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Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 20: Question Begging and Leading Questions

“But Dad! You’re not listening,” my teenage daughter wailed. A crying woman has never been something I can understand or deal with easily. If I tell her to stop crying and think rationally about the question, I’m being “insensitive.” If I feel sorry for hurting her feelings and letting her emotions sway my thinking, I’m an irrational “push over.” My daughter’s crying is not unlike my wife asking, “Do you think my hair looks better this way than it did last week?” I’m a dead man — if I say yes, I’m accused of not liking her hair (“her”) last week. If I say “no,” she’ll accuse me of not liking it (“her”) now. I capitulate to my daughter: “Alright, I’ll listen. Why do you want to go on that stupid retreat with your dumb friends?”

Ah, the joys of family communication. Or, should I say the joys of question begging and leading questions. They’re very popular and widely used forms of communication — albeit fallacious.

Question Begging and Leading Questions

This series of articles is about the role of reason in the discovery of truth. We arrive at truth through the application of two disciplines — faith and reason, which are like “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio). As we discussed earlier in this series, truth does not come to us by faith alone, neither does it come by reason alone. To rely on one to the exclusion of the other is to fly with one wing, mostly in circles, as we misapply the ordered rules of one or the other and introduce fallacies into our thinking.

This chapter briefly examines two of those fallacies that fall under the broad fallacy category Unacceptable Appeals and a sub-category called Begging the Question. They are Question Begging Language and Leading Questions. These fallacies occur when the question assumes a foregone conclusion, before the question can be investigated. In Chapter 16 we defined and gave several examples of this broader classification and so I will assume you understand the fundamental principle that is being violated. Therefore, in this chapter, I’ll drill down into some additional examples.

In a moment I’ll deal with my daughter crying, and my wife’s “dead-man” questions. But first, let me deal with the more obvious example from that first paragraph — my agreement to listen to the reasons my daughter wanted to go on a stupid retreat with her dumb friends. What was going on before I rudely opened the door to our conversation was a “discussion” that purported to ascertain if the retreat and her commingling with her “friends” was good or bad for her character. My explosive “agreement” was not an agreement at all, but a rejection of her premise by my prejudiced use of the words stupid and dumb in my question. By speaking that way, I rejected any presentation of evidence (by her) that might contradict my “infallible” opinion.

Clearly, the messages we want to communicate cannot be sent with just words. They use many non-verbal cues. Some linguists claim that 80% of our messages are communicated non-verbally. So, my daughter’s crying, facial contortions, and body language were part of the message; and in so doing, her crying begged the issue. Translating her emotional response into words here’s what she was saying: “Since you don’t want me to be sad and ruin your weekend by pouting, you’ll let me go on the retreat, right?”

Hmmm? Many times arguments take on form of multiple fallacies and semi-conscious manipulations. My daughter’s question also took the form of two fallacious emotional appeals we covered earlier called “appeal to pity” and “exploitation of strong feelings.” Regardless of what else was involved, the question is laced with the foregone conclusion that makes it more difficult for the responder to answer directly and honestly, without encountering other communication problems.

Do You Like Me Now?

Similarly when my wife asks about her new hair-do, or new dress, the unsaid is often more important that what we hear. Men of my age and martial status have learned (somewhat) that the real question, the unspoken begged question, is “Do you like me… still?” If we’re not stupid or dumb, we’ll always answer such begged questions with the utmost diplomacy: “Honey, you looked great, last week and this. I love you more all the time.” Yes, I know, it sure does not seem to answer the question, but believe me, it DOES. [Ed: But, Stan, in that case, it is a necessary nicety. Stan: It is? Uh...okay, it is.]

Begging Mary?

We should all beg Mary, but when non-Catholics do it with question such as, “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” the question begging or leading question issue is seen even more clearly. If you have been asked that question before, you may already understand it’s a question that cannot be answered directly, because it assumes something false — that Catholics worship Mary. Dave Armstrong points out that we need to be aware of false presuppositions of our opponents, which helps us to get at the root of the miscommunication.

A conversation between Patty and Kathy might go something like this:

Patty: Why do you Catholics worship Mary, Kathy?

Kathy: We don’t worship Mary, Patty. What gives you that idea?

Patty: Well, you’re always praying to her.

Kathy: Naturally.

Patty: Well, what’s the difference?

Kathy: Difference between what?

Patty: That’s what I want to know.

Kathy: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Patty: Between worship and prayer. Don’t you worship God when you pray to him?

Kathy: Naturally.

Patty: There, don’t you see?

Kathy: See what?

Patty: You’re an idolater.

Kathy: Because I pray to God?

Patty: No, because you pray to Mary.

Kathy: But, we don’t worship Mary.

Patty: But you pray to her.

Kathy: Naturally.

(pause)

Patty: Is this where I say, “Who’s on first.”

Kathy: What?

Patty: No, What’s on second.

Kathy: I don’t know.

Patty: He’s on third.

Kathy: Naturally.

(RIM SHOT)

You think I made that up, don’t you? Sorry, but that conversation happens several times a day between Protestants and Catholics.

The begged question, of course, is: “Why do Catholics worship Mary?”

It’s a kind of begged question that is also a good example of layered fallacies, which makes such questions all the more difficult to answer. Not only does the question assume something false, but it involves two other fallacies, one stacked on the false assumptions of the other. The two secondary fallacies I refer to here are equivocation, and distinction without a difference or what I term “difvocation.” These are important fallacies that we will define and explain from time to time.

Equivocation and Difvocation

Difvocation involves the use of two terms that sound different. The problem occurs when one of the parties defines the two terms the same, and the other party defines the two terms differently. In this case the two terms are “prayer” and “worship”. Something is difvocal (they sound different, or they have DIFferent VOCALizations) if the same meaning is applied to the different sounding terms. Patty defines “prayer” and “worship” as if they are the same. But Kathy defines them differently — “worship” is “adoration” reserved for the Trinity alone. But “prayer” is not worship per se, but a description of a method available to us in order to communicate to those in the supernatural realm. Thus, we can ask (e.g. pray to or intercede with) a saint in heaven to ask (e.g. pray to or intercede with) God for something through the one mediator, Jesus Christ.

Overlaying that confusion is an equivocation, which involves the use of two terms that are equivocal (they sound the same, or they have EQUal VOCALizations) but have different meanings. That is, difvocation occurs when two terms have the same meaning, and equivocation occurs when two terms have different meanings. In this case the two terms are spelled the same, e.g. “prayer”. We say there are two terms (even through they are spelled the same) because Patty defines “prayer” as “worship” or “adoration” directly to God, but Kathy defines “prayer” as “a response to God’s goodness” which can be through an intercessor.

Once both Patty and Kathy understand these difficulties, they can more accurately unwrap the begged question by first defining the term “prayer” (and “worship”). To the Catholic prayer and worship are not the same, and so, Catholics do not worship Mary when they ask her to intercede before Christ for us.

Dave Armstrong suggests that here we might explain the three factors that Catholic Kathy missed as opportunities to better explain her faith. She might have said:

  • “Praying to Mary” means basically, “asking Mary to intercede.”
  • Doing this presupposes that we are going through Mary to God, Who alone answers prayers. Mary is not the source of the answer as “praying to Mary” implies to an Evangelical or Protestant mind.
  • Evangelical and Protestants assume that such prayer is worship because their culture teaches them there are only two categories of beings that we can communicate with: Humans here on earth, and God in heaven. Thus they collapse all non-human communication into the “worship” catagory. But there are other creatures (including the angels) in heaven with whom we can communicate.

Abortion Begging Language

If you are engaged in an argument about whether or not abortion is murder, one aspect of the argument may be whether or not the fetus is a human being. In such a situation, we may state: “Abortion is murder because the fetus is human” without providing significant evidence that would justify the claim of why the fetus is human. When we do that we beg the issue, and we fail to advance our position.

This takes us back and reminds us, when faced with an opponent, first clarify the exact issue. In this case, the issue is not abortion, but what constitutes humanity for a fetus. In so doing we can appeal to science and philosophy using commonly accepted premises, rather than the Bible, which the non-Christian will not accept. The scientific argument from the nature of genetics is compelling. The philosophical argument involves ethical discussions about the nature of rights and who has them.

Attacking Begging Fallacies

The first step in attacking a begging fallacy is to try to get your opponent to realize they are begging. In the case of my crying daughter, she might simply say to me: “Dad, the issue isn’t the retreat is it? It’s whether or not my friends that are going on the retreat are a good or bad influence on me? Is that it?”

If I answer “yes” to that question it’s entirely possible we might come to a resolution about whether the retreat is a worthy use of her time.

If, however, the issue is so emotionally laden, like the abortion issue often is, and neither you nor your opponent can be objective about the issue, you may have to just walk away. Christ tells us in each of the Gospels that if someone will not listen to the truth, to leave the home or town, and shake off the dust from your feet (Mt. 10:14). The upside of this tactic is that you might be able to persuade someone else, with whom you will have more credibility than you do with your current, unmovable, opponent.

Recently, an anti-Catholic EWTN viewer of Dr. Ray Guarendi’s DVD and television series What Catholics Really Believe wrote us and let off some steam about his “understanding” of Catholicism, including this:

The reason [the Eucharist] IS only a Memorial is because Christ was sacrificed ONCE for all of mankind’s sin and the real Atoning Sacrifice was TOTALLY SUFFICIENT. Please refrain from ‘re-presenting’ Christ on RCC altars, as it is a total mockery of the ONLY ONE TIME sacrifice for all of mankind’s sins, just as the book of Hebrews explicitly says.

Obviously, there are several fallacies at work here, including equivocation, difvocation, and begging the issue. I responded with a suggestion that the writer refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church rather than the book he had cited written by an anti-Catholic. In a second email, after he responded with the same false claims, I carefully and objectively laid out the fallacies that were at work in his statements, pointing to the CCC as a truer representation of Catholic belief.

Usually my attempts at this sort of apologetics bear little fruit, and I have to just walk away, or hang up after 20 minutes of run-on sentences by an angry caller. But in this instance, the writer showed some openness to re-examining the actual teachings of the Church. We’ll see what the future holds.

In any event, as with all fallacious communication, it is important that you first recognize the fallacy for what it is, and then attempt to enlighten your opponent as to why you think a fallacy exists. Unless, of course, it’s a crying daughter or your wife has just bought a new hat to cover the hair she doesn’t think you like. In such cases, all bets are off, and it’s you who needs to do the begging.

God bless.


Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. is executive producer for SWC Films, an independent film and television production company. He is the author of the motion picture screenplay writing guide, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, as well as owner of media distributor Nineveh's Crossing. He can be reached at sdw@StanWilliams.com.