next up previous contents
Next: You Are Your Axioms: Up: Axioms as the Basis Previous: Axioms   Contents

Philosophy is Bullshit: David Hume

Much of the prose so colorfully presented above is not terribly idea-original. The perceptive reader will observe that I've read and been influenced by many philosophers and thinkers of years past. Yes, I've digested my Plato, barfed up my Aristotle, danced with Descartes, listened to falling trees in the forest with Berkeley and God together, been smacked by Johnson, laughed hysterically at the Germans, nodded thoughtfully at the Vedas and some aspects of Bhuddism, Taoism, and Zen, and wept quietly as Philosophy attempted to pretend that the greatest philopher, the seal of the philosophers as Mohammed is supposedly the seal of the prophets, never wrote the essays that destroyed the fundamental basis of philosophy as it was known up to that time.

I refer, of course, to David Hume.

Now, if you've studied philosophy, you'll know who Hume is and what he did. If you are a professional philosopher who (like Harlie) relies on having a few fundamentally unanswerable pseudoquestions around to work on for a meager living (in which case, my dear fellow snake-oil salesman, you have my deepest sympathies, based on my own long, pecuniarily impoverished experience working a crowd) then you'll know what he did and you'll be secretly hoping that nobody else does, especially your employers.

The rest of you, listen up now. Hmmm, historical context and punch line, or punch line and then historical context. Let's try the latter:

David Hume is the philosopher best known for proving, beyond any possible doubt, that Philosophy is Bullshit.

To be more explicit and precise (although I do love a nice, pithy, colorful phrase:-) he proved mathematically that most of the questions asked by philosophers from the very beginning simply couldn't be answered, if by an ``answer'' you meant that you wanted something that could be proven using the methodologies of logic, mathematics, and pure reason. If you like, he deduced that our knowledge of reality is based on two things:

As we have taken such pains to assert, axioms are not self-evident truths, they are fundamentally unprovable assumptions. That is, personal opinions. That is, hot air, moonshine, speech out of your nether regions, bullshit. We know what we are experiencing right now and every thing else is inferred. I have no problem at all with the inferences - my axioms allow, nay, require them. Hume was less easy - it bothered him to ``know'' so little even as he (like us all) went about his quotidian existence as if he knew much more.

Now, much as we all like to argue about whose axioms are ``right'' or ``good'' or ``bad'', the sad truth is that reason cannot provide us with any answer to these pseudoquestions. Axioms cannot be ``proven'' in a deductive sense without more axioms of the worst self-referential sort, such as

The Fundamental Axioms of Religion:

  1. These Axioms are True. This is the Prime Axiom of the axiom sets of all religions, and of course always a handy one to have if you wish to be able to derive the truth of your beliefs (ooo, oxymoron city) from your principle axioms:-).

  2. God exists, is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibeneficient.

  3. God has kindly revealed by various prophetic means this set of Axioms, which are axiomatically True (see Axiom 1), Complete (omniscient), Mandatory (omnipotent), and Good (omnibeneficient).

  4. All other (possibly competing) sets of Axioms are False, except maybe ones that are later revealed by God, presuming that we don't have as an Axiom the following Axiom:

  5. These Axioms are Complete. (Seal of the Prophets, anyone? Mohammed should have had a talk with Thomas Jefferson, see below.)

  6. Anyone who fails to accept these Axioms as Their Axioms in their deepest heart of hearts is a Bad Person, and this will be known by the omniscient God, who will then omnipotently cast you into an eternity of Eternal Torment out of the goodness of His (emphasis intentional on masculine humanthropomorphism) omnibeneficient heart at some unspecified point after your miserable death.

  7. Now, let's get down to important things, like titheing the priesthood, how to pray and where, and just how infallible the priesthood really is when conveying divinely inspired interpretations of these Axioms to the less Holy...

Add whatever you like, and it is provably true, see Prime Axiom. Handy ones to add promise Eternal Bliss to those who adopt the Axioms without question (the only way they or any other set of axioms can be adopted, of course) to completement the axiom of Eternal Torment to those who question the slightest one, especially the Prime Axiom2.

Hmmm, sound familiar? There is a good reason for this being a popular and successful formula; it will be explored in the next section. In the meantime, there is no point in arguing about whether or not this Axiom set it better, worse, or just as good as any other. As Hume pointed out, these are all axioms. So the only way to prove them is by means of Axiom Three. As Gödel pointed out, self-referential sets of axioms lead to horrendous problems with logical consistency, so don't be horribly surprised if adopting any axiom set with Axiom Three in it eventually gets you into logical trouble, but I'm sure that it won't be anything that burning out in a puff of smoke won't cure...

Where did such a momentous conclusion come from? Why has it been so resoundingly ignored? Why even today is it not being taught, and why are all sorts of axioms in mathematics, philosophy, physical law and science, and religion still being presented as ``self evident truth'' almost three hundred years after we first knew better?

Sigh. Time for a bit of a history lesson.

We will begin at the very beginning, with some sort of ape-like being looking up at the night sky and being momentarily curious about what all the pretty lights are. Obviously, we're going to use my historical and scientific axioms in this discussion or perhaps I would have started in the Garden of Eden. Skip ahead a million years or so, and the descendants of this being have moved on to a limited bit of survival oriented inductive reasoning. Fire burns, every time. Rocks fall, every time. Food fills up a hungry belly. Knowing what happens turns out to have survival value. The most information-theoretically efficient way to determine what will happen in any given case is to inductively extract rules from experience and reason from the rules. If every fire were unique to us, we'd get burned every time because there really is no reason for this fire to burn just because that one did, no reason for us to fall of this cliff and get hurt just because we've observed falling, pain, and cliffs enough to make the association.

Once we invented reasons, once we were able to articulate why anything happens and used it to predict (as it were) the future of then's now, we were philosophically sunk. We rapidly invented causes for everything to help codify the rules we needed to learn because if we and our children didn't we or they would die, often horribly.

Memory is a key to associative and inductive reasoning, especially memory that produces a sense of temporal continuity. With memory comes a sense of loss. We learned to miss the dead; we learned the pain that comes with memory from the memory of pain. This, in turn, led us to seek a why for death, for loss, for pain, as much as a why for fire, for food, for the stars in the sky. The most successful learners of the why rules, the most successful inventors of new rules that worked, became the founders of new cultures, and their offspring survived to breed again. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Skip ahead to the beginning of written history, and we see a well-developed and rich codification of nature and answers to nearly any why question, including those that have no answers. Note well that even where we couldn't understand any reason for things we had long since adopted as an axiom that they had a reason - humans who did not ``believe'' in reason simply did not survive. We invented God (in all singular and plural manifestations) as a catch-all reason underlying all reasons, an explanation for all that we could not explain. Never satifsied, though, we sought explanations for God, for why things are this way instead of some other.

Thus things stood, with remarkably little change or real variation throughout many widely separated global cultures, until the last millenium. Then several things happened that fundamentally altered how we think of things, how we learn things, how we know things. In no particular order:

Again we jump over the many idiots and fools who pretended at philosophy and wrote so much utter nonsense that only a true masochist would ever dream of studying it and focus in on the three who matter (in the West): Descartes, Berkeley, and Hume. The order only moderately matters - we need to keep Descartes earlier than Hume; Berkeley can go whereever you like.

René Descartes was the supreme rationalist. Rationalism was the utter acceptance of the axioms, written and unwritten, that were the basis of the ragingly successful scientific revolution. Descartes was a superb mathematician and geometer, and wished to derive the true nature of being using pure reason. At the time, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to attempt because (as noted above) mathematics was proving to be the language in which God wrote the Universe itself, metaphorically speaking - every ``why'' answer discovered under the sun (including the orbits of the planets and Sun itself) was turning out to be rationally understandable, filled with geometry and calculus sublime, ruled by inexorable law. Humans dreamed of finally Figuring Everything Out with their newfound rationalist tools and toys.

So Descartes tried to figure out what he ``knew'', as he knew that he needed axioms from which to proceed in his reasoning process. The axioms he sought and adopted were very much of the ``self-evident truth'' variety, because he wanted his conclusions to be as well-founded logically as those of Euclid - he wanted a veritable geometry of Being, including a theorem of Deity (as he was a profoundly religious man3).

So he proceeded to figure out what he could doubt. If something was dubious or doubtful, it couldn't be an axiom, right? When we was done, what was left would become the axioms of his rational system.

Descartes rapidly realized that when you got right down to it, there was damn-all that one couldn't doubt when one tried hard enough. Can I doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow? Certainly! Maybe it will, and maybe it won't, we can know nothing of what hasn't happened yet. Can I doubt that I ate lamb for dinner last night? To be sure, everyone knows that human memory is fallible. Perhaps I ingested large quantities of hallucinogenic drugs last night and just fantasized that I ate lamb for dinner. Perhaps an Evil Fiend hypnotized me into believing that I ate a dinner of lamb. Perhaps I was rendered unconscious in my sleep for a day, and I actually ate lamb two nights ago but haven't figured it out yet. Perhaps what I ate was mutton, dressed up like lamb.

And so it goes. Can I doubt what I am seeing? Surely. Again, hallucinogens, particularly vivid dreams. Look at Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, moseying along thinking in perfectly good faith that he was a computer programmer living and working in a clean, urban world, only to wake up and discover that he was only a power unit in the Matrix. That which I see can be imagined, that which I hear can be projected, that which I feel or touch can be simulated. The external reality that I believe these sensory impressions correspond to could be real, or they could all be some sort of metaphorical Matrix. They could even be both!

The past is thus uniformly dubitable - perhaps I was created moments ago with memories of the past intact, could I tell? No. The future is dubitable as I haven't even the continuity of memory to help me with that which has not yet happened. Most of the present is dubitable, because I know it only via my senses and they are not trustworthy.

The one thing that I know, that I cannot doubt, is that I exist. I cannot doubt my own existence unless I exist. To think, to doubt, even to dream is to exist. Cogito, ergo Sum. And so it was, I imagine, with Descartes.

Descartes now had his one irrefutable truth, his Axiom, and proceeded to try to derive Everything from it. For a good mathematician, he botched the job horribly.

His reasoning went as follows: I exist. My existence must have a cause. My existence cannot be its own cause because it just isn't up to snuff - my awareness seems to wax and wane with sleeping and waking, I have been unconscious altogether, my existence seems altogether ephemeral and insubstantial when viewed as a self-sufficient cause, so I must have a cause ``greater'' than myself. Hmm, cannot be anything in the world I see (historical evidence to the contrary, sorry Mom... you're just dubitable) as it isn't any better than I am, assuming that it is there at all. Even if my cause really IS something my mother and my father did one night long ago, they needed a cause, and that cause needed a cause, each cause greater than the one before. The whole world would need a cause. The whole Universe would need a cause. Must be something greater than me and the whole existing Universe too (if it exists, of course, which I find dubitable)!

I know, let's call this Greatest Cause a Guardian, oops, no, I meant God. As the Greatest Cause it clearly must be perfect and good and everything like that. Surely it wouldn't cause me to exist but fake me out with a non-existent Matrix. So the world I see is real, it exists too! Hooray! My memories must be real! I've just proved the logical necessity of God and All Creation from just one itty bitty Axiom (in the self-evident truth sense), the indubitability of my own existance!

Ain't I cool...

Not. Descartes made mistakes by the fistful. Before addressing them, though, we need to turn to our friend Bishop Berkeley.

Descartes wasn't the only being interested in determining the true Nature of Being using pure (well, reasonably pure) reason. There was an ongoing debate over whether the Universe was, in fact, made up of matter and governed by immutable, impersonal, mathematical, physical law (which leads us to a deterministic Universe, in which Natural Law leaves no room whatsoever for Free Will) or whether there was any alternative that allowed man to have free will.

The Catholic Church was highly interested in this question, because if we don't have free will then we can hardly be blamed for sinning, can we? In the words of Jessica Rabbit: ``I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way.'' If I decide to worship Satan and commit any number of Diabolically horrible crimes against God, Man and Beast during dark rituals on Beltane Eve, I had no choice - I was raised that way, my parents abused me, I had the opportunity and it seemed like fun at the time, they drugged my wine, it was some butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil a million years ago that resulted in the wrong sperm reaching the egg first.

Descartes didn't leave a lot of room for free will. Rationalism and mathematical science wholeheartedly embraced a perfectly deteministic view of physics that persists to this very day. As I type these words and they are electronically recorded on my laptop computer, I have a very deep appreciation for just how deterministic the underlying physics for the entire process really is. Even quantum theory, supposedly a way out for ``free willers'' as it involves probabilities (as if Will is any more free if it involves dice) isn't really deterministic at all when expressed as a single equation of motion for ``everything'' - its stochastic features always arise from interaction of a quantum system with a classical system in an indeterminant state.

Berkeley thought he had the answer. Following pretty much the same reasoning process as Descartes, he decided that Descartes might actually have been mistaken about having a body or a brain at all. The Universe might well be naught but an illusion. It was the act of perception itself that could not be doubted. The Universe consisted of (or existed in, was sustained by, was mathematically supported within) Mind, not matter. Matter is a figment of imagination made real by our perceptions of it. Thus we really are free - even freer than permitted by any degree of physical law.

There were various problems with this ``proof'' as well, of course. Once again there is an eerie resonance between East and West. In Zen, one asks what is the sound of one hand clapping (and then presumably is smote by epiphany, if not a dog, and thereby Enlightened). In the West, the prototypical challenge question for Guru Berkeley is whether or not a tree falling in the forest when there is no one to hear (and no Mind present) makes any sound. According to Berkeley, sure - because God is mind, and is omnipresent!

We'll skip a few zillion lines of mindless argument over both viewpoints and cut to the chase. Along comes Hume. Hume wasn't the geometer that Descartes was, and didn't have any reason to care particularly over whether or not free will was or wasn't possible. He did spend his share of time meditating upon religion and God (who doesn't?) but his most significant contribution to Philosophy has to be his correction of Descartes efforts (and for that matter, those of Berkeley and all subsequent philosophers).

You see, Descartes cheated. He didn't list all of his axioms, and he presumed that axioms were self-evident truths when they were really just silly little fundamentally dubitable assumptions.

Hume had no problem with the first part of Descartes proof. Sure, sure, if we think we must be, if we doubt our own existence we demonstrate it. He didn't view this as an axiom, though, but as an empirical observation, akin to those made in science. And how, then, did science proceed to make physical law and knowledge out of observation?

By means of a process of intuitively guided, mathematically structured induction. We drop a penny a hundred times, and every time it falls according to an identical pattern. We therefore guess that if we drop it a hundred and first time, it will fall according to the same pattern. At some point, after some number of penny droppings, we conclude that there is a reason for the penny to fall, that this reason results in a reproducible, mathematically describable behavior, and that this reason persists and will act in the future as it has act in the past.

Sensible reasoning process? Sure, you bet! Try living without it! However, it is fundamentally flawed in the mathematical sense as it cannot be proven.

After all, why should the past and future be alike? Why should mathematical structure appear in reasons and causes? Most important of all, why should things have causes?

You will note, I hope, that all of these sentences, followed by question marks, are in fact not questions at all. They are pseudoquestions, because the only possible answers are your choice of a cosmic shrug or by making up Axioms in the truest sense - absolutely indefensible, fundamentally unreasonable, intrinsically unprovable statements upon which one intends to base a system of derived knowledge.

Descartes, in particular, had a slew of Axioms hidden up his sleeve when trying to argue for the logical necessity of all things. Let's examine a few.

The first is obvious and glaring. Why should Decartes' existence have a cause. Why should anything? Sure, we can ``see'' causality operating in everything we look at, but that begs the question worse than a dog begging for a lamb-bone dinner, because one cannot prove the axiom by observation. What if it stopped being (apparently) true tomorrow? The only way we'll know if the Universe is causal by observation is by it being causal, everywhere and every way, for all the time of its existence. Causality cannot be proven by pure reason alone, only by observation, and even to inductively conclude that causality holds because of consistent observations of apparently causal events requires some sort of even more basic axiom, perhaps the ``what you see is what you get'' axiom. We might as well combine the two - Descartes did. For all that he claimed to be doubting everything including the evidence of his senses, he certainly didn't doubt that things require causes, which he could only have induced on the basis of a (presumed) lifetime of consistent sensory input.

Yes folks, you heard it right here (although perhaps not first). Causality (including the implicit assumption that there is some sort of object reality being described by it) is a number one A-prime axiom, not provable, not debateable. Maybe it is true and correct, maybe not. Like all axioms, belief is a matter of personal faith and not pure reason. I personally have no problem with this - it is certainly my prime axiom, provable or not, especially when conjoined with my (apparently) ongoing empirical observation of my own existence. Like it or not, we seem to be organized mentally and physically at all levels to believe in causality; it is bred into our very bones as an essential survival feature. We call individuals who behave as if causality is not the prime axiom ``crazy'', for the brief time that they behave that way before we call the ``dead''. Survival aside, causality looks like a decent a basic axiom so far as we can tell. In particular, it is a consistent axiom insofar as the physical laws we inductively extract from its general application to empirical phenomena appear to be consistent and causal.

Temporal continuity is a bit tougher, but it relates to one of the paradoxes of consciousness. We ride a temporal wave of the now, perpetually balanced between a ``past'' we know from a variety of layerings of sensation and memory into a ``future'' we know only by its continued unfolding into the now plus the fact that we can predict the future by a mix of presumed causality and temporal continuity and ordering. To see why both are necessary, consider the ``I and my entire perceived Universe was created n seconds ago with all my memories of a false `past' intact'' problem. Descartes could have been created in the non-persistent state of doubting (as I could have been created in the non-peristent state of writing about him doubting) and even our memories of an apparent causal chain stretching back into the past could be false.

That act of creation might or might not be causal. Perhaps we suddenly ``appear'' as a momentary fragment of apparent order in the chaotic, causeless churn of an infinite, random sea, the output of some sort of cosmic version of a million monkees typing for a million years. Apparent order exists as a subset of randomness, just an increasingly improbable one. I could conceivably ``be'' over some sufficiently short interval (whatever I experience as the now) without having been in the past of being in the future, and my belief otherwise is an axiom, another little bit of fundamentally unprovable faith4.

Finally, consider that bit about a cause being ``greater than'' himself being required as a cause of himself. Piffle. Why not the quality-of-cause-ordinal-neutral (but temporally ordered) answer of Descartes' Mom and Dad as being his ``cause''? Why not the best answer of all, that cosmic shrug, an exasperated parent saying ``because'' to a pseudoquestion that just cannot be rigorously answered? Even physics, largely viewable as a rigorous descendent of Cartesian Rationalism (plus the good old causality and temporal continuity axioms), rejects ordering its causes by ``greater than'' or ``less than'', especially when the ordering being described is a ``metaphysical'' ordering involving some sort of quality of cause.

I'll bet Descartes' Mom had to answer ``because'' all the time when he was growing up. I'll bet he never got it...

Berkeley fares little better, although he also makes fewer bones about using pure reason. Religion has something of an advantage in that it knows that its axioms are (however often absurd and inconsistent) matters of faith. The Universe could be matter sustained by the mind of God, or God could be mind sustained by the Matter of the Universe, or neither, or both at the same time. The very words used to formulate the hypothesis that everything consists of ``Mind'' fairly bristle with axioms written and unwritten.

Obviously Berkeley favors the Fundamental Axioms of Religion outlines in the last section, so we can start by his having God (etc.) as an Axiom. Berkeley doesn't want the Universe to be too causal, though, as that is trouble for Free Will. Also, miracles have to be able to happen, where a miracle is almost by definition an event outside of Natural Law whose cause is God. So God sustains Natural Law by His Will, but can set Natural Law aside for miracles, and further set His Will aside so that you can have Free Will and be responsible for your own actions. Otherwise we end up worse off than Descartes' cat, thrown out the window into Hell itself in spite of having no real choice over your actions, which are all determined by the accidents of your birth, circumstances, biochemistry.

Ultimately it doesn't matter as the hypothesis itself is obviously an axiom in and of its own right. Consistency is a hobgoblin almost universally ignored when considering axiom sets outside of pure natural science (which has a rather rigorous axiom set regarding degree of belief and which sorts of questions are ``questions'' and can reasonably be asked and what sorts are really ``pseudoquestions'', things that tantalize us with their resemblance to questions but cannot ever be answered except by the fiat of an axiom.

The analysis above is not intended to disrespect Descartes or Berkeley - there are lovely and appealing elements to both of their basic ideas. However, both of them failed to list the axioms from which they proceed, and did not attempt to establish agreement on a basic set of axioms before initiating their debates. This is no great shock. Who does? Hardly a philosopher before or since. Why? Because, in most cases, those axioms beg the question being debated with such great passion and fervor, and the real argument is over which axioms you are going to accept.

This argument cannot be resolved by reason. Or perhaps I should amend that - it never is resolved by reason, because the very reasoning process one might use to resolve much of the disagreement is itself based on axioms. The only set of axioms that are applied to the physical world and are laid out with anything approaching rigor or those utilized by the scientific community, by the natural philosophers, who have established an open, easily understood basis for according a proposition concerning observable reality a degree of belief. Curiously, science is intrinsically skeptical and never enshrines its empirically based conclusions with any sort of mantle of logical necessity (the bete noire of ``rationalist'' philosophy).

Alas, humans yearn for certainty, for answers to unanswerable pseudoquestions. The axioms of science, without extension, cannot provide them as they are empirical and there is literally no way to answer them empirically. A voice echoing from the heavens in tones of thunder commanding us to fall on our faces and worship and be afraid might make many fall on their faces, might make many afraid, but would not prove that the voice was that of God. As has been observed by the science fiction community (I believe by Arthur C. Clarke) ``any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic''. History abounds with cases of individuals from ``advanced'' cultures being mistaken for gods. History abounds with cases of individuals claiming divine inspiration for their writings, interpreting ordinary phenomena as ``miracles'' or magic.

Even our own brains seem prewired to generate at best a filtered and selective view of the ``reality'' that we presume surrounds us, and of course there are significant limitations on the resolution and range of our intrinsic sensory apparatus. On drugs, in a variety of states of biochemical imbalance, in a variety of states of physical or genetic injury and resulting dysfunction, we can perceive that which is not there. To our naked eyes, planets are just tiny dots of light (if not indistinguishable blurs). A drop of water that can house a veritable myriad of microscopic creatures that will kill us dead if we drink it appears clear and clean. We can see at most a few tens of miles about us from a high spot - a tiny fraction of this world's surface, which is a tiny, tiny fraction of the Universe's volume. Our hearing cannot hear the deepest rumbles or the highest squeaks. Our senses of taste and smell and touch are limited in both range of sensitivity and above all, physical range (to the immediately contiguous surroundings). And on top of all of this, there are our imaginations, our ability to dream, to obsess, to fantasize, to be hypnotized.

Is it any wonder given that we are so imperfect and limited in our ability to perceive that which is real on the outside, so capable of intricate and detailed auto-generated perceptual deception, that we (both collectively and individually) often generate completely false impressions of the external reality that surrounds us? Is it at all unusual that we generate any number of false axioms to accomodate mistaken impressions, false experiences, the distorted nature of the world as seen through our own personal sensory and cortical filters?

The axioms used by a society themselves form an important component of these filters. It is well known that language shapes thought even as it enables its expression (work by Lee, by Chompsky, by others). Events will inevitably be seen through the filter of those axioms. For example, in time of drought people naturally enough pray for rain. If rain fails to come, it is God's will and the people suffer. If it comes, it is a ``miracle'', and God's response to the prayer. The same events, seen through the axiomatic filters of science might conclude that the drought, and its ending, had to do with El Niño, solar activity cycles, currents in the Pacific, and so forth and was totally natural, inevitable, and utterly unaffected by prayers or the lack thereof both those affected by the drought.

This, by the way, is not intended to endorse either view. They could both be right. They could both be wrong. We cannot tell who is right. All we can do is decide which explanation we choose to believe, based on our own axioms.

The commonality of these axioms in social groups provides the basis of a shared debate, but also hides a tremendous amount of fundamental inconsistency, both within the base axioms used ``on average'' by the group and between specific instances or human understandings of these axioms by group members. One can think of dozens of contradictions in the religious group's axioms in the example above - why should an axiomatically ``good'' God wish to inflict a drought on anybody? Why should prayers alter physical law? How could such an alteration work?

At this point, you should now have a much clearer picture of what you know and don't know, and what raw, naked philosophical reasoning is going to help you know. If, however, one of your axioms is the Axiom of Open Mindedness (see the next section) you have at least a decent chance of overcoming your axiomatic conditioning by your normative social group enough to openly lay your axiom set, whatever it might be, out on a metaphorical table and sort through them all, deciding to keep this, add another thing, and perhaps discard a thing or two as well.

This sort of thoughtful winnowing is a good thing, and not just for the axioms of humans alone. Thomas Jefferson (one of my many intellectual heroes) has a lovely quote up on the wall of his very own monument in Washington, DC:

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Just as institutions need to periodically examine their axiomatic clothing and see if they still ``fit'' them, so do humans. Axioms that fit humans well enough two thousand, or two hundred, years ago may no longer fit today. This is especially true when we realize that in fact all the ``self-evident truths'' of Jefferson, however lovely and inspiring, are all axioms and neither provably true or false, nor self-evident. They are really just assumptions, provisional truths, things we all agree to accept as truths because we cannot prove them.

Why should we examine our axioms if they cannot be proven? How can they every be wrong if they can never be right? Because there are other tests we can and do apply even to the axioms of axiomatic systems.

First of all, an axiom can be wrong, even obviously and horribly wrong, at least if the holder of the axiom isn't a silly jackass. This is one place where philosophers and priests past and present have proven repeatedly to be silly jackasses, of course, so let's be more explict about what I mean by ``wrong'', so there can be no mistake about it.

A single axiom, in isolation, cannot be right or wrong. The problem comes when Mr. Axiom is joined by Wife Axiom, their Cousin Axioms and all their little axiomlets. Then we have all sorts of possibilities for disaster. I can assert as an axiom that things fall up. Why not? It's an arbitrary hypothesis, right? I then release something and it falls down. At this point I can:

  1. Reject my axiom as wrong because it doesn't seem to jibe with observed reality.
  2. Reject my reality as wrong because it is obviously inconsistent with my axiom.
  3. Add more axioms. Things fall up really, but this is a white rabbit and this is a Sunday afternoon and white rabbits can fall down on Sunday afternoons.

We call folks who choose 1) sane, sensible humans, likely well-adjusted and reasonably happy. They are kind to children and pets. We call folks who choose 2) to be dangeous whackos, probably whackos with a very short expected lifetime. We call folks who choose 3) to be Jackasses (with a capital J). We should be even more cruel, because these individuals are often even more dangerous than 2)'s (and often people do both 2) and 3) at the same time. 2)'s are mostly a danger to themselves, not others...

In addition to being consistent or inconsistent, complete or incompulete, axiom sets can be ugly. Folks who take route 3) often end up with hideously ugly axiom sets. You know these people. Everything you find in an argument of theirs that is wrong, well, they've got an explanation for it if they have to make up a new one for each separate item.

It is therefore well worthwhile to periodically revue your personal axioms on an individual basis, and try to winno out inconsistent ones. You may not end up with the world's greatest set of axioms, but you might well end up with a pretty decent, mostly consistent set. Then we could all try sharing the set around to see if we can ever come up with a really consistant, uniform set of axioms for the global community. At that point only, we could think about sitting town to talk.

It is worth spending one last bit of energy presenting an example of the kinds of difficulties inconsistent axioms can lead one into in building a world-view. Most humans alive today pay at least lip service to a belief in the Axioms of causality and temporal continuity. After all, the very word why itself is predicated on the existence of causes that are the answers. Even those that believe in magic believe in magic ritual (a form of influence or cause) and not the dangerous, wild magic of pure, acausal randomness.

How is it, then, that many of those same individuals hold tightly to the Fundamental Axioms of Religion? Tune into the next section to see where - and why - such mixtures of inconsistent beliefs are common as dirt, and what immense amounts of human suffering they cause.

next up previous contents
Next: You Are Your Axioms: Up: Axioms as the Basis Previous: Axioms   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2003-05-13