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The Presuppositionalist Argument for the Axioms of Objectivism

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Hello again,

I wanted make a thread to discuss my latest post from my blog Active Objectivism

I think this form of argument, known as "presuppositionalism" or a "transcendental argument", is crucial to philosophy, and largely unrecognized and unappreciated.

Ever since Kant it has been fallaciously thought only to prove things about man's own mind or perspective (Kant's so-called "transcendental idealism", aka. the "Copernican revolution"), thus damning the science of metaphysics forever (the "noumena" or "things in themselves" are forever unknowable as we can only see things through our own form of perception). Fortunately I am in good company with Objectivists, who hold a (non-diaphanous) realism about man's perception, in rejecting this Kantian conclusion. Objectivism holds this Kantian view to be self-refuting. Contra Kant, presuppositional argument opens the way to having a philosophy of metaphysics, as Rand and Peikoff demonstrate below.

I believe this form of argument can do far greater mileage yet in metaphysics than Objectivism has drawn out of it so far, by asking ourselves what other metaphysical truths must be the case when any argument for the contrary is inherently self-refuting by undermining the whole basis of argument in the first place. For example, it's not just existence, identity, and consciousness in general which are proven axiomatically and self-evidently by man having a mind in the first place, but more specifically conceptual consciousness, the validity of logic, and free will (see "Volition is Axiomatic" in Peikoff's OPAR)... and some other things as well, I believe.

I originally happened across this form of argument (that is, when being used with this name "presuppositionalism"; I was aware of Peikoff and Rand's arguments prior) when it was used to devastating effect in a debate against a skeptical materialist, who was shown his arguments were unjustifiable even on the premises of his own worldview.

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In the following quote from Leonard Peikoff’s “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”, we see the presuppositionalist argument (or transcendental argument) for proving three axiomatic concepts: existence, identity, and consciousness.

First, he appeals to our common sense perceptual judgments: things exist, things have definite identity, and we are consciously aware of them. We intuitively believe in these axioms because these judgments are implicit in every moment of conscious awareness:

Quote

One knows that the axioms are true, not by inference of any kind, but by sense perception. When one perceives a tomato, for example, there is no evidence that it exists, beyond the fact that one perceives it; there is no evidence that it is something, beyond the fact that one perceives it; and there is no evidence that one is aware, beyond the fact that one is perceiving it. Axioms are perceptual self-evidencies. There is nothing to be said in their behalf except: look at reality.

The above is the validation of the Objectivist axioms. “Validation” I take to be a broader term than “proof”, one that subsumes any process of establishing an idea’s relationship to reality, whether deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, or perceptual self-evidence. In this sense, one can and must validate every item of knowledge, including axioms. The validation of axioms, however, is the simplest of all: sense perception.

- Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, p.8

Then, he proves that these axioms are inescapable – any argument which purports to deny them must concede them:
 

Quote

The three axioms I have been discussing have a built-in protection against all attacks: they must be used and accepted by everyone, including those who attack them and those who attack the concept of the self-evident. Let me illustrate this point by considering a typical charge leveled by opponents of philosophical axioms.

“People disagree about axioms,” we often 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 of “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, and identity are presupposed by every statement and by every concept, including that of “disagreement”. 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.

- Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, p.9-11

This position is not unique to Peikoff; he is faithfully fleshing out the arguments from Ayn Rand:

Quote

“Axioms are… propositions identifying a fundamental, self-evident truth.”

“An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given… on which all proofs and explanations rest

“Since axiomatic concepts refer to facts of reality and are not a matter of “faith” or of man’s arbitrary choice, there is a way to ascertain whether a given concept is axiomatic or not: one ascertains it by observing the fact that an axiomatic concept cannot be escaped, that it is implicit in all knowledge, that it has to be accepted and used even in the process of any attempt to deny it.

- Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, by Ayn Rand

Quote

“You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,” they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

When a savage who has not learned to speak declares that existence must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of non-existence—when he declares that your consciousness must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of unconsciousness—he is asking you to step into a void outside of existence and consciousness to give him proof of both—he is asking you to become a zero gaining knowledge about a zero.

When he declares that an axiom is a matter of arbitrary choice and he doesn’t choose to accept the axiom that he exists, he blanks out the fact that he has accepted it by uttering that sentence, that the only way to reject it is to shut one’s mouth, expound no theories and die.

An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.

- John Galt’s speech, Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Edited by intrinsicist
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I’m not up on terminological arcana, so while I’ve vaguely heard of a “transcendental argument”, I wouldn’t know one if it bit me on the ass. However, the particular logical form that you identify is, IMO, one of the greatest contributions of Objectivism to my own philosophically-based work. It is particularly important in saying what “hierarchical knowledge” is, in rationally structuring knowledge, and I believe that a failure to identify the presuppositions of a concept are a significant source of logical error. There is a recent bit of related discussion here.

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Intrinsicist,

I’d like to suggest that the validity of logic is itself dependent upon these statements and the facts they state: “Existence exists” “Existence is identity” “Consciousness is identification”. Logic is not itself a foundational element coequal with those in level of fundamentality. They are the sufficient conditions for the validity of logic.

A principle for logic, for identification, for right thinking, “a thing is itself and not something else having some other identity” underlies the Law of Identity and the Law of Noncontradiction. The investigative nature of identification, of discovering identities, underwrites the Law of Excluded Middle. Further, the axiom “Existence exists” bounds the domain of Excluded Middle specifically to whatever is some part of Existence, disallowing sensible application of it to Existence as a whole. That is, the axiom “Existence exists” disallows the coherence of: “Either Existence exists or Existence does not exist”. Neither logic nor anything at all gets outside the all that is the whole of Existence.

That there are particular existents is contained in the thoughts that “Existence exists” and “Existence is identity”. That there are particular existents like each other is implicit in each word of a statement, I should say (with a couple of exceptions). Then that there are collections of like things and things different is intended in those axiomatic statements. And anyone having the tool of making statements has conceptual consciousness.

One thing more about stating axioms (ITOE App. 249):

Binswanger: “Does ‘existence exists’ implicitly include consciousness as part of existence?”

Rand: “Here I was very careful in my formulation in Atlas Shrugged: ‘The act of grasping that statement’ implies consciousness. Existence exists whether there is any consciousness or not. But since you are making that claim, in the act of grasping it you are introducing the axiom of consciousness.”

And I’d add you are implicitly introducing conceptual consciousness and the particulars and their particular characters conceptual consciousness spans by making and grasping statements and statements that stand as axioms.

Thank you much for sharing that you are seriously exploring these issues. It is always a pleasure to see someone thinking about what depends on what and in what ways. There is a paper in this vicinity by Ronald Merrill you might like to evaluate along the way in your investigation: Axioms: The Eight-Fold Way.

 

Edited by Boydstun
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@intrinsicist, Presuppositionalism is a school of Christian apologetics, not a "form of argument." Even if Presuppositionalism were a form of argument, I would never use that term for an Objectivist argument in discussion or debate due to the high likelihood of confusion. The phrase "transcendental argument" also has Kantian and Christian connotations to many people, so I would not advise using it.

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10 hours ago, William O said:

@intrinsicist, Presuppositionalism is a school of Christian apologetics, not a "form of argument." Even if Presuppositionalism were a form of argument, I would never use that term for an Objectivist argument in discussion or debate due to the high likelihood of confusion. The phrase "transcendental argument" also has Kantian and Christian connotations to many people, so I would not advise using it.

"transcendental" is the philosophical term, and "presuppositional" I think describes the nature of the argument in the term itself, and so is my preferred term. I don't think there is anything wrong with the term "presuppositionalism", and as a form of Christian apologetics I think it's the best, due to the strength of that form of argument. That doesn't mean I agree with every presuppositional argument a Christian makes, but I think there's something pathological in being so desperate to avoid what is otherwise a good term, because some Christians use it, too.

But by all means if you think you have a better term, let me know. I think it's good to reference as many of the related terms as possible when the whole point here is to identify this form of argument as a type.

Edited by intrinsicist
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4 hours ago, intrinsicist said:

I don't think there is anything wrong with the term "presuppositionalism", and as a form of Christian apologetics I think it's the best, due to the strength of that form of argument.

Why not say foundationalism? I can see some connection with the word presuppositional, but it seems more likely to confuse. Or can you get into more detail about the connection with the logic of presuppositionalism? 

Or maybe I can put it this way. What do you think the value is of studying Christian apologetics regarding the axioms?

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13 hours ago, intrinsicist said:

"transcendental" is the philosophical term, and "presuppositional" I think describes the nature of the argument in the term itself, and so is my preferred term. I don't think there is anything wrong with the term "presuppositionalism", and as a form of Christian apologetics I think it's the best, due to the strength of that form of argument. That doesn't mean I agree with every presuppositional argument a Christian makes, but I think there's something pathological in being so desperate to avoid what is otherwise a good term, because some Christians use it, too.

But by all means if you think you have a better term, let me know. I think it's good to reference as many of the related terms as possible when the whole point here is to identify this form of argument as a type.

I sometimes call this kind of argument "retortive." Alternatively, you could use the phrase "re-affirmation through denial," as in "the axiom of identity can be shown to be an axiom by the technique of re-affirmation through denial." The latter is used in HB's HWK, as I recall.

Christian Presuppositionalism isn't something I've studied, but I know that the basic idea is that the infallibility of the entire Bible and all of orthodox Christian doctrine is basically a giant axiom. Like, you can't deny that God is Triune without contradicting the preconditions of knowledge. It's not an honest approach.

My desire to avoid terms frequently associated with non-objective philosophies is not "desperate" or "pathological," etc. That's an unnecessarily insulting way of stating your disagreement - let's keep things civil, shall we?

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13 hours ago, William O said:

My desire to avoid terms frequently associated with non-objective philosophies is not "desperate" or "pathological," etc. That's an unnecessarily insulting way of stating your disagreement - let's keep things civil, shall we?

Based on @Eiuol's question and your reaction here, maybe I need to explain why I think presuppositionalism describes the nature of the argument in the term itself, and hence why I regard being averse to that term as extraordinary and suspicious.

For an axiomatic concept, you must presuppose it any attempt to refute it, and the counter-argument to someone denying said concept, is that they are presupposing the concept in order to deny it. This is why it's such a fitting term. 

I'll note that this is precisely the term Ayn Rand used above, "proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge", as did Peikoff, "Existence, consciousness, and identity are presupposed by every statement and by every concept".

I think "presuppositional" is far more intuitive and less esoteric than "transcendental".

Edited by intrinsicist
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53 minutes ago, intrinsicist said:

I think "presuppositional" is far more intuitive and less esoteric than "transcendental".

This much is fine, but this isn't what you were saying. You are not just saying that "presuppose" is an important concept. You also said specifically:

On 11/15/2020 at 5:22 PM, intrinsicist said:

and as a form of Christian apologetics I think it's the best, due to the strength of that form of argument.

From an academic standpoint, it's confusing for you to point out Christian presuppositionalism while also calling it a "form of argument". Why create this nuanced and reinterpreted sense of the word presuppositionalism within philosophy over an existing term that is completely consistent with what you are saying already, which is foundationalism. You asked for a better term, then I gave you a better term. So why don't you think it's a better term? 

I'm not asking why use this term because I have an aversion to any word of possible Christian origin. I'm asking because I really don't see the point, and it is not clear the point you're making. It makes it sound like you went out of your way to make a connection with Christian theological thinking, without explaining what the connection is. If the connection is nothing more than "they explicitly talk about presupposing things", it would make more sense to say "what I term to be a presuppositional argument or approach, not to be confused with the theory of presuppositionalism within Christian apologetics". 

Please don't think I'm nitpicking. I think good philosophy begins with clear distinctions when we are discussing ideas. I think you're onto something valuable, but some revision and further exploration is probably necessary. 

 

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundationalism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliabilism

I haven't studied these deeply, but I think I first learned about these terms in a course about evidence and evidence of the senses. They are worth looking into.

Basically, foundationalism is the idea that nonbasic beliefs must ultimately be justified by basic beliefs that are in some way infallible or undeniable. So it would be perfectly sensible to talk about self-evident axioms with this way of thinking. And sure, it would resemble the thinking of a Christian presuppositionalist with the Bible as one giant axiom, as William put it. 

Reliabilism is a type of foundationalism, I mention it because it relates to what kind of basic beliefs we want to focus on, namely some belief about the senses as the basic belief (as opposed to using revelation as the basic belief, for example). I'm sure there's a better way to phrase what I'm thinking, but I just don't want to spend an hour thinking about how to write this one sentence. :P

Edited by Eiuol
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10 hours ago, intrinsicist said:

Based on @Eiuol's question and your reaction here, maybe I need to explain why I think presuppositionalism describes the nature of the argument in the term itself, and hence why I regard being averse to that term as extraordinary and suspicious.

I'm averse to that term being connected to Objectivism because I view Christian Presuppositionalism as a dishonest and ludicrous concept, due to having interacted briefly with some proponents of the apologetic and read some Wikipedia pages and such.

These are people who use difficult, fundamental epistemological problems to undercut any challenge to their religious dogmas and shut down rational discussion of them. Like, if you say the resurrection can't have happened because it violates physics, they'll say you can't know anything without the Bible being infallible, so your challenge fails. It's deeply dishonest.

So yes, I am strongly averse to connecting Objectivism with this line of Christian "thought" in any way. Among other reasons, doing so can only make people think that we are dishonestly attempting to shut down discussion. It also illegitimately associates our arguments on free will, which determinists already smear as a mystical concept, with religion.

There's just no reason to use that term when there are multiple better terms available.

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I once had a conversation with a young evangelist on the L-train in Chicago. He was telling me about the Bible being entirely true, stating up front there were no contradictions in the Bible (just in case I might be thinking up cases in which the Bible contradicts itself and therefore couldn't be entirely true). I asked him how he knew the Bible existed. Then we got right down to the particulars of that, right on down deeper than "everybody knows it exists". And of course he had a Bible in his own very hands. I pressed the point that if anything said in the Bible contradicted any of the method by which we know the Bible exists, then that saying is wrong. He was bright, this was new, and we had a good conversation.

Intrinsicist, I agree with Eiuol and William on the terminology. Foundationalism (and foundational) is the better term. It has a long-established meaning of what you are after and what Rand was after. It has many varieties, and this too is recognized in the philosophic literature and community.

Here is a bit about foundationalism from my paper Foundational Frames - Descartes and Rand

Quote

 

Some contemporary conceptions of foundationalism in epistemology are more restricted than I am embracing in the present study. Lee Braver writes that foundationalism is “the attempt to trace all knowledge back to a source or set of claims that, as necessarily true, secure the truth that is derived from them” (2012, 273). I do not, and Rand did not, take a set of claims as what is the ultimate source of truth and necessity. Realities, not claims, are our epistemological foundations, or frameworks, our ultimate sources of all truth and—together with abstractive grasping mind—ultimate co-source of formal necessities. Our axioms and corollaries and other broad foundational assertions aim to state widest realities. Our foundational propositions provide widest organizations of our knowledge; they strengthen, by economy and express structure, all our knowledge and advance of knowledge.

Rand’s axioms and corollaries are discerned as self-evidently true in the sense that they are seen as true of the world and the mind and as not requiring or even allowing empirical evidential challenge. They would be presupposed in any challenge. Though they can be elucidated, they cannot be proven without circularity. “Proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved” (AS 1039–40).

Whatever experience and intellectual development led to their apprehension, it leaves Rand’s axioms and corollaries with that self-evidential character shared with some postulates in arithmetic and geometry. Because axiomatic comprehensive propositions cannot be denied without self-contradiction, or without other abridgement of logical or mathematical principles and their performative attendants, negation of these philosophic axioms is necessarily error, they cannot stand in possibility of correction, only further specification, and we have here a form of epistemological foundationalism. Contrary to Descartes’ foundations, it is not by merely entertaining them in thought that we recognize them to be true and necessarily so.

These axioms and corollaries are not axiomatic in the sense of being foundations from which all true propositions (even if supplemented with auxiliary foundational principles) are derivable without further perceptions beyond those that led one to recognize truth of the axioms and corollaries. These axioms and corollaries are foundations of integrated organization of perceptual experience. Before acquisition of these axioms and corollaries, perceptual experience silently according with them had been foundation of them, and it continues to found, at least remotely, all propositions of existence.

 

 

Edited by Boydstun
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34 minutes ago, Boydstun said:

I once had a conversation with a young evangelist on the L-train in Chicago. He was telling me about the Bible being entirely true, stating up front there were no contradictions in the Bible (just in case I might be thinking up cases in which the Bible contradicts itself and therefore couldn't be entirely true). I asked him how he knew the Bible existed. Then we got right down to the particulars of that, right on down deeper than "everybody knows it exists". And of course he had a Bible in his own very hands. I pressed the point that if anything said in the Bible contradicted any of the method by which we know the Bible exists, then that saying is wrong. He was bright, this was new, and we had a good conversation.

What a way to tie a process back into itself!

35 minutes ago, Boydstun said:

Intrinsicist, I agree with Eiuol and William on the terminology. Foundationalism (and foundational) is the better term. It has a long-established meaning of what you are after and what Rand was after. It has many varieties, and this too is recognized in the philosophic literature and community.

I was still mulling over presupposition(alism). Rand fought for the concept of selfishness. In the published works on the Searchable CD, "presupposition" is used once by Ayn Rand and twice by Leonard Peikoff.

ITOE, Chapter 7
OPAR, Chapter 11
Assault from the Ivory Tower, TVOR

Addressing the thought from her previous paragraph:

"When can we claim that we know what a concept stands for?" they clamor—and offer, as an example of man's predicament, the fact that one may believe all swans to be white, then discover the existence of a black swan and thus find one's concept invalidated.

This view implies the unadmitted presupposition that concepts are not a cognitive device of man's type of consciousness, but a repository of closed, out-of-context omniscience—and that concepts refer, not to the existents of the external world, but to the frozen, arrested state of knowledge inside any given consciousness at any given moment. On such a premise, every advance of knowledge is a setback, a demonstration of man's ignorance.

The fragment "a repository of closed, out-of-context omniscience" ties well into "the frozen, arrested state of knowledge inside any given consciousness at any given moment" taking into consideration the objections raised thus far to presuppositionalism.

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