Arguing in Circles: Part I

Eaves dropping on a Realistic Hypothetical…

“How do you know we landed on the moon?” asks the skeptic.

“Well, we have the reports from NASA, and the testimony of the astronauts.  There are also various media sources that validate the event” answers the believer.

“Yeah, but I don’t accept those claims.  I don’t believe what the government or the media tells us…you can’t trust them” the skeptic responds.

“You don’t believe them…you don’t trust them? Are you serious, the evidence is pretty…well…evident!”

“Now you know as well as I do,” starts the skeptic “that the media outlets and the information that the government gives are often filled with various inconsistencies, and yes though you may want to deny it…contradictions. All either really care about is money and power anyway.  Look at how much money the IRS takes from the people as they pass around the tax forms for us to fill out. And since the media is in bed with the government, most of what they report is fake news anyway,” he finishes triumphantly.

“Hold on a minute! What about the testimony of the astronauts, surely you can’t dismiss them.  Not only did some of them orbit the moon, but men like Neil Armstrong actually got out of the spaceship and stepped on that rock, planting the United States flag on it.  Why would they lie? Why would they make it up? Surely all those witnesses wouldn’t fudge the record!” proclaims the believer (just a wee-bit aggravated).

The corners of the skeptic’s mouth begin to inch toward an upward arch before he confidently says to the believer, “People lie all the time.  Some people are willing to die for the lies they told.  I’m not necessarily calling all the witnesses liars, some may have been duped by what they saw and heard, but that doesn’t mean what they have become convinced of is the truth. Self-deception is a real thing. Haven’t you heard of people who believed that their arm wasn’t really their arm and so they cut it off? Or the mother that drowned her children, convinced that she was doing what was for their benefit…not murder, but a peculiar gift?

Men like Neil Armstrong worked for the government. Don’t forget NASA is a governmentally led agency. Not just that, but look at the notoriety that he gained through the media. People like that tend to crave power, and what greater prestige could be gained when the whole world thinks you’re this great hero of a movement (the future promise of space travel and the possibility of living on other planets).  I’m not surprised that someone like him would cover up the truth, when he had so much to gain.”

…if you really want to prove to me that we’ve been to the moon, you’re going to have to prove it to me some other way, because I don’t trust the source(s) your giving me.”

**With that the skeptic wishes the believer a good day and departs, leaving the believer a bit dumbfounded.

Arguments over Truth and the Apologetic Response…

When we look at truth (we don’t actually look at it by the way since it’s an abstract concept of reality) we see things propositionally. Those propositional truths are then given meaning by way of analogy. In other words, we often use illustrative forms that people can relate to in order to better instruct what those propositional truths convey. This is not done as a slight of hand, but by way of drawing out the practical applications of those truths at play in real life scenarios.

In my former post, I pointed out how some Christian apologists prefer to leave the Bible out of the discussion when speaking to unbelievers because it is supposed that the skeptic will not accept its claims. Therefore, in order to avoid uncomfortable discussions and to steer clear from the dreaded fallacy of begging the question (a.k.a. circular-reasoning) many Christian apologist prefer philosophical argumentation regarding evidence, divorced from the Bible, as the preferred method of approach. How well do you think that works in the real world?1

Uhm…it doesn’t.

Regardless of the subject one attempts to tackle, opposing sides of the argument will argue.  And when they argue they will naturally appeal to that which they hold as ultimate. You can take the above scenario that I presented and put anything you desire into it, and the result will be the same. Whether it be sports, politics, forms of entertainment, financial planning/budgeting, etc. name the topic, identify the source, and watch the sparks fly. The issue is the person in question and what they identify as authoritative.

There are still people out there that believe the earth is flat not spherical, that vaccines are the products of pharmaceutical companies and the health profession intent on hurting rather than helping humanity (they’re all about the money!). You can show people evidence and pile it to the ceiling, but they will always appeal to that which they view as an authority in their life.

If someone argued against the earth being a sphere, or the benefits of vaccines, or the fact that we have orbited the earth, built a space station and have sent people to walk on the moon, to what would you turn as your authority? What would you cite? You would point to the source of the claim. You would point to the one source that made sense of the evidence. And you know what…you’d be arguing in a circle; necessarily so.

What is Circular-Reasoning or the Fallacy of Begging the Question?

Circular-Reasoning known as the fallacy of Begging-the-Question, is “…when an unjustifiable assumption is slipped into an argument to support a conclusion that has not yet been established.”2 In other words, you presuppose what you are attempting to prove; the conclusion of the arguer is found at the beginning of the argument. Here is an example that is often cited and criticized (and I would add rightly so) in Christian circles: “The Bible is inspired by God, and the Bible says that God exists. Therefore, God exists.”3 Here the assumption “God exists,” which is the conclusion of the argument, is smuggled into the opening of the argument.  The argument is supposed to justify that God exits, but rather than giving warrant to the conclusion the opening statement presupposes it. Therefore, the reasoner has reasoned in a circle, but nothing was actually proven.

The funny thing about this particular fallacy (i.e. false-reasoning) is that the form is logically valid (the premise and conclusion necessarily agree), but what makes it false is the arbitrary nature of the argument. We are being arbitrary when our personal “preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something…,” say a standard is being applied. Arbitrariness is unjustified reason; the mere opinion of the arguer.4 That is why reasoning in a circle can be false.

“Wait a minute…you said can be. What do you mean?”

There are circumstances when reasoning in a circle is not fallacious.  Take for example logic, how does one go about proving it? When we argue we assume (rightly so) that there are standards that our reasoning must submit to. Logic is immaterial.  You cannot touch, taste, see, hear or smell a law of logic, but you can prove them.  “How do you prove something that does not exist!” By validating the standard by which you appeal.  In order to argue cogently, you must do so logically.  In order to argue logically, you must use logic; a necessary circle.

Here is a wonderful example of what I just stated:

  1. “If there were no laws of logic, we could not make an argument.
  2. We can make an argument.
  3. Therefore, there must be laws of logic.”5

Stated another way…laws of logic are necessary for proper argumentation and we argue; therefore, laws of logic must exist.  This argument, as described by Jason Lisle “…is subtly circular. We have assumed in this proof that there are laws of logic; modus tollens is a law of logic and we have used it as part of the proof that there are laws of logic. In this case we had no choice; in order to get anywhere in an argument we must presuppose [assume] that there are laws of logic…But what makes this a really good argument is that any possible rebuttal would be self-refuting.”

That last sentence may have left you wondering, “how so?” In order to argue against the argument presented, you would have to assume what you are trying to disprove—i.e. laws of logic. In short, not only would you have to borrow what you are trying to say is not true, but you too would also be arguing in a circle.

The Tie-in with Ultimate Standards…

This is why understanding ultimate standards is so important. That underlying foundation of a person’s perspective worldview is always the final court of appeal.  All people argue in a circular fashion to some extent, because it is impossible not to do so. Greg L. Bahnsen offers a cogent argument for why this is the case:

  • Therefore, all argumentation over ultimate issues of truth and reality will come down to an appeal to authorities which, in the nature of the case, are ultimate authorities. Circularity at this level of argumentation is unavoidable…When that ultimate authority is challenged, the argument must necessarily become circular, for nothing is “more authoritative” or carries greater warranting power than the “ultimate’ authority.” The unbeliever, as much as the believer, has a final authority to which he appeals in order to defend the world-view that embraces his interdependent metaphysic [i.e. view of reality] and epistemology [i.e. source of knowledge].7

But, not all foundations are made the exact same, are they? Nor are all circles of reasoning the same. A foundation or a circular argument that is self-refuting, rather than self-attesting, is a vicious and therefore fallacious (false) standard to appeal to. A worldview standard that cannot attest for, or provide the grounds for knowledge is self-refuting. That ultimate standard cannot be arbitrary, inconsistent, or lack the foundation for making knowledge possible. If it fails in any of these areas, then it’s a standard we shouldn’t be using.

This is truly at the heart of every apologetic encounter.  A person asks you why you believe “x,” and then you offer a reasoned response in defense of believing “x.” How do you prove “x,” if you refuse to stand on the very soil that makes “x” possible? If you cannot truly understand “x” without your faith-commitment’s standard, then why would you propose to give an understanding of “x” in some other format?

Think of it this way… (Oh yes, another illustration!)

You claim to have access to and privileges to drink from the sweetest well in all the world.  The water from this well is the purest, the sweetest, the absolute best. Because of this well’s water you will never thirst again, your thirst will always be satisfied, your soul refreshed. This well provides living-water.8

Then someone comes along and says to you, “Why do you drink from that well? Why do you claim that the water from it is the purest, the sweetest and the best to meet your needs? Why not these other wells that have good water in them to, why do you refuse to drink from them?”

In response to the inquiry, you immediately begin to dip your cup in the water from the well you cherish above all others. As you turn to offer a drink the questioner says, “What are you doing? Why do you approach with the water from that well?”

You say, “Well, you want to know why I drink from it, why I claim it is the sweetest and the best to satisfy one’s thirst…you want to know why I am so confident that this water alone will satisfy your soul for all your days. So, I bring to you a cup of this well’s water so that you might taste of it and know its sweetness.”

“No, no not that water. I will not drink of it, you must first prove to me that this water is what you say it is. Then, I will drink,” the questioner replies.

“How do I prove it without drawing from it and giving to you?” you ask. “Easy,” the questioner says “show me it is the sweetest by drawing from these other wells.”

Herein lies the dilemma of the one who refuses to draw from the well that the Lord has given, preferring instead a different well, in order to prove what he testifies about the life-giving water is indeed Living Water.

To Be Continued…

We shall return to the subject of circular reasoning by examining whether or not the approach is biblically justified.



1 No, I’m not a pragmatist; quite the opposite. I do think this ideology has seeped into the Evangelical Church and so Pragmatism will be—by way of necessity—the subject for a future article, but for now we will leave it where it lies.

2 Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakeable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions about the Christian Faith (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2001), 145.

3 Joel McDurmon, Biblical Logic in Theory and Practice: Refuting the Fallacies of Humanism, Darwinism, Atheism, and Just Plain Stupidity (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2011), loc 3519, Kindle Edition. The problem with both premises in this syllogism is not that they are false. According to the Christian worldview they are both true. However, to use them to prove each other is not a cogent argument, but rather a viscous circle.  I would recommend not joining the two together to prove the point, from biblical grounds, that God exists and the Bible is His breathed-out Word.

4 Jason Lisle points out that “Arbitrary assumptions are not be used in logical reasoning because we could equally assume the exact opposite.” He gives the following example: “Evolution must be true because it is fact.” The evolutionist accepts this argument as valid, even though he has reasoned in a circle. However, one could likewise argue “Evolution cannot be true because it is false.” The form is valid, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises provided, but the premises are assumed true without validation. Cited from: Discerning Truth (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2010), 16, Adobe Digital Editions.

5 Jason Lisle, The Ultimate Proof of Creation: Resolving the Origins Debate (Green Forest, Master Books, 2009), 145.

6 Ibid, 145-146.

7 Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, Joel McDurmon, ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press & Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, [2008], 2011), 89.

8From the Lord comes living water: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7.38). In John 6, Jesus compared himself to manna from heaven when He declared, “I am the bread of life…” (John 6.35). Similarly, we do no violence to biblical teaching when we compare the Rock of our Salvation to those rocks that were struck in the wilderness that provided living water for in desperate need (cf. Psa 78.15; Isa 48.21; see Exod 17.6; Numb 20.10-11; compare Jer 17.13 and Isa 55.1). “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psa 42.1-2a). Once our thirst drives us to the Lord, and His sweet water satisfies our soul (i.e. salvation), why would we put away that which has afforded us such a great gift. Let me put it another way: What is saved in Christ Jesus? The person in part or in totality? If in total, then does this not also include our very minds? If our minds, then why would we assume that there is some other way, some better way, to lead someone to this Living Water other than the source from which it springs?