Pragmatic Axioms

by Ben Ryding

At some point in one’s epistemic regression of beliefs, one finds oneself at the end of the line. The basic beliefs are reached — the beliefs which are not predicated upon any other beliefs.  I’d like to spend a little time outlining what some of these axioms are and more specifically, outlining the epistemic axioms which seem to need more substantiation.

Axioms which do not need more substantiation are the axioms which involve the a priori. Arithmetic truths, deductive logic, and definitional truths (e.g., all unmarried men are bachelors) fall into this category. For example, we can be certain that our belief that 1 + 1 = 2 is true  because it is an a priori truth. There are however, other sorts of basic beliefs which we hold out of pragmatism rather than because they are a priori true.  I’ll list a few:

Our minds perceive reality in such a way that we can ascertain truth.  This is meant to be a catch all for various issues in philosophy.  This belief protects us from the possibility of being brains in vats, or that we are living in the matrix, or any other similar scenario.  It also protects us from the possibility evolutionary processes have formed our minds such that we cannot accurately perceive the natural world.

In Alvin Plantinga’s Naturalism Defeated, he points out that evolution does not necessarily ‘care’ about forming in us faculties that provide us with a sound epistemic basis.  Natural selection, by definition, selects only for genetic mutations that are fit for survival, not for sound epistemology in rational beings.  Whether or not Plantinga succeeds in defeating naturalism is a topic for another post, but I think he does something important here: he injects some level of skepticism about our perception of reality.

This particular belief is essential, I think, to human progress.  If we do not operate out of this axiom, then the scientific method falls apart.  We can therefore justifiably hold this axiom to be true because of the very obvious benefits of operating out of it.  In this way, it is a pragmatic epistemic axiom.

Cause and Effect happens.  David Hume famously pointed out that we have no ability to see the cause and effect relationship.  For example, when a billiard ball strikes another billiard ball, we observe the other billiard ball begin to move as soon as it is struck.  We infer that the motion and impact of the first billiard ball caused the motion of the second ball.  However, there is no way to prove that, in fact, this causal relationship exists. Perhaps the billiard ball moved arbitrarily at the very moment the first ball hit it.  This scenario seems entirely unreasonable, but it’s logically possible, and therefore injects some skepticism about cause and effect.

Even though we cannot prove the intrinsic nature of the cause and effect relationship empirically, we can hold it to be true because of, again, the very obvious benefits of operating out of such an axiom.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of axioms, but I think it begins to paint a clear picture of our foundational beliefs and why we hold them.  In later posts I will explore this issue in the context of religious epistemology.