Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Probing Mr. Manata's Poor Understanding of the Axioms

In his 29 September comments to this Christian apologetics blog, amateur Christian apologist Paul Manata of Press the Antithesis has attempted to bring the Objectivist axioms into doubt with a series of questions he prepared. But curiously, even before he presented his questions, he announced his own ignorance on the matter:

First, I don't know what you mean by the axioms.

It is apparently upon this foundation of admitted ignorance that he proceeded to pontificate:

Ultimately, ‘existence exists’ is broken down to saying that only material particulars exist, this surely isn't a self-evident axiom. So, you can't ask if I agree with them since they are very vague and, once subjected to some kind of Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis, they are shown to not stand.

Notice the stupendous ignorance already in need of correction: a properly conceived axiom by definition does not “break down” into prior statements, for those prior statements would need a firm foundation in order be meaningful, and the axioms are the only proper foundation for meaningfulness. Since an axiom is a conceptually irreducible primary, it cannot be "broken down" into more fundamental affirmations. Additionally (and it is surprising that this would need to be pointed out), the axiom ‘existence exists’ and the statement “only material particulars exist” are not identical statements. To say that the axiom ‘existence exists’ can be “broken down to saying” something that is not identical to it, assumes that axioms are not conceptually irreducible, and if Mr. Manata is attempting to critique the Objectivist axioms, this is something that he would have to prove.

As for exclusivity, the only exclusivity of importance implied by the axiom ‘existence exists’ is that only existence exists. The axiom ‘existence exists’ does not “break down to saying that only material particulars exist,” since the clause “only material particulars exist” is not conceptually irreducible, and pointing out the fact that existence exists leaves open the question of the nature of any particular existent that may be discovered. So we have not only an ill-fated attempt to interpret an axiom which in no way necessitates such interpreting (indeed, one should not interpret on the basis of self-admitted ignorance), we observe the fallacy of the stolen concept in action: Mr. Manata is asserting a multi-concept proposition, which is not conceptually irreducible, at the same level of or prior to a foundational axiom, which is conceptually irreducible. Indeed, the statement “only material particulars exist” – whether true or not – already assumes the fact that something exists (namely the particulars that are said to be exclusively material in nature as well as both the subject and object of cognition).

Also, Mr. Manata’s confusion may in fact be due to an errant understanding of ‘self-evident’. Many philosophers have claimed self-evidence for certain of their formulations which in fact are not at all self-evidently true (some have even suggested that invisible things are self-evident - cf. Rom. 1:20), and this trend in philosophy has unfortunately led to pervasive confusion about what it means to say that a truth is self-evident. Unfortunately, Mr. Manata appears to have fallen victim to such confusion.

Another confusion here is the tendency to mistake generality for vagueness. The two are not the same. I can say “all birds are biological organisms”; this statement is a generalization, but it is not in any way vague. The concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts (it includes reference to anything and everything that exists, whether observed or postulated), but this does not lead to vagueness. To say that the concept 'existence' is vague suggests an inability to discriminate between the real and the unreal. If someone says that birds exist, who would find this vague? Mr. Manata and other theists insist that their god exists, and yet they do not seem to be troubled by any vagueness here. Indeed, the concept ‘vague’ is an abstraction which assumes the validity of a whole chain of prior concepts which ultimately stand on the truth of the axioms. So again, one must assume the truth of the axiom in order to make such statements, which again is evidence of yet another stolen concept.

Mr. Manata then suggests that axioms, when “subjected to some kind of Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis,” can be “shown not to stand.” Here Mr. Manata would be wise to check his premises, indeed, his own foundations. For here he is seeking to discredit a conceptually irreducible foundational statement by using a massive abstract system whose own foundations lie in the darkness of obscurity and which ultimately assume the primacy of consciousness (i.e., a view of reality that essentially denies the axioms). This tactic thus amounts to question-begging. All the while, the truth of the axiom ‘existence exists’ must be the case in order for Mr. Manata to utter any statements to begin with. If there were no existence, there would be no Mr. Manata and no "Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis" to deepen his confusion. But ironically, Mr. Manata’s very own existence and efforts to destroy rival views merely confirm the Objectivist axioms. So again, we have a jumble of stolen concepts choking a confused mind unable to find his way among the concepts he attempts to apply but which turn out to be too big for him to handle effectively.

Then Mr. Manata stated,
Anyway, resprting to axioms is basically foundationalism.
For one who seems to think himself competent in the ways of “some sort of Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis,” Mr. Manata could make a better effort to clarify what he is trying to say. The series of letters “resprting” does not show up in my dictionary. Perhaps he meant to write “resorting”? Let’s add this correction and see if his statement starts to make any sense:
Anyway, resorting to axioms is basically foundationalism.
Now this is at least a little more coherent, but unfortunately not much more. Mr. Manata does not make himself clear for he does not make his position on the matter explicit, but it appears that he is attempting to use the term ‘foundationalism’ to connote a derogatory position. Foundationalism in philosophy has been contrasted with such notions as ‘contextualism’ and relativism. Perhaps there are other positions against which foundationalism is asserted. But until Mr. Manata isolates his view on this matter and explains a) how “[resorting] to axioms is basically foundationalism” and b) what in tarnation might be wrong with foundationalism as he understands it, this statement, if correctly interpreted from his sloppy writing, appears to have been written with the intention to inflame rather than inform.

Mr. Manata then proceeded to itemize his criticisms, which I will address in the order in which they were given. But before proceeding, I want to point out that, as Leonard Peikoff notes in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (p. 11), “no argument can coerce a person who chooses to evade” the axioms, and even if I thought this were possible, I would not seek to coerce anyone, even Mr. Manata himself. He is free to evade all he wishes. With that said, I will now go on to interact with his questions and criticisms.

i. If only beliefs that are perceptually self-evident serve as appropriate axioms, then what is the epistemic staus of this belief itself: that only beliefs which are perceptually self-evident can serve as axioms (or, basic beliefs)? Is this belief itself perceptually self-evident. No. So Burner's criteria runs afpul of its own standards. [sic]

This argument, to the extent that it can be taken as an argument, simply misconstrues the position it is attempting to critique. A worldview founded on objective axioms has no need to make the claim that all statements (even those pertaining to the nature of axioms) are axiomatic. The epistemic status of higher level statements is certainly not axiomatic (for they are not conceptually irreducible), and affirming that certain fundamental truths are axiomatic in no way commits one to the claim that higher abstractions and inferences must also be axiomatic. The essence of the issue should be quite easy to understand: we would need to have already formulated the axioms in order to discover their unique nature and understand their special relationship to the rest of one’s knowledge. Statements summarizing the nature of axioms do not themselves have to be perceptually self-evident, and identifying the axioms as such in no way stipulates that statements summarizing what can be discovered about the axioms must also be perceptually self-evident. So there is no internal inconsistency here, no breach of one’s own standards, just a lack of understanding on the part of the critic.

ii. The myth of the given: Sellers argues that this myth consists in thinking that perceptual states such as "this is red," and our powers of sensory discrimination in general, are pure an incorrigable, completely independant of any theoretical contribution or, background beliefs. So, perceptually self-evident claims cannot be foundational since it depends on prior assumptions for its intelligibility. Sellers writes: "For the point is specifically that observational knowledge of any particular fact, e.g., that this is green, presupposes that one knows general facts of the form X is a reliable symptom of Y. And to admit this requires an abandonment of traditional empiricist idea that observational knowledge 'stands on its own feet.'"

Again Mr. Manata’s sloppiness needs to be corrected here. The name is Sellars, not “Sellers,” and the ideas which Mr. Manata is repeating here belong specifically to one Wilfrid S. Sellars. There are several problems with Sellars’ argument (or at least with Mr. Manata’s attempt to present it – though it’s not at all clear what the phrase “pure an incorrigable” [sic] is supposed to mean). But nonetheless the error here presents a good opportunity for clarifying an important point about the Objectivist axioms which is often missed by critics. Specifically, the issue here has to do with reducibility as well as the overlooked distinction between perception and conceptualization. The statement “this is red” is not a perceptual state, but a conceptualized identification based on a perceptual state. According to Objectivism, conceptualization must reduce to the perceptual level if it is to be objective and meaningful (since conceptualization is the result of abstracting ultimately from what is perceived). Also, statements like “this is red” and “that is green” are not conceptually irreducible. To be sure, the statement which Sellars proposes as a template for predication – “X is a reliable symptom of Y” – is certainly not conceptually irreducible. Such statements do stand on prior assumptions, but acknowledging this does not in any way imply that perception is not the pre-conceptual foundation to cognition. Objectivism simply makes those fundamental assumptions explicit by rightly identifying them as axiomatic truths – that is, as truths that would have to be true even for one to deny them. Now, the quote that Mr. Manata cites does not indicate what Sellars would propose in place of the “traditional empiricist idea” in question (let alone what he would propose in place of the Objectivist axioms), but this would be interesting to see. If it is thought that conceptual thought does not reduce to the perceptual level, then to what does it reduce (if to anything), and to what is that thought supposed to pertain (if not to things that we perceive)? Since Mr. Manata does not elaborate on these topics, it's hard to rule out the possibility that they matter not to him.

To be sure, before Rand, there were many misunderstandings that persisted in the realm of philosophy about the nature of perception and its role in the cognitive process. Now, however, we have sound theories of perception and concept-formation which integrate to form an objective basis for rational thought. The axioms are crucial to this objective basis, for they identify what makes it possible. Since consciousness is consciousness of something, statements are statements about something. Similarly, attribution of a property to a thing or a class of things is possible because properties are properties of things, of entities. So statements such as “this is red” and “that is green” do in fact require the axioms; if the axioms were not true, there would be nothing either green or red, and there would be no one around to call them such. To suppose that something other than perception must provide the basis of our knowledge is to say that something other than awareness is the faculty which makes knowledge possible. Thus the absurdity of those who contend against the primacy of perception in cognition is exposed.

iii. The regress is not halted: you must justifiedly believe yourself competent to judge whether a belief possesses those features which make it axiomatic. So accepting a certain claim B as basic requires that he also accept another claim K as basic: that B has whatever features needed to make it axiomatic, and not some alternative, as the proper foundation for knowledge. Thus the regress is not halted.

This statement completely misses the point. In order for a person to judge anything, whether it’s his own competence or a job offer, the Objectivist axioms would have to be true: the person doing the judging would have to exist (there’s one axiom), and he would have to be conscious in order to judge (there’s another axiom). Furthermore, to judge anything presupposes differences which can be discriminated, and there wouldn’t be any differences to discriminate if the axiom of identity were not true (so there's a third axiom). Quite simply, judging oneself competent to do anything is not a precondition for the general truths identified by the axioms: the axioms are true whether one judges himself competent or incompetent. That's because truth is objective - that is, truth is the identification of any actual state of affairs that obtains independent of our wishing, ignorance or denial.

Now we must ask: What is metaphysically more basic to any cognitive process than the subject-object relationship which makes cognition possible? A cognitive process is a process by which a conscious subject perceives, identifies and considers any object. The theist of course will want to posit that a deity is responsible for this. But is not the deity itself supposed to be conscious? Of what is it conscious? So the theist is right back to square one again, while Objectivism secures its position with an objective starting point which theism wants to second-guess as it tries to get away with denying it. What theists overlook is the fact that the Objectivist position would have to be true in order for the theist even to question or dispute that position.
iv. How do axiomatic beliefs support non-axiomatic beliefs?
It’s good that Mr. Manata chooses to bring such questions to non-Christians, for his bible nowhere addresses them. So how do the axioms support non-axiomatic knowledge? The axioms provide higher knowledge with the solid conceptual basis needed for building the entire sum of one’s knowledge in hierarchical structure. The axioms identify in the broadest possible terms the context which makes knowledge possible and important to human life and as such they directly identify the very preconditions of intelligibility.

The issue of the hierarchical structure of knowledge is of key importance to understanding the nature of the relationship between the axioms and the higher abstractions of a worldview. Peikoff makes the following point in this regard:

Human knowledge is not like a village of squat bungalows, with every room huddling down against the earth’s surface. Rather, it is like a city of towering skyscrapers, with the uppermost story of each building resting on the lower ones, and they on still lower, until one reaches the foundation, where the builder started. The foundation supports the whole structure by virtue of being in contact with solid ground. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 130.)

Objectivism can claim certainty for its foundations because those foundations are grounded in the invulnerability of the axioms. To deny the axioms is to deny the reality that gives authority to any truth. In this way such denial is self-refuting. Denial is an action undertaken by a consciousness, and a denial that consists essentially of saying that there is no consciousness is a denial that rules itself out. Similarly, a denial that says there is no existence is a denial that consists essentially of saying the one who's doing the denying does not exist. So denying the axioms does not get someone very far. Indeed, what is he trying to accomplish? Will his denying get him where he wants to go?

v. How does one know what he perceives is the way the world really is? Is there a difference between appearance and reality? Maybe your axioms tell us how we should think in order to be rational, but how do you know your axioms, which are based on perception, marry the world outside you? How does you escape the ego-centric predicament?

It’s unclear what these questions are expected to achieve, if not simply to antagonize. Consider the first question: “How does one know what he perceives is the way the world really is?” Does Mr. Manata truly think it’s possible to perceive things as they are not? Typical examples of what some might call “misperceptions” might include things like so-called ‘optical illusions’, such as a pencil sticking in a glass of water. "The pencil is straight, but look at it when it's dunked in the glass of water! It looks bent! See! The senses can't be accurate!" Well, how did he know that the pencil is straight in the first place? Silly religious fool! He's so quick to discount his own means of knowledge that he doesn't realize that he's discounting his own means of knowledge!

The issue here is not an error in perception. Rather, it is a misidentification of what one perceives. There's a fundamental difference here, since perception is not the same as conceptualization. Of course, we should not expect those who have no native theory of concepts to grasp such distinctions. Rather, it may be the case that such persons are grasping for anything that will open the door to doubts that feed theistic craving.

Perception is not a volitional process. We can focus our perception, and such directing is volitional, but we do not choose to perceive something in place of something that’s really there. We also don't choose how our senses integrate sensory input into perceptions; this is a metaphysical feature of our nature as biological organisms. Mr. Manata seems to be concerned that the axioms might not "marry the outside world." It's not clear what this is meant to say, but apparently the concern is that the axioms have nothing to do with what they're naming. But what is driving this concern? If the axioms are formed on the basis of what we perceive, why wouldn't they have anything to do with what we perceive? Is this a genuine concern on the part of Mr. Manata, or is it just more smoke and mirrors? It's clear that he perceives Objectivism and its axioms to be a threat. And as an apologist for the religious view of the world, he should. What he misses is the fact that his faith-based worldview is no match for a worldview founded on reality and reason.
vi. People disagree about what is perceptually self-evident.
Peikoff deals with this kind of tired, go-nowhere statement very effectively in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (pp. 9-10):

“People disagree about axioms,” we hear. “What is self-evident to one may not be self-evident to another. How then can a man know that his axioms are objectively true? How can he ever be sure he is right?”

This argument starts by accepting the concept of “disagreement,” which it uses to challenge the objectivity of any axioms, including existence, consciousness, and identity. The following condensed dialogue suggests one strategy by which to reveal the argument’s contradictions. The strategy begins with A, the defender of axioms, purporting to reject outright the concept “disagreement.”

A.. “Your objection to the self-evident has no validity. There is no such thing as disagreement. People agree about everything.”
B. “That’s absurd. People disagree constantly, about all kinds of things.”
A. “How can they? There’s nothing to disagree about, no subject matter. After all, nothing exists.”
B. “Nonsense. All kinds of things exist. You know that as well as I do.”
A. “That’s one. You must accept the existence axiom even to utter the term ‘disagreement’. But, to continue, I still claim that disagreement is unreal. How can people disagree, since they are unconscious beings who are unable to hold ideas at all?”
B. “Of course people hold ideas. They are conscious beings – you know that.”
A. “There’s another axiom. But even so, why is disagreement about ideas a problem? Why should it suggest that one or more of the parties is mistaken? Perhaps all of the people who disagree about the very same point are equally, objectively right.”
B. “That’s impossible. If two ideas contradict each other, they can’t both be right. Contradictions can’t exist in reality. After all, things are what they are. A is A.”

Existence, consciousness, identity are presupposed by every statement and by very concept, including that of “disagreement.” (They are presupposed even by invalid concepts, such as “ghost” or “analytic” truth.) In the act of voicing his objection, therefore, the objector has conceded the case. In any act of challenging or denying the three axioms, a man reaffirms them, no matter what the particular content of his challenge. The axioms are invulnerable.

Mr. Manata’s goal in vi. was to bring the axioms into dispute by declaring that people disagree about axioms. But, as Peikoff points out, just by acknowledging that there are people who can disagree about anything, Mr. Manata only succeeds in affirming the truth of the axioms while seeking to deny them. As Peikoff succinctly puts it, "The axioms are invulnerable."
vii. Why trust your axioms? Maybe it's just perceptually self-evident to you.
Having run out of objections which can be groomed to appear substantial, Mr. Manata is now obviously grasping for anything that can be turned into a weapon against the axioms. But as before, he seems oblivious to the fact that he must assume their truth even to dispute them. To say "maybe it's just perceptually self-evident to you" concedes the truth of the axioms: something would have to exist for the terms in such a statement to be meaningful, and someone would have to be conscious in order to utter them. Man has no choice about what is fundamentally true; this much is for certain. Wishing does not make something true (unless of course you’re Geusha ;). The most fundamental choice we have is to think, or to evade thinking. If we choose to think, then we are already affirming the truth of the axioms implicitly, whether we consciously realize it or not. In order to think, we must first exist (there’s the first axiom), we also must be conscious (there’s the second axiom), and our consciousness must have the kind of nature that enables cognitive processing (there’s the third axiom). In fact, in order for thinking even to be an option, the axioms must be true, since thinking, even as a potential, is a conscious activity. And if there were no consciousness (a supposition entailed by any rejection of the axioms), then thinking could not be considered an option (since there would be no consciousness to do the thinking and since consideration of options is a conscious activity as well).

To assert this all a matter of “trust” is to commit the fallacy of the stolen concept: these facts must be true long before we even get to the question of trusting someone or something. Since trust is a conscious activity, the axioms would have to already be true in order for us even to form the concept, let alone probe questions concerning what should or should not be trusted. In sum, the truth of the axioms does not depend on anyone's trust in them. They are true whether we trust them or not, which simply means that trust is irrelevant to their truth. They don't stop being true simply because someone chooses to distrust them.
viii. (If you says you knows that his perception is true for everone) How do you know this, then how do you know what you just said, ad infinitum. That is, how do you escape infintie regress? [sic]
Questions about truth only become an issue when considering statements about things, and even then only if we do so honestly. We do not say that a rock is either true or false, but we can say that a statement about the rock is either true or false. We can say, for instance, that the rock sitting in the garden came from a nearby construction site. This may or may not be true, and such claims are open to investigation. But the rock itself is neither true nor untrue, it simply is.

Now, the concept ‘perception’ refers to an autonomic physical activity of a biological organism. Perception can no more be “wrong” or “untrue” than a heartbeat or digestion. We would not say that hair growth is untrue, would we? Why then would we say that perceiving an object is untrue? Where did the critic of the primacy of perception get the concepts ‘true’ and ‘untrue’? To what do they refer? Indeed, if one is not perceiving something, he’s not conscious, for perception is the means by which biological organisms are conscious. To be conscious is to be conscious of something. If someone says that he is aware of an object but that the body’s perceptual faculty is not involved in making that awareness possible, can he identify the means by which he has this awareness? Perhaps he just has “faith” – that is, he feels it in some non-sensory manner. In other words, he appeals to nonsense.
ix. Just assert me that your view is axiomatic (dogmatism).
To recognize that one’s view is founded on the basis of undeniable axioms is not to declare his view in toto is summarily axiomatic. Axioms provide objective grounding to an entire conceptual hierarchy: while the total architecture of the context of knowledge is supported on the firm basis of axioms, we do not claim that all the concepts and affirmations that inform the entire structure of that hierarchy are axiomatic. Properly formed non-axiomatic abstractions are formed on the basis of the axioms, and ultimately reduce to the axioms as well. For instance, I hold to the view that man has the right to exist for his own sake, i.e., that he does not need to seek permission from anyone, either real or imagined, to live. But I do not declare this view as an axiom. Indeed, Objectivism is extremely careful about what it calls an axiom. An axiom has the following qualities:
It names a perceptually self-evident fact
Its truth not inferred from prior truths
Its truth conceptually irreducible
Its truth is implicit in all perception
Its truth is implicit in all knowledge and any statement
Its truth must be assumed even in denying it
Consider the axiom of existence: the concept ‘existence’ refers generally to anything and everything that exists. We know that things exist because we have awareness of them, and that awareness is possible by means of perceptual integration of sensory input. By saying ‘existence exists’, the Objectivist is simply affirming that there is a reality, for reality is the realm of existence. He does not infer this truth from prior truths, for there could be no truths prior to the fact that there is a reality. To what would those allegedly “prior truths” refer? To something other than reality? To non-reality? The unreal is unreal, so originating claims on the basis of something other than reality could not lead to truth. Thus beginning with non-reality (or non-existence, as religionists do) is futile. Also, the concept ‘existence’ is conceptually irreducible; it is not defined in terms of prior concepts (again, to what would those prior concepts refer if not to things that exist?), but is defined ostensively, that is, by pointing to reality. Moreover, the concept ‘existence’ is implicit in all perception, since perception is perception of something (i.e., of something that exists) by someone (i.e., by a conscious subject which also exists). Likewise, since objective knowledge is grounded ultimately on what is perceived, the concept ‘existence’ is implicit in any knowledge claim, any inference, any generalization, any conclusion, since knowledge is knowledge of something. And lastly, as we saw above, the truth of the existence axiom must be assumed even in an attempt to deny its truth.
x. Or, repeat what you've already said, i.e., that it's perceptually self-evident (circularism).
Repeating a truth does not make that truth “circular,” if by this one means the fallacy of circular reasoning. They are true whether one repeats them or not. Furthermore, as pointed out above, the axioms are not inferred from prior truths; on the contrary, they are the truths on which all other truths stand. The axioms would have to be true for anything else to be true, since the concept ‘truth’ refers to statements which accurately identify some actual state of affairs. That is, statements that are true are statements that accurately identify reality (the realm of existence). So there's no instance of fallacious reasoning undergirding the axioms since they do not derive their truth from prior argument. Indeed, if the axioms were not true, there would be nothing to argue about and no one to assemble any arguments.
xi. How do we learn of these axioms?
By discovering them. As adults this requires the process of conceptual reduction, which involves systematically breaking our concepts down to their most fundamental assumptions, and checking to see if we've hit bottom, so to speak. The truth of the axioms is already implicit in our first perceptual experiences, since the axioms identify what we directly perceive. So long as we are conscious of anything, the axioms are present. In fact, the axioms are implicit in all perception, since perception is the fundamental, pre-conceptual awareness of some object by some conscious subject. Perception is perception of something, so the only validation that the axioms require is the relationship between a knowing subject and the objects it perceives.

But identifying these truths as axioms does require a hierarchy of knowledge which is consistent with those truths and which is enables a serious thinker to consider the question: What is fundamental to the knowledge I know? Unless one introspects honestly on the nature and source of his knowledge, however, it's probable that he will misconstrue the nature of his own mind as he misconstrues the nature and source of knowledge. The result of such misconstrual is religion.

To conclude, we should not miss the fact that the problem for Mr. Manata on this topic is that he does not understand how the human mind forms concepts from perceptions. And he doesn’t understand this because his worldview does not explain how the mind forms concepts to begin with. Essentially, he does not understand the relationship between the conceptual and the perceptual, and how the perceptual holds epistemological primacy over the conceptual. This is going to be extremely difficult for Mr. Manata to grasp because he has chosen to commit himself to a worldview which holds that the subject of consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over its objects rather than the other way around, even though he must assume the very opposite in order to think and act. It is here where the ultimate problem lies: the willful devotion to a position which is ultimately subjective in nature – that is, a view of the world which grants metaphysical primacy to the subject of consciousness over its objects. So long as a mind remains committed to such a distorted and distorting view of the world, he will not be able to deal with these issues honestly.

by Dawson Bethrick

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