This is an excerpt from the book series Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge. You can get a copy here.
“I am, therefore I’ll think.” —Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
In the natural sciences, things and events of every kind are dissected into their parts and then separately surveyed and categorized. This categorization occurs irrespective of the individual observer. The scientist attempts to view the world from the z. In doing so, he strives to eliminate or at least minimize his influence on the situation, trying to create an observer-independent model of reality.
Did you know?
Science is like a game. Not because it lacks seriousness, but because you have to follow strict rules if you want to partake in it. While there are other attempts of creating a system of rules to gain knowledge, the scientific method, with its prerequisite to document experiments and cite other works properly, has been the most useful and successful “set of rules” to gain knowledge about reality. → Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Continuum
When modern philosophers declare that axioms are a matter of arbitrary choice, and proceed to choose complex, derivative concepts as the alleged axioms of their alleged reasoning, one can observe that their statements imply and depend on “existence,” “consciousness,” “identity,” which they profess to negate, but which are smuggled into their arguments in the form of unacknowledged, “stolen” concepts.
—Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
Why can science not answer fundamental philosophical questions?
How far the scientific method has brought us until now is clearly visible in our everyday encounters with technology. But at the same time, we also see its limits when, for example, looking at questions of free will. The problem with this is that while science can point to physical parts of our cognition, our resulting consciousness is an indivisible process with a close linkage between observer and the object to be examined. It cannot be divided into its parts and separately examined. We cannot examine ourselves “from the outside.” Introspection is by its very definition subjective.
PROCESS · A process describes the mechanism of a cause working to an effect (e.g., if you put an ice cube into a glass of water, the cooling of the water is the process).
FREE WILL · Free will refers to the faculty to be able to reflect on our cognition, i.e., to be not determined by external influences. The more one knows about and is aware of what influences him, the more free his will.
Applicable scientific experiments could possibly be found. But the problem would be evaluating results, if the supervising scientists have made use of these very elements they wanted to examine—those of free will—while conducting the experiment. Since these types of questions are essential to our understanding of the world, we require a philosophical foundation upon which science can, in turn, draw. We must first define what we understand by “knowledge” and how we can generate it.
If we developed a device that predicted our next decision, this device would fail when we used it ourselves: the knowledge of our next decision would influence our very next decision. Knowing what we would do, we could reflect upon our future decision once again. Depending on the person’s mentality, they could decide against it, as a demonstration of their free will. Or, they could follow the “advice” and do exactly what the machine has told them to do. The latter effect is especially visible in political polls where people will tend to follow the majority (the so-called “bandwagon effect”). Likewise, on an individual level, the very act of getting analyzed or questioned might lead to an act of conformity. People tend to want to follow an authority (the device itself or the scientist that operates it), or want to be internally consistent and act according to their previous answers.
Science is built upon a philosophical foundation, and thus is a branch of philosophy. Science cannot answer fundamental philosophical questions without violating its own scientific principles.
Why is it important to study philosophy as a participant in the world and not just as a passive observer?
In contrast, most other philosophical schools of thought consider statements like “something exists” independent of the world, and consequently bring them into question. With his famous statement “I think, therefore I am,” the philosopher and scientist René Descartes posited consciousness as a kind of basic truth (without also presupposing existence and the perception of reality) and from that, he inferred that we exist. While this solves the issue we had above with science, it raises new questions. Is our thinking, in the first step, independent of our existence?
The underlying mistake of the notion of a consciousness existing independent of reality, which considers the world “from outside,” is what Ayn Rand describes as the fallacy of the stolen concept. It states that argumentation against an idea constitutes a contradiction if we have presupposed that very idea in the argument.3 In the case of our example of the question of existence, the error simply lies therein, that we cannot call existence into question without presupposing the very same existence—we certainly must exist in order to question it. So, here, we do not try to look at ourselves from the outside as a first step and only then deduce our existence. Instead, we accept that we are part of and are interacting with reality. Suppositions born of themselves, floating “outside of time and space,” have no place.
The essence of philosophy is to understand yourself as being part of reality, rather than isolating yourself from reality as a passive observer.
FALLACY OF THE STOLEN CONCEPT · The fallacy of the stolen concept refers to the fact that in the refutation of a statement, the statement itself cannot (implicitly or explicitly) be a part of the refutation. We cannot argue against our existence because the act of arguing presupposes that very existence.
This is one of the cornerstones of Rand’s approach to philosophical arguments. We first have to examine a statement or question—especially in regard to the fallacy of the stolen concept—and challenge its assumptions before proceeding to evaluate or answer it. It should be emphasized that this way of finding the truth deals with neither a purely rationalistic nor a purely empirical procedure. For the acquisition of knowledge, sense perception is just as necessary as a logical integration. Without integrated sense perceptions, there is no understanding of axioms. Without axioms, there can be no logic. Without logic, there is no integration of sense perceptions.
The Axiom of Existence
AXIOM · An axiom is a self-evident truth (e.g., “Something exists”).
A “self-evident” truth refers to a statement that justifies itself through its existence. For example, “This sentence exists,” is a self-evident statement. If it were not put down in writing or expressly said (if it did not exist), then it would not comprise a statement and thus could not be false. In contrast, if it is put down in writing, and read or expressly said (it exists), it is correct, and thus, self-evident.
SELF-EVIDENT STATEMENT · A self-evident statement is a statement whose reasoning is contained within itself (e.g., the establishment of the axiom of existence necessitates the very same existence).
AXIOM OF EXISTENCE · The axiom of existence states that something exists. Without existence, there would be no entities. Particularly, there would be no interactions between entities, no perception, and, for this reason, no knowledge; a line of reasoning for this axiom would not be possible.
Above, we have discussed that we cannot reason that we exist because we can think about our existence. At the same time, we think when we contemplate about our existence. So, what comes first, consciousness or existence? What truths can we rely on in philosophy? We could write down any number of such self-evident truths. However, the point here is not the exact wording, but its meaning. It is not only about the sentence, “This sentence exists,” but also about reading and understanding it. So, we become conscious about the sentence (its existence) and its meaning (its identity). Thus, the answer is that none of these elements (existence, identity, and consciousness) stands “first,” but that all are true at the same time. This insight will accompany us throughout this chapter. We will see that there really is just one single self-evident truth. Thus, the question about the sequence of the truths is of no concern.
Certainly no one is forced to accept a self-evident statement. Who nevertheless denies the foundation of knowledge, and places himself on a pedestal and grandly proclaims that we live in a chaotic universe, whose properties we are not capable of identifying, accepts exactly the assumptions about the world against which he tries to argue: the existence of reality (especially his own existence) and his consciousness, with the help of which he can become aware of the identity of the real world. The only resulting alternative to the acceptance of the axioms and the objectivity of reality we would be left with is, therefore, silence; whoever does not make or process any statements cannot entangle himself in his statement or in a contradiction.
The Axiom of Identity
If something exists, then there is something that exists. Entities thus have a definite identity, which leads us directly to a new axiom:
AXIOM OF IDENTITY · The axiom of identity states that something exists. Without this axiom, “entities” could possibly exist, but they would have no identity and, for this reason, would likewise possess no properties. In such a reality, it follows that no perception or knowledge would be possible either; particularly, we could not form arguments against the axiom of identity: without identity, statements in general would be impossible because they, too, would have no identity—no statement. In Objectivism, this axiom is also designated as “A is A”: every identity has definite properties and no others.
What is the nature of the identity of an entity?
Because of this axiom of identity, contradictions in reality thus cannot exist. Everything that exists has definite (and not indeterminate or undefined) properties so that we can distinguish between an entity A and another entity not-A. Causality thus follows from this: i.e., each entity behaves according to its properties. Every entity, therefore, possesses a number of properties that are free of contradiction, along with which properties of the same type may be attributed, so long as they are not different. An entity cannot at the same time take on two different masses or velocities, and an entity cannot at the same time be visible and invisible.
Entities have exactly one (specific and distinct) identity at any given time.
Can contradictions exist in reality if we can imagine them?
A line of reasoning against this principle is brought up time and again in discussions—specifically, that we could imagine contradictions with our minds. We could imagine jumping onto the moon, or that “1 = 2.” If contradictions could exist in our heads, could they not then also be part of reality, and would we not have to renounce our claims concerning the use of logic?
Here, the point is that what we imagine in these examples is not actually contradictory. Jumping onto the moon—assuming the technology exists—may be completely possible. So what we imagine is either: not ourselves as we are (but ourselves with muscles that function in a particular way), or ourselves but in a world without gravity. What we particularly cannot imagine are direct contradictions that violate the Axiom of Identity. We could strain ourselves and think hard about a pink, invisible unicorn. In a “non-objective reality,” entities would possess no identity, i.e., something could also be something else. An entity could simultaneously be completely black and white, visible and invisible, here and there.
The crucial error in such a line of reasoning is the confusion of object A and the illusion of A, which ultimately constitute two different entities. Of course, we can write down the equation “1 = 2” and make a picture of it. But what this equation expresses, for example, “two apples are one apple,” is not realizable.
The Axiom of Consciousness
Through the contemplation of reality, and with the help of our intellect, we have now been able to discover the two axioms of existence and identity. But we are not the scientists mentioned earlier, who could discover truths about the world without regard to them being part of that very same world. We became conscious about the two axioms on our own. The prerequisite for the comprehension of the world is our consciousness:
CONSCIOUSNESS · With our consciousness, we can become conscious about something, therefore, it is the process that emerges from the faculty of an entity to reflect on and to perceive oneself and other entities and their properties (cognition).
AXIOM OF CONSCIOUSNESS · The axiom of consciousness states that we can become aware of our existence, our identity, and the external world.
A denial of this axiom would imply that through the act of denying, we were conscious of at least a part of reality. Having consciousness and at the same time denying having it would be a contradiction. Thus, it is not possible to argue consistently against the notion that we have a consciousness.
Did you know?
Ontology is actually just a part of the larger field of metaphysics. Besides ontology, it also includes questions like:
- “What is the origin of the universe?”
- “How is there something rather than nothing?”
- “Could the universe be different?”
- “What is free will?”
→ Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Continuum