Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

Well, it’s finally happened: The impoverished reasoning methods employed by academic philosophy have infected YouTube comments….Shocking, I know….

But, all kidding aside, when most academic philosophers (who aren’t deeply acquainted with Objectivist literature and lecture courses) read about Ayn Rand’s axioms, they tend to deride them as tautologies. They can’t possibly imagine how you could deduce a whole philosophical system from such tautologies. Well, they have something in common with my interlocutor (mirabileamavi) in the comments of a YouTube video. Hopefully, my concise answers to him (her?) should be clarifying:

Interlocutor: …How do you derive causation from tautologies?

Me: The “tautologies” you speak of are axioms. If something is truly an axiom, it is too fundamental to be conceptually analyzed, but is perceptually self-evident. You need only observe reality to see that it is true.

An entity is itself, therefore it acts as itself. This mode of action consistent with its nature is causality. See: objectivismfordeepthinkers.blogspot.com/2012/06/axio­ms-of-objectivism.html

Int: i still dont understand how you can derive causation from tautologies.

‘john’, from that i can infer ‘john’ is ‘john’ but i can’t infer that ‘john is a fireman’ can i? the predicate ‘is a fireman’ is not contained in ‘john’. while ‘john’ is ‘john’ is necessarily true and tautological, ‘john is a fireman’ certainly is not. from a=a we cannot infer that a=b.

heres an example: ‘frank ramsey’, who is his father, what is his occupation? obvious all you can infer is that F.R. is F.R., nothing else.

Me: At the level of bare axioms, all we can say is that, because John is John, John must act as John. That’s it: causality is a corollary of identity. But to identify John as a fireman, we cannot simply deduce from the axiom. We must specifically observe firemen in order to form the concept “fireman.” We must then observe John and see that he fits the concept. (Intro. to Objectivist Epistemology) Once we have observed he is a fireman, causality tells us he can’t swim and lay eggs as a female squid.

Int: ‘is’ is not equivalent to ‘act’.

okie, look at this from another angle. since identity is universally necessary, 2 is 2 is also an identity statement. but what does it mean to say that 2 act as 2? or for that matter, john act as john? if not just ‘john is john’.

from john is john nothing else follows. not causality, not anything. let me ask you again, what casual anything can you deduce from ‘frank ramsey’. thats right, nothing.

Me: An entity’s identity includes its qualities and capacities for action/reaction. We can isolate and focus on them in our thinking, by abstraction, but they cannot be separated in concrete reality. Causality is a corollary of identity, not a separately deduced fact. As a corollary, it is simply another way of looking at the same fundamental fact: an entity is itself. It’s self-evident: look at reality.

2 is a quantitative abstraction. Whatever 2 entities you are focusing on will act as themselves.

Int: take our friend ‘fr’ as an example, obviously we can infer ‘fr’ is ‘fr’ via any standard of formal logic. but we can’t infer ‘fr’ is also p. why? because additional information is needed to establish the new inference.

to say something is corollary is to say that something follows from another. but how do you infer from ‘fr’ without the additional info. that ‘fr’ is also p? can i seriously validly infer that A, therefore B, C, D, X…?

i.e. how am i justified in seeing arsenic for the first time to infer that it can or cannot kill? surely none of its properties follows from my visual perception of it or the mere knowing of its name. yes we can know its effects/properties through observation, but thats an additional step, not something that merely follows from our acquaintance with it.

Me: For the last time, Objectivism doesn’t say you can infer any specific properties/actions of entities from “A=A.” To see that arsenic is deadly, you make specific observations of its effects. Once you have induced that arsenic is deadly, you know that once you have identified a specific sample as arsenic, it will be deadly when taken. Without causality, arsenic wouldn’t have to behave as arsenic, and there’s no way to know what will happen if you ingest it; it could make you live 1000 years.

So the basic point here is that, in Objectivism, proceeding from the axioms does not mean deduction, but induction. The truth of the axioms (including the validity of the senses) makes induction from observation possible (that is, generalization; including concept formation as a certain type of induction.)

The major model of system building in modern Western philosophy has been that of the rationalists, who deduce consequences from “a priori postulates,” “intuitive” starting points, or mathematical axioms. Thus, when confronted with a philosophic system like Objectivism that claims axioms, most contemporary philosophers simply assume that the axioms are intended as a deductive starting point. They then rightly observe that nothing can be deduced from the axioms alone, and claim that Objectivism is a failure, or is not “serious” philosophy.

This is what I was referring to by “the impoverished reasoning methods employed by academic philosophy”: Real induction, which is a method of generating principles, has been largely supplanted by probabilistic reasoning, which most contemporary philosophers call “induction.”

The details of how induction works in various fields of knowledge is an active area of research among Objectivist philosophers. But we have cases of induction and general guidelines for how to form valid inductions left by Ayn Rand, and explicated by Leonard Peikoff. I recommend Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand’s Philosophy and Objectivism Through Induction by Leonard Peikoff.

The video below is not directly relevant to the above, but is an excerpt from one of Rand’s essays that makes general points about philosophy, reason and emotions.

[Edited: 9-1-12]

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Related Articles:

The Structure of Objectivism

The Axioms of Objectivism

2 thoughts on “Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

  1. I don’t think this results so much from the fact that academic philosophers no longer care about induction, but from the fact that you’re talking about axioms. Axioms are basic infallible propositions, so anything that can be deduced from them is also infallible. However, axioms are not particularly interesting for doing inductive reasoning. Since we are not quite so worried about infallibility when dealing with inductions, it’s much more interesting to begin with something like empirical data than, for instance, “It is possible to draw a straight line from any point to any other point.”

    To make a separate point, by the end of your discussion quoted above, you seem to character Objectivism as not much different from your standard empirical, materialist brand of epistemology and metaphysics. Instead of deducing the system from the law of identity, it is merely used to tell us that things must behave in accordance with what they are, and then empirical evidence fills in the rest. If this is the case, then I don’t really see what Ayn Rand has to tell me about this that countless others have not already said with more clarity and less polemic.

    Finally, your reasoning from “John is John” to “John must act as John” is either missing a step or is simply telling me something entirely trivial. Of course, this all depends on what you think is encompassed by “John” and what “act” really means. In the way most people speak, to say that John is acting unlike John would be to say that he is acting in a way not in accordance with how we would expect him to act, based on our knowledge of his personality, past behavior, etc. I can know that “John is John” without knowing that “John must act as John,” because it is plainly true that many people don’t act as themselves in many situations. Not only can I not deduce the second statement from the first, but I cannot induce it either, as experience has told me that it is generally not true.

    One might respond that if I really knew John, then I would know whether he is the type of person to not act like himself in certain situations (such as when he’s drunk or stressed), and so in those situations he really _is_ acting like himself (that is, he is acting in accordance with his propensity to behave in a manner that would seem erratic to those who don’t _really_ know him). This is a perfectly reasonable way to look at it, but perhaps John has never given me any reason to believe that he’s the sort of person with a propensity to change personalities when in any circumstances, and then one day he simply behaves unlike John (possibly for good reason, but not one known to me). Is it simply the case that I never knew John, and he really is behaving like John?

    Now, if you adhere to a more comprehensive view of identity (say, something like Leibniz espoused), then in order to truly know the meaning of “John” I would have to know everything about John, including how he has acted and will act in the future, and so of course I know that “John must act as John.” But in this case the name “John” encompasses all of his actions, so the statement is really just as trivial as “John is John.” This view of identity also implies determinism, which you may not be comfortable with, but it also has the upside of lessening the distinction between induction and deduction (in a perfectly deterministic universe, a much more powerful mind would be capable of deducing all facts from a fairly limited subset of facts).

    The downside to adopting such a comprehensive definition of identity, however, is that it turns out that human minds are simply not capable of really knowing anyone’s identity. When you set the bar for knowledge that high, it’s unattainable. Now, there might be some metaphysical merit to such a theory, but epistemologically it carries little weight, as when we talk about knowledge we’re interested in the sort of knowledge that humans can theoretically reach.

    • “To make a separate point, by the end of your discussion quoted above, you seem to character Objectivism as not much different from your standard empirical, materialist brand of epistemology and metaphysics. Instead of deducing the system from the law of identity, it is merely used to tell us that things must behave in accordance with what they are, and then empirical evidence fills in the rest. If this is the case, then I don’t really see what Ayn Rand has to tell me about this that countless others have not already said with more clarity and less polemic.”

      Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is different because it has a different view of knowledge and certainty from standard empiricism. Today’s standard view is that no inductive knowledge of reality can be 100% certain, since any conclusion can (allegedly) be overthrown with the next observation.

      But what if I told you that Objectivism establishes that we can reach certain knowledge by induction? Ayn Rand does this by rejecting a false notion of conclusions and certainty that plagues all other philosophies (that I know of.) I recommend chapter 5 (on reason) in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff (along with the rest of the book, of course.)

      Objectivism also offers a clear and detailed theory of concepts, (ITOE) an ab initio study of ethics from fundamental human nature (VV) and political solutions to a tremendous number of today’s problems (CS)

      I would say that John’s identity includes all of his qualities, attributes and capacities for action, (What else is there to actually observe?) but it doesn’t follow that you have to know everything about him to identify him. You only need sufficient information to differentiate him from other entities. The “meaning of John” to you is whatever you learn about his qualities, attributes and capacities for action.

      [Edited: 9-4-12. Thanks to Alexander for pointing out an error.]

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