The Nature of Knowledge


All Objectivists make much of axioms. Axioms are important, but not in the way that Objectivists make them. (Ayn Rand was the most reasonable about them.) Axioms are not about proof and not about argument. Their whole value lies in making explicit the foundation on which all objective reason and knowledge rests.

Axioms explicitly identify that which all knowledge and reasoning imply, and which all knowledge and reasoning assumes, namely, that there is existence, which all our knowledge is about, and that we consciously perceive that existence, else there would be no way to know it, and that existence and our consciousness of it are distinct different things.

I am not interested in how axioms are stated formally so long as they are unambiguous. For example:

Existence is all there is, and it is what it is, independent of anyone's awareness or knowledge of it. "Independent of," does not mean separate from anyone's awareness, it means "whether or not" anyone is aware of that existence, and that no one's awareness or knowledge of existence in any way affects or changes that existence.

Consciousness is the direct perceptual awareness of existence, and existence is that which we directly perceive, that is, what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste, (as well as all internal awareness called interoception). Only the physical aspects of existence are directly perceived, but physical existence is the foundation of all existence.

The existence we are directly conscious of and the fact that we are conscious of it are the foundation of all knowledge. All that we can know is about that of which we are conscious and the fact that we are conscious of it. Consciousness and that we are conscious of are not the same thing. [See the chapter, "Consciousness."]

Four Axioms:

  1. Existence is absolute.
  2. Consciousness (direct perception of existence) is infallible.
  3. Identity (the nature) of all existents is immutable.
  4. Volition (human conscious choice) is inviolable.

A complete elucidation of these axiomatic propositions would be the whole of metaphysics. It will be necessary to confine my remarks to a brief explanation of the meaning of each of these as they relate to the subject of this book: epistemology.

Existence is absolute.

Existence is absolute means simply that existence is what it is, is all there is, and there is nothing other than existence. It means existence is not contingent on anything (since there is nothing else), that it is not "caused" by anything else, that it is not dependent on anything else, and has the nature it has independently of any human knowledge, idea, feeling, wish, or desire. Relative to human feelings, reality is totally ruthless. [See the section, "Reality—Immutable, Absolute, and Ruthless," in the principles chapter.]

Consciousness (direct perception of existence) is infallible.

Consciousness is infallible means that what we directly consciously perceive is exactly as we perceive it within its total metaphysical context. There is no such thing as a perceptual allusion. What is perceived is perceived, and what is perceived is reality itself, exactly as it is. [See the, "Perception," chapter.]

Identity (the nature) of all existents is immutable.

Identity is immutable means every existent is what it is, including existence (everything that exists) itself, and the identity of every existent is all its qualities (attributes, characteristics, and properties), which also define its nature, and that nature is what it is no matter how little or how much is known about it. It means no human wishes, feelings, desires, hopes, beliefs, knowledge, or lack of it, can change any aspect of reality (except, of course, for the reality of an individual's own wishes, feelings, desires, hopes, beliefs, and knowledge, which only that individual can change).

Volition (human conscious choice) is inviolable.

Volition is inviolable means all human behavior must be consciously chosen and nothing determines human behavior except volition. It means the necessity of choosing all one does cannot be evaded, and that no hereditary characteristics, no environmental or cultural influences, and no physiological or psychological conditions relieves one of the responsibility for choosing or the responsibility for the consequences of those choices. It means what one is and what one does is determined solely by their own chosen actions. [See the chapter, "Volition."]

Axioms and Objectivism

I do not at all disagree with the Objectivist view of axioms. Axioms are, after all, the foundation principles of knowledge and reason. It is true, as the Objectivists emphasize, the axioms cannot be denied without assuming the very things such arguments are supposed to refute. The objectivists point out that axioms are implicit in all knowledge and reason, and cannot be denied without self-contradiction, and that axioms cannot be proved in the syllogistic sense because the axioms are implied by all propositions. To say anything is anything, is to say it is (exists), and has a particular nature (as a thing).

The Objectivist arguments are all correct, but not very important. Only sophists, existentialists, and post-modernist college professors are likely to deny existence, consciousness, identity, or volition. In any case, refuting such individuals is as pointless as refuting someone who seriously believes in a flat earth, a particular god, or astrology.

What is important is for the individual interested in understanding the nature of reality and knowledge to understand the relationship of the axioms to the fields of ontology and epistemology, and ultimately to ethics as well.

Nevertheless, within Dr. Binswanger's discussion of axioms there are some assertions which are simply not true.

Page 22 "The existence of things is perceived directly: we see things, hear things, feel them, smell them, and taste them."

This is a subtly deceptive statement. It is true, in the sense that all that exists are things (entities, existents) so what we perceive are things. The implication here (stated explicitly elsewhere) is that we perceive entities directly as "entities-as-such" (Binswanger's term) irrespective of any attributes or qualities, as though entities had no particular identity. They deny the true nature of perception as perceiving entities as they actually are, that as, as entities having a specific identity, which is all their qualities and attributes, and that to perceive them it is their perceivable qualities that must be perceived.

All that we can possibly be directly conscious of is the perceivable attributes of existents, but since all exitents are their attributes, that is all that needs to be perceived to perceive existents as they actually exist. [See the, "Perception," chapter.]

Page 22 "All knowledge, whether perceptual or intellectual, is of something, something that exists. Any claim to knowledge is a claim to know that something is the case, that some state of affairs exists."

There is no such thing as, "perceptual knowledge." Only some knowledge is knowledge about the existence of something. All knowledge is "about" things, but the existence of something is only one of the things that can be known, and is actually the one just assumed. Everything else known about any entity assumes the entity exists.

Page 22 "'Existence' does not need to be proved; it is directly perceived. Just open your eyes and you know all there is to know about the reality of reality."

Well, no! Existence and reality do not mean the same thing, and much more exists than is available to direct perception.

It is not perception that is the self-evidence of existence. For every animal with perception the question of existence never comes up. It is and the world it lives in is, and all the things in that world are. The question of existence and perception only matter to those capable of asking questions, human beings. It is almost a mistake to take on the sophists at the beginning of philosophical enquiry. Even human beings do not question existence until they have reached a certain level of sophistication in their knowledge.