Sunday, January 2, 2011

Three Axioms

I think perhaps the most fundamental philosophical statement that can be made, an axiom , if you will, that must be assumed at the very start of our philosophical endeavors, is that people are subjective.  By this I mean that we always see things from a first-person perspective.  I cannot exit myself and understand things in a perfectly objective way.  The story I tell is always "my story" from my perspective.  I think this is one of the most important insights that we can glean from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  So while I believe that there is a world "out there" beyond myself, and that this world exists objectively in a certain way, I also believe, following Kant, that I do not have access to that world directly.  I only have access to my perspective on that world.  And that perspective will always be my subjective, own perspective.

So far, this sounds like a case for a pretty drastic relativism.  But that, I think, is a bit too quick of a conclusion, and I believe that if we really follow such relativism to its end it actually negates the value of our selves and our perspectives and results in a kind of nihilism in which everything becomes meaningless.  But I don't think that is the only option- another axiom I might claim is that we as humans are rational beings.  By rational I don't mean anything particularly specific, I'm not attempting to describe a system of logic or analysis.  I am merely wanting to say that we are thinking beings.  We don't just react to stimuli, like a worm being prodded with a stick, we actually think about the world we experience and the way we are going to act.  Not always do we think well about it, not always can we articulate our thoughts about it in anything that resembles a clear manner.  But we do think about it.  Part of what it means to think about things, I would argue, is for our thoughts to make sense (if only to ourselves), to be coherent.  Thoughts are not just random jumbles of information, we do in fact "systematize" them in a certain way.  Again, not trying to argue that we always do this by a particular logic or that we always do this well.  But I would argue that as rational beings we think about the world, and our thoughts form some sort of coherent understanding of the world from which we operate in our first person, subjective experience.

This idea of coherence is, I think, the way from which we escape a complete, nihilistic relativism and what gives rise to the philosophical enterprise.  Here we have to assert another axiom- that we humans are capable of communicating with one another.  That does not imply that communication is always perfect, that misunderstandings do not arise.  Nor does it say anything about the form of that communication, whether or not it follows a particular pattern, etc.  But on a whole, we are able to communicate in a way that is meaningful, in a way that allows the communication to be constructive and to continue.  In this communication, we frequently talk about the world we experience, from our own subjective points of view, and discuss the differences between these points of view.  This communication adds a new layer to our understanding- we now have more input about which we have thoughts that must be worked into our system in some way.  As this process continues, it turns out that coherence becomes more and more rigorous of a standard so that certain ways of thinking about the world become much more favorable than others- we call these  particular systems "schools of thought" or perhaps "worldviews."  Given that we are all subjective, our own understandings will be nuanced, but broadly speaking will fall under the umbrella of some such "school."  We will each hold to our particular system of beliefs because it "makes the most sense to us" from our first person perspective- in other words, it seems the most coherent with our experience of the world.  We may have reasons or arguments for thinking this way and reasons or arguments for thinking another system is not coherent enough.  We now have a full-fledged philosophy.


  1. Part 1:

    I find it interesting that you claim to have the axioms of a "full-fledged philosophy," yet you say nothing about truth. (In fact, I'm pretty sure you don't use the word once in your post.) In my view, this is an extreme shortcoming in any statement of first principles, since you have no way generating truth from them unless truth follows from all or a combination of your axioms. As to this latter idea, I feel like you would be hard-pressed and ultimately dissatisfied with any theory of truth that follows from your premises. For the purpose of simplicity, I will define "truth generation" as "the production of true propositions."

    There is, of course, also the idea that you have no theory of truth in your philosophy. This would be very strange for a Christian who believes that philosophy has a role in the life of faith (as you do), so I assume that you don't.

    Let us restate your axioms. Your first one, I believe, is just stated incorrectly. Rather than maintaining that "people are subjective," I believe you more precisely believe that "people experience the world subjectively." Admittedly, this forces you to take a harder stance on what you believe follows from Kant's theory about the external world (which you cryptically remark as 'existing objectively in a certain way'), since with my correction you are now firmly committed to the existence of the external world that is constituted such that there are true and false propositions about it. You probably believed this the whole time, but for the purpose of clarity, I hope you indulge this more precise restatement.

    Your second axiom is "people are rational." At first glance, it would seem that you need more conditions to gain sufficiency than defining rationality merely as "thinking," unless of course you have a very complex theory of thinking. If you do, I have no idea where you're going, since I think it's completely reasonable to believe that walruses and polar bears "think." I think you get closer to what rationality is by qualifying humans' thinking process as a systematic process, but you don't go into depth about this at all. Furthermore, with your wondrous list of qualifications ("we don't always do this," and "we don't always do this well), it could very well be the case that your set of rational beings is an empty set (i.e., there may be rational beings, but no species on earth is such that it contains rational beings). You believe you avoid this objection by saying that "as rational beings we think about the world, and our thoughts form some sort of coherent understanding of the world from which we operate in our first person, subjective experience," but then again, I don't know why this statement is not also true of walruses and polar bears.

    Your pride and glory is the third axiom: humans are capable of communicating with one another. I'm not sure if this axiom gives you the traction that you want out of it, but I will explain why I think this very soon. For now, however, you want your reader to take away the idea that communication increases our understandings about "the world we experience" that is at once "constructive" and capable of allowing future instances of communication (or, at least this is what I think you mean by the word 'continue.'). Let's assume I know what these terms mean.

    Therefore, you have three axioms:
    (a) people experience the world subjectively.
    (b) people are rational.
    (c) people communicate with each other.

  2. Part 2:

    I believe I can illustrate my objection to any "full-fledged" philosophy founded on (a-c) through the following sample conversation:

    Happy: I just bought a hotel on my Park Avenue property.
    Sad: Man, buying that hotel is going to make me bankrupt, I'm going to go out of business!
    Happy: That's not my problem, you should have bought more property so that you could generate some income.
    Sad: I just didn't have the luck!

    From the preceding conversation, I think (a) and (b) can be uncontroversially attributed to Happy and Sad. After all, each of them is experiencing the world subjectively (as it seems), and they seem to be thinking in a way that would be rational. Even (c) follows quite nicely, as we certainly have communication between Happy and Sad that seems to me to be both constructive and serving as a basis for future conversation (perhaps Sad will try to make a deal with Happy to improve his financial condition). The interesting feature about this conversation, however, is that they're not actually talking about the real world. In fact, they're only talking about the game monopoly, a game that creates a world that doesn't exist.

    This is what I think is the unfortunate consequence of your axioms as they are currently stated: your axioms are true whether or not an external world exists. Stated even more strikingly, your axioms are agnostic towards any argument for or against the existence of the external world. Unfortunately, your axioms don't even allow me to prove that my beloved walruses and polar bears exist.

    Now you and other readers might be tempted to say, "Craig, you're being silly. Of course I believe that I'm viewing a computer screen, and any normal person would believe (notice that if i said 'rational' person here, I would be begging the question)." But let me just grant that the computer screen exists. If, however, I believe that truth is a part of the external world (i.e., truth actually exists), your axioms give me no way to prove it.

    Perhaps you would like to maintain that the idea of coherence establishes in some way the existence of the external world. I would have to disagree with you there. For its part, coherence does little more for me than generate validity. For example, Happy and Sad can have an entirely coherent conversation, and build an amazingly complex world that nevertheless does not exist. As we say in the philosophical world, validity is cheap.

    Therefore, axioms (a-c) are agnostic towards truth (i.e., any member of the set of all true beliefs), since I do not believe you can generate truth from any combination of axioms (a-c).

    The only other rejoinder I can here imagine is your saying that truth somehow follows from (b), through some positing of a relationship between truth and rationality. It would be interesting to see how you would formulate this, since if you said, for instance, that "by being rational, human beings can recognize the truth," (which I think is the best candidate) you still have to deal with the null set objection.

    In sum, then, I could only imagine these axioms composing a "full-fledged philosophy" if you were going to give up being able to prove true propositions. This, I think, too quickly sells the farm to post-modernism. It is, moreover, my humble opinion that if post-modernism is buying, then philosophers and, even more importantly, Christians, should not be selling.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Craig! Not answering your questions in exactly the order they came, but I think you'll be able to follow.

    First, excuse the imprecision and the qualifications. Trying to avoid using too much jargon. I think I agree with your restatement of my first axiom. And I'll be interested to see where you are going with the comments on the third axiom.

    Second, I'm not sure the comment about walruses and polar bears hurts me at all. I am not making the claim that human beings are the only creatures capable of thinking. I am just restricting the discussion to human beings because I am one and I assume my readers are as well. We might claim that as far as our experience suggests the human systematic understanding of the world is far more sophisticated than a polar bears, but I see no reason for needing to deny that polar bears can have an understanding of the world.

    Finally, the key objection here seems to pertain to the nature of truth. That is probably worthy of another blog post, but to give a short version... Truth is intentionally not mentioned. The reason is because the first axiom and the typical view of truth as objective reality seem to clash. So I have a few options concerning truth: I can redefine truth as coherence. I'm not especially fond of that one, as important as I think coherence is to our forming an understanding of the world. I could limit truth to existing purely on the level of our experience- only my physical experiences of the world can be called "true." But then we can't have metaphysical truths. That's a bit less than satisfying as a philosopher. Or I can make use of the "Kantian divide" and say that "objective truth" exists in the world that I don't have access to. I can't really know truth definitively, I can only theorize about what is true and try to come up with the best theory possible. Generally, that is the avenue I find most compelling... but that may need to be worked out more.

  4. Didn't see the part two when I started writing my response earlier. Just a couple of thoughts to add:

    I think the game example is a bit of a straw-man. Many critiques of a coherence type model like the one I have outlined follow that basic pattern. The problem is they assume a high degree of simplicity (for the sake of making an argument) that I don't think is actually true to our experience. Even in the course of a simple conversation, we process lots of other propositions, which if we tried to list would reveal a massively complicated web of beliefs that we must somehow coherently fit together. That complexity, interestingly, is what I would consider one of the safeguards of this model against Post-Modernism. My critique of Post-Modernism is that while they take the first axiom they stop there and say "and since we are all subjective, anything goes." My second axiom, which introduces the idea of coherence, I think guards against that. If we are trying to make sense of the world coherently, the sheer complexity of our belief systems will ensure that not anything can go. Adding the layer of communication makes this even more the case.

    On the flip side, my critique of much Enlightenment and Analytic philosophy would be that they do not give the first axiom its due. There is an attempt made to exit ourselves, to describe the world objectively and thus discover "truth." I'm starting off by saying that I don't think this is possible.

    That doesn't mean that there are not beliefs we would consider essential or immovable. These axioms are methodological, they don't give us much metaphysical content- I don't get from this much about what I believe in. But we can quickly produce some beliefs that, if denied, would make it impossible for us to have a coherent view of the world. The belief in the external world is one I would list. The law of non-contradiction. If we follow Plantinga's argument, the existence of God could possibly be added to the list. What I am claiming is that we cannot objectively prove or know such beliefs to be true. However, denying them makes it impossible for the world to make sense. So, we assume their truthfulness for the sake of coherence, they form something akin to a "foundational belief."


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