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The axioms lay the proper foundation for a philosophy. But for any statement or expression, there is almost always someone who disagrees. Axioms are of no exceptions. Of the people who are dismissive of Objectivism, I believe many are especially opposed to the Objectivist axioms.
Since I covered the metaphysical axioms of Objectivism in this series of posts, I’ll take the time to answer a series of actual objections to the axioms of the philosophy, and one objection to the idea of axioms as unprovable, originally answered by Aristotle.
Objection: “Axioms are Empty Tautologies/Truisms”
What, actually, do these axioms tell us? Not very much. At bottom, they are merely pretentious reformulations of several irrelevant truisms. ‘Existence exists’ and ‘A is A’ are mere tautologies. They tell us neither what exists nor what is A. The second axiom asserting the existence of consciousness is simply a vague way of describing the indisputable fact that people are conscious of something. But it fails to specify not only what that something is, but what consciousness is as well.It is these three cognitively empty truisms [The “Existence” and “Consciousness” axioms, and the Law of Identity] which, according to Peikoff, form the starting point and basis of the entire Objectivist philosophy. […] Can anything be constructed from principles that are so destitute of specific empirical content? […] The problem with indefinite principles like the Objectivist axioms is that nearly anything, no matter how contrary to the facts of reality, can be inferred from them. By including everything, they end up saying nothing. As cognitive principles used to interpret the data of reality, they are cognitively worthless. – Greg Nyquist, Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, p. 186.
The Meaning of the Axioms
So that there is no misunderstanding, I’ll state the meaning of the basic axioms that Nyquist mentions.
The Existence axiom states that whatever exists does exist, “existence exists.” The concept of “existence” includes every entity, action, attribute, and relationship. Anything that has existed, exists presently, and will exist in the future. This includes the fact of consciousness and its various states and powers, whether presently known or unknown. The axiom underscores the fact that something exists, something as opposed to nothing.
The Consciousness axiom states that whatever is conscious is conscious. “Consciousness is the faculty of awareness—the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” (Perceiving here means “being aware of,” no matter what the state of consciousness.) The concept of “consciousness” includes every state and process of awareness one experienced, presently experiences, and will ever experience, and includes the faculties that one infers in other living things, past, present, and future. The axiom underscores the fact that whatever exists that you are aware of, you are aware of it.
The Identity axiom or Law of Identity states that a thing is itself, whatever exists is whatever it is, the sum of its attributes or characteristics. The concept of “identity” includes all the same referents as the concept “existence”; the difference in the concepts is of perspective, as “existence” differentiates something from nothing, whereas “identity” differentiates one particular existent from another. The axiom or law underscores the fact that everything is something in particular, as opposed to something not specific (which means that it doesn’t exist).
Objectivism’s Rejection of Cosmology
Nyquist criticizes the axioms for not specifying what exists and what constitutes consciousness. He seems to believe that this is some error or mistake on Objectivism’s part, but I disagree. Ayn Rand was completely opposed to the branch of metaphysics known as “Cosmology.” (Personally, I had never considered the validity of that subject until reading her scathing journal entry remarks about the field.)
In short, her view was that it was impossible for philosophers as philosophers to discover the ultimate properties or nature of reality, or of consciousness. These are not the provinces of philosophy, but of science. Without the instruments and experiments provided by scientists, it is not even possible to determine what the usual objects we deal with are made up of, let alone the underlying structures and things which make up all of existence and all of the faculties of consciousness. (Compare the historical development of the atomic theory of matter with the “Atomist” theory of Epicurus (341–270).)
She regarded all such cosmological arguments of past philosophers as “mystical,” because they were not logical arguments soundly combined with observations, but rather rationalistic deductions from supposed axioms or from what was observed in nature. “Arrested empiricists” was her term for philosophers like Thales and Plato, who took some partial knowledge that they had, and tried to apply it to everything without any proper cognitive warrant. (E.g., Thales’ idea that water was the ultimate substance, or Plato’s idea of the Form of the Good, the Form that gives rise to all the other Forms and thus to the material world as well, since the material objects “participate” or reflect the Ideas/Forms.)
I believe that all cosmological attempts must fail because the people arguing for these underlying elements or properties have no way to properly integrate everything they present without the crucial aid of science. As Rand puts it,
[…]Unless you bring it back to the perceptual level, it’s not knowledge. That is what has to be kept in mind always in speculating about ultimate causes, which have to be discovered by some, at present, unknown means. You still always have to bring it back to your sensory-perceptual level, otherwise it’s not knowledge.
We simply are not equipped philosophically to determine such a question, or even the nature of consciousness. This is the thrust of her comment in one of her journal entries that: “‘Cosmology’ has to be thrown out of philosophy.” It is an unwarranted attempt to explain something that philosophy as such cannot explain. The discoveries of science will simply continue to explode the “discoveries” found by any future cosmologists, just as it has done in the past.
Rather than mystically deducing the “true” nature of reality, Rand proposed as axioms the principles she believed to be self-evident and inescapable, and left the question of the ultimate “stuff” of reality and consciousness to the scientists, where it belongs.
The Functions of the Axioms
While the Objectivist axioms do not serve the purpose that Nyquist wants, they do have important functions for the human mind. I’ll quickly note them and their importance.
Axioms underscore primary facts, providing epistemological guidance.
The axiomatic concepts are converted into formal axioms as a statement. The statements, such as “existence exists” and “a thing is what it is,” are presented as a base and as a reminder; the basic fact is repeated for emphasis.
Emphasizing a basic fact is Objectivism’s way of placing a check on the mind’s entire range of awareness. Due to the fact of volition, we are capable of an error in thinking, or of lying to ourselves, or of believing something that was only imagined. Objectivism also holds that using our conceptual faculty is our means of gaining knowledge and our basic means of survival; it is the means by which we live our lives successfully. Conceptual errors and doubts can thus have disastrous effects on our thinking and lives (and philosophies). The identification and correction of conceptual errors is therefore a crucial need of the mind.
In this function, the axioms act as checks on a mind’s cognitive activities. If a contradiction is reached in one’s thinking or some reasoning contradicts one of the axiomatic concepts that one knows, then one will know that a mistake was made at some point. Essentially, it is the same purpose that Aristotle’s laws of thought serve in formal logic (i.e., The Law of Non-contradiction, the Excluded Middle, and the Law of Identity). (What I mean is that any argument that violates Aristotle’s Laws is unsound.) In this way, they provide epistemological guidance for a conceptual, fallible consciousness.
Axioms preserve the continuity of your thinking and your knowledge.
The human mind is capable of awareness of its own past, present, and projection of the future due to the conceptual level of awareness. The conceptual level of consciousness can thus hold the total of the individual’s experience, “extrospectively, the continuity of existence; introspectively, the continuity of consciousness.” The axiomatic concepts retain their respective fundamental facts independent of any particular moment of awareness. The percepts and concepts a person is aware of can change countless times in a day, but the basic, primary facts always remain the same. Thus, the axiomatic concepts serve as cognitive constants of one’s consciousness: whatever exists that you are conscious of, it will always be the case that something exists, it has an identity, and you are aware of something.
Axioms are the foundation for objectivity.
Objectivity is arguably the most important term in the philosophy of Objectivism (and the reason why it is named as such). It has two interrelated meanings: “Metaphysically, it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic).”
The axioms serve as the foundation for objectivity. Their respective axiomatic concepts explicitly identify existence and consciousness, reality and the awareness of reality, the two basic components of objectivity. Grasping the axioms leads to the idea of metaphysical objectivity, the independence of existence from consciousness (including the nature of any given consciousness): an axiomatic corollary which Objectivism calls the “Primacy of Existence.” This principle in turn provides the basis for epistemological objectivity, in that conceptual knowledge can only be gained by specific means (reason) using specific rules of thinking (logic); a man must adapt his reasoning to the facts of reality in order to know anything about it, not merely conclude whatever he wishes or feels.
This is basically what the axioms mean and some ways in which they are applied in the philosophy of Objectivism. Nyquist demanded more from the axioms in his objection. However, the whole philosophical discipline of cosmology is an ancient mistake that ruins the metaphysical theories of those who incorporate it into their views.
Soon, I’ll answer another objection of Nyquist’s, and give a more complete picture of the structure of the Objectivist Metaphysics in the process.
: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, “Concepts of Consciousness,” p. 37.
: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition, “Properties of the Ultimate Constituents.”
: Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, entry dated: 19 June, 1958.
: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, “Axiomatic Concepts,” p. 57.
: Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Newsletter, Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” dated: Feb. 1965, p. 7