Raznor's Rants

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

I'll beg your question
Posted by Raznor

As a mathematician, I am often annoyed by common misconceptions of mathematical concepts. For example, in recent comments over at Alas Darly told me:

Also, to get from generation 1 to generation 1000 you have to go through generation 456.
If you cannot understand that you could not have understood Cauchy Mean Value theorem in Mathematics either. Shame on you, a grad student in Mathematics.


Besides the fact that his (her?) amazing grasp of mathematical biology extends to Freshmen year calculus, this is a complete misuse of the Mean Value Theorem (or as we math-dudes are wont to call it, the MVT) as the MVT deals with continuous functions over compact sets, generational indexing is discrete (we don't have generation 9.235 for example).

My point in all this is that I can fully understand why philosophers or students of philosophy are annoyed by technical misuse of the phrase "begging the question". But as John Holbo explains, this is really just your standard case of technical usage not meshing well with colloquial usage.

here's a language nit: "The denser linking pattern of conservatives begged the question of whether the conservative bloggers had a more uniform voice than the liberal ones did." Philosophers are always bothered by this usage. We prefer to reserve 'beg the question' for venerable 'presuppose your conclusion'. But there is considerable pressure in favor of the shift. Not only is it clear how the phrase could mean what these authors mean by it, but 'x demands that we ask y' is just plain something you often want to say. And 'begs the question' is really better than 'x demands that we ask y'. "The denser linking pattern of conservatives demands that we ask whether the conservative bloggers had a more uniform voice than the liberal ones did." That makes it sound like I'm too worked up, like our little puzzle has just gotta vault to the front of the line. But why doesn't 'begging' sound irrelevantly fawning? Probably because logicians have pawed all the connotations off it. Now that it's worn smooth and servicable, all these folks want to take it from us, damnit. Should I give in? Worry about something important? What do you think?


I think this is a time where logicians need to suck it up and let the layperson use this phrase as he or she sees fit. I personally never use the term "begs the question" to mean "presupposes the condition". Why? Because we already have an entirely valid expression that means just that, which most people recognizing as meaning just that - circular logic! We say "that argument is circular" or "you're assuming what you seek to prove." If you say "You're begging the question" the common lay-response would be "which question?" In the meanwhile, saying "begging the question" to mean "x demands we ask y" just sounds awesome in a debate.

It's just like how the term "facet" doesn't mean "(n-1)-dimensional face of an n-dimensional polytope" except to mathematicians.

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