This will appear in The Moral Bias of Objectivism: How Moral Ideals Cloud Objectivity
If we in modern society truly worship anything, it is probably “logic.” Just calling up the word “logic” commands a certain respect that few can counter formidably. Our worship of it is often laced with snark and arrogance. In normal everyday debate, it’s commonly seen and even lauded to hear someone say, “Oh don’t let facts and logic get in your way!” Objectivists especially love to self-congratulate themselves about how “logical” they are. I’ve been around this so much that when any Objectivist (or anyone who professes to have “no contradictions”) comes around, espousing their logic and zero contradictory-ness, I think to myself, “And here comes the condescending judgment and mansplaining.” (Yes, it’s my intuition, my experience, that draws that conclusion.)
What even is “logic”? I long wondered what it even meant. I had never seen anyone who claimed “logic” for themselves give any cogent explanation of what it is was. I thought mathematics, specifically algebra, might be an eloquent example of logic, but mathematics is considered a separate study of logic. For the longest time, I wondered what “logic” was or what fruitful conclusions it ever produced.
However, I finally found a set of “axioms,” described as “The Axioms of Classical Logic,” that at least explains what “logic” is from those who espouse it. They claim that logic is the study of “valid reasoning.” They claim to be in pursuit of having “no contradictions,” and they propose that the laws are true because you can never violate them. So, for instance, you cannot say, “I don’t exist,” because you have to exist to say it. Or, you can’t say, “No one can be certain of anything,” because you are certain of that.
At its outset, I find these “axioms or logic” just a bit glib. Calling someone out for stating, “One can never be certain of anything” is a bit of a “gotcha” in debate (and seen as largely sophomoric by many). Nonetheless, I grant that perhaps thinking about it as such can make one think about what one can truly be “sure” about. I find, however, in most instances, it only really makes one tongue tied. “I am not certain that we can be certain of anything” is perhaps the better way to state that. Not that I think many fundamental or useful truths can come from it.
Ayn Rand indeed makes similar if not the same arguments about logic when she describes her proof for existence, consciousness, and identity. Some argue her arguments are flawed as compared to The Axioms of Classical Logic, but I don’t think such nuance matters here. This is Rand in An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,
“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.”
“The first and primary axiomatic concepts are “existence,” “identity” (which is a corollary of “existence”) and “consciousness.” One can study what exists and how consciousness functions; but one cannot analyze (or “prove”) existence as such, or consciousness as such. These are irreducible primaries. (An attempt to “prove” them is self-contradictory; it is an attempt to “prove” existence by means of non-existence, and consciousness by means of unconsciousness.) (p. 55)”
Or as she writes more combatively here in Atlas Shrugged,
“We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge—’There are not absolutes,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute—’You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.”
“When a savage who has not learned to speak declares that existence must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of non-existence—when he declares that your consciousness must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of unconsciousness—he is asking you to step into a void outside of existence and consciousness to give him proof of both—he is asking you to become a zero gaining knowledge about a zero.”
I find it interesting that “logic” was described by some as, “basically patterns in cognition, suggesting that we simply think this way when we reason.” In other words, “logic” is built-in to the human mind; it’s just how we think and we can’t escape it. And Ayn Rand says about as much above: we are conscious because any attempt to disprove it uses consciousness. It’s just how it is; because that’s how we perceive it. In this way, if logic is “just how we think,” it is just like the person I described earlier looking through binoculars, not realizing that the very binoculars were limiting their perspective of many other things around them.
Let me try to deconstruct this further with a thought experiment. Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that we really did live in a computer game. We are mere players in a game, controlled by others. We would not as such really “exist.” We would only think we existed. How could our “logic” ever figure this out?
Contrary to Rand’s accusations about savages as quoted above, I am not asking you to disprove consciousness or existence. I think we are conscious, and existence exists. I am, however, asking you to think if there might be more to it. How are your “obvious” truths limiting you? By claiming that consciousness is conscious as an irreducible primary, you, in effect, stopped studying consciousness itself. You have the binoculars in front of you, but you aren’t studying the binoculars. At the very least, you create some serious blindspots about the binoculars themselves. There are many entirely respectable views of consciousness out there that don’t just come down to, “Things exist and we perceive them,” which is essentially what tabula rasa is: that we have a blank mind which but receives data as it comes in. No, I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I do think memories get passed on to the next generation. This is not mere “woo” science. And far from being solely a receiver of data, the brain might well be somewhat of an image-projection machine, putting out into the world pre-wired images, in search of them, then gaining feedback from the world after it does, in a complex chain of events. When people say we create existence through our mind, they perhaps are not exactly right—but they might be onto something. But, at any rate, we, as an entire human race, have left this field of study almost completely neglected. We study the outer world but rarely our inner world and how it develops. There is more to be tapped there. That is what I am saying.
I am not the first person to notice that Rand’s “axiomatic truths” are a bit glib. We have reduced the enormous topics of existence and consciousness down to a set of statements that might win you points at a debate in a local parlor, but I’m not sure they find any fundamental truths. And what about the mighty conclusions drawn from those who purport “logic”? They routinely have bizarre conclusions. One I met told me, forcefully, that the overpopulation “problem” must be dealt with by force. Just stew on that one for a minute—and what a philosophy of “no contradictions” produced. Ayn Rand herself, as thoroughly described, uses these “axiomatic” concepts to build an elaborate moral-political system that is based on the false premise of tabula rasa, which has many, many, many conclusions, all subject to being wrong and even harmful. Using tabula rasa itself as the base of reason quite simply limits objectivity into the very area of reason and consciousness. In her very book which describes “axiomatic” truths, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand writes on the first page of the first chapter,
“Sensations, as such, are not retained in man’s memory.”
This is a statement that belongs to science, not philosophy. And let me ask you this: how does a conclusion like this stack up for “valid reasoning”?
All resistance to new scientific thought came down to people not wanting to adopt the idea because it defied what their own senses naturally concluded. If you were to go outside today, not knowing any history or math, you would naturally think that the sun revolves around the earth. Your own senses dictate that. If someone comes around to say it’s the other way around, well, if you are anything like what many in history were like, you would vehemently object to it at first. We cannot just rely on “how our brain naturally thinks.” It seems obvious to us—but the truth is not obvious. To open up people’s consciousness, it usually requires a huge leap in imagination. Perhaps we need a huge leap in imagination about consciousness itself to get away from these “axiomatic” laws of so-called logic.
You might notice that I put my discussion of logic in Part III of this book, which is about the applications and conclusions of prior more foundational truths. Rand and others put logic as the foundation of other truths. This is because I do not think “logic” is a foundation for truth. I think the “Axioms of Classical Logic” are more conclusions than they are tools. It is a way of thinking, one taken far too lightly, and used far too liberally. It starts, governs, and ends all modern thought processes—and that’s a problem. I am seeking to shake this up.