starts from premises that everyone (in the debate) thinks are true and then show that because of that they are committed to some other claim.

    I have not given any arguments for or against materialism. All that I have been trying to point out is that the zombie argument is NOT an argument against physicalism, in fact it is a terrible question begging argument that only persuades people who already accept its premises. I even gave an argument to that effect that you have never addressed. It is actually quite simple and starts from the very same premise as your argument does; namely ‘if physicalism is true then zombies are not ideally conceivable’ (you affirm it in the counter-positive, obviously ‘if zombies are ideally conceivable then physicalism is false’). We have good evidence that physicalism is true, and no evidence that it is false. I would not say that we know it to be true, but it has a lot more evidence going for it than the alternative. I mean the only evidence that you have ever offered for the conceivability claim is that it SEEMS to you to be conceivable (you say as much in your zombie review post)…but as I have pointed out again and again, its seeming to you that way doesn’t matter one wit. What matters is whether it is ideally conceivable and that depends on whether or not physicalism is true….Given that we do not know whether or not physicalism is true we do not know whether or not zombies are ideally conceivable. And given that the zombie argument falls flat on its face. So you are right that you can’t force everyone to accept your premises, but what you could do is to give an argument for your questionable claim…but you refuse to do that…too bad.

  7. A good argument starts from premises that everyone (in the debate) thinks are true and then show that because of that they are committed to some other claim.

    Um, no, you appear to have confused ‘good argument’ with ‘perfect, knock-down argument’.

    Since I reject your premises, you must acknowledge that your arguments are bad, by your own lights.

  8. No, you have confused ‘good argument’ with ‘crappy argument’

    “Since I reject your premises, you must acknowledge that your arguments are bad, by your own lights.”

    What I have to acknowledge is that I need to give an argument for the premise that you are resisting. Luckily that is easy to do, and unlike you, I am happy to do it.

    A good argument is one which will rationally compell someone who does not (explicitly)accept the conclusion of the argument to accept it. In order to do this the argument must have premises that the person accepts as true. Why? Well, suppose that the person suspects that one of the premises is in fact false. That would render the argument unsound and so would negate any reason the person had for actually accepting the conclusion (no one expects valid unsound arguments to rationally compell someone to accept the conclusion). So, now take the case of two people arguing and suppose that one party gives an argument that is valid. The other party recognizes that it is valid but suspects that one (or more) premises are false. That person should not accept the conclusion of the argument. It would be positively irrational for a person to accept the conclusion of an unsound argument. If this person objects that one of the premises is false then, in order to advance the debate, the onus is on the first person to give an argument for the truth of the premise in question.

    But again, as I have said many times before, none of this is meant to impune the usefulness of the zombie argument as an intuition pump. It is certainly useful for making very vivid the problem of consciousness..I only mean to be pointing out that it is a crappy argument against materialism. That is ubless there is some reason that a materialist should accept the crucial premise that you rely on…but since you stubbornly refuse to give any reason why someone should accept that premise and in fact claim that you do not need to give any such reason, I guess that this debate will not be advanced.

  9. Implicit ideas are not fundamentally more valuable than explicit ones (if anything the opposite is true). And you can have an argument that persuades a great many people but is not dialectic-advancing (take politics for example).

    In the case of you arguing with a person who you do share some common implicit beliefs – is it appropriate to use the fact that some of those beliefs are implicit to presenting rejecting the other option as the only option?

    I think that potentially lowers the quality of the debate (compared to where you make some attempt to make the options/assumptions explicit) and thereby raises the possibility of the other person rejecting a belief that they rationally should not reject.

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