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Circular Reasoning

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Circular Reasoning

Have you ever thought that something was so good, so perfect, that its greatness justifies itself? Star Wars (1977) is great because, don’t you get it, IT’S STAR WARS!

This logic is not as uncommon as you think. Circular reasoning gets many writers and thinkers in trouble. It also doesn’t get many in trouble, which is even more troublesome. Despite it seeming obvious to identify, circular reasoning can actually resemble a strong argument.

The Definition of Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning is a logical fallacy. A fallacy is an error of some kind.

A logical fallacy is employed like a logical reason, but it is actually flawed and illogical.

Circular reasoning is specifically an informal logical fallacy, which means that its fallacy lies not in the structure of the logic (which would be a formal logical fallacy), but rather in something else.

Circular reasoning concludes that an argument is validated by itself.

In our examples of circular reasoning, pay close attention to point A, which is the circular reason.

Circular Reasoning Example

A. Back to the Future (1985) is a good movie.

Why?

B. Because it's an '80s movie.

Why are '80s movies good?

A. Because Back to the Future is from the 1980s, and it's good.

In this example, the arguer ultimately justifies that Back to the Future is good because it is good. The circle is a little larger than our initial example using Star Wars, but the fallacy remains the same. The larger the circle, the harder it is to identify a fallacy of circular reasoning.

What makes circular reasoning such a problem, though? Why can’t arguments and conclusions be self-evident, self-justified, and self-validating?

The Fallacy of Circular Reasoning

Why can’t Back to the Future be so great that it’s the reason for its own greatness? This is because self-validation is illogical.

Validation is support for the truthfulness of a claim.

Validation is the use of a second party (support) to prove the truthfulness of the first party (claim). In other words, a validated argument requires evidence that is not the argument itself. Thus, a "self-validating" argument is actually an unvalidated argument. It carries no logical support.

So what’s the problem with an unvalidated argument? The problem is, if an argument isn't validated then it can’t be proven, and if an argument can’t be proven then that argument can’t be proven logically, and if that argument can’t be proven logically, then it is flawed and therefore illogical.

Circular reasoning is not the same as a cycle. Rain becomes clouds and then rain again, but this is a cycle involving state changes. Rain and clouds change into one another and back again—they're interdependent components that create a cycle. Likewise, interdependence is not circular reasoning. Interdependence states one cannot exist without the other. This is not circular because interdependence deals with two items, not one item.

Examples of Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning can be more complicated than A because A, or A because B because A. Let’s explore more complex examples and their flaws.

Circular Reasoning Example 1

A. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a bad basketball team.

Why?

B. They have never won a championship.

And why is that?

C. Because they can barely win a playoff series!

And why is that?

A. Because the Oklahoma City Thunder are a bad basketball team. Duh!

Some circular arguments are made bluntly as an appeal to emotions. They are intended to be funny. You must have heard people chuckle at these kinds of answers. In instances like this one involving a sports team, this humorous “reasoning” is harmless. However, you should never believe that a circular argument is valid because it made you laugh. The only thing that laughter validates is that you found something funny. It does not validate a logical claim.

Always watch out for logical fallacies in humor. Humor is a powerful persuasive tool despite it possessing little logical appeal. In fact, because logic is so serious, it is all the funnier to make jokes about logic at its own expense.

This is not to say comedians don’t make good points! A logical reason can be told as a joke, but in terms of an argument, the logical reason is the important part, not the comedy.

Circular Reasoning Example 2

A. Bill is a pyromaniac.

Why?

B. Because Bill collects lighters.

How is that proof?

C. Lighters create fire. Bill has hundreds of lighters. He also grills constantly, and burns his yard waste.

So?

A. So Bill has a fire problem. A real obsession. He’s probably a pyromaniac.

Someone might attempt to obscure their circular reasoning with misdirection. Slowly approaching their circular conclusion, the arguer tries to summarize Bill with all kinds of other words. He says he has a “fire problem”, and a “real obsession,” whatever those things even mean. Finally, the arguer throws in “probably” to deaden their conclusion, when in reality the conclusion is unchanged. The arguer ultimately argues that Bill is a pyromaniac because he is one.

Real examples of circular arguments are not easy circles. Those employing circular reasoning will use all kinds of ploys to hide their absurd claim. They may or may not be doing it intentionally. It is your job to clear away the nonsense, though, and boil down their argument to its essence. This might help them learn something, too!

Circular Reasoning Example 3

Circular reasoning can be extremely dangerous. If someone is convinced that something is self-validated, then they will not validate it themselves. When this happens, that "someone" might then use the invalid argument as validation in itself. In other words, something invalid might be used as a reason to act. The terrible implications should be obvious.

A. Reptilioids are the smartest space race.

Why?

B. They have accomplished so much.

Such as?

C. They colonized Mars and Mercury. Their ships travel at the speed of light.

What about the other space races? They’ve done a lot.

D. But not as much. What the reptilioids have achieved is greater.

Is that really true, though?

A. Yes it is. The reptilioids are just plain smarter. The reptilioids are objectively brilliant, don’t you get it? They have been and will always be smarter than everyone else.

The errors in this argument begin when the arguer begins to apply objective reality to a subjective statement. No accomplishment can be broadly, logically determined as “better” than another accomplishment. “Better” is a subjective term unless it is applied to an extremely narrow case.

For example, one could say that Cable A provides better electrical conductivity than Cable B because of several key measurements. This is comparing two specific cables using specific metrics. On the other hand, claiming that all the accomplishments of one race are “better” than all the accomplishments of another race is illogical, because thousands of metrics could be used among millions of people.

This false equivalence leads directly into the arguer’s circular reasoning. Now that the arguer has “established” this nonsense about achievements, the arguer doesn’t feel the need to establish further evidence. The rest, the arguer says, is self-evident. Throwing around words like “objective,” they justify their argument with itself.

Those who nefariously employ circular reasoning will attempt to control the dialogue. It is easier to answer their own questions than to answer yours. When attempting to identify circular reasoning in an interview, transcript, or even in person, be wary of those who don’t let their interlocutor drive the conversation. If something is truly logical, then an arguer should have no fear of an open forum.

Circular Reasoning Example 4

In our final example, circular reasoning is used by someone who might have a good point, but err in their argument.

A. Energy drinks contain too much caffeine.

So?

B. Too much caffeine is unhealthy.

Why?

C. Overstimulating energy drinks can lead to heart problems.

How?

A. Because energy drinks contain too much caffeine.

Oftentimes, even someone with good intentions might use circular reasoning because they lack evidence. Logical fallacies find a lot of use where the facts are not researched or are unavailable. To fix this, the arguer can do a few things.

How to Avoid Circular Reasoning

In reference to Example 4, when asked “how” energy drinks can lead to heart problems, the arguer should instead reply with research from a reputable source. When hard proof is needed to verify a claim, it needs to be provided.

Furthermore, an arguer should be sure that their claim contains verifiable information. Even with evidence that energy drinks can contribute to heart problems, the arguer might find it difficult to prove that they contain “too much” caffeine. How does one even define “too much”?

CIrcular reasoning Energy drink StudySmarterChoose your words carefully, as "too much" caffeine is not necessrily verifiable, flaticon

An arguer should always be specific in their claim. Instead of saying unilaterally that all energy drinks contain too much caffeine, the arguer should present a more focused argument.

Ads for energy drinks, which are not highly regulated by the US government, present an unrealistic image of the impacts of caffeine overstimulation, which is dangerous for those young and at risk for heart issues. The US government should regulate these ads similarly to how it regulates other problematic consumables, such as alcohol.

In other words, the claim is that energy drinks contain too much caffeine to be advertised without regulation in the US, due to their dangers to some of the audience. This claim is much more arguable than the claim that all energy drinks everywhere contain too much caffeine, full stop.

To succeed in a logical argument, you will need to narrow your argument and come with evidence.

Synonyms for Circular Reasoning

In Latin, circular reasoning is known as circulus in probando.

Begging the question (Latin: petitio principii) is similar to circular reasoning. Begging the question does not mean “there are questions left unanswered still,” which it is commonly and incorrectly thought to mean. Rather, begging the question occurs when an arguer assumes that an argument is true in order to justify a conclusion.

Because his might is unsurpassable, Hercules is the strongest.

In this example, the question that is begged is, “Is his might actually unsurpassable?”

Although the arguer assumes this answer to be “yes”, there is in fact no reason to believe it is “yes”. Thus the question is begged, is it actually yes?

Circular Reasoning - Key Takeaways

  • Circular reasoning is a logical fallacy. This is because circular reasoning concludes that an argument is justified by itself.
  • Circular arguments are unvalidated arguments. The problem is, if an argument isn't validated then it can’t be proven, and if an argument can’t be proven then that argument can’t be proven logically.
  • Circular reasoning is not improved when it is used plainly and humorously. It remains illogical.
  • Circular reasoning can be very dangerous when it is used to justify an action.
  • To avoid circular reasoning, use reputable evidence and make a specific claim, such as stating a thesis.

Frequently Asked Questions about Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning concludes that an argument is validated by itself.

No, it is an informal fallacy.

Cut through any misdirection and boil an argument to its essence. If an argument is ultimately self-validating, it is circular.

Begging the question is a kind of circular reasoning. Begging the question occurs when an arguer assumes that an argument is true in order to justify a conclusion. It is a single illogical step. Circular reasoning can be much longer and more complex, and is often less obvious.

An informal fallacy.

Final Circular Reasoning Quiz

Question

Circular reasoning is a logical _____.

Show answer

Answer

Fallacy

Show question

Question

Circular reasoning concludes that an argument is _____ by itself.

Show answer

Answer

Validated

Show question

Question

"A is true because B is true because C is true."


Is this circular reasoning?

Show answer

Answer

No, circular reasoning loops back to A again. A is ultimately justified by A.

Show question

Question

Can a circular reason be verified?

Show answer

Answer

No. 

Show question

Question

What is the problem if a claim cannot be validated?

Show answer

Answer

The problem is, if an argument isn't validated then it can’t be proven, and if an argument can’t be proven then that argument can’t be proven logically, and if that argument can’t be proven logically then it is flawed to use that argument in a logical argument.

Show question

Question

Can something be so great that its greatness justifies itself?

Show answer

Answer

No, not logically.

Show question

Question

Is circular reasoning the same as a cycle?

Show answer

Answer

No. Cycles and interdependence are not examples of circular reasoning because they do not rely on self-justification. 

Show question

Question

What is the danger of humor in a circular reason?

Show answer

Answer

Humor might lend credence to the fallacious claim in those who are easily swayed emotionally. "Zingers" are only strong if they are also logical.

Show question

Question

Someone might cover up their circular reasoning with _____.

Show answer

Answer

Misdirection

Show question

Question

When identifying a fallacy of circular reasoning, your job is to what?

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Answer

Boil down an argument to its essence. Ignore any misdirection and get to the point.

Show question

Question

In what way can circular reasoning be dangerous?

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Answer

When an invalid argument is used as a reason to act, horrible things can happen.

Show question

Question

Is "better" a subjective term?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, unless it is applied to a narrow case that uses quantifiable metrics.

Show question

Question

Even someone with good intentions might use circular reasoning because _____.

Show answer

Answer

They lack evidence

Show question

Question

In order to avoid circular reasoning, an arguer should be sure that their claim is not _____.


Show answer

Answer

Specious

Show question

Question

In order to avoid circular reasoning, an arguer should be _____ in their claim.

Show answer

Answer

Specific

Show question

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