Thursday, August 21, 2008

Axiom Stacking and Worldviews.

[Author’s note: this is the ninth in a series on the process of reason and rational thought].

Worldviews are serious things. They can form into dogmas which the individual defends with zealous religious vigor, whether the dogma is religious based or not. And they can be malleable as the individual looks for and recognizes truth in new principles. Either way, the individual’s conduct of life’s business and personal relationships is based on the foundations of those axioms and premises that form those worldviews. They are the basis for one’s personal ethic.

In a sense a worldview is an underlying prejudice, one that can be a bias for truth, a bias for certain falsities, or a bias against any number of things. This bias is natural and is not necessarily evil, because it can be a bias toward openness and flexibility as well as bias toward dogmatic rigidity.

So my worldview is an important part of me. For myself, it is important that I understand what the axioms are that underlie my personal viewpoints, and to know that they are in fact valid, coherent, self-consistent, and capable of supporting a truthful outlook.

As I wrote in the last post, there are several subjects that are likely to be common to a person’s worldview. I will list these here in an order that I find necessary in my own worldview:

1. Existence (ontology)

2. Truth (epistemology)

3. [Let’s save this space for a moment.]

4. Origin

5. Destiny (teleology)

6. Meaning
This list traverses a spectrum from certainty to much less certain. Let’s examine this in a little more detail, using my own premises as examples.

1. Existence is by default a certainty for me. By this I mean that I either accept that I exist, or I must just give up altogether since I don’t exist (which is absurd). Further, I accept that there are things that I perceive through my senses that also exist; that there are thoughts and concepts that occur within me that I perceive without use of my senses; and that other beings like myself exist. To believe otherwise would be so improbable as to be absurd.

2. Truth exists. How can I know this? Because if I exist, (premise 1), and it is not false that I exist, it is likely to be true that I exist: so truth also exists. At this point we have traveled slightly away from a self-obvious validity, because the validity of this premise depends on the validity of the previous premise. And at this point a value can be inserted: truth is more valuable to me than falseness; seeking truth is a value. But be careful, inserting values can be problematic, especially if the value is not a valid derivation of the premise.

3. [Skip this one for the moment.]

4. Origin. This premise is no longer in the realm of axiomatic, self-obvious truth; its truth value cannot be known by inspection. In fact, its truth value is overshadowed by its potential falseness. Because this premise is important to subsequent premises, it must be examined closely for all the characteristics of falseness as well as its potential for truth. So in a sense, this premise is pivotal in the path to validity in one’s worldview.

In that regard, then, any theory vying for this position as premise # 4 in my worldview must pass a certain muster of internal coherence and external consistency, in order to be considered for use as my premise.

This is actually the point here: every premise that fits into the structure that biases my actions and reactions should be coherent and consistent, at a minimum. Falseness in my actions and reactions is to be halted at this level. This does not mean that I know with absolute certainty, with empirical proof, or with divine intervention in my mind that each premise is incontrovertibly true. It means that I have a confidence that they are at least not logically false, that they have the potential to be true, and that I find them more probably true than false.

Finishing the basics,

5. Destiny (teleology) is heavily influenced by origins. Logical examination is required here also.

6. Meaning is heavily influenced by destiny. And logical examination is again required.

It is easily seen from the progression above that by the point one arrives at “meaning”, there are plenty of opportunities for deviation outside the realm of potential truth. And in a sense, the pursuit of the “potential for truth” is itself a value that is fundamental to the development of a valid worldview.

In fact, the insertion of a value at premise #2 can lead to value issues. Let’s consider the use of premise #3. Say we insert a value at that point of the hierarchy of premises. It might seem acceptable, admirable even, to insert the empirical principle of “functional materialism” at this point. And I suspect that this occurs frequently. Is this reasonable?

The empirical principle of “functional materialism” is the voluntary restriction of empirical investigation to the material realm, which is measurable. It does not address the validity or non-validity of non-material posits; it is not a truth statement. It is an arbitrary limit, set for functional reasons, not philosophical reasons. The hazard in using this voluntary restriction as an overall restriction to the potential truth values of the subsequent premises is that it is eliminating entire areas of potential truth from the ensuing worldview. In other words, it is using a procedural decision as a truth statement; this is false on every facet.

In fact this insertion resembles a smuggled agenda tenet intended to artificially limit truth, rather than an attempt at truth finding. It develops into an actual truth statement: Philosophical Materialism, a philosophical statement that is not true due to its internal non-coherence.

So premise #3 in this example is a departure point where the path can either stay the course with potentially true premises, or it can deviate into any of the many false arenas. Such falseness can be induced by many motivators, such as convenience, functionality (whatever works), sedentary inertia, and rebellion such as underlying anti-authoritarianism, or anti-ecclesiasticism. These are examples of agendas that are used to trump the search for a valid worldview.

What ever is chosen for premise #3 (or any of the premises, for that matter), it must be subjected to the same scrutiny that all potential truth statements require. My personal choice is “separable human essence”, a concept that is definitely not materialist, not empirical, yet is internally coherent and consistent. Your premise #3 might be different, as might all your premises: these are not laws of the universe in the sense that they are provable cause and effect relationships. These are truth statements, beginning with nearly universal axioms, and progressing through probable, coherent and consistent concepts.

A worldview is too important to allow it to occur by default. The "unexamined life" and all that. What is there to lose... that is of value?

Your comments are appreciated…


  1. Stan, for the purposes of doing science I don't think I have a worldview. Your point that many scientists conflate the doing of science with a worldview is well-taken, but since I don't consider science to be in the business of determining ultimate truth, it doesn't bother me. If you pressed PZ Myers on the point one-on-one, I'm pretty sure he would admit that philosophically materialism is not the sort of thing that can be scientifically 'proved', either: it's just that, given the lack of evidence for a non-material realm, it's a default position that jives nicely with science as practiced, whereas the position I hold (theism) requires some degree of compartmentalization. I am struck by the fact that many creationists seem unwilling to acknowledge that, and in my experience these are the folk who are inpenetrable to reason.

    Anyway, the fact that people like me can do science while affirming a nonfalsifiable hypothesis is a nice counter-example to PZ's position, but that's all that it is. It doesn't count as evidence for the truth of either side's position.

  2. Scott, thanks for your comment, good luck with your school year!



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