[Edit 8/5/17: The more I think about the axioms, the more I think that this post should be rewritten. But I am not going to rewrite it, not at least until I have progressed much further in this project. Please consider this post my imperfect first attempt at grasping the axioms rather than a finished product.]
I thought that this first post was going to be simple and straightforward. Axioms, after all, are supposed to be the self-evident starting points for all knowledge, the most primary and provable facts in the universe upon which all philosophy rests. This should be easy, I said to myself at the end of April as I grabbed my copy of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and sat down to bang out this blog post. Cake! Rand’s axioms are just three simple facts that require no logic or abstraction in order to be proven, right? Two and a half months later, it turns out that I was wrong—not wrong about the axioms being primary and self-evident—but wrong about how easy they would be to understand.
Rand’s axioms are unusual and complex. Grasping their full implications is no piece of cake, I discovered. But since the whole purpose for undertaking this blog series is to better understand Rand’s philosophy, I suppose tackling this first section of Peikoff’s book couldn’t have turned out better.
An axiom, according to Ayn Rand, is a fundamental fact that cannot not be true (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 55). By fundamental, I mean that the thing cannot be reduced any more than it has already been reduced. If it is possible to break down a fact or idea into component parts, then that fact or idea is not an axiom. For example, take the fact that the sky is blue. The sky is blue depends upon three component concepts: the concept of sky, the concept of is-ness, and the concept of blue-ness. These three component concepts raise the questions, “Well, what is the sky?” and, “What is blueness?” and, “What does it mean to be something?” And in order to answer those questions, you have to get even more fundamental and ask: “What are the unique characteristics that distinguish the sky from other entities?” and, “What is color?” Thus, one reason why the sky is blue would not be considered an axiomatic concept by Rand’s definition is that it can be reduced into component concepts.
Epistemologically, all concepts are built out of other, more fundamental concepts, which are built from other, more fundamental concepts, etc. To look for axioms, you would step down through the concepts like a person climbing down a ladder until you hit the bottom, meaning that you cannot reduce any further. Axioms are the ocean floor of knowledge. In, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand writes: “An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest” (55).
To reiterate, Rand’s definition of axioms is that they are:
- Fundamental and primary (not able to be reduced into component parts).
- Implicit in all knowledge.
- Directly perceived.
- All possible proofs and explanations rest on them.
According to Rand’s criteria then, a second reason why the sky is blue would not be considered axiomatic is that it is not a fact that is universally depended upon. There are lots of ideas out there in the world that have nothing to do with the sky being blue and do not depend on the sky being blue at all. In order to be an axiom, a concept must be an implicit building block underlying all ideas that exist.
But is it possible for any fact or idea to meet these criteria? According to Rand, yes. Rand’s three axioms are:
- Existence exists.
- Consciousness exists.
- A thing is itself (identity exists).
But frankly, my explanation here is a backwards way of arriving at the axioms. As fundamental building blocks, one is really not supposed to arrive at the axioms by pondering or abstracting or reducing or walking down a conceptual ladder. What I have presented here so far is a method for reaching the axioms as concepts after the fact rather than arriving at the direct knowledge of the axioms as perceptual facts. It is totally possible to come to know the axioms backwards, by reducing concepts into their component parts until you find the bottom, but really, all people with consciousness have already accepted the axioms (implicitly) by going in the opposite direction—by starting as a baby or as a brand new consciousness waking up to existence. From a baby’s perspective, the axioms are directly perceivable, the first (implicit) pieces of knowledge that one can know. What makes this a bit confusing and complex, though, is that there are two different methods of dealing with the axioms: sense perception and conceptual abstraction. Sense perception is how you directly know and validate the axioms, yet conceptual abstraction is how you philosophically explain and “prove” them verbally. These two methods are so different that it can make things a little confusing—or at least, it did for me.
Axiom #1 posits that something is. That box across the room is. The wind that is making me feel cold right now exists. Those pillows are. I open my eyes and see a wild blur of shapes and colors, and all of that is. Something exists.
The first axiom is self-evident in that it is verifiable just by opening your eyes, hearing a noise, smelling or tasting something, or touching an object. It does not matter what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch; in some way, shape, or form, you perceive that something is. The first axiom is not an idea, really. It is an experience of fact accessible even to the tiniest baby. To experience something—anything—is to know (implicitly) that something exists.
Peikoff writes, “The concept of ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts. It subsumes everything—every entity, action, attribute, relationship (including every state of consciousness)—everything which is, was, or will be. The concept does not specify that a physical world exists. As the first concept at the base of knowledge, it covers only what is known, implicitly or not explicitly, by the gamut of the human race, from the newborn baby or the lowest savage on through the greatest scientist and the most erudite sage. All of these know equally the fundamental fact that there is something, something as against nothing” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, 5).
The first axiom, then, states that existence, the widest possible concept that subsumes everything of which we could ever possibly be aware, exists.
But how could I, the person who tasted a blueberry or felt the wind against my face, have apprehended that existence exists if I do not possess some sort of capacity for perceiving existence? Inherent in the statement, “Existence exists” is the fact that I, the perceiver of existence, possess consciousness. It is impossible to perceive anything without having some sort of mental awareness. If you open your eyes to the universe and acknowledge that there is something out there, what you have also acknowledged is that there is something—of which you are aware. One cannot know that existence exists without first having consciousness, without possessing the capacity to perceive in the first place.
Axiom #2 could also be summed up as: My perception of something exists. Peikoff includes this crucial passage from Atlas Shrugged in explanation of the second axiom:
“If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness. Whatever the degree of your knowledge, these two—existence and consciousness—are axioms you cannot escape, these two are the irreducible primaries implied in any action you undertake, in any part of your knowledge and in its sum, from the first ray of light you perceive at the start of your life to the widest erudition you might acquire at its end. Whether you know the shape of a pebble or the structure of a solar system, the axioms remain the same: that it exists and that you know it” (Atlas Shrugged, 942).
I find the second axiom slightly more difficult to grasp than the first but still fairly straightforward. It is easy to understand that if I suddenly feel something hard and round hit me in the face, that I must be aware of something that exists.
I had the most trouble with Rand’s third axiom: identity. “To be is to be something,” writes Peikoff (OPAR, 7). If you perceive something, you are, after all, perceiving a specific set of features and characteristics. Things have identities. Existence is not just a giant blank space. Or, even if existence were to be a giant blank space, it would still be a “giant blank space,” which would be its identity.
Identity in a Randian sense does not mean what it meant to Plato (this, I think, is where much of my confusion with axiom #3 comes from). Identify is not some predetermined “form” that floats down from another dimension and implants itself in our minds, like a gift from the supernatural gods. For Rand, identity is simply: a thing’s characteristics. So, if you open your eyes and see a bolt of lightning, you are seeing a bright flashy thing that fills the sky and then disappears and makes a loud noise. Lightning’s identity would then be: a bright flashy thing that fills the sky and then disappears and makes a loud noise. That experience of perceiving lightning, in addition to implying existence and consciousness, also implies identity because to perceive is to perceive something. To perceive something is to perceive a specific set of features and characteristics. Lightning has different characteristics than a lobster or a scream. A is A. A thing is itself.
In Peikoff’s words, “Existence and identity are indivisible; either implies the other. If something exists, then something exists; and if there is a something, then there is a something. The fundamental fact cannot be broken in two” (OPAR, 7). In this sense, existence and identity are really just two aspects of the same thing. Existence is identity. To be is to be something. Can you imagine a thing that exists that is not something? To exist is to have characteristics. Every attribute we perceive is simply an aspect of existence, an identifiable thing. Itself.
To make any statement about anything ever is to assume these three axioms: existence, consciousness, and identity. All three can be summed up in the statement, “There is something of which I am aware” (OPAR, 7).
“There is something of which I am aware:” Existence.
“There is something of which I am aware:” Consciousness.
“There is something of which I am aware:” Identity.
The tricky thing about axioms is that in order to explain them, you have to take something that is purely perceptual (raw data or a raw impression upon the senses) and turn that empirical something into a statement, which is conceptual. Axioms in their observed form are not concepts; they are “perceptual self-evidencies,” according to Peikoff (OPAR, 8). You can be as dumb as a sheep and still implicitly grasp the axioms. All you have to do is look. At anything. The statement, “There is something of which I am aware” is an explicit encapsulation of the axioms, but the actual axioms can be grasped without words, concepts, or anything else having been understood prior. But when you state the axioms in words, you have to use ideas and concepts to explain and validate them. The phrase, “existence exists” is a conceptualization of a percept, but it is not the percept itself. “Consciousness exists” is a conceptualization of a percept, but that statement is not the percept itself. “A is A” is a conceptualization of a percept, but it is not the same thing as perceiving the actual characteristics of a thing. So, a person comes to know the axioms by sense perception, but establishes the axioms’ connection to reality and validates their authenticity via reasoning and conceptualization. Peikoff says that it is important to philosophically validate the axioms because it is easy to ignore or not understand them in explicit terms (even while a person might accept them implicitly and rely on them for every thought, question, and statement), which can cause serious philosophical problems down the road (OPAR, 8-9).
Looking at reality is also how the axioms are “proven,” although Rand and Peikoff would say that there is no proving the axioms, as “proof is the derivation of a conclusion from antecedent knowledge, and nothing is antecedent to axioms” (OPAR, 8). In other words, one cannot prove the axioms in the same way that one can prove that Crater Lake is in Oregon. To prove the presence of Crater Lake, one would start by lining up preexisting facts about geology and location to determine whether those facts point toward a particular lake existing in a particular spot. But there are no facts that precede “existence,” “consciousness,” and “identity.” Rather than rely on antecedent knowledge as proof of the axioms, Rand calls on sense perception. Look at reality. Do it. Just look at reality. There you go. There is nothing else to be said about the axioms other than the fact that when you see something, you know that something exists and that you are aware of it. There is no evidence of this being true beyond the fact that you are perceiving a thing. That is Rand’s proof of the axioms.
Everyone who has ever had anything to say about anything has presupposed and relied upon the axioms. According to Peikoff, “the axioms are invulnerable” (OPAR, 10). Any challenge or objection to the axioms is actually a reaffirmation of them, no matter what. Rand writes, “An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it” (Atlas Shrugged, 965). This is another way to “prove” the axioms’ validity; just get into a conversation with someone and watch them struggle to articulate something, anything at all, without relying in some way on the fact that existence exists, that they possess consciousness, and that things have identities.
So, those are the axioms. Here are some questions and concerns I imagine people might have about this subject:
- Did Rand come up with these axioms entirely on her own? Or did she borrow from other philosophers? If she borrowed, which other philosophers explicitly treated existence, consciousness, and identity as axioms?
- Are there different, competing axioms that other philosophers who disagree with Rand profess? If so, what are those axioms?
- Are the axioms accessible to animals? Can anyone or anything implicitly grasp the axioms as long as it has a brain? Is there a cut off point (for example, can worms grasp the axioms)?
- What if reality as we know it turns out to be a computer simulation created by aliens? Would that mean that Rand’s axioms misled us into thinking reality is something that it isn’t?
- Why do the axioms matter in the first place? Why bother identifying and explaining them at all if they are so self-evident?
- If the axioms are so self-evident, then why doesn’t everyone agree about them?
- Can sense perception really be the basis of all knowledge? Philosophers disagree on whether or not the senses can or should be trusted. How can a person build a reliable philosophy using senses that cannot be trusted to perceive reality as it “actually” is?
- Does the fact that acceptance of the axioms is necessary for all conceptual thought mean that the axioms are true automatically? Couldn’t it be possible that even though we all rely on them, the axioms aren’t necessarily true?
- Some people say that logic is overrated. There are other ways of thinking and of knowing that do not involve sense perception and logic. Therefore, aren’t the axioms just the result of an epistemological bias toward Western methods of knowing?
- What if Rand’s axioms are merely the result of the way that language has developed and is used? Just because the axioms are implicit in all language does not necessarily mean that the axioms are real beyond the world of linguistics.
I am not actually going to address any of these questions right now. I’d rather let them simmer.
Existence. Consciousness. Identity. Rand’s axioms are on the one hand the most obvious facts a person could ever understand, so graspable and basic that everyone implicitly accepts them. On the other hand, the axioms of Objectivism are abstract and complex with implications stretching further into the philosophical sunset than the eye can easily see.
Level of Difficulty: High
Mystery Number: 65
- Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.
- Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957). New York: Signet, 1959.
- Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Expanded 2nd Edition. Ed. Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. New York: Meridian, 1990.