Given RK’s choice to defend the view that knowledge has its basis in the Christian god, he at least seems to recognize that knowledge requires a basis. Unfortunately, his concern is not genuinely for the integrity or objectivity of knowledge, but for safeguarding his god-belief by inserting it into the very foundations of knowledge as such. Make no mistake about it, RK’s concern is not for anchoring knowledge to reality, but rather to assimilate the entire body of human knowledge to Christian theism, as if knowledge could not be possible if Christianity were not true. This is one reason why RK affirms the alleged reality of his god’s existence and its revelation as “two axiomatic, interrelated foundations for my epistemology, and for everything else I encounter through the grid of that epistemology.” Those two “axioms” are:
1) “The Triune God of Scripture – who created the universe and all it contains; who established and even now maintains the laws which govern that creation.”
2) “The self-revelation of that self-existent, self-conscious, self-sufficient, omniscient, omnipotent, all-wise, immutable, eternal, and sovereign God; The Scrptures of the Old and New Testament, are the self-communication of the extent, nature, and specifics of His eternal properties – which are the guarantor of the laws and assumptions which we, as creatures in the image of that God, require to operate rationally and coherently.”
1’) The Infinitune Blarko of Wonder – who created the universe and all it contains; who established and even now maintains the laws which govern that creation.”
2’) The self-revelation of that self-existent, self-conscious, self-sufficient, omniscient, omnipotent, all-wise, immutable, eternal, and sovereign Blarko: The Wonder is the self-communication of the extent, nature, and specifics of Blarko’s eternal properties – which are the guarantor of the laws and assumptions which we, as creatures in the very vision of Blarko, require to operate rationally and coherently.
Yes, I would agree that all this is most arbitrary, which is why, in my blog Probing Mr. Manata’s Poor Understanding of the Axioms, I identified six criteria which a philosophical axiom would need to fulfill in order to be genuinely axiomatic. They are:
It names a perceptually self-evident fact
Its truth is not inferred from prior truths
Its truth is 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
- conceptually irreducible
- perceptually self-evident
- undeniably true
1) Objective: Genuine axioms need to be objective. However, by appealing to the “sensus divinitatus,” RK concedes that his axioms are not objective. Objectivity is intentional conformity to the primacy of existence. In his Rebuttal to RK, Mitch LeBlanc explained why “the Christian worldview has denied the metaphysical primacy of existence,” which means that, as a worldview, Christianity is fundamentally at odds with the very basis of objectivity. RK’s need to appeal to the “sensus divinitatus” confirms this, as my discussion of this alleged faculty in Part I demonstrates. If that which RK identifies as the basis of knowledge is not objective, then his account for knowledge should be rejected, for it can only lead to subjectivism. Since this is what his “two axiomatic, interrelated foundations for epistemology” in fact do, his case for the thesis that the Christian god is the proper basis for knowledge is doomed.
2) Conceptually Irreducible: To qualify as an axiom, a statement must at minimum be conceptually irreducible. Unfortunately, RK’s two proposed “axioms” are, to put it plainly, loaded to the hilt with prior assumptions, sub-assumptions and notions which themselves would need to be defined in terms of prior concepts in order to have any meaning at all. Thus they are not conceptually irreducible. Notice how, in RK’s first “axiom,” he needs to qualify his god as “Triune” (a concept which must be defined in terms of more fundamental concepts) and as belonging to “Scripture” (another concept which must be clarified by reference to prior concepts). RK’s axiom identifying his god also points to achievements in its career (it “created the universe and all it contains,” and “established and even now maintains the laws which govern that creation”), which are specified in his axiom. These notions are not themselves axiomatic in nature, since they are not conceptually irreducible notions. To have meaning, they need to be defined in terms of more fundamental concepts.
Similarly in RK’s second “axiom,” the notion of “revelation” is not a conceptually reducible idea. It must be defined in terms of prior concepts. The abundant verbiage of RK’s second “axiom” by itself indicates how much qualification is required to specify what it is supposedly identifying, which only tells us that it cannot be conceptually irreducible. Notions like “self-revelation,” “self-existent,” ‘self-conscious,” “self-sufficient,” “omniscient,” “omnipotent,” “all-wise,” “immutable,” “eternal,” and “sovereign,” are not conceptually irreducible ideas, and this we can know because they need to be clarified by definitions which make use of prior concepts.
All of RK’s qualifications, which are rampant throughout the content of his proposed “axioms,” can only invite further elaboration, because they contain a vast assortment of underlying presuppositions, which only means that they are not and cannot be conceptually irreducible. According to RK, even the notion “God” has a definition. This becomes evident in his defense against the proposal that his supernatural object of worship might be deceiving him, a question which LeBlanc raises in the cross-interrogation session of the debate. RK rejects this proposal on the basis that it “redefines” the Christian god. You cannot “redefine” something unless it is already supposed to have a definition in the first place (even though definitions pertain to concepts, and from what I understand “God” is supposed to be a supernatural being, not a concept). Genuinely axiomatic concepts are in fact conceptually irreducible in that their definitions are not in terms of prior concepts, but ostensive in nature, i.e., by pointing to something and saying “that’s what I mean.” The definition of the notion of a god cannot be ostensive since gods are supposed to be imperceptible. You cannot indicate something that you cannot perceive by pointing to it.
3) Perceptually Self-Evident: An axiom identifies a fact which is perceptually self-evident. But the final point in the discussion of the previous point indicates that RK’s “axioms” fail to meet even this qualification. RK’s “axioms” do not identify anything that is perceptually self-evident. Christians are always reminding us that their god is immaterial, non-physical, supernatural, invisible, beyond the reach of man’s senses. RK indicates no differently. We do not see RK’s god, we do not hear it, touch it, taste it, and thank goodness we do not smell it. If it were the case that RK did think his god were accessible to our sense organs, he would not need to make appeals to the so-called “sensus divinitatus,” which he describes as an “internal ‘sense’” through which he claims (along with everyone else) to have awareness of his god somehow. In fact, however, even though he claims to be in possession of this mystical faculty through which he receives transmissions from the divine, RK acknowledges that he really gets his information about his god from a storybook. In a response to a question from LeBlanc, RK stated:
Scripture states that God is good, that He is Almighty, that He is a God of order, not confusion, and that He knows even the thoughts of men (as well as the entirety of His creation) when He “knows all things”. The Created order attests to these things as well, in a lesser, and more inferential way.
4) Undeniably True: The truth of an axiom must be undeniable. Specifically, it should be obvious that the truth of an axiom must obtain in order for one to deny it, dispute it, evade it, or simply wish it were otherwise. Thus, to deny an axiom (a real axiom) results in immediate contradiction. There’s certainly no obvious contradiction between having knowledge of the world and denying the existence of RK’s god. There is no obvious contradiction between having awareness of objects which exist in the world and concluding that god-belief (including RK’s) is irrational. In fact, in order to “know” RK’s god, we need to imagine it behind everything we know about the world – as Van Til puts it:
Looking about me I see both order and disorder in every dimension of life. But I look at both of them in the light of the Great Orderer Who is back of them. (Why I Believe in God, emphasis added)
5) Universal: To qualify as an axiom, a statement must, in addition to the above criteria, identify a truth which is universal. To test this, we must ask whether its truth is implicit in all perception and throughout the sum of our knowledge. Rk’s “axioms” are not implicit in all perception and throughout our knowledge. When we perceive a rock, a tree, or a skyscraper, we are not perceiving something which is supernatural, infinite, non-physical, transcendent, etc. When we identify these objects and integrate them into the sum of our knowledge, there is nothing implicitly supernatural, infinite, non-physical or transcendent about them. Even if RK wanted to claim that we can infer an origin to these objects which is allegedly supernatural, infinite, non-physical or transcendent, this would not make his proposed axioms universal in their scope of reference. RK’s god and its revelation, to which his proposed axioms refer, could at best be specific things, and consequently statements denoting their alleged reality could at best be considered specific truths - i.e., truths pertaining to specific things, not truths which pertain universally, i.e., which apply to everything which exists.
Curiously, Greg Bahnsen affirms that specific “truths” such as RK proposes in his “axioms” are philosophically insufficient to render one’s experience intelligible. He writes:
if one does not begin with some such general truths (universal) with which to understand the particular observations in one’s experience, those factual particulars would be unrelated and uninterpretable – i.e., “brute.” (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, p. 38n.10)
By affirming the statements he proposes as “axioms,” RK undermines the credibility of the position he seeks to defend with respect to identifying the proper basis of knowledge. His proposed “axioms” fail to meet each of the requirements of a legitimate axiom, and thus prove insufficient to serve as the basis of knowledge.
It must be borne in mind that the task of axioms is to anchor all of one’s knowledge to reality. RK and other presuppositionalists speak of “grounding” knowledge. But grounding it to what? They will say that their worldview’s foundations ground knowledge to “Truth. But it cannot do this reliably if their worldview blurs the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination. Moroever, their foundations are to be rejected if they depend on confusing the imaginary with reality, as we have seen.
The opposite of anchoring knowledge to reality is allowing the mind to detach its contents from what is real and consequently confusing the arbitrary with the real, thus treating the arbitrary as a substitute for the real. The Christian worldview invites such confusion by failing to address the question of the proper relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects. By failing to address this question, a question which pertains to the most fundamental relationship in all philosophy, a relationship which is present in all philosophical inquiry, the Christian worldview fails to equip its adherents with the cognitive equipment needed for identifying the very basic distinction between the real and the imaginary. Consequently, by blurring this fundamental distinction, the believer is philosophically disabled when it comes to the task of discriminating the imaginary from the real, the subjective from the objective, the arbitrary from the factual.
The Objectivist Axioms
To correct this misuse of one’s own mind, an individual needs to grasp the distinction between the activity of his consciousness and the objects of his consciousness explicitly. The Objectivist axioms of ‘existence’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘identity’ empower a mind to do just this. Moreover, the Objectivist axioms meet each of the criteria identified above.
1. Objective: The Objectivist axioms are objective because they identify facts which obtain independent of anyone’s knowledge, preferences, evasions, imagination, wishes, fits or tantrums. The concept ‘existence’ denotes everything which exists, including everything one perceives as well as the faculty by which he perceives. The units of the concept ‘existence’ exist independent of any individual’s conscious activity. The concept ‘consciousness’ denotes the faculty which perceives, and this faculty exists even if one denies it, prefers that it did not exist, seeks to evade it, imagines that it does not exist, wishes otherwise, etc. To deny, prefer, seek, imagine and wish are all activities of consciousness. So consciousness would be a precondition to these actions. The concept ‘identity’ denotes the nature of anything which exists, including both the subject as well as the objects of consciousness. To exist is to be something, to be something specific, to have identity. A thing (including one’s own consciousness) has identity independent of anyone’s awareness, knowledge, wishes, preferences, imagination, desires, etc. A tree’s nature qua tree does not change even if one wishes it were a fireplace, or imagines that it does not need to be felled in order to be turned into firewood.
2. Conceptually Irreducible: The concepts of ‘existence’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘identity’ are conceptually irreducible. They are not defined in terms of prior concepts. What prior concepts could possibly inform them meaningfully, and to what would those concepts refer? Since concepts are the mind’s means of identifying things which exists, the facts which the axioms of existence, consciousness and identity denote are already implicit in the very act of identifying anything. To identify something genetically presupposes that at least something exists (e.g., a subject and any objects of which it is aware), that one is aware of what he is trying to identify (even if his identification is incorrect), and that the thing which he is trying to identify has an identity which can be identified, i.e., that it is distinct from anything else in his awareness. So any act of consciousness implies the validity of these concepts, and any attempt to define these concepts by means of more fundamental concepts would require that these prior concepts be formed by a conscious process of identifying things which exist. But this would be cognitively redundant.
3. Perceptually Self-evident: The concepts of ‘existence’ and ‘identity’ denote facts which are perceptually self-evident, and the concept ‘consciousness’ denotes the faculty which perceives. The concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts, in that it includes everything that exists. Epistemologically, this begins with the objects which we directly perceive, and in this way the concept ‘existence’ denotes a perceptually self-evident fact. When you see a tree, for instance, you do not need to construct a proof to demonstrate that it actually exists; you see it directly, you are aware of it as an existent through immediate, firsthand means. The concept ‘existence’ includes the tree which you see with your own eyes, as well as all other trees which exist, have existed, and will exist. It is that wide in its scope of reference. Even if the believer claims that his god is a “concrete universal,” as Van Til did in regard to the god he worshipped, he would still have to concede that the concept ‘existence’ is wider than his “concrete universal,” for on his view the concept ‘existence’ would have to include everything distinct from his god as well as his god. Moreover, since there are no degrees of existence (where one thing exists “more” or “less” than something else), since something either exists, or it does not, there is no justification for pitting one kind of existence against another (e.g., “immaterial existence” vs. “material existence,” or “absolute existence” vs. “contingent existence”) at the fundamental level of an axiom. Additionally, since identity is concurrent with existence (to exist is to be something), when we perceive an object, we perceive it as distinct from other objects which we perceive. In this way, the concept ‘identity’ denotes a perceptually self-evident fact. And although we do not perceive our conscious activity with our senses, we are aware of it directly through introspection, and since we need consciousness in order to perceive anything, it comes along for the ride.
4. Undeniably True: The axioms of existence, identity and consciousness are also undeniably true. Specifically, they have to be true in order for one to question them. Leonard Peikoff presents an elegant illustration, in the form of a mock dialogue in which the defender of these axioms assumes for the sake of argument that they are false, in order to show how they are in fact inescapably true and fundamental, even in an attempt to deny their truth:
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.” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 9-10)
5. Universal: Lastly, note that, unlike RK’s proposed axioms, the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness are universal. This should be most evident in the case of the axiom of existence. The concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts in that it includes everything which exists. We do not need to know all the objects which it includes, since conceptual awareness does not require omniscience (in fact, it presupposes non-omniscience). The universality of concepts is their open-endedness, which allows the mind to include new units into their scope of reference as they are discovered. When a child first forms the concept ‘ball’, for instance, he does not know how many balls are in existence, nor does he know all the variations in which balls can come. But as he goes through life and discovers new specimens and types of balls, the concept ‘ball’ allows him to include them as additional units which the concept subsumes. Similarly with the concept ‘existence’: its open-endedness allows us to include every entity, attribute, action, relationship, etc., which we find in our experience. Moreover, since, as we saw above, identity is concurrent with existence, the same applies to the axiom of identity. This is precisely why the traditional formulation of the law of identity is given as: A is A. The symbol “A” can stand for anything in existence; it does not specify anything other than that it exists (or, in the case of hypothetical or fictional referents, that it is conceivable).
While the concept ‘consciousness’ is not as wide a concept as the concept ‘existence’, the axiom of consciousness is universal in the sense that it applies throughout all of one’s thoughts, desires, judgments, inferences, emotions, etc. In short, consciousness is universal to our experience. Every time we see a tree, we are engaged in an activity of consciousness. Every time we listen to speech or music, we are engaged in an activity of consciousness. Whenever we think, we are making use of our consciousness. Every time we introspect, we are adding new units to the concept ‘consciousness’, since what we are focusing our awareness on are new actions of consciousness. It is in this way that the axiom of consciousness is universal.
The upshot is that RK’s axioms do not meet the criteria of objective axioms, and thus fail to meet the task of providing objective grounding for knowledge. Moreoever, RK’s proposed axioms assume the truth of the Objectivist axioms, thus making use of their truth while simultaneously affirming that “every possible foundation for every way of thinking not in accordance with [the Christian god’s] perfect ordinance is utter, absolute folly.” Since RK’s position actually depends on the truth of the Objectivist axioms, one can legitimately note that RK’s position “borrows” from Objectivism, even though RK himself has stated that “any worldview attempting to argue from other than the Christian foundation is, in fact, borrowing from that foundation to do so.” Objectivism does not argue from “the Christian foundation,” or from the assumption of the metaphysical primacy of consciousness which the Christian worldview assumes. So while it can truly be stated that Objectivism does not borrow from Christianity to establish its philosophical foundations, the same cannot be said on behalf of Christianity. The very notion of a god would not be possible without the truth of the Objectivist axioms, but Christianity’s foundations deny the truth of the Objectivist axioms while making use of them. RK charges non-Christian worldviews of the very sin his own worldview commits.
RK’s “axiomatic… foundations” are actually a mask which he dons so that he can avoid identifying what his actual foundations are. His actual foundations are emotional in nature, as the bible itself admits (cf. Proverbs 1:7). RK claims that the foundation of his reason and knowledge is the Christian worldview. But what is the foundation of the Christian worldview? It is not “God exists” or “the Scriptures are the self-revelation of God,” as these are teachings of that worldview. The question I’m asking is: What is the foundation of the Christian worldview? To discover this, we need to understand the orientation between subject and object in the subject-object relationship assumed by the Christian worldview, for the question of the relationship between a subject and its objects is unavoidable throughout philosophy, including especially in epistemology. The fundamental teachings of the Christian worldview tell us what that orientation between subject and object they assume, so long as one knows what to look for.
It is here, in Christianity’s foundations, where we will find, endemic throughout all its teachings, the primacy of consciousness.
For further support on these points, I direct the reader to the following resources:
The Proper Alternative to Christianity
Given the above points, both those identifying the failings of RK’s “axioms” as the proper foundations of knowledge as well those validating the Objectivist axioms as the proper basis for human cognition, I can say that, if I were called to identify the proper basis of knowledge, I would point to the following facts as the necessary preconditions of knowledge:
1) The fact that existence exists: This identifies the realm of objects which inform our knowledge, answering the question: knowledge of what?
2) The fact that consciousness is consciousness of objects: This identifies the faculty of awareness possessed by the knower, providing the meta-answer to the question: How do you know? The subject knows, and what he knows are the objects of his knowledge. Consciousness gives the knowing subject cognitive access to what he can know.
3) The fact existence is identity: This is the baseline recognition by a consciousness that an object is itself, that A is A, not something other than itself.
4) The fact that existence has metaphysical primacy: This is a baseline recognition that an object of consciousness exists as itself independent of conscious activity.
5) The fact that knowledge depends on concept-formation: This is the ability to form concepts on the basis of objects perceived by the subject. The method of how the mind forms concepts is explained by a theory of concepts.
Not surprisingly, RK nowhere identifies these points as the preconditions of knowledge, as the foundations of a rational epistemology. Why? It is true that they are involved whether he acknowledges them or not. So why does he not acknowledge them? And is he aware that what he does identify as his axioms in place of these can only blur his understanding of these facts?
The primacy of consciousness in metaphysics leads to mysticism in epistemology (e.g., faith in revelations), self-sacrifice in ethics (e.g., Christ’s “work” on the cross, where Christ is considered to be the exemplary model of moral perfection), and collectivism in politics (e.g., we are all “servants” – either to a god or to a devil, we do not belong to ourselves, an invisible magic being “owns” each of us). If one follows RK’s “axioms” to their logical conclusions in philosophy, don’t be surprised when you come to these positions.
by Dawson Bethrick