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Critique of Sam Harris' "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason"

(At the end of this critique we include a copy of Ron Merrill's excellent essay on Axiomatic foundations.)

At around 11:30p on Monday, March 21 2005, I was sitting on the couch with my wife, mindlessly TV-surfing while she read her book. Pausing no more than a second or two on each of the ~50 channels of sh** offered by our cable company, I passed by CSPAN-II and heard a second or two of a speech given by a person addressing an audience at what appeared to be a synagogue. The snippet  that came through before I clicked past was something like: (paraphrasing) "brace yourselves before the heresy starts…". It caused me to back-pedal the remote and listen, enthralled, for the next 90 minutes. I found myself completing his sentences, exclaiming with excitement, laughing and applauding to the point where our 10-year-old daughter (who is a happy, rational, well-adjusted, "faithless" straight-A student) woke up and came in to ask what was so funny on TV. At the conclusion of the program, I resolved to find and purchase The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris.

The next morning, I drove 40 miles to Las Cruces to purchase the last copy on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. I urge everyone to buy Harris' book; it is nothing short of phenomenal. The End of Faith is absolutely essential reading regardless of your religious and political beliefs, and is written in a captivating, page-turning style that is rarely found in such a fastidiously researched and scholarly work.  Harris' fearless, razor-sharp dissection of religion and its untenable foundation - faith – represent a long overdue, almost unheard of viewpoint – one that is seemingly proscribed in nearly every sphere of discussion in our world. But, as the author eloquently points out, if we do not firmly and unequivocally reject faith and embrace reason as the sole method of evaluating the validity of ideas, it is only a matter of time before we witness mushroom clouds rising over what once were cities.

I am now convinced that those of us who cherish reason, freedom and civilization must take an active role in eliminating faith as an accepted epistemological choice for mankind. Prior to reading Mr. Harris' book, I regarded myself as an "epicurean", non-"evangelical" atheist. I felt little compulsion to challenge the religious beliefs of others unless they initiated the conversation. There seemed to be little point in standing on a soapbox and spraying about the folly of belief in anything unsubstantiated, whether it be God, astrology, alchemy, homeopathy or Elvis' immortality. Why incur the potential derision or wrath of billions of fellow human beings, 90% of whom still argue over which book was written by the Creator of the Universe – disputes as bizarre and tragic as would be coming to blows over the question of whether Yoda or Obi-Wan-Kenobi is the True Master of the Force?

The problem is, in a world where Muslim Jehadists will soon get their hands on thermonuclear devices, religious moderation and tolerance stops us from taking the steps needed to prevent the fall of civilization. Proponents of reason can no longer maintain the luxury of silence.

Harris' book does not focus solely on the absurdity of any particular religion, or the atrocities perpetrated by practitioners of any particular faith.  From the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, through Hitler's massacres in WWII,  to the butchery of millions from the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India and Pakistan, Harris shows that religious faith has been  the underlying cause of most of wholesale death and destruction in the world since the beginning of recorded history.

Many of the "faithful" proclaim that only belief in God can provide the moral foundation for living a good life. Quite the opposite is true: when one builds his morality and ethics on a foundation of fantasy – a foundation that is inherently rotten because it must be accepted on faith that by definition cannot be challenged by any evidence of the senses or process of reason – one has no defense against the flawed morality and ethics that led nineteen devout, faithful and God-fearing Muslims to incinerate ~3000 of our neighbors on September 11, 2001. They had absolute faith that they were doing  good, not evil. Only by using reason, logic and science as the foundation for one's philosophy can we live truly moral and ethical lives.

When my daughter was born in 1994, the issue of her religious training surfaced. Prior to becoming a father, I had not fully accepted my atheism, but when my wife (who is an ex-Catholic but not an atheist) presumed that we would provide her with a non-denominational theological education, I realized that I simply could not lie to my precious little bean and tell her that the nonsense of faith was anything but, as is aptly described by Harris, something that "belongs on the same shelf as Batman". Although this at first caused arguments with my wife, I prevailed and we have raised our kid as an atheist - as a corollary of the basic tenets of objectivism; atheism per se is NOT a philosophy unto itself. 

The results have been phenomenal. She has never had a single nightmare, despite the death of her grandmother in 1997 and being present when her great-grandmother "Mutti" died, while we held her hand, in 2002.  My wife and I were quite surprised (and pleased) that Julie does not have bad dreams, but I have a hypothesis that might explain it. Most children are told on the one hand that monsters and ghosts are just pretend, but on the other hand that there is this mysterious, inexplicable entity called God that is invisible, all-powerful, might visit you in the middle of the night ("… and if I die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take"), battles another evil god (Satan), etc. They are told that God is all goodness and light, knows everything and is all-powerful - but when the kids ask why God allows Satan to live and permits death, disease, war and the rest of the bad stuff, the best parents can offer is the canard "God is mysterious and mere humans can never fully understand his reasons or methods". No wonder the poor kids have nightmares!

From the very earliest times when she was a toddler and asked about god, I would tell her that "god was just pretend", the same as monsters and ghosts and Santa Claus; that the world was real and wonderful and she had the power to fully understand everything in it if she just read and studied hard enough. As she has grown and become more sophisticated, we have provided more details regarding the various religions and why they are silly and unreasonable. Raising her in this fashion has been particularly challenging at times. My Dad, sister, her husband and kids are all Jehovah's Witnesses (my parents were Methodists until they were converted when I was ~ 14), and all my wife's relatives are devout Catholics. My kid does not challenge the religious beliefs of her friends or relatives, all of whom are theists - but she also does not allow them to try to convert her or pity her. We have never lied to her about anything, never spanked her, and always used reason and logic to justify all family rules and regulations.

As a result, she has been a straight-A student since the 1st grade, reads at a 9th grade level, recently had a perfect score on the Texas Academic Knowledge and Skills test, and took top honors in the 5th grade District science fair, beating 1739 other students. She has never thrown a tantrum, and is as close to perfect as one could ask. When teachers and others learn that this happy, well-adjusted and brilliant kid is an atheist, they are shocked and befuddled - but it is precisely because she has never been asked to integrate the impossible and the ridiculous into her world view that she has turned out so well.

Early in her life, I realized that a large part of the attraction of organized religion lies with the associated rituals and verses, so I took it upon myself to write my own "prayers", suitable for recitation at various times. I also realized that many of the popular children's rhymes had a decidedly irrational theme, and revised some of them appropriately. Here are a few samples:

The Nightly Words (recited together at bedtime - change plural references to singular for recitation alone)

With these words,
We confirm our respect for life in all its beautiful and mysterious forms,
And renew our appreciation
For another day's existence,
Along with our sadness and fond remembrance
For those who are no longer with us.
With each new day,
We will strive to make the world a better place
To reach for the stars,
And live the lives
Of Ideal Men

Lets Eat (recited before meals; this was lifted from a Jimmy Stewart movie)

We worked hard for this food
We bought it from other men who grew it
They got paid and we put it on the table
We're not thankin' anyone 'cause we done it ourselves -
Lets Eat! (end with a clap of the hands)

Row Your Boat (revised)

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is *not* a dream!

The Pledge of Freedom (has the same number of syllables as the Pledge of Allegiance, so it can be said in a group without causing too much suspicion)

I pledge to defend
The Principles of Freedom
Upon which this Nation was founded:
The right to free speech,
The right to bear arms,
And the right to a limited Government
With freedom and justice for all.

Most of Harris' book is brilliantly correct. Rather than take up space with constant "dittos", I will instead focus most of my critique on those portions that I take exception to.

I suspect that the majority of Sam Harris' critics are on the "faith" side of the spectrum. I contend that he does not go quite far enough in championing reason and logic; it is possible to live a happy, full and even "spiritual" life based 100% on science and logic, without resorting to mysticism.

 Although many of the ideas in Harris' book bear striking similarity to Objectivist concepts, Harris is not an objectivist per se. I personally am NOT a rabid proponent of "Ayn Rand's way or the highway". She was wrong about many things, for example, her opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and relying too heavily on pure laissez-faire capitalism. I am aware that she is routinely snubbed by modern philosophers for not taking the time to learn the technical language and study all the arguments, most of which she regarded as sophistry. She did not comprehend that sans that foundation, she would be unable to communicate or properly abstract her ideas in philosophical circles. I know of her personal failings, her adultery and subsequent rift with Nathaniel Branden, which led to the  "schism", and the dogmatic view of Peikoff and others who now run the Ayn Rand Institute. I also suspect that her put-downs of all things "mystical" combined with her contempt for meditation, altered states, and insight via revelation rubs Harris the wrong way. Her notions of concept-formation must seem painfully naive to someone who has studied the workings of the brain.  She never had children; it was not until I became a father that I learned first-hand the profound influence that event has on one's world-view.

I must gently chastise Mr. Harris for not having studied Objectivism prior to writing his book.  Objectivists, be they of the "little 'o' " (like me) or "big 'O' " variety are important allies in the goal to move mankind toward reason and away from the absurdity of religion. Rand's novels, while not rigorous treatises on metaphysics, epistemology, morality, ethics or politics, are a source of reason-based inspiration to millions; the fact that they are not steeped in technical jargon makes them accessible to the general public and sparks interest in philosophy - I know they had that effect on me! One of the most important foundations of objectivism is the requirement to always be willing to examine and re-examine one's beliefs and conclusions, and toss out anything that cannot survive critical scrutiny.  For an excellent treatment of Rand's strengths and weaknesses, I recommend the late Ron Merrill's The Ideas of Ayn Rand, and also his brilliant and rigorous essay Axioms: the Eightfold Way, which I include at the end of this critique

 Pg 18: Kill the Apostate Children

The passage from Deuteronomy spurred me to dig out a Bible and re-read that chapter and also Leviticus.  Talk about goofy! I showed Jewell the parts about killing gay people and apostate children - her eyes grew wide and she exclaimed, "That's insane".  We also noticed that rabbits are on the list of banned food - she wondered if it applied to chocolate Easter bunnies, hee hee!

Pg. 26

Harris provides an eye-opening list of religion-based conflicts.

Pg. 36 The Surprising and Beautiful World

Beautifully stated!

Pg. 40: Selflessness

I maintain that meditation cannot produce an actual state of selflessness, and moreover, it is not productive to try to achieve such a mental state.

I am an amateur dabbler in transcendental meditation, and have spent quite a bit of time in a full-lotus. On many occasions, using the prescribed breathing techniques and mantras, I have been able to attain a state that I would not describe as selfless, but instead as a state of pure self-awareness - where I was aware of nothing other than my own sense of being.  The only thought in my head was a single, basic, essential element of "me" - pure existence, and only that - nothing else. Experts in TM will maintain that I was "not doing it correctly". However, I DID discover that after being in such a state and coming out of the trance, spontaneous solutions to complex problems that had plagued me would bubble-up from my subconscious; that was clearly a benefit of meditation.

One of Rand's most significant contributions to logic was her notion of the fallacy of the "stolen concept". While not entirely original, I have found this idea to be powerfully beneficial in analyzing and refuting many arguments that belong to the general class of "using reason and logic to show that reason and logic are invalid". The fallacy of the stolen concept applies loosely to Harrris' contention that it is possible (and useful) to attain a state of "selflessness". Think about it - if one really did attain such a state, one would have no "self" that could be aware of anything, including the sensation of being selfless!

Pg. 41: Trusting the Senses, Reason and Logic

Mr. Harris does not actually suggest that the Universe we observe with our senses and instruments, interpreted by our powers of reason, is merely a subjective illusion, but he seems to give credence to those who do.

Granted, we don't directly observe anything, including our own thoughts, but that is not sufficient evidence to claim that the world we inhabit is unreal. That our minds' Points Of Awareness (POA) merely observe the brain's neurological mapping of sensory data is insufficient to defend the mystics' contention that there is no actual external reality, or that external reality is wildly different from what it appears to be. The fact that all of the measurements we make with the myriad of instruments available to us (including the information provided directly by the senses) correlate to such a strong degree is powerful evidence that the Universe really does exist, in the form that it appears to. Yes, I have seen The Matrix and I read a lot of sci-fi; I am familiar with the Hindu concept that the Universe might just be a dream of Brahma, but even in those imaginary tales, there is still an "anchor" of reality behind the illusion. If we peel away enough layers of subjectivity, we eventually discover the "man behind the curtain".

When I stand in my backyard under my almond trees in the spring, I see them and the lovely blossoms; I smell them, hear the wind rustling the leaves, and hear the bees buzzing happily. If I close my eyes and walk toward them, I eventually bump my head on the branches. If I take a video of them, the images and sounds match what my eyes and ears conveyed to my consciousness. Everyone who goes to my backyard agrees with my description, including our cat Max. If those trees are not real, the illusion is so good that it is pointless to fight it.

There is a difference between the unknown and the unknowable. Just because our senses and instruments are not 100% accurate does not prove that that what we see and measure is completely different from what it appears to be, or that we cannot glean a pretty good notion of the actual form of the Universe. Certainty is possible! For example, I am certain, as is Mr. Harris, that faith is a very, very dangerous thing.

Pg. 43: Reason Insufficient?

Harris' statement that "we cannot live by reason alone" is one of the few errors in the book.   It is a classic example of the fallacy of the stolen concept. Please step back and think about what alternatives to reason exist. There is no middle ground between faith and reason. Is Mr. Harris saying that we should have faith that his statement is true? If so, then by what means do we determine that the faith he wishes us to have is any better than the faith of the 911 terrorists?  Faith is not a tool that can be used to distinguish "good faith" from "bad faith" It is always fallacious to use reason to argue that reason is unreasonable or insufficient.

There can be no marriage between faith and reason - they are mutually exclusive.

Far from being ready for the "formaldehyde", the complete embrace of reason and total rejection of faith and its associate, mysticism, can free us from the fear of death and sense of purposelessness that plague so many people. There is plenty of room within science and cosmology for wonder, mystery and hope.

In May of 2003, Scientific American featured the article Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark.  It convinced me that the Universe has a truly amazing property: there exist an infinite number of duplicates of you and I and the Earth and all that we can see and observe! Go far enough, and you are guaranteed to encounter them. This property does not require esoteric n-dimensional mathematics, or complexities such as string theory; it is not a typical "Art Bell" style fantasy. Particle physics and probabilities combined with the mathematics of infinities guarantee it.

The basic concept is simple and beautiful: Take any volume of space, such as our Milky Way galaxy, or the local group, or even the entire 14 billion light-year observable universe (sometimes referred to as the "Hubble Bubble").  One can calculate the maximum number of possible configurations of all particles in that space - a number that is tremendously large, but not infinite. (A close approximation may be obtained by calculating the number of protons that can be packed into the given space). Take than number, and calculate the volume required to contain that number of copies of the space in consideration. Then, if you consider any space outside that huge volume, simple probability guarantees that "outside" space is an exact duplicate of one of the spaces inside the huge volume. The distances involved are incredibly vast - over 10**100 meters - a distance so huge that it dwarfs the observable universe the way the observable universe dwarfs an atom.

If this terse explanation is not clear, please read the article. Why is this relevant to the discussion at hand? Because I know that somewhere in the Universe, there is another "me", with memories of all my experiences, seeing exactly what I see, typing this letter on an identical laptop.

This certainty led me to pen the following poem written for my precious Jewell. It gives me great comfort in moments of fear and pain:

Somewhere in the Universe
Your smile always shines for me
And we will laugh and dance and sing
Through Love's Eternity.

I am not the only godless person who has not needed faith when facing death, or to find inspiration in the purely real world. One such person is Robert Ingersol. Here is a small excerpt from one of his most beautiful works.

"Love is the only bow on Life's dark cloud. It is the morning and the evening star. It shines upon the babe, and sheds its radiance on the quiet tomb. It is the mother of art, inspirer of poet, patriot and philosopher. It is the air and light of every heart -- builder of every home, kindler of every fire on every hearth. It was the first to dream of immortality. It fills the world with melody -- for music is the voice of love. Love is the magician, the enchanter, that changes worthless things to Joy, and makes royal kings and queens of common clay. It is the perfume of that wondrous flower, the heart, and without that sacred passion, that divine swoon, we are less than beasts; but with it, earth is heaven, and we are gods. "

Pg 57: Logical Contradictions

Although the proof that it is impossible to crosscheck more than a trivial number of beliefs for consistency is compelling at first glance, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling. Is that assertion subject to the same inability to crosscheck? <grin> We should not be so fast to assume that new methods of crosschecking will never be discovered. I also reject the whole notion of "perfect" anything - that concept is rooted in faith and religion; I'm not certain what you mean by perfect in the context of your argument.  In most cases, outside of the narrow confines of mathematics, proofs that things are impossible are fraught with peril. Take the classic example of the "proof" that bees could not fly - it was invalid because it did not take into account aspects of fluid dynamics such as turbulence, eddies and vortices. 

Pg 59: Change Blindness

The author makes some good points here. I'm reminded of the recent "Gorillas in our Midst" experiment, where test subjects are asked to watch a video of a group of people dressed in white or black shirts who are passing a basketball around. The subjects are asked to count the number of times the ball is passed to a while shirt vs a black shirt. In the middle of the video, a man in a gorilla suit enters the room, spends a few seconds there, and then exists. Many people watching the video never notice the gorilla!

Pg 62: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Faith

I only occasionally have the pleasure of debating the question of the existence of God with "the faithful". These debates rarely get very far, as I insist that one of the perquisites for the debate is agreement regarding what is meant by "god"; that term is dependent on understanding three essential metaphysical concepts: Something, Nothing, and Everything. Even though we use these words often in everyday conversation, conceptualizing them is non-trivial - but without a clear understanding, no further conversation about god is possible. My arguments are loosely based on those of Kai Nielsen's.

"Nothing" is a difficult abstraction. "Nothing" is absolute emptiness and by definition contains no object or concept. It is impossible for anything to spring from or be created from "nothing", nor can "nothing" be the source of any causality - it is truly the absence of anything that exists. Physicists and cosmologists talk about things such as virtual particles that spontaneously appear and quickly disappear from what they refer to as nothing (space empty of matter and energy), but that which those particles blink into existence from is not "nothing" - it still part of spacetime and contains the framework of physical laws that allows the virtual-particle soup to exist. When I refer to "nothing", I am talking about a pure, metaphysical "nothing" - the true McCoy of absolute zero, nada, zip!

"Something" is only a bit less difficult to understand.  "Somethings" can be physical objects, forces, the structure of spacetime, subjective feelings, concepts, thoughts, etc. This definition can lead to ontological-related paradoxes, but they are of no real importance to the discussion. For example, the concept of "nothing" is "something", but just because a concept exists in the sense that it can be described and believed does not mean that what is described by the concept has a real physical existence - in the same way that the concept of having a huge diamond buried in the yard means that there actually is a diamond there.

The definition of "Everything" follows from the definitions of "something" and "nothing". Everything is just the totality of all possible somethings. Again, there are ontological conundrums here that turn out to be inconsequential, Goedel's and Russell's paradoxes notwithstanding. "Everything" simply is everything - all of Existence. It cannot be looked at from the "outside"; it by definition contains all points of view that are outside, before, after, etc. It contains all possible universes (little u), all Cantorian levels of infinity, etc. As shorthand, I use the symbol U for "everything" - the Universe with a capital U, distinct from the universe (small "u"), which merely describes that portion of the U that can be observed and measured.

Armed with these three concepts, we are ready to see why the standard definition of God is illogical. People of faith regard God as being "greater than everything", or "greater than anything that can be conceived". They claim that God created everything, but that is clearly a contradiction - if God exists, then God is real - is something - any by definition, is part of everything. The U cannot have been created any more than it could "spring from nothing" - there is, by definition, nothing outside of the U for it spring from! The "uncaused first cause" argument for the existence of God can be shown to be fallacious in the light of this definition; if the U needs a cause (it doesn't), and God is posited to be that cause, then what caused God? If the rejoinder is that "God is infinite, has always existed and does not need a cause", I respond that they are describing the U and calling it "God", along with the assumption that the U is somehow alive.  They have also implicitly acknowledged that it is possible for something to have always existed that did not need to be created, and therefore cannot claim that it is impossible for the Universe to have always existed sans creation. It remains to be seen if the Universe as a whole is alive and intelligent (in a manner that is detectable and understandable by Humans), but there is no object or concept, regardless of what one wishes to name it, that can exist outside of the U or "before" the U.

BTW, the above does not contradict or conflict with the Big Bang theory. (I use the term theory and not hypothesis because there is a huge body of testable evidence supporting the theory, similar to the huge body of evidence supporting the theory (not hypothesis) of Evolution.) The Big Bang makes no claims about what happened "before" the structure of spacetime, matter and energy that we inhabit today was "created" by it. (For an excellent summary of current understanding of the Big Bang, please see Misconceptions about the Big Bang, by Charles H. Lineweaver and Tamara M Davis, in the March 2005 issue of Scientific American.)

Pg 67: Epistemology re: Good vs Evil

Sam Harris' analysis in this section is tremendously accurate and deserves specific congratulations. When I discuss 9/11 with typical Christians and explain that the hijackers, far from being cowards, were courageous in that they had perfect faith that what they were doing was correct and divinely ordained - and worth dying for - I am greeted with reactions of horror, disbelief and anger. They exclaim that the hijackers faith was wrong, it was not a "true" faith, etc. I then ask the essential epistemological question: "How do you know?" The ensuing exchange invariably leads to the inescapable conclusion that only reason, not "my faith is better than yours because my God says it is better", tells us that it is wrong to fly airplanes into buildings. It is reason - not faith in a Bible that admonishes us to kill gay people and burn you, your wife and her mother alive should you have sex with both of them - that lets us know that it is immoral to kill innocent people who have never directly attacked or harmed you.

Pg. 73: Tragic Absurdity

More brilliance on the author's part! How tragic and frightening that religious dogma, every bit as crazy as believing that one can converse with aliens via a kitchen colander deployed as a communication helmet, might someday spark a nuclear fire that could consume us all.

One nice thing about Computer Science, and science in general, is that claims arising from those beliefs are extremely verifiable and falsifiable.  For example, "I believe" (Halleluiah!) that if you go to a c:\ prompt on a Windows computer, type format c: and then answer "yes" to all the warnings, very bad things will happen to that computer. If you are an unbeliever, just try it, and the Gods of Computer Science will gladly send you to data-loss hell!

Pg. 75: The Nightly News

Although I agree with Mr. Harris' news story analysis, the recent case of CBS and Dan Rather is thought provoking.

Pg. 78: Missionaries - Bane or Menace?

It can be argued that the actions of missionaries, albeit producing short-term good - namely the relief of poverty and disease, are actually harmful because in the long run, the missionaries increase the number of people who believe in god, with all the attendant problems that faith brings. I have little praise for missionaries who tempt people with food, medicine and money as bait for the ulterior motive of injecting them with irrationality.

Pg. 92

Sadly, the USA is now rationalizing torture as a legitimate tool of warfare. I will have more to say about this later.

Pg. 104: The worldwide PopeGasm

During all the breathless, nauseating news coverage of the April 2005 death of Pope John Paul II and the selection of Pope Benedict XVI, never once did I hear mentioned the atrocities of previous papacies or the Church's failure to renounce same. I did have to hear endless replays of the Cardinals' bashings of atheism.

Pg. 141: Is it Moral to Enjoy our Food While the Needy Starve?

Unger and others who advance the argument that we should not enjoy our lives while so many suffer are incorrect. One of fundamental tenets of objectivism is: "Reject unearned guilt". Although there is nothing wrong with helping others, if one freely chooses to do so and derives some kind of benefit thereof (even in the intangible form of feeling happy by assisting), there is no moral obligation to be charitable. The world will be a better place if each of us practices the virtue of selfishness, as described in Ayn Rand's eponymous book. (In "emergencies", a slightly different form of the virtue of selfishness is warranted, until the emergency is resolved and things return to normal.)

Pg. 143: Shed no Tears for the Evil Ones

Killing evil people is a good thing - the trick is to kill only the evil and not the innocent. I refuse to sit on any jury in a death-penalty case, because I might not be able to be absolutely certain that the person charged with the crime is truly guilty. Confessions are not 100% reliable - The Inquisition provides an obvious example - and there are data that suggest that over 100 innocent people have been executed in the U.S.A. since 1776. However, were I to encounter someone being raped or assaulted, and there was no doubt that I was witnessing an actual crime (similar to your encounter), I would feel not the slightest remorse in using my firearm to kill the perpetrator.

Pg.146-147: Noam Chomsky - How Can so Brilliant a Researcher be so Philosophically Ignorant?

Objectivism has already provided the framework for deriving a valid system of morality and ethics from basic axioms such as "I exist", the "U exists", "Life as Man qua Man requires choices, the most fundamental of which is to think", etc.

The author's statement on pg. 147 that  "Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything" warrants discussion. I'm surprised he arrived at this conclusion, given that he offers many examples where people with misguided intentions - the Inquisitors, the hijackers and others - had convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing, yet the result was evil. There is no doubt in my mind that the 911 terrorists had the best interests of Allah and the greater good of mankind in mind when they attacked us. It is not intentions that count, it is results, reality and the truth that matters.

I would be willing to personally act as executioner if I witnessed a crime of rape or murder in progress.  Killing a truly evil person is moral and ethical. If however, acting with good intentions, I mistakenly killed an innocent person, then my act would not be ethical - it would be a horrible crime warranting punishment.

I am not on Chomsky's side in this debate, but I would urge extreme caution when we are tempted to dismiss collateral damage as inevitable, and ethical, just because we have "good intentions".

I was more inclined to think as Mr. Harris does before I became a father. It sounds trite, but I never appreciated the true horror of what it would be like to have one's child killed until I held my little girl in my arms for the first time. If she should ever be killed as the result of "collateral damage" inflicted by someone convinced that they were pursuing the "greater good", the rest of my life would be spent avenging her death - not by hunting down those indirectly responsible - I would look for the pilot of the plane that dropped the bomb. We are all responsible for our own direct actions. The guards in the Nazi death camps tried to justify the atrocities they committed by claiming they were just following orders, but they were just as guilty, on a smaller scale, as was Hitler.

I'll discourse further when I get to pages 192...196, re: the ethics of torture.

Pg. 148: Jainists and Microbes

I need to learn more about Jainism - but I wonder - do they freak-out when they catch a cold, knowing that their immune system is offing millions of Rhinoviruses? (hee hee).

Pg. 149: Wasting Precious Time and Resources on Religion

Consider the Pyramids. Beautiful, but think of the great things that could have been accomplished if the resources devoted to building them could have been directed toward science or math or art. Think of the time the author "wasted" researching and writing his book, or the time I spent (about 100 hours so far) reading it and writing this critique!

Pg. 153: Idiots in High Places

At Wal-mart earlier this week, my daughter and I passed by a rack of videotapes, and the "Left Behind" video inspired by Tim LaHaye caught my eye. I back-pedaled and showed it to her, explaining to her what the story was about, how stupid it was, and to be cautious if any of her religious friends wanted her to watch it. (Her best friend's father is a Methodist minister and had tried in the past to get her to watch the "Veggie Tales" Christian cartoons for children.) My kid  knows that until she is older and well versed in fending off the arguments of the theists, she is not allowed to let adults try to prostheletize to her without my wife or myself being present.) A couple of other Wal-Mart shoppers overheard us talking and realized that I was raising her as an atheist - it is hard to describe the venomous looks of disgust and hate that were directed at me.

Pg. 158-164: The War on Sin

I can't thank the author enough for these pages.

Pg. 168-169: Stand Up for Reason

Reading the book convinced me that I have an obligation to speak up when confronted with religiosity in public. Those of us who cherish reason, logic and freedom must start challenging, with polite firmness, religious dogma when we encounter it. Voicing opposition to faith can be scary and embarrassing - no one likes to be unpopular - but it is our solemn obligation. When we hear phrases such as "God willing" or "God bless you", we must speak up and say "which god? Do you mean Shiva, Thlaloc or Apollo?"  We must cease being afraid to tell people " Sorry, but God is just pretend, and the foolish belief in the supernatural has been directly responsible for untold misery and mayhem throughout the history of the human race."

Pg. 171: The Foundations of Morality and Ethics

Although they play an important role, happiness and minimization of suffering are insufficient anchors for morality and ethics. Objectivism offers a more robust solution: life as Man qua Man. Ron Merrill's extensions are more robust that Rand's original concepts.

Pg. 179 - 181

Harris offers excellent refutations of pragmatism and moral relativism, refuted via the fallacy of the stolen concept. The author's description of realism seems very close to objectivism.

Pg. 183: Math is Cool!

Here we find a nice use of geometric progression to illustrate a point. I also like the old tale of the "grains of rice and the chessboard" - one grain for the first square, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, etc - before reaching the end of the board, the amount of rice exceeded the entire stockpile in the kingdom.

Pg. 185: Self Interest

See note for Pg. 273.

Pg. 186: Treat Others the Way You Want to be Treated

"Should the Golden Rule apply to masochists?" Heh heh.

Pg. 187 - 189: What is Love?

Robert Heinlein offered an interesting definition of love:

"I'll give you an exact definition. When the happiness of another person becomes as essential to yourself as your own, then the state of love exists."
-- Jubal Harshaw to Ben Caxton, Stranger in a Strange Land

 Although this definition does not capture the more subtle metaphysical manifestations of love, it is still very compelling.

Also worth noting is Rand's definition of love, alluded to in Atlas Shrugged by John Galt's in the context of the "virtue of selfishness". He is love with Dagny, and describes how he is willing to commit suicide to save her from torture, because if she is tortured and killed in an attempt to break his will, he would have "no values to live for" afterward.

Pg. 189: When Love is Effective

Still more brilliance on the part of Mr. Harris!

Pg. 191 - 192: The True Meaning of Selfishness

Although Mr. Harris may not be aware of it, his analysis on these pages puts him in agreement with much of Ayn Rand's work. The word "selfish" is commonly misused; look it up in a dictionary (one published prior to ~1930). Selfish simply means: "concern with one's own interests" - it does not mean concern only with one's own interests, nor does it address what those interests are or ought to be; it does not mean that one is entitled to trample the rights of others in pursuit of one's own interests, or sacrifice one's long-term interests while reaching for a temporary pleasure.

The following is an excerpt from the Rational Review on-line:

Selfishness, or rational self-interest, is the ethics of the Objectivist Philosophy. To be "selfish," according to the Oxford Modern English Dictionary, means to be "concerned chiefly with one's own interest." Notice that the definition contains no ethical evaluation, either positive or negative.

Ayn Rand chose the word "selfish" because it most closely denotes the concept of living for one's own sake rather than living primarily for the sake of others. No other word quite captures that idea.

The fact that most people think that being selfish means harming one's fellow man, that pursuing one's own self-interest equates to behaving brutally or irrationally, is, as Ms. Rand noted, a "psychological confession" on their part. In fact it is against one's own long-term self-interest to behave irrationally or trample others. Such actions are the exact opposite of selfish--they're self-destructive.

Pg. 192 - 203: Never Initiate the use of Force or Fraud

The ethical questions posed in this section of the book are among the most ancient, difficult and troubling that face Mankind. I do not pretend to have an easy solution.

When it is justified to kill innocents - not just during warfare or to prevent an attack, but in the pursuit of any goal? This age-old question formed a major portion of the plot in Larry Niven's epic and highly recommended Ringworld series. In book two, The Ringworld Engineers, Louis Wu is faced with an apparent bifurcation: he can save the ~ 10 quadrillion inhabitants of the Ringworld from certain death when the Ringworld grazes it's sun, but in order to accomplish the task he will doom 5% of them to death from radiation poisoning. He chooses to save the Ringworld (and himself), but derives no happiness from the act and is troubled by it for the rest of his very long life. In book three, he learns to his horror that a solution that would have resulted in far fewer deaths had been within his grasp had he only tried a bit harder to discover it.

The present situation in Iraq has certain parallels with Ringworld.  (BTW, I am not a "liberal" and was not opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the same reasons that the Democrats and Bush-haters enunciated). We now know with reasonable certainty that the threat of attack from WMDs obtained via or through Iraq was not as imminent as we were led to believe, and if we had tried a little harder, we might have discovered a means of deposing Saddam Hussein that would not have killed the estimated > 50,000 innocents. The money spent on the war could have been put to far better use in hardening our border, protecting our ports and equipping and deploying hundreds of thousands of agents to infiltrate and destroy terrorists cells that could eventually get their hands on nuclear devices and set them off in western cities.

As I mentioned before, I have no objections to killing or torturing truly evil people.  In this I am guided by one of the fundamental principles of objectivism: "Never initiate the use of force or fraud". If someone else starts a fight, there is nothing wrong with finishing it - quite the opposite; it is one's moral obligation to fight back. In Dershowitz' time-bomb scenario, as long as the terrorist freely admitted his guilt prior to any torture or coercion (as is the case with Bin Ladin or Kahlid Sheik Mohammed), torture is clearly appropriate. They already deserve death, and if we can save people through information gleaned via torture, so much the better.

As Sam Harris correctly points out, the true ethical problem is the danger of accidentally targeting innocents, and he is also correct in concluding that collateral damage from bombs and other instruments of war inflict far more horrific harm on innocent people than would scientific methods of torture. However, that argument cannot be used to justify the accidental torture of innocents - quite the opposite - it drives home the point that collateral damage is inherently evil and must not be tolerated!  Although collateral damage might be justified as unavoidable when striking certain targets (more on this later), that same justification cannot be extended to torture in cases where there is any doubt - i.e. in the absence of an unforced confession - of guilt; torture, by definition, is directed at individuals with deliberation and forethought and is not analogous to a stray bullet or bomb.

Let's stretch the ticking-time-bomb analogy a bit farther, and consider the ethics of torturing the (fully innocent, non-supportive) wife and children of the confessed terrorist who planted the bomb. Suppose he does not crack at the sights and sounds of his family being disemboweled, and the H-bomb still goes off in San Diego harbor. At that point, all we have accomplished is to add to the numbers of innocents who have been harmed by the bastard - at the cost of our own moral fiber.

Consider the book's example of the grandfather's actions as a bomber pilot over Dresden vs killing little girls with a shovel; it is not consistent with your earlier assertion that "when it comes to ethics, intentions are everything". Suppose he believed that killing the little girls with a shovel would benefit Mankind (perhaps he concluded they were witches and would grow up to cast spells). Or, suppose he was a sadist who happened to be a bomber pilot, and greatly enjoyed firebombing people? It's not the intentions that count, it is the result. When you kill evil people, it is a good thing, even if you did it by accident, and when you kill innocent people, it is a bad thing, even if you did it by accident.  The dilemma posed has nothing to do with the intent; we must gauge if the firebombing, in the long run, resulted in less human suffering than if it had not occurred - and not just less suffering to Americans and the Allies, but to all humans, both now and in the future.

Mr. Harris and Glover are correct in pointing out that evolution has not equipped humans with the emotional skills to discern the difference between the death of a million people or the death of one person. It does not seem as salient as it should. Again, this is one of the most powerful arguments for abandoning faith and mysticism in favor of reason, logic and science - i.e., objectivism. Reason must prevail over instincts if the human race is to survive.

The author mentions the disbelief that many people felt when watching the towers fall. There is a simple reason for that disbelief, and that reason also explains why I personally felt absolutely zero incredulity when I heard of the attack on the radio and turned on the television to watch. The reason? The woeful absence of objectivism in modern society. As an objectivist, I know that I am real, the universe is real and that my senses and mind provide me with an accurate depiction of the facts of existence.  I reject traditional mysticism and any philosophy tells me that the universe is unknowable or that axiomatic knowledge is impossible. Therefore, when I see images of disaster and horror on all TV stations, and hear similar eyewitness accounts on multiple radio stations, I do not doubt the facts of reality.

I am no pacifist, and Sam Harris is 100% correct in concluding that pacifism is immoral. Where we differ is in the justification for collateral damage. Who decides which innocent non-combatants must die "for the greater good"? Consider how one would you feel if one's wife and children were "accidentally" killed by the bombs of another nation, who reasoned that Bush was a war-monger and had to be stopped, even if it caused collateral damage? Or consider the problem of capital punishment and the >100 innocents who have been executed in the US since 1776. If one's innocent son was about to receive a lethal injection for a crime he had not committed, would one be able to tell him, "its OK, the benefit that capital punishment affords society is worth the deaths of a few innocent people?"

The author and I concur that it would be wrong to not kill the knife-wielding murderer loose in the city of pacifists. But, if the maniac killed dozens and then disguised himself as a pacifist and hid in the city, should we firebomb it to take him out before he kills again?

Our challenge is to live our lives, enforce our laws, and wage war in a fashion that never results in the death of innocents. Just because it is difficult if not impossible to do so does not mean we should use our failure to achieve this goal as justification for collateral damage.

To our credit, the US went to great lengths to warn Iraq that attack was imminent, allowing those with the means an opportunity to leave Iraq and escape injury. In many ways, those who remained against their will were the equivalent of hostages. That having been said, the Bush administration could have done far more to minimize innocent casualties. I find it morbidly telling that many Christians are willing to die, and also risk civilian casualties, because they believe in the fairy-tale of Heaven and life-after-death. Life is far more precious to atheists, who know that this one shot at life is all we have.

If faced with the choice of saving your child at the cost of killing someone else's, in a one-one trade – we must have the courage to let our child die. If one kills an innocent person by mistake, no matter how lofty the goal, one must be prepared to pay the price for the mistake.

Many people have speculated about what would have happened if the Allies had lost WWII. Instead of the SS being on trial, the bomber pilots who torched Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would probably have been convicted and executed for their actions; the defense of "it was war and I was following orders" would have carried as much weight as when it was offered by the Nazis at Nuremberg. Again, I am not trying to equate our actions with those of the Japanese and the Germans. We did not start the fight - we finished it, and history has shown that our actions, in the long run, resulted in far less death and misery than if the Axis had prevailed.

About 3000 innocent people died on 9/11. Only time will tell if the > 50,000 non-combatants killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a fair price paid - the only measure of success that I can think of will be to never see a terrorist-caused mushroom cloud rising over a city. Should we ever witness that horror, it will be a powerful argument that our actions were wrong and evil.

Even after several pages of discourse, I am no closer to a conclusion. I am terribly afraid that there is no solution, no answer to the dilemma. The only hope I have is for the human race to somehow survive long enough to colonize other worlds, and when we do so, take steps to insure that WMDs are never brought to them nor the means with which to build them.

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle, and cannot be put back.

Pg. 200: The Mean Streets of Prague

The author should not be so hard on himself! There is nothing wrong with lying to evil people. "Reject unearned guilt".  Who cares if it might be possible to "rehabilitate" them? What he did solved the immediate problem, and he escaped injury, living to write his book. Kudos to Mr. Harris for a brilliant solution!

Honesty is a virtue because it is a subset of the virtue of selfishness. When we lie to moral, ethical persons, we only hurt ourselves, because we must then live in fear that other virtuous people will learn of the lie, and as a result can we become a slave to their ignorance; we fear their enlightenment. But, we need not fear that an evil person will learn of a lie told in response to the use of force or fraud – they would only be discovering that we had defeated their evil.

Pg. 205 - 207: Causality and Happiness

If there were no conscious beings in the Universe, capable of perceiving reality, there would be no point to the Universe. It might as well not exist at all. I summarize this concept as follows: "One of the purposes of conscious life is to live and be a aware of as much of the Universe as possible, and thereby lend meaning to Existence". The Universe, in that it has produced at least one planet with life forms capable of observations and self-awareness, has provided meaning for all of Existence.

Only after I became a father did this make complete sense. I have taught Jewell to wake each day with the joyful realization that the day is hers; she represents, as do each of us, the most important thing in existence; her life is essential to the Universe as a whole, because without at least one of us, alive to experience reality at some point in the vastness of spacetime, the Universe - all of Existence - would be meaningless.

Think of the Universe as a beautiful child, that wants to show Daddy a pretty picture it has drawn.

 True happiness is a state of "non-contradictory joy". I know this seems circular, but it is not as circular as it first appears. It means a state of joy that does not require one to fake reality in any way, the joy that comes from living life as Man qua Man and appreciating the beauty of all that is good, productive and rational. It comes from living each day with the knowledge that the Universe has produced the most beautiful and precious object ever created - you - and not squandering your life on trivial or frivolous transitory pleasures.

States of non-contradictory joy can be attained in a variety of ways. They often occur when one is engaged in purposeful activity towards the attainment of a reachable, worthy yet challenging goal. Another common factor is observing something and translating the observation into a description; the act of modeling a portion of the Universe.  Some personal examples include rock-climbing, writing, painting, teaching, photography, pondering philosophy, memorizing poetry (I recently, after years of trying, finally committed The Raven to memory), mastering crosswind landings, amateur astronomy and gardening.

Pg. 208: Physicality of Consciousness: "Life After Death"

In the absence of evidence or a testable hypothesis regarding anything that is unknown, logic requires that we presume nothing. The absence of information about, or evidence of, life after death is insufficient reason to claim that life after death is possible, any more than the absence of information about giant purple gorillas living in underground cities on the far side of the moon means we should consider the possibility they are actually there, munching on giant bananas! Negative proofs are not required to refute fantastic claims in the absence of evidence of same.

Pg. 210 - 212: Self

Years of pondering this question have left me, if anything, more confused than ever. It may not be possible to reach a definitive answer, due to the apparent impossibility of observing one's own consciousness, because by definition, the self is the sink, not the source, of observations – including the observation of thoughts.

 Interestingly, it seems easier to arrive at conclusions about the point of consciousness of another person than my own point of consciousness, notwithstanding that consciousness seems to be a subjective sensation.  When observing other entities similar to me and seemingly self-aware - i.e., other humans and mammals - it is apparent that they make decisions based on sensory input and memories of same. This has lead me, and others, to conclude that  "the I" is that which models the Universe and makes decisions based on that model.

Although the sensation of consciousness is subjective, the experience of consciousness is an axiom (Ron Merrill, Axioms: the Eightfold Way).  David J. Chalmers' suggestion that consciousness can be modeled by postulating it as a fundamental property of existence (in the same manner that we regard mass or charge) is fascinating and holds great promise.  For more information, please read The Puzzle of Consciousness by David Chalmers, December 1995 Scientific American.

Pg. 215: Are We Real?

Is the author certain he really want to convince us that self is an illusion? Because if he really believes it, then either an automaton or an illusion wrote the book -  and then why should we be interested in it?

We ARE real, we DO exist, and our sensations of self-awareness, although subjective by definition, are not an illusion! We must not  fall into the trap that can result from paying attention to many philosophers, who seem, for some unfathomable reason, intent on "proving" that nothing is provable, nothing is real (including themselves), and nothing is knowable. That way lies madness and contradiction! Just relax to the beauty of axiomatic knowledge. It truly is the key to the "spiritual" happiness we all seek.

Although western civilization is far from ideal, neither is eastern. Mystical introspection is pleasant and has produced some useful insights, but has resulted in far fewer useful, tangible advances than has science.

Pg. 218: No Instrument can Directly Observe Itself

The exact nature of consciousness and self-awareness represent one of the most challenging problems of philosophy and science.

Part of the difficulty is that it is impossible for a given instrument to directly observe itself. The eye cannot observe its own retina (although each of our Points of Awareness is the center of our sensory input, including the sensation of consciousness itself.) This is why is seems maddeningly impossible to know "where my thoughts are coming from". But, all is not lost. It is possible to use various "mirrors" such as other self-aware organisms and descriptions of the subjective experiences of awareness to gain insight on the phenomena.

Pg. 221: Rational Mysticism?

I must gently take exception to Mr. Harris' assertion that mysticism is a rational enterprise. Words mean things, and for communication to occur, accepted definitions, with rare exceptions, must be adhered to:




  a. Immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God.

  b. The experience of such communion as described by mystics.

2. A belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible by subjective experience.

3. Vague, groundless speculation.


The above doesn't leave much room for logic, reason or science.

We do agree that the use of certain meditative techniques can be employed as a kind of instrumentation for obtaining information about the subjective sensations that arise from the experience of consciousness. Simply because those techniques are also employed in irrational, mystical endeavors does not mean that mysticism itself is rational or scientific. A typical "mystical" revelation is not testable or falsifiable as required by science and reason.

Pg. 264 (notes to page 174): Free Will

Excellent analysis by Sam Harris, re: "free will does not even correspond to any subjective fact about us." Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem suggests that it is not possible for us to observe our own "self" directly. A possible solution might lie with Chalmers' positing that there exists a fundamental unit of consciousness combined with the idea that "consciousness" is "that which decides."

Gregory Benford, Larry Niven and others offer the interesting concept that a perfectly intelligent, 100% knowledgeable being would have little free will – the correct path to a solution would always be apparent. Perhaps free will means the freedom to make an incorrect choice?

An idea occurred to me while pondering the books sections on mysticism. Could it be possible through TM to cause a portion of one's mind to act as a kind of recording device that would "take notes" about the subjective sensation of consciousness, free will and the process of generating new thoughts, so that one could go back and access those notes at a later time to gain insight on free will? Language is not well-suited to describing these kinds of concepts.

Pg. 269 (notes to pg 181): Objective Reality is Naive and Unfashionable?

The refutation of the argument in footnote 21 is trivial: fallacy of the stolen concept. As mentioned several times previously, implicit in any argument or statement that one utters, in any words one pens or even in any thoughts that one thinks, is the presumption that logic is valid and  that we and the Universe exist in a form very similar to that which we perceive with our senses and measure with our instruments. It is irrational to accept the ideas you presented in the book as  true and real if there is no underlying reality to the Universe as a whole, or to the author and his book in particular.

Mr. Harris should just relax and accept the reality of his existence. Doing so greatly simplifies all aspects of philosophy and science. Methinks he has been hanging out too much with the enemies of reason and logic.

 Pg. 273: What is Good?

The "good" is that which maximizes a life as Man qua Man. Transient, short-term pleasures, such as stuffing one's face with ice-cream or raunchy sex with prostitutes, are not good because in the long-term they are harmful to you. For an in-depth discussion, please read Ron Merrill's The Ideas of Ayn Rand.

Pg. 277 (notes to pages 199-202): Confront Evil!

Footnote 40 is very good. I suggest extending it to apply whenever people foolishly proclaim that only faith can provide a foundation for morality and ethics. Don't just sit idly by and let unchallenged religion do harm to Mankind!


Mr. Harris deserves congratulations for writing this stunning and amazing book. It is a must-read for all rational people.

Ron Merrill was a brilliant, clear-thinking post-Randian Objectivist. Here's his excellent essay on Axiomatic foundations.

Ronald E. Merrill copyright 1994


Ronald E. Merrill

[revised December 18, 1994]

The notion of an "axiom" plays an absolutely crucial role in any Aristotelian philosophical system, including Objectivism. Because axioms constitute the ultimate tap-root of our entire system of knowledge, we ought to be very clear on what we mean by the term "axiom," what axioms there are, and how we know them to be true.

From Axioms to Postulates

In any logical structure of propositions, there must be some starting point. Not every true statement in the system can be proved by deductive reasoning from other statements, or we would have an infinite regression. These primary or source statements, on which the others are based and from which the others are proved, are known as axioms. This is the most general sense of the term.

The question instantly arises: How do we know that the axioms we wish to use are true?

Historically, the ancient Greeks conceived of axioms as being self-evident truths. Aristotle, as we shall see presently, refined and extended this view in a way that made the concept of "axiom" much stronger. However, the looser view was retained by Euclid (or at least his followers; see Kline 1972, 59-60) in his systematic organization of geometry as an axiom-based set of deductive proofs.

Euclidean geometry was based on a series of assertions about geometry that were considered unquestionably true or "self-evident." But "self-evident," in practice, generally is interpreted as "obvious." This invites the obvious rejoinder, "Well, it isn't obvious to me." This was a problem, right at the start, for Euclid. Certainly it seemed self-evident or obvious that, for instance, "it is possible to describe a circle with any center and radius". But another axiom of his system struck him, and subsequent geometers, as not quite self-evident: "That if a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles are less than the two right angles."

Modern mathematics may be said to have begun with the practice, stimulated by the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, of regarding axioms as arbitrary postulates. Mathematicians no longer appealed to intuitive or obvious truths as the basis for their systems. For, they realized, they could not even rigorously define the entities (such as "point" or "line") to which these "self-evident" propositions referred! So, in at least one view, mathematical entities such as geometrical "points" had no necessary correlation to reality. A mathematical system should be just the logical consequences of a set of chosen postulates, about entities which are defined simply as that to which the postulates apply (Kramer 1970, 42-60). Of course, mathematicians do not choose postulates at random; they seek axiom sets that will result in meaningful systems that can, however indirectly, be related to the physical world. Nonetheless, mathematical axioms are no longer regarded as having inherent truth; their validity, if any, can only be ascribed to the usefulness of the structures they generate.

The epistemology of mathematics is beyond the scope of this essay (see Jetton 1991 and Kline 1972, 1192-1210, for an overview of some of these issues). What is relevant is that this notion of axioms as arbitrary has diffused back from mathematics into philosophy. If there is a unifying principle to modern philosophy, it is the conviction that knowledge cannot be grounded on any set of propositions that are indisputably true.

The explicit denial of the possibility of axiomatic knowledge is of course ultimately equivalent to philosophical relativism. It is generally conceded to be indefensible, though philosophers such as Feyerabend seem, at least to their critics, to take this position (Laudan 1990). More commonly it is taken that some propositions are irrefutably true, but that no knowledge about reality can be deduced from them; they are "analytic" and tell us nothing beyond the definitions of the terms used in them. (For a refutation of this viewpoint, see Peikoff 1990.) There is also the strict Kantian viewpoint, in which synthetic a priori judgments are presupposed by all knowledge--but which cannot prove anything about reality; they merely express the "categories" that limit the operation of the human mind (Machan 1985, 105-106).

The foundationalist program cannot be executed at all if axioms are regarded as arbitrary postulates with no inherent truth. It cannot be executed effectively if axioms are taken to be intuitively true--merely "obvious" or "self-evident". We require a stronger and stricter notion of what axioms are; and this is just what was provided for us by Aristotle.

What Are Axioms?

The axioms we seek are statements of inherent truth, that is, something that we know to be true without demonstration from some other, prior, statement. Rather than "self-evident," the term we are looking for is, perhaps, "undeniable." In this sense, an axiom is a statement which must be true because it cannot be denied. More than this, an axiom is "inescapable." It cannot be denied because its truth is assumed in making any statement. This is not a matter of some particular reductio ad absurdem which can be demonstrated on the specific denial of the axiom. (Otherwise, the irrationality of the square root of two, for instance, would be axiomatic.) As usual, this issue has been anticipated and dealt with by Aristotle.

However, the impossibility of a thing both being and not being can be proved by refutation, if only one's opponent says something. If he says nothing, it is absurd to seek to give an account of the matter to a man who cannot himself give an account of anything; for insofar as he is already like this, such a man is no better than a vegetable. . . the right way to start is not to ask one's opponent to say that something is or is not so (since this might be thought to be begging the question), but rather to ask him to say something that has meaning both for himself and for someone else. For this he must do if he is to say anything at all. Otherwise, he could not engage in discussion either with himself or with anyone else. But if he grants this request . . . [Aristotle 1963, Metaphysics IV]

It will be seen that Aristotle regards this axiom (the principle of non-contradiction) as being not merely undeniable in and of itself, but inescapable in asserting any proposition whatsoever: the opponent cannot "say anything at all" without assuming the truth of this axiom. As Machan puts it, "axiomatic concepts identify facts which ground the possibility of all thought." (Machan 1992, 44; compare Rand 1990, 59.)

Note also that Aristotle here brings out the point that the undeniability of axioms is not merely a matter of a debating position. Just as one cannot argue against an axiom with another person without being immediately enmeshed in self-contradiction, one cannot deny an axiom even privately, in one's own thoughts. For to do so is to destroy one's own ability to think. Aristotle reaffirms and expands on this in the Posterior Analytics.

Axioms and Axiomatic Concepts

In Aristotelian philosophies, the correspondence idea of truth is used; that is, truth is congruence to reality (cf. Jetton 1992a, 1992b, 1992c). In the context of discussion of axioms, this means that they are more than subjectively true. That is, axioms are not merely necessary in order for us to debate or to think about reality (as with Kant's "categories"); they are inherently true of reality itself, independent of human thought.

Immanuel Kant rejected the pre-Aristotelian view of philosophical axioms as intuitively true propositions. (He accepted, though, mathematical "axioms" of this sort.) He replaced axioms with "principles" and "judgments" that are "true" only as an artifact of epistemology. In his view, we must, for instance, take it as true that contradictions cannot exist because this is necessary for our minds to operate. It does not, however, imply that contradictions cannot exist in the ultimate, "noumenal" reality. (See for instance Kant 1958, 18.) It is simply that we cannot think or perceive without organizing our thoughts by means of "categories" which preclude the possibility of contradiction. (Durant 1926, pp. 202-207)

What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibility, remains completely unknown to us . We know nothing but our mode of perceiving them--a mode which is peculiar to us, and not necessarily shared in by every being, though, certainly, by every human being. (Kant 1958, p. 54)

Ayn Rand broke through this position by recognizing an axiom that Kant denied: the axiom of consciousness. By taking it as axiomatic that things-as-we-perceive-them are things-as-they-are, she re-validated Aristotle's conception of axioms as objective facts about the organization of reality, rather than subjective facts about the organization of the human mind.

Nonetheless, Rand focused primarily on the epistemological function of axioms. In particular, her theory of concept-formation had to have a role for them, which is filled by the notion of "axiomatic concepts." Specifically, she cited the concepts of existence, identity, and consciousness as axiomatic. These concepts are epistemologically inescapable, because they must be used in any act of concept-formation. Thus, for instance, the method of measurement omission already requires the concept of identity for its operation. One cannot grasp "relationships among these entities by grasping similarities and differences of their identities" (Rand 1990, 6) without already having the notion of identity. Thus Rand asserts that "identity" is an axiomatic concept, "perceived or experienced directly, but grasped conceptually" (Rand 1990, 55).

I want to stress, though, how crucial it is to recognize that axiomatic concepts arise because, and only because, the underlying axioms are true in reality. Kant viewed axioms (which he called "principles of judgment") as essentially epistemological; axiomatic concepts (which he called "categories") reflect only the structure of the human mind. Rand views axioms as essentially metaphysical; axiomatic concepts exist because they reflect the nature of reality, to which human thought must conform if it is to understand reality.

It will be seen that I am disagreeing--though I think more in emphasis than on fundamentals--with Tibor Machan, who states: "It is axiomatic concepts, not propositions, that serve as the first principles of Rand's philosophy." (Machan 1992, 32.) It is the axioms as metaphysical propositions that are really fundamental; if axioms were merely conceptual constructs, we would be back with the Kantian categories.

An Organization of Axioms

Very well, then. What statements are axioms? I am going to suggest that there are eight axioms, falling into three categories. (Of course other ways of organizing these fundamental truths could be proposed.)

First, there are three logical axioms (cf. Johnson 1987, 4). These are the basic laws of Aristotelian logic.

The Law of the Excluded Middle is Rand's "either-or". Every statement is either true or false.

Attempts have been made to construct "non-Aristotelian" or so-called "multi-valued logics." (Cf. Kramer 1970, 132-133.) But no such structure is truly assertable; to make an assertion is to claim that something is true rather than false. Note the absurdity of attempting to claim that it is true that a "three-valued" logic is valid, and therefore Aristotelian logic is invalid.

The Law of Contradiction requires that no statement may be simultaneously true and false. As Aristotle points out, in the passage quoted above, it is impossible to argue, or even to think, without accepting this principle.

The third law of logic is usually given in the form that "the denial of a true statement is false, and the denial of a false statement is true". Here again we have a proposition that is quite literally undeniable; for to deny it is to assert that it is not necessarily false!

The three logical axioms are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of truth.

Taken together, they may be formulated as the axiomatic statement: There is such a thing as truth. That this is undeniable and inescapable is clear; for if there is no such thing as truth, there is no such thing as falsehood, and one cannot assert that this (or any other statement) is false.

The logical axioms apply to truth in all meaningful senses of the word, not just the correspondence meaning of truth. More specifically, they define the coherence meaning of truth. We thus must rely on them in constructing systems of mathematical "truth". Similarly, we must use them when considering the metaphysical subjunctive. For instance, we may construct an imaginary universe, such as the "Life" universe (cf. Levy 1992) or other models using cellular automata, or the two-dimensional physical universe described in The Planiverse (Dewdney 1984). These are metaphysically subjunctive systems ("assumption contrary to fact"--the way the universe could be if it weren't the way it is) so that the correspondence meaning of truth cannot apply within them. (On the correspondence meaning of truth all we can say is that the entire system is false, that is, not the way the universe is.) Still, we may find it useful to require that such a subjunctive system be internally self-consistent. (Or as much so as possible; one may hypothesize that we live in the only completely self-consistent universe; see below).

Second, there are three metaphysical axioms. These are the axioms of existence, of identity, and of causality.

Rand takes it as axiomatic that "existence exists" (Rand 1961, 152). That is, there is something; the universe is not empty. This, again, is undeniable; if nothing exists, who is denying it, and to whom is he addressing his denial? Moreover, it is inescapable; one cannot assert anything to be correspondence-true without the assumption that a reality exists to which it corresponds.

The second metaphysical axiom, the axiom of identity, is Rand's "A is A." If something exists, then some thing, some specific thing with a specifiable identity, must exist. A thing is itself and cannot simultaneously be something else with a different identity. This axiom is equivalent to asserting that the laws of logic apply to the material universe. (Or: that everything which is correspondence-true is also coherence-true.) Again, this is undeniable and inescapable; if any statement about reality can be both true and false, how can anything be asserted of it?

Third, we have the axiom of causality. This may be taken to state that everything in the universe has a cause in the general Aristotelian (rather than the limited modern) sense. If some particular entity has certain characteristics at a given point in time, or some particular event occurs, there is a reason for it. It doesn't "just happen." This is equivalent to saying that the contents of the universe are related, that they in some way interact. Of course, if they do, they must do so in accord with logic, that is, there must be a reason for the behavior to occur as it does. Just as the axiom of identity asserts that logic applies to the properties of entities; so the axiom of causality asserts that the laws of logic apply to the properties of change. Again this is undeniable and inescapable; for if anything could become anything else without restriction, no entity could have an identity. (Cf. Rand 1961, 188.)

(We need not necessarily exclude the possibility of "metaphysical chance"; it is conceivable that causality may apply stochastically. For instance, there might be no specific cause for the decay of a particular radium atom, but a cause for the decay of radium atoms as a class which inclusively causes the decay of each one at some random time.)

These three metaphysical axioms are equivalent to an assertion of the correspondence meaning of truth. Taken together, they say that there are true statements about reality.

Finally, there are two epistemological axioms. These are the axioms of consciousness and volition. (Though I refer to them as "epistemological," they are just as much assertions about reality as the other axioms. They are not merely statements we are built to believe are true; they are true.)

The axiom of consciousness asserts that it is possible for consciousness (the perception of reality) to exist. This is undeniable and inescapable; he who denies it denies that he is conscious; since he cannot perceive reality, how can he make any assertions about what is possible or not possible? (Cf. Peikoff 1991, 5, 9-10.)

The axiom of volition asserts that free will is possible. Again, this is undeniable and inescapable. He who denies it is claiming that he is a deterministic mechanism; by what means does he establish that he is not merely programmed to deny volition, or indeed to make any other statement? (Cf. Branden 1963.)

The two epistemological axioms are equivalent to the statement (also of course axiomatic) that it is possible to know the truth.

Summing up, we may say that the three groups of axioms differ ultimately only in their scope:

The logical axioms apply to everything that can be true.
The metaphysical axioms apply to everything that is true.

The epistemological axioms apply to everything that is known to be true.

The Interdependence of Axioms

It may be objected that the axioms as I have presented them are not independent. For instance, the axiom of volition bears a clear logical relationship to the axiom of consciousness. In fact, I suggest that it is a general characteristic of axioms (as opposed to arbitrary postulates) that they are non-independent. This is a necessary implication of the fact that axioms are inescapable.

Thus the postulates of Euclidean geometry are quite independent. Any one of them (not just the Parallel Postulate) may be replaced, while retaining the others, to create a new system. They have this independence precisely because they are mere postulates.

On the other hand, the three laws of logic, even though they are not logically equivalent, are completely interdependent; if any of them were false, neither of the others could be true. For if any one of them were false, there would be no such thing as truth. In the same way, it would not be possible for existence to exist if entities did not have identity. As Rand puts it, "Existence and identity are not attributes of existents, they are the existents." (Rand 1990, p. 56) Each and every axiom is inescapable--that is, it is assumed in every assertion made (within its context of applicability), including the assertion of another axiom.

Peikoff takes the position that some of the propositions I have characterized as axioms are actually "corollaries." (Peikoff 1991, 15-16) I put the term in quotes because he uses "corollary," not in the usual sense, but as: a statement which is "self-evident" once one has grasped the underlying axiom. This seems to express an over-anxious desire to defy Cartesian rationalism by carrying the "primacy of existence" to the ultimate extreme. The implied program is to demonstrate the literal truth of Rand's statement that her system is rooted in the single axiom that existence exists (Rand 1960, 152).

To account for all axiomatic knowledge as merely "the implications of 'existence exists'" is, to my mind, at best a tortuous exercise. But in the final analysis, my position and Peikoff's share the view that the various axioms must by their nature be taken together as an inseparable whole.

Do Axioms Matter?

There are opponents of the Aristotelian or Objectivist philosophies who say they will concede the validity of these (or equivalent) axioms, yet assert that they have no actual practical content.

Hollinger, for instance, summarizes Rand's fundamental axioms (including "existence exists") then remarks:

This clearly will not do. Unless Rand's philosophy can be supported by more than the four axioms cited above, or until it can be shown that these axioms support only her philosophy, it will be difficult to take her views seriously. That is, she must show that her remarks are not merely the banalities they seem to be. (Hollinger 1984, 40.)

This sort of view seems to underestimate the potentialities of axiomatic systems. Consider, for example, the Peano Axioms which underlie the field of arithmetic and number theory. (These are, of course, not "axioms" in the strict sense used above, but postulates.) Here we have five propositions of stunning banality; for example: "'One' is a number." Yet these five statements, which seem to contain hardly any real information content, give rise to a literally infinite library of complex theorems. (Cf. Fulks 1961, 3-15.) We repeatedly encounter logical systems, not only in mathematics, but in other fields, in which a few trivial-seeming axioms generate subtle and intricate results with extraordinary fruitfulness. Among fields of knowledge which have been axiomatized with greater or lesser success are thermodynamics (cf. Thompson 1972, 32-52), quantum mechanics (cf. Jammer 1974, 384-399), and economics (von Mises 1966).

So we should not rule out the possibility that the axioms presented above, with the assistance of some minimal observational input, could generate significant knowledge. That would seem to be Rand's view. For instance, she appears to take the position that quantum-mechanical tunneling is impossible (Rand 1990, 293), and that a vacuum cannot exist (Rand 1990, 303). These facts can be known, she asserts, in advance of scientific experiment. Along the same lines, it is interesting to note that the axiom of consciousness appears to place very strict constraints on the laws of physics, and, in conjunction with a few basic physical principles, may even be able to circumscribe the values of physical constants such as the speed of light. (This assertion, the "Anthropic Principle," has generated heated debate. Cf. Leslie 1989; Carter 1990; Swinburne 1990.)

However, unlike mathematical postulates, philosophical axioms should not be expected to be "fertile," that is, capable of generating a body of knowledge by deduction. In the passages cited, Rand stresses that philosophy can delimit what is possible, but only science can determine what possibilities are actual. It is clear that Objectivism does not aim at developing philosophy as a system of deductive implications from its axioms, in the manner of the rationalists. For Rand, the purpose of axioms is to ground the knowledge gained by the senses, not to replace it.

So let us set aside the possibility of carrying out a rationalist program. We may still assert, contrary to Hollinger, that the Randian axioms (whether in her own words, or in the formulation I have presented) delineate a distinct philosophical position. Certainly Ayn Rand believed so; she said of Objectivism: "If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows." (Cf. Binswanger 1986, 344.) This position is endorsed by other Objectivists, including those who vigorously disagree on certain specific issues (Peikoff 1991, 4; Kelley 1990, 63).

From the opposite perspective, one may ask: What modern philosophers would agree with the above eight axioms without reservation? Certainly no thinker in the tradition of Plato, of Hume, or of Kant could accept them all. Pragmatists, Logical Positivists, Linguistic Analysts--all these would have difficulty agreeing with these axioms. Can one imagine Rorty, Feyerabend, or Kuhn signing on to them?

Of course, philosophers who do agree to these axioms may yet differ because of disagreement about empirical facts. But in any case, surely we may conclude that only a relatively small subset of philosophical worldviews is compatible with acceptance of the eight axioms above. There is a sheaf of neo-Aristotelian philosophies, including Objectivism, that would claim to be consistent with them. Many other philosophical positions are excluded by them. So these axioms, whether "banal" or not, do carry some content; they are not trivial bromides that tell us nothing of use.

Axioms as Foundations of Knowledge

As Tibor Machan clearly explains, Rand's foundationalism is in a sense both rationalist and empiricist (Machan 1992). He brings out two key, and related, points. First, axioms ground not only deductive but inductive knowledge. Second, axioms themselves are known, not by pure introspection or ideation, but by abstraction from experience.

I think this position, though correct, is perhaps stated too weakly. In my view Objectivist epistemology, consistently applied, cannot even accept the traditional distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning as means of knowing reality. Denial of this dichotomy is at the conceptual root of the Rand-Peikoff argument against the analytic-synthetic dichotomy (Peikoff 1990). Strictly speaking, Rand's theory of concepts does not leave any room for pure a priori knowledge, for nothing can be known prior to or without reference to experience; all concepts are formed from percepts.
Similarly, Objectivism cannot recognize pure a posteriori knowledge, for nothing can be understood without application (explicit or implicit) of axiomatic concepts; all percepts are integrated by means of these concepts.

Rand's crucial insight is that all knowledge is empirical--that is, derived from perception of reality--and yet that we can be certain of empirical knowledge. Empirical knowledge is not merely "inductive," something only probably true because derived by statistical inference. Organization of our perceptual inputs by means of axioms, which are inescapably true, is what allows us to achieve certainty.

So the axiomatic method of reasoning is more than a technique of argument useful for refuting philosophical skeptics. It provides us with a method of grounding fundamental truths about reality. This makes the use of axiomatic reasoning a crucial resource in dealing with issues of causality and the problem of primaries, which lie at the root of the epistemology of science.


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