It’s Axiomatic, Dear Boy

Axiom: a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident.

I’ve found when arguing or debating an issue it’s very helpful to be able to identify a difference in axioms, and if one is found to disengage from the argument as politely as possible, declaring that you’ll just have to agree to disagree, because arguing further is just talking past each other.

There are two varieties of axiom clash:

If your axiom is “There is a God” and my axiom is “There is no God,” then we have competing axioms.

If we happen to agree on the axiom “There is a God,” but you hold the axiom “God demands world conversion to religion X by force” and I do not — that is, if one’s position is the absence of a competing axiom — then we have mismatched axioms.

When identifying an axiom clash, I look for the lowest-level axiom logically behind a stated proposition. For instance, “The Bible is the inerrant Word of God” assumes “There is a God,” and since my axiom is “There is no God” then that’s where the competing axiom clash occurs, rather than at the mismatched axiom level of “The Bible is the inerrant Word of God” versus “no, it isn’t.”

Since people hold a large number of propositions in their head as axiomatic, I’ve found it useful to try to find the highest-level competition or mismatch and end the debate there. Sometimes you can identify a principle that your counterpart thinks is axiomatic but isn’t in terms of other lower-level axioms they also hold; in such cases you can sometimes influence their thinking, especially if some or all of the lower-level axioms are ones you share.

Now, obviously it’s not possible to always agree to disagree if one or both parties to the clash decide that the clash is itself intolerable and must be decided by resort to force. Ultimately, we all have to decide whether our axioms are worth dying for if the other party believes their axioms are worth killing for. I believe that some axioms are worth dying for — although I pray it’ll never come to that — even though it means anything up to the level of total war.

I’ll try to identify those propositions I hold as axiomatic as I go forward on this blog, and I think being able to identify one’s own axioms is a necessary tool of philosophy and should be practiced by everyone. If you spot a contradiction among my axioms like I’ve just described, please point it out to me. But if your axioms clash with mine, then it’s probably best if you just say so up front and spare us the argument-at-loggerheads.

4 thoughts on “It’s Axiomatic, Dear Boy

  1. Rob

    Yeah. First principles are important in understanding points of view, both your own, and other.

    The term axiom brings to mind (for me) one of the points made about mathematics, though- that sets of axioms do not always contain all possible truths (Gödel’s incompleteness theorems). Once I found out about this years ago, I became considerably less confident in my (or anyone else’s) ability to know that I’m 100% right, and it taught me that it’s quite possible that the axioms I hold might obscure truth or knowledge I could otherwise have…. so it’s always good to reflect on first principles now and then.

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  2. admin Post author

    Indeed. I’ve always thought that Gödel’s Theorem applied to philosophy, but unlike in mathematics it’s impossible to prove it.

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  4. Ookla

    You don’t seem to have any idea what an axiom is. This might be a good place to start: “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axiom”

    An axiom is a statement that is self evident (it is possible draw a line between two points), is neccesarily true (all bachelors are unmarried), or contians no contradictions and is not derived from any premises (When an equal amount is taken from equals, an equal amount results). Axioms are used almost exclusively in mathematics. Philoosphy often only uses the most basic axioms of logic (C is true if A and B are true) and build from there. Axioms are susceptible to proof and disproof. What you described is faith.

    “There is a god” is NOT an axiom. It is a proposition or an assertion, it must be derived from premises. It is neither self evident nor neccesarily true.

    No one dies for an axiom, axioms are simplistic and basic and do not involve premesis, conclusions, or values. Do die for an axiom is to die for the statement, “”.

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