Wednesday, April 20, 2011

OTI post #5 - validation and importance

Okay, so I comprehend what each means, but what of their validation? And why all the song and dance anyway?

The three statements as self-evident
The question of validating the three propositions is the question of what is the evidence for them. The simple fact is that once the meaning is understood, the evidence required is entirely perceptual: all I need do to satisfy myself is look and see by myself for myself. What need is there for me to engage in complex argument and rigorous thought to accept that existence exists, when all I need do is look for myself and see that a whole bunch of things exist, that I can unite every single one of them all together by that fact under the term ‘existent’, and refer to their totality as ‘existence’? What need have I for complex argument to accept the fact that I am conscious when all I need to is observe myself in the act of observing and contemplating anything in existence and let alone recognise myself having arrived at such a grand abstraction as “existence”? What need have I for complex argument to accept that things are of certain natures when everything I have ever come into contact with, and everything I have ever had reason to infer was present, was always something specific possessing definite characteristics and which made its existence known by definite means by way of those characteristics? Moreover on the nature of things, what need have I for complex argument to tie that fact with existence when the simple observation that to be something is to be something is also perfectly clear in the perceptual evidence?

In all three cases, including the additional material in tying them together, is all right there before my eyes. All I had to do was look at the world to come to understand the meaning of each concept in each statement and then look back at the world again to recognise the truth of each statement involving those concepts by the statements being descriptions of my observations of the world. Note then that to comprehend the meaning of the three statements is to possess the evidence for them, because that evidence - the observations that lead to them - is required in order to grasp them. This means that the three statements - that existence exists, that consciousness is conscious, and that a thing is itself - are their own evidence for their truth. In short, they are self-evident.

The broadest meaning of the self-evident

The three statements are not the only things that are self-evident. To be self-evident means precisely that: something is its own evidence. What this means in practice is that the fact in question is perceptual level, that one need only look and see (or use any of the other senses) to discover that the truth is graspable directly from the perceptual evidence. In fact, it was by beginning with individual concrete-level observations that even an infant not yet mobile can grasp and then successively integrating these observations the conceptual scope that the statements were arrived at in the first place. It is these individual concretes that are the root of the self-evident, wherein the statements have no truth other than as grand descriptions of all these concretes integrated together.

I’ll use Dr Peikoff’s example of a tomato - which I do partly because it is convenient, partly because it so happens that my boss recently gave me some home-grown tomatoes for helping her father with a transportation task, and partly because tomatoes and I have a history. The evidence for the existence of an object that I’ve come to know is an instance of a class of objects known as “tomatoes” is the fact that one happened to be right there in front of me, before my eyes and then in my hand etc. It too was its own evidence - it was there, giving me evidence of itself by means of this red object being placed by me on a cutting board, by means of having a certain texture and messiness when sliced, by it having a smell that was slight yet distinctive to members of that class, by it having a lightly acidic taste that is also distinctive to that class, and so on.

Unfortunately, you’re going to have to take my word on all that particular example now because I’ve since eaten the evidence. I was going to show you it again with some cheese, but I ate that too. Ditto two slices of buttered white bread, some iodised salt, and some cracked pepper. Sorry. But in any event you can see self-evidency for yourself on anything else anyway. That is, what applies to tomatoes applies to anything else that is directly perceivable, my tea, my computer, my home, and ditto your computer, your home, etc etc. The self-evident in its most general meaning, accordingly, is that which is directly perceivable because the evidence for it is itself. This applies to the three statements as well as concrete instances because of the simple method by which one validates them: look and see, ie identify their truth directly from perception.

The self-evident contra the obvious

One fact about the self-evident must be observed at this point: a given truth being self-evident is not synonymous with it being obvious. It is not always the case that self-evident truths are such that anyone can look at the perceptual data and rattle off the express statement of the facts so observed as though this were a piece of cake. This does hold in the case of the concrete-level self-evidencies - eg that there is a keyboard beneath my fingers and a cup of tea sitting to my right - but it doesn’t hold for the three statements, which should have been clear in the lengths I had to go to in order to isolate the meanings of the concepts in the statements - and that was with the benefit of prior knowledge of the concepts and the statements involving them.

Consider the history behind the three statements. If we begin from just the survivors of the Toba Catastrophe, the human race as we would genetically identify with it as of today had been existence for at least seventy thousand years (and, properly, greatly longer than even that) before the concepts were first explicitly used and contemplated by philosophers. Indeed, a scientific approach to philosophy in general did not exist until the work of Thales of Miletus in the 7th century BC, where prior to that what existed for professional inquiry and thought was religion. Then one can count around three hundred years from Thales to Aristotle, and also just over a thousand years between Thales and Augustine (ie if Dr Peikoff is right about Augustine being the first to draw express attention to the existence of consciousness operating actively as a definite faculty). From there, to go from just the concepts to the full statements was, at minimum, another fifteen hundred years. Even accounting for the Dark Age period there were many high-calibre thinkers in that period - not just in Europe (don’t forget al-Andalus, btw) but also to the south and to the east - who had awareness of the works of those past thinkers yet did not formulate what Ayn Rand did. Alongside the context of knowledge of previous work it took acts of genius to formulate the concepts, the precursors to the statements, and finally Rand’s statements themselves. The idea that the three statements are obvious is ludicrous.

Yet be the requisite acts of genius to originate matters as they may, validation is a simple matter for me - and for any other adult with a functioning mind - because the statements are nevertheless still self-evident. All that I or anyone else need to do to verify them is look at reality directly, remember the meanings of the concepts involved - which themselves were built from integrations originating in perceptions - and complete the conceptualisation process by integrating the perceptual data with the individual concepts to validate the facts described by the three statements. And that is precisely what I did, with the point of the considerable discussion being what is necessary to identify how to isolate the meanings down to the concrete-level self-evidencies that a child begins with. Now that I’ve isolated the meanings for you, you go do it too.

Origination by one person is a separate issue from validation by another. Each of us is in the latter position, where, in that position, all we need to do is go straight to perceptual data - and that is what is meant by the self-evident.

The statements as foundations of knowledge

Looking at the above, at the commonality in self-evidency between the concretes and the statements, two interesting facts become apparent. Then, from these facts, certain conclusions must be drawn.

The statements as the widest integrations possible to man

The first interesting fact is that the three statements are clearly the widest integrations of observations of concretes that is possible to me. The process starts with me having an object in me hand and observing that “this exists” and, in the manner already described when analysing existence, moves upwards from there. I integrate my observation of this object with other objects I observe, and so, step by step, I can successively recast my observation of the self-evident as “this particular tomato exists”, “this particular piece of fruit exists,” “this particular plant matter exists,” “this particular animate matter exists,” and “this particular entity / existent exists.” The latter is where it stops, as there is nothing else to integrate all that exists with into identification of an even wider class of things. The same process is evident in me observing that “I know that this particular object exists” etc all the way to “I know that this existent exists,” from which at some point I finally explicitly noted that I can know. Likewise it is evident that things are always something in particular, no matter how broad my understanding of what type of thing something in particular is and how broad its connections with other things is, where the broadest connection is that they are things that exist and also recognise that something existing is always something existing.

What applies to me applies to anyone else who shares my kind of consciousness - ie this applies to all men. For all men, the perception of a tomato is the evidence of the existence of that tomato, evidence of each man being conscious of that tomato he perceives, and evidence of that tomato being that particular entity with such and such characteristics. All observation points to this procedure and its results being applicable to anything and not just tomatoes, that whenever you identify anything you have evidence for the existence of something, evidence for your ability to be conscious of the existence and the nature of something (and also by particular means, which will be explored later), and evidence of that something being something, no matter what that something is.

Now, neither I nor anyone else had to perform every single possible intermediate step of integrating entities into wider and wider classifications between child-level concepts like tomato and the top-level concept of existent, but at some point each man can draw the ultimate conclusions and arrive at concepts that cannot be seen as instances of anything wider. Different men will draw that conclusion at different points in the development of their own knowledge - and some never do at all - but it isn’t necessary to have knowledge of every single intermediate in order to realise that this final step is there for the taking. And then, after that, all further observations and classification of things consists of reorganising known intermediates and recognising more intermediates.

For instance, it was once believed that living organisms were divided into plants and animals but it has since been discovered that there are living organisms that are neither. For one thing, after a lot of investigation and with much still-ongoing controversy, a new classificatory layer was interposed between “plants and animals” and “living things.” Plants and animals are now recognised as types of “eukaryota”, which higher-level grouping shares equal billing with “archaea” and “bacteria” as the three “domains” of living organisms. For another thing, there are also now known to be other kingdoms that share equal billing with plants and animals within the eukaryota domain, such as amoebozoas and fungi - that too is a matter of controversy.

Similar discoveries and reclassifications, naturally attendant with controversies to match, have been made and will continue to be made in all avenues of investigation. But whatever discoveries there are in future, and however the attendant controversies may be resolved in future, they will only ever be reclassifications of an within a particular structure that sits alongside other structures as part of a larger structure all beneath the concept of “existent”. We do not need to make any more discoveries or resolve any controversies in order to recognise that “existent” is that top-most concept of things. Again, the same process applies to the concepts of consciousness and identity for all men just as it did for me.

The statements as implicit in all observations

The second interesting fact is that every single observation I ever made and I ever will make has always been and will always be evidence of the three statements by being instances. More critically, there had always been at least some degree of acceptance of that evidence as evidence in every single observation. Certainly, only now as an experienced person capable of identifying abstractions have I formed the explicit concepts in the statements, but nevertheless it becomes clear that I had always been operating on the basis of the three statements being true by way of relying on concrete examples whenever I acted.

For instance, I recall as a five-year-old cautiously starting to eat a bit of this sloppy, red, lumpy-ring-shaped thing I’d never seen before, instantly disliking it and spitting it out (my tastes have changed since then). I had absolutely none of the knowledge of tomatoes then as I do now, yet even in that first experience it was implicit that this thing existed, that I knew this thing existed, and that this thing was a definite something. Ditto the experiences of my brother, who as a regular two-year-old reacted to this strange and horrible thing by throwing the remains of his own against a wall, and also my mother when making our lunches that day over thirty years ago, and again by me at lunch time today, on the part of my boss’s farmer father and my boss herself last week, and everyone else in any way involved with tomatoes (eg the kids stocking shelves at the local Woollies supermarket).

That was just for tomatoes, but more observation shows that the same applies for any entity that I or anyone else has observed. In fact, it is an inherent part of development of human consciousness. The perception of entities is automatised very early in life. One can see this in how infants soon begin reaching for objects to examine them more closely or to use them in some way, and how after that their existence is taken for granted. He gets hungry, so reaches for his bottle when offered to him. He gets fascinated by the pretty coloured objects dangling above him, begins swatting them and sees them spin around as his little fingers make contact with these objects. When he wants to see better what is going on beyond the confines of his crib he figures out then takes for granted how he can use the uprights and cross-beam of a crib-wall for support when he pulls himself to his feet. When he is free to move around on his hands and knees he crawls towards things that interest him. And so on - in all of which existence, consciousness, and identity are implicit. Indeed, the three facts are implicit in having any sensory data whatever: it is data about something, held by someone, and of a specific nature.

So, from my experience with tomatoes, countless similar observations of my and others’ interactions with other entities besides tomatoes, seeing how it is inherent in the life of man right from infancy, and seeing how it is implicit in the mere possession of sensory data of any kind, this principle is clearly generalisable to all observations by all men. The three concepts at the heart of the three statements are implicit in all observations by man, and in turn so is the truth of the three statements built from them.

The three statements as foundations

Okay, identifying the top-most concepts in conceptual hierarchies is very nice, but all the above seems like a lot of effort to get what otherwise appears to be a rather underwhelming result. What other good do they serve? Rand went to a lot of trouble for them, and was adamant about their importance. I see that they are so, but what can I see for myself that would justify highlighting that they are so?

Here again I must accept I am very much only a philosophy-for-Rearden type. There is of course no shame in this, and perhaps I nevertheless can offer a few original leads here and there for the philosophy-for-Akston types to pursue more rigorously, but this does mean I must rely on others for origination. I’ll get to this later, as first here are two things I figured out for myself before I looked it up in ItOE.

The first, and of personal historical importance to me, is that it is an express recognition that facts are facts and one can KNOW things. One of my earliest memories, around age 4 I think, was of me in pre-school one day making paintings in class. At the end of it the teacher was remarking on the various paintings we made. My offering that day was merely an enormous black blob... which the teacher gushed over and said “look, John’s painted Incy Wincy Spider!” Nuh-uh, Miss. It had nothing whatever to do with Incy Wincy Spider, and in fact was not an attempt to paint anything in particular at all. There was some mildly dark mood I was in at the time, and I recall painting that mess over the top of something else (I don’t think it was even mine to paint over, to tell the truth) with no aim in mind. More importantly, when she made those comments I recall thinking “You are wrong” with finality. I didn’t say anything, partly because not disabusing her kept her off my back, but mostly because I had no desire to express the mood I was in at the time. Her praise meant nothing to me (I recall actually holding her in contempt for that), nor did praise from any other child (I don’t think any other kid actually said anything anyway, not that I took much notice) - I was content to think privately (I still am - the folks I met at OCON08 remarked on how quiet I am IRL).

The more I think back on this incident the more I think that it was more formative than I had previously recognised. It is the earliest point in my life that I can recall in which I realised that there was a definite distinction between that which is and that which people say is. Now as an adult I can see it was my first explicit introduction to the facts that what exists, exists, that what exists is of a certain nature irrespective of opinion, and that there are such things as knowing the truth about what exists and being mistaken. And, in relation to the question of the importance of the three statements, it was the first point in time in which I stood alone with my own judgement, quietly adamant that I was fit to judge things and people because I could see and know the truth for myself. The discovery of the three statements is in part built from experiences like these, but a key purpose of making them explicit is in justifying taking the kind of attitude I expressed as a pre-schooler - that I can and must make my own judgement of that which exists as based on observed facts - for any and all investigations of reality.

Nine years later the essence of that incident was repeated, with equal finality but with vastly greater scope and importance. No prizes for guessing the nature of this incident. By this time I was one of the oldest children in Sunday School with the local Salvation Army, and had in fact been picked out for inclusion in a decidedly adult prayer meeting totally apart from any regular services (I never found out why). Well then, if these people are going to treat me increasingly like an adult and expect me to start acting like one, I had better do just that. So I did, and began reading the Bible all on my own, without prompting and without a study group. I don’t recall the time-frame, but eventually I ran across Paul’s infamous exhortation for women to stay silent etc. I did not ask anyone else for clarification or whatnot, I didn’t need to! The majority of the instructors in Sunday School were women - which included the Captain’s wife and another woman who was a major organiser of events and the like - all of whom I respected and gave me no reason to think that them being women had any significance for the questions of true and false and of right and wrong. So, when I read Paul’s letter to Timothy, thought to myself with unshakable conviction “this guy’s an arsehole!”

Me being me, the inevitable happened: I took a step back intellectually, and recognised that if I could see that this guy, who is a major figure in Christianity, can be not just mistaken but most definitely a prick, why should I take any part of this Bible seriously? I don’t recall what other concretes came to mind - I suspect the bulk of it was a sense-of-life reaction because none of the Bible could really connect with me - but I think that the presence of other kids who didn’t go to Sunday School at all and of Indian/Pakistani kids with completely alien beliefs had a part in it by serving as stark contrasts. In any event, I think it was not even two weeks after making that discovery and judgement that I avowed myself as an atheist.

Today of course the Christians have spin-doctors for that - I am quite certain my reaction was not unique. I don’t care. What I do care about is the fact that whatever remnants of a faith-orientation such as I had were shattered forever then, and, more importantly, that I experienced that not as a nihilistic cynic but as one who could recognise for himself by himself from perceptual evidence that such and such was just so and that another such and such was not so despite nearly two thousand years of people saying the opposite. I was right and a Church Father was wrong. Once again what underlay taking such a position with conviction is expressible by the three statements, which are true even when others say something at odd with them, and of which my thoughts were instances of acceptance and reliance upon in order to reconnect with reality after having been lead astray by mystics. And once again, an invaluable use of the three statements is to go back to moments such as these and say “I was right to do so” with intellectual armament as back-up rather than only the vagaries of sense-of-life and happenstance, and, with concretisation and integration like that in hand, to continue making use of this armament when facing all manner of questions and controversies thereafter.

Continuing on with that vein, and integrating it with my knowledge of science and engineering (rather than concretising this in detail and make your eyes glaze over I’ll cheat and say go get Dr Peikoff’s IPP lectures and Mr Harriman’s “The Logical Leap”), and also with all the work I’ve put into the above, I can also sum it all up with recognition that there is no breach between the simplest concrete-level perceptions on the one hand and the widest possible abstractions on the other, with the connection of the two being successive abstraction and integration. By showing the steps of conceptual development required to formulate the statements and then stating explicitly that the principle of validation by self-evidency and observation applies at both ends of the cognitive spectrum, the explicit discovery and acceptance of the axioms brings home the fact that the basis of all knowledge - both at and everything in between those two ends - is to reduce observation and inference back to the material of sensory observation. That is, everything that is not self-evident but held to be true must be linkable back to that which is self-evident. No matter how abstract a given line of inquiry becomes, we have a life-line to keep thoughts tied to reality. All knowledge besides the three statements themselves, then, is now identifiable as consisting of discovering the details of what exists, of in what manner it exists, what the connections between all manner of these individual elements and facets of existence are, and how man should go about discovering this.

In regards to life-lines, as I can see there are two related critical points about the three statements. First, the facts that they are obtained by integrating the observations of every particular life-line identified and that they connect the two extremes of direct perception on the one hand and the widest possible integration on the other means we can safely extend the abstractness of any particular line of inquiry to be as long as we need it to become and still remain true to reality so long as we maintain the connections to the self-evident. Second, the fact that the three statements are universal and cover all of reality and all of man’s cognitive activity in relation to reality they are common to and integrators of all lines of inquiry with each other, reminding us that all knowledge is interrelated because it all comes down to knowledge of the same one existence. Different lines of inquiry, then, are just different subsidiary aspects of what is really just one grand line of inquiry. No discovery in one subsidiary line may contradict a discovery in another: if such a contradiction is found, at least one of the two discoveries is in fact mistaken. A great value of the three statements, therefore is to remind us of the existence of these life-lines and to provide a base that shows us how to keep hold of them in any instance.

Anyway, what did Miss Rand have to say? Her answers are to be found in the second edition of ITOE, not just in Chapter 6 but also block 10 of the workshop transcripts. In pp260-1 she concurs with Professor E that roles for “axiomatic” concepts include:

- the continuity of successive acts of human consciousness

- the ability to make express recognition of the primacy of existence, and

- the underscoring of primary facts as a contrast to non-existence, fantasy and error etc.

To them she added a fourth: epistemological guidance.

She goes on to note that it is the third of these three that is most important. Yes, I can see that - it’s what makes the first two possible. My first thought was to say “interestingly,” but given the content of pp262-3 I suspect Miss Rand would have said “naturally”, in response to how that this was the first application I focussed on, both as a child at the times and now while wracking my brain for observational data by which to identify what the fuss is. But in any event it means I have already concretised the most important reason for caring about the three statements. And, also, in identifying the sum of those incidents etc, I implicitly covered what is meant by the continuity of consciousness: whatever you do, wherever you go, however you think, the facts of existence, consciousness and identity are there, timeless, and one’s grasp of them helps one keep one’s experience and knowledge across time as an integrated whole. They serve as reminders that all knowledge is knowledge of the same one reality, and so no thought in one field may contradict a thought in another, and that if a contradiction is found then at least one of these thoughts is in error.

That then leaves the primacy of existence and the nature of epistemological guidance. Both of these I will leave to the future.

The three statements as axioms

From the facts above it becomes clear that the facts expressed by the three statements are always implied throughout all of my - and man’s - cognitive activity. They were implied from the very first possession of sensory data and hence first instance of discriminated awareness, implied in every step of cognitive development to their recognition as being the widest abstractions possible to man, and implied in every act of expanding one’s knowledge of everything between those two cognitive poles. They are also implied when I and others are mistaken, and even implied when others are given to flights of fantasy just as when I once was. There is no cognitive act that man performs in which they are not implied.

There is a problem arising from the fact that the statements are implicit in all cognitive activity: since they are so implied it is not possible to prove the three statements. Any act of proof, since any such an act is a cognitive activity, already relies upon those statements being true in order for the constituent thoughts in those acts to have meaning. I cannot prove that existence exists, except by relying on the existence of evidence, which presupposes existence as such. I cannot prove that I am conscious except by relying on me being a conscious being capable of advanced cognitive activity. And I cannot prove identity except by relying the fact that facts are facts.

However, the same also applies to any attempt to reject the three statements, again because the act of rejection implicitly relies on the three being true. I cannot deny existence except by accepting that there is something to reject and evidence to dismiss. I cannot deny consciousness except by means of a cognitive process, which act relies upon consciousness. And I cannot deny identity except by means of accepting there being a definite contrast between that which is so and that which is not. This is also why the three are implied by flights of fantasy, which flights when contrasted against explicit statements are shown to be contradictory and are in turn brought to a halt. I’ve not had much experience with those who’ve been thoroughgoing deniers of the three statements, so again I must cheat and refer you to Dr Peikoff’s OPAR for his example, which there is no point in me repeating here.

There is a word for statements of this nature: they are called axioms. That word originates in ancient Greek roughly meaning “worthy of authority”. How fitting! The three statements are rightly worthy of authority, for as noted they are the foundational bedrock and binding force for all investigation and all knowledge. Thus, existence exists, consciousness is conscious, and a thing itself, are indeed the great axioms undergirding all knowledge. And any man who understands what they mean and the proper method of validating is justified in establishing them as authoritative for himself, by himself, and on their sure footing climb the greatest heights he is fully capable of.


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