Have you ever felt you were going in circles trying to make a good argument? You're not the only one.
Circular reasoning is the formal logical fallacy mistake of using a claim to support itself. It happens when the person starts with what they want to end up with. This faulty circle goes round and round but gets nowhere.
You might not notice it, but circular thinking underlies many common beliefs. It sneaks unnoticed into political debates and advertising slogans. Noticing circular reasoning is the first step in spotting flaws in your thinking. It also helps reveal weaknesses in other people's arguments.
What is Circular Reasoning?
Circular reasoning pops up in everyday situations more often than you may think. You've likely used circular logic yourself without even realizing it. Or heard others argue in circles without picking up on the flaw.
Circular reasoning is called "begging the question", petitio principii, circular argument, paradoxical thinking, and circularity.
Circular arguments attempt to prove a point by arguing that two or more premises are true, thus the other must be also. In other words:
A is true because B is true.
While illogical, the two seem to justify each other's truthfulness. Perhaps it seems self-evident or a good point, but the question occurs when we look closely at the explanation.
For example, say your friend tells you their horoscope reading is always right because astrology is actual. When you ask how they know astrology is actual, they say because horoscope readings are so accurate.
Their reasoning goes in a loop with no evidence outside the circle offered to support the initial premise.
A premise is an assumption or idea that provides support or evidence for a conclusion. Premises are the foundation of logical arguments. They are statements offered as being true or factual. The conclusion then depends on the premises.
A circular reasoning fallacy happens when the premise and conclusion are the same. So the premise can't logically support the conclusion.
A fallacy is an error in reasoning that leads to an invalid argument. Fallacies are flaws or mistakes in logic. Often, these flaws are used to appeal to an audience.
So, circular reasoning is the definition of one common logical fallacy.
As another example, perhaps you've seen a commercial claiming a product is the best because so many people buy it. But when pressed on how they know so many buy it, they respond because the product is the best.
The reasoning loops back on itself in a circular argument.
These are overly obvious examples, but circular arguments can be more subtle. The person stating them often doesn't notice the flaw in their logic. That's why consciously watching for circular reasoning is key.
Fallacies like circular reasoning are common when people argue about controversial topics. Debates about politics, religion, or social issues often involve circular logic.
Each side starts with their assumptions that support their beliefs. They use these assumptions as premises to make conclusions that align with their thoughts.
The Origins of Circular Arguments
The concept of circular reasoning hasn't popped up out of the blue in recent times. No, this method of thinking has been with us for centuries, weaving its way through discussions and debates.
So where did it all begin?
Well, the ancient Greeks, always the philosophers, were among the first to chat about the pitfalls of circular reasoning.
Thinkers like Aristotle pointed out the flaws in arguments that supported themselves. In his works, Aristotle specifically talked about how genuine proofs and logical reasoning should be structured.
Fast forward to the Medieval era. Philosophers, particularly in religious debates, would sometimes unknowingly fall into the trap of circular reasoning.
For instance, one might argue that a religious text is the absolute truth because it claims to be so. See the loop?
In more modern times, the study of logic and reasoning, especially in the academic and scientific worlds, has given us clearer tools and vocabulary to identify and counteract these arguments.
Universities and colleges began offering courses in critical thinking, writing, and logic. It's in these settings that students learn to navigate the maze of arguments and come out on the other side with clear, solid reasoning.
But history isn't just about dates and names. It's also about understanding patterns. Circular reasoning, despite being identified and criticized repeatedly over the years, continues to find its way into our conversations.
Examples of Circular Reasoning
- Lucky charms work because I use one and have good luck. How do you know it gives you good luck? Because lucky charms work.
- Astrology is scientifically proven because astrologers can accurately predict the future. How do they know the predictions are accurate? Because astrology is a natural science.
- The death penalty deters crime because areas with the death penalty have lower crime rates. How do you know the death penalty causes lower crime rates? Because the death penalty deters criminals.
- Aliens exist because eyewitnesses have seen UFOs. How do we know those were alien spacecraft? Because aliens have visited Earth.
- This diet is effective for weight loss because I lost weight on it. How do you know the diet caused the weight loss? Because the diet I used is proven to work.
- Our democracy works because we have free and fair elections. How do you know our elections are free and fair? Because we live in a functioning democracy.
- Bigfoot is real because there is photographic evidence. How do you know those photos are of an actual Bigfoot? Because Bigfoot creatures exist and were captured on film.
- I never get sick because I eat organic food. How do you know organic food keeps you healthy? Because I don't get sick and I only eat organic.
- The defendant is guilty because they failed a lie detector test about the crime. How do you know the test is accurate? Because it proves they lied about committing the crime.
- Tarot card readings are accurate because tarot cards can reveal hidden truths. How do you know tarot cards have that power? Because tarot readings give correct predictions.
- Torture produces reliable intel because tortured terror suspects provide helpful info. How do you know that intel is useful? Because torture is effective at extracting accurate information.
- My dog is very smart because he follows complex commands. How do you know following those commands indicates intelligence? Because my dog understands advanced training.
- This medical treatment works because patients improve when they use it. How do you know the patients improve from the treatment? Because this is an effective medical treatment.
- My memory supplements work because my memory improved after taking them. How do you know it was the supplements that caused better memory? Because those are effective memory-boosting supplements.
- Lie detector tests are flawed because they are not 100% accurate. How do you know they are not 100% accurate? Because there are flaws in lie detector tests.
- The moon landing was faked because inconsistencies in photos and videos show staging. How does one know those apparent inconsistencies weren't simply anomalies? Because the moon landing footage reveals the event was staged.
- The universe began with the Big Bang because astronomers detected residual radiation from the primordial explosion. How do you know that radiation is evidence of the Big Bang? Because the Big Bang theory correctly explains the origins of the universe.
- Rain dances work because people dance, and then it rains. How do you know the dance caused the rain? Because performing rain dances results in precipitation.
Famous Examples of Circular Logic
Circular reasoning isn't something new. It has popped up many times throughout history. Sometimes, it even made big headlines.
Let's look at some famous moments where circular reasoning was at play.
- Witch Trials: In the past, especially during the Salem witch trials, a common belief was that if a woman drowned, she wasn't a witch. But if she survived, she was a witch and was then executed. It was a no-win situation based on faulty reasoning.
- McCarthyism: In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list of communists in the U.S. government. If someone denied being a communist, it was seen as proof that they were trying to hide their true identity, reinforcing McCarthy's claim.
- Advertising Claims: Ever seen a product that claims to be "the best" simply because everyone is buying it? This is circular reasoning. The product is the best because people buy it, and people buy it because it's the best.
- Ancient Texts: Sometimes, people believe a text or book is true because the book itself says it's true. Without external proof, this becomes a circular argument.
- Modern Debates: In many debates, you might hear someone say, "It's true because it's obvious." But just because something seems obvious doesn't mean it's true without solid reasons.
These are just a few times when circular reasoning entered big historical moments. It shows how important clear thinking is.
Why We Use Circular Reasoning
Now that you can spot circular reasoning, you may wonder - why do people rely on this logical mistake if it provides no actual proof? Our brains are prone to certain thinking traps that lead to circular logic.
First, confirmation bias makes us favor information that matches our existing beliefs. We start with assumptions like "My political party is always right." Then we interpret new events in a way that confirms our assumption, strengthening our conviction.
Cognitive dissonance, having two conflicting beliefs, also leads to circular reasoning. When faced with new information that challenges our views, we might gravitate towards arguments that confirm our beliefs, even if they're circular. Think of it as your brain's way of keeping the peace within itself.
The human tendency for motivated reasoning contributes too. We have an emotional attachment to our deeply held beliefs. So we often use flawed logic on purpose to reach the conclusions we want.
Sometimes, we don’t know enough about a topic to realize an argument is circling back on itself. In other words, we lack knowledge or are ignorant about the topic. It’s tempting to take the path of least resistance. In essence, learning is difficult, and just accepting things at face value without doing the work is easy.
Even the smartest people default to circular reasoning at times. It often happens unconsciously when our brains take mental shortcuts. The key is learning to watch for it in yourself and others.
Distinguishing from Valid Reasoning
Okay, now that we've delved into the why behind our susceptibility to circular arguments, it's time to sharpen your skills further.
It's one thing to spot circular reasoning but another to differentiate it from valid, robust reasoning. Sometimes, the line can be a bit blurry. Let's see what valid reasoning looks like.
- Presence of Genuine Evidence: In a sound argument, there’s a clear separation between the claim and the evidence supporting it. For instance, if someone claims, "Exercising regularly is beneficial," they might back it up with evidence like, "A recent study showed that people who exercise thrice a week have a reduced risk of heart diseases." Notice the distinction? The claim and evidence are separate entities.
- Chain of Reasoning: Strong arguments often have a chain of reasoning where one point leads to another, ultimately supporting the main claim.
- Testability and Falsifiability: Good reasoning can be tested and potentially proven wrong. Imagine someone claiming, "All swans are white." This can be tested by searching for a non-white swan.
- Absence of Repetition: As you've learned, circular reasoning often relies on restating the claim, even if in different words. Solid reasoning, however, presents fresh points or evidence without merely repeating the initial claim.
- Acknowledgment of Counterarguments: Strong arguments often recognize and address opposing viewpoints. It’s like a balanced diet, incorporating various nutrients. By addressing counterarguments, valid reasoning shows a comprehensive understanding of the topic.
Similar Logical Fallacies
Circular reasoning has some closely related concepts in the world of logical fallacies. Distinguishing between these similar concepts can sometimes feel like identifying different shades of the same color. But with a careful eye, you can master the art of differentiation.
Let's untangle these similar concepts.
- Tautology: This statement is true in every possible interpretation due to its logical structure. For instance, "Either it will rain today, or it won't." While it may sound similar to circular reasoning, tautology doesn’t claim to provide evidence; it merely states an obvious truth.
- Affirming the Consequent: This involves a mix-up in a logical sequence. For instance, "If it's raining, the ground will be wet. The ground is wet, so it must be raining." While the wet ground could be due to other reasons, the conclusion jumps to a specific cause without justification.
- Ad Hominem: Instead of addressing an argument's merit, this fallacy targets the person making the argument. Think of it as playing the player instead of the ball. "You can't talk about nutrition because you're not a dietitian," sidesteps the argument.
- Red Herring: This fallacy introduces an irrelevant point to divert attention from the main issue. Imagine discussing pollution, and someone says, "But what about the economy? We need jobs!" While jobs are essential, they don't directly address the pollution concern.
How to Avoid a Logical Fallacy
Alright! You've learned a lot about circular reasoning. Now, let's ensure you can spot and avoid it in real life. Here's a straightforward guide to help you:
- Ask, "Why?": When someone makes a claim, always ask, "Why?" It helps you understand their reasoning better.
- Look for Real Evidence: If someone says something is true, ask for proof or reasons.
- Know Your Own Beliefs: We all have our own beliefs and opinions. It's important to know what yours are so you can think clearly.
- Listen Carefully: Pay close attention to what others are saying. This way, you can catch if they're using circular reasoning.
- Learn More: The more you know about a topic, the better you can spot mistakes in what people say.
- Talk Openly with Others: Have open conversations. When everyone shares their thoughts, it's easier to spot mistakes.
- Think About Your Thinking: Every once in a while, think about how you make decisions or form opinions. Make sure you're not using circular reasoning yourself.
By following these steps, you'll be better at spotting and avoiding circular reasoning. Remember, it's important to think clearly and ask questions.
Consequences of Circular Reasoning
Understanding circular reasoning isn't just about spotting mistakes in what people say. It's also about understanding the effects it can have. Let's examine why circular reasoning is a big deal and what can happen if we don't catch it.
- Confused Decisions: When we base our decisions on circular reasoning, we might choose without genuine reasons.
- Misleading Information: If someone uses circular reasoning to prove a point, they might convince others of something untrue. It can spread false information.
- Wasted Time: Circular arguments go in circles without reaching a real answer.
- Lack of Trust: If people notice you often use circular reasoning, they might stop trusting what you say. Trust is important in friendships, work, and many other areas.
- Missed Opportunities: By not thinking clearly and relying on circular reasoning, we might miss out on better solutions or ideas.
In short, circular reasoning can lead to a lot of problems. It can confuse us, lead us down the wrong path, and even hurt our relationships. So, it's really important to understand it and avoid it. Always aim for clear thinking and strong reasons in everything you do.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is circular reasoning?
Circular reasoning is when the reason given for something is just a repeat of the original statement. It's like saying, "I'm right because I'm right."
Why is circular reasoning a problem?
It's a problem because it gives no real evidence or reasons. It can lead to bad decisions and misunderstandings.
How can I spot circular reasoning?
Look for statements that repeat themselves without giving new information or reasons. Always ask, "Why?" to dig deeper.
Is circular reasoning always flawed?
Most of the time, yes. Good decisions are based on strong reasons. But sometimes, people might use it without realizing it.
How is circular reasoning different from a regular argument?
A regular argument gives reasons and evidence. Circular reasoning goes in a loop without adding anything new.
Can circular reasoning be persuasive?
It can be, especially if someone doesn't notice it. That's why it's important always to think critically and ask questions.
Are there famous examples of circular reasoning?
Yes, from the Salem witch trials to certain advertising claims, this example of circular reasoning has made headlines many times in history.
How can I avoid using circular reasoning?
Always think before you speak, ask for feedback, and be curious. Question your thoughts and the statements of others.
Is circular reasoning the same as repeating oneself?
Not always. Repeating can just be saying the same thing over. Circular reasoning is when the reason given is just a repeat of the statement.
Why should I care about circular reasoning?
Understanding and avoiding circular reasoning helps you make better decisions, have clearer conversations, and think more logically.
Circular reasoning might seem like a simple concept, but as you've seen, its effects can ripple out in significant ways. From history to everyday conversations, these circular logic loops can mislead and confuse. But armed with the knowledge you now possess, you're well-equipped to navigate these circles.
By questioning, reflecting, and always seeking clarity, you can avoid these logical pitfalls and help others do the same. After all, in the realm of reasoning, it's always better to forge a straight path than to go around in circles.