Is Circular Reasoning Always Fallacious?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: There are two things we need to discuss about circular reasoning: It is (1) absolutely unavoidable and (2) not necessarily fallacious. Circular reasoning is unavoidable to some degree when proving one’s ultimate standard. An ultimate standard cannot be proved from anything else, otherwise it wouldn’t be ultimate. Therefore, if it is to be proved, it must use itself as its own standard of judgment by which any decision is made.

God uses non-fallacious circular reasoning

God Himself uses a non-fallacious type of circular reasoning when He makes an oath. Human beings appeal to a greater authority as confirmation of an oath (Heb. 6:16). But since God is ultimate, He can only use Himself as the authority (Heb. 6:13). Thus, clearly some degree of circular reasoning is necessary when proving one’s ultimate authority.

Not all circles are fallacious

Second, all circles aren’t necessarily fallacious. Begging the question is often considered a fallacy because it is usually arbitrary. But it can be non-arbitrary if it goes beyond a simple circle (i.e., the Bible is true because it says so) and uses additional information to support its conclusion. If the ultimate authority is first assumed and you find out later you have good reasons for it because without it you cannot make sense out of anything, then its perfectly legitimate to reason in a circle.

All ultimate authorities must appeal to themselves as part of their own proof

In fact, any true ultimate authority must use itself as part of its own proof. Again, some degree of circular reasoning is involved, but it cannot be a simple “vicious” circle. It must be non-arbitrary. Consider logic:

1 – If there were no laws of logic, we couldn’t make an argument.
2 – We can make an argument.
3 – Therefore, there must be laws of logic.

This argument is perfectly sound yet it is subtly circular. It’s what is known as a modus tollens syllogism (i.e., denying the consequent) and in this “proof”, we have assumed that there are laws of logic. Modus tollens is a law of inference in logic, and we have used it as part of the proof that there are laws of logic. In this case we had no other choice; in order to get anywhere in any argument we must presuppose that there are laws of logic.

How circular arguments can be non-fallacious

However, this example argument doesn’t merely assume what its trying to prove; it imports additional information to support its conclusion. What makes this circular argument a powerful one is that to deny it would be to assume it, thus any potential rebuttal would be self-defeating. A great way to show that a particular presupposition must be true is to show that one would have to assume that the presupposition is true even to argue against it in the first place.

An argument that proves something that is necessary for reasoning, proof, and evidence in the first place is called a transcendental argument. It asks “What must first exist to make sense out of everything else?” It is not like the arguments you are used to hearing from Christians (direct, deductive arguments or indirect, inductive arguments).

The Christian’s ultimate standard

The Christian’s ultimate standard is like this; any attempt to refute the Bible must assume things about the world that could only be true if the Bible were true in order to get started. The Bible not only provides the criteria for itself, but it does so for all other facts, hence, the reasoning isn’t viciously circular. It gives us a foundation (the Biblical God) for rational reasoning (including laws of logic), science, morality, reliability of our senses and memory, and so on.

It even gives us a foundation for why we should not be inconsistent or arbitrary (because God isn’t, and we are to imitate Him – Eph. 5:1). The Bible passes its own criteria for truth (it is consistent and non-arbitrary, etc.) and provides criteria for everything else. The Christian circle is not a vicious circle, but one that can account for all human experience and reasoning.

As with the argument for laws of logic, any attempted rebuttal would be self-refuting, because it would have to use things (laws of logic, the charge to be consistent, etc.) that presuppose a universe that can only exist if Christian theism is true. Thus, we are not merely arguing “The Bible must be the word of God because it says so”. Rather, we are saying, “The Bible must be the word of God not only because it says it is, but if you reject this claim you are reduced to absurdity.”

Indeed, “in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Colossians 2:3

Want to learn how to defend your faith? Learn everything you need to know in order to defend Christianity in the film How To Answer the Fool. Now available on Vimeo for Rent or Instant Download.

How To Answer The Fool – Trailer from Crown Rights on Vimeo.

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15 comments
JackEllis1
JackEllis1

1. If there were no unicorns, we couldn't make arguments.
2. We can make arguments.
3. There must be unicorns.

GeronimoLee
GeronimoLee

@JackEllis1 Not the same as verifying certain testable items that the Bible claims exist. When we affirm such testable items exist, then we - possibly, depending on the case - confirm the reality of the claims of the Bible. 

ScottKessler1
ScottKessler1

If the non-believer objects to any and all circular reasoning, ask him if his mind is reliable. He should quickly concede your point.

JackEllis1
JackEllis1

@ScottKessler1 A mind is not reliable. It is why peer review and reproducible results are important. We have plenty of evidence for this unreliability. But reality is that which continues to exist regardless of the observer. 

ScottKessler1
ScottKessler1

Jack. How do you know that the mind is not reliable? Isn't that rather self-defeating? How is one to interpret the "evidence" of this unreliability? Do we not use our minds to do so? Again, self-defeating. How do you know that reality exists outside of the observer (without borrowing from the Christian worldview)?

Are you an atheist Jack? Tell us about yourself.

LarryBray
LarryBray moderator

@ScottKessler1 I don't know...if the mind was reliable would magicians make so much $$ off of tricking it?

ScottKessler1
ScottKessler1

@LarryBray @ScottKessler1 

Larry,"

You didn't answer my question about your position being self-defeating.  In any case, I think you are confusing reliability with infallibility.

The fact that you know that magicians can fool the senses shows that your mind is reliable enough to figure that out despite what you see.

If what you say is true, then you wouldn't be able to justify your knowledge of anything.

LarryBray
LarryBray moderator

@ScottKessler1 @LarryBray That's because your question wasn't directed to me :)
In my post i said "i don't know"...i am not making a statement of fact but rather wondering what the implications are to thinking the mind is reliable.

Wouldn't reliability imply a self-sufficiency? I ascribe reliability to God and His word rather than to the mind. If our focus is on the individual mind there are other possible implications...

+ Those who are less intelligent are somehow less of a person.
+ The mind can judge God's word rather than having God's word judge the mind.
+ If a certain knowledge of Christ is needed for salvation, then those who are less intelligent may not have the capacity to be saved.

You see, my justification for knowledge does not rest in the mind but in the God of the mind. He gives knowledge and wisdom to whom He will because He is a God of all knowledge and wisdom. So i know things rightly because of God rather than because of my mind.

LarryBray
LarryBray moderator

@ScottKessler1 @LarryBray This touches a bit on epistemology, so i'll add this...

Human reason is not something that should be taken as an autonomous authority but rather as a faculty created by God and therefore subject to His authority.

Since it is only God who has complete knowledge - both in respect to things in the minutia and in respect to how things relate as part of the whole, it is only as we agree with His revealed mind (Scripture) that we have true knowledge (though not complete).

Apart from Christ the mind is not only unreliable, it actively suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). Frankly, the reason God has given us the Gospel of Christ is precisely because we are unable to know the truth through the "wisdom" of our mind (1 Cor 1:21)

GeronimoLee
GeronimoLee

@JackEllis1 @ScottKessler1 Ahaaa and behold! the circular logic of peer review. Especially when all humans are fallible and the fallible leave their work to be approved of by the fallible. Makes perfect sense. 

LarryBray
LarryBray moderator

Indeed circular reasoning is not always fallacious...it depends on how big the circle is. Narrow circular reasoning is the only way to deal with questions of ultimate authority, for if you appeal to a higher authority for the sake of having no narrow circular arguments you have appealed to a greater authority and have thus created a fallacy. Broad circular reasoning, however, is always fallacious.

GeronimoLee
GeronimoLee

@LarryBray It depends on the concept of vicious circularity. To say God is God is equivalent to saying the letter A is the letter A. 

samr111481
samr111481

I don't understand your links in the Bible verses.  Were you trying to goad people into going to that video?  Usually when you have a link it should be related to the content.  I.e. a Bible verse link should take one to Biblegateway or some other online Bible resource about that verse.  I don't know much about that Sye TenBruggencate, but just my impression from that video and some others relating to it, he seems rather proud.  Also about those verse references, they aren't arguments.  It says, "God made the promise to Abraham," that "He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself."  And, that "men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute."  The only relation to arguments or logic that one could possibly see is that it says it ends disputes.  BUT, not all disputes are logical debates/arguments.  There's a huge difference between a syllogism and a dispute.


I'm not thoroughly familiar with the different laws of logic, but the syllogism you set forth, though circular, is not unsound.  But, just because it's in sound, doesn't mean it's powerful.  It's irrefutable because one would have to use logic to make an argument that there is no such thing as logic.

mattzab
mattzab

Samr, that's the entire point.

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