Thursday, April 30, 2009

Axioms of Thought

In Which Aviatrix falls so far into her own metaphors so as to no longer have room for the story she was trying to tell.

Sometimes I have discussions with people who don't seem to make sense. A lot of people have such discussions, which I think is why some people think liberals are stupid, some people think conservatives are ignorant, and why religion gets so much flak. It's far easier to assume that the person on the other side of the argument just doesn't get it, than to figure out the misunderstanding. I try to start with the assumption that the person is neither insane nor stupid, and go from there.

I had a months-long on-and-off internet argument with someone once. I thought it was a point of philosophy that I was begging him to compromise on for the sake of a project and he just kept throwing it back in my face, seemingly refusing to even acknowledge that there was a risk. That was finally resolved when we discovered two words crucial to the argument were synonyms to him, but had a vital contrast for me. Being that the argument was in text, his written English was near flawless, and the position he seemed to be taking was not uncommon, it took that long to track down the discrepancy. And this was an easy one, because it didn't really represent a difference in our underlying axioms.

By axioms I mean things that people believe or know in order to know or deduce anything else. Those of you with a mathematics background know that you can't have a system of knowledge without having some arbitrary ground rules first. Our mathematical system is based on axioms like things that are equal to the same thing are equal to one another. I mean duh!

The problem is, people often don't even know they have them. They build what may be a perfectly logical and coherent argument up from a base that the other person isn't standing on. It's like trying to get someone from an island over to your mainland by building a magnificent bridge between the mainland and completely different island. Here is where people start to think one another are insane morons. The islander says he can't drive over what the mainlander knows is an excellent bridge, so the mainlander decides it's all due to religious prejudice and gives up on islanders all together.

The nature of an axiom is that it is something so self-evident that it doesn't even need to be stated. So people assume that everyone accepts that axiom, or even when they know that some don't, they don't see that their logical arguments depend on it.

A common axiom of thought is that the world is God's divine creation and that He is omniscient and omnipotent. People for whom this is axiomatic can't prove it. They feel it, they know it, the enormity of creation demonstrates it. It is true because it is the original Truth. I need a short name for people who hold this to be a self-evident truth, and "creationist" won't do because believing in divine creation doesn't require belief that it happened in six days, six thousand years ago. I'll call them God-ists, because it's short. For the purpose of this discussion it carries no other meaning than "people for whom divine creation is a self-evident axiom," and I've made it up solely to abbreviate the phrase.

God-ists nowadays universally know that not everyone shares that belief, but it doesn't stop them from thinking arguments based on it should sway non-believers.

Don't think I'm being unfair to God-ists here. Their frequent adversaries, those whose axiom is that the universe is a completely logical place, entirely governed by forces that can be understood in a physical sense, often do not realize that that is an unprovable belief, an axiom that all their knowledge rests on. It is every bit as unprovable as the existence of an invisible pink unicorn. But many Sci-ists can't imagine someone being able to get through their daily life without seeing the self-evidence of this truth. They dismiss God-ists as deluded without it.

That's a simplistic presentation with lots of room to argue about. I only intended it as a familiar example. Many God-ists embrace the Sci-ist's axiom as a kind of Second Law of Godotics: "God set up the universe as a logical place, governed by physical forces, except for when He intervenes." That combination seems to be to be the closest fit to what we've observed, except that a Sci-ist states the identical observation as "The universe is a logical place, governed by physical forces, even when something happens that we don't yet know the physical explanation for." Just because once upon a time every sunset and sunrise was understandable only as an act of the gods and now we can understand the workings of cells and atoms doesn't mean that God didn't set it up that way, and just because we are unwinding more and more of the wrappings of our physical world doesn't mean that there isn't still something at the core that is not susceptible to physical laws.

Whew, this got way more theological than I intended. I wonder if that's the feeling of the theoretical physicists who end up writing books or participating in projects like What The Bleep Do We Know? when all they are doing is trying to understand chaos theory and the fundamental nature of energy and matter in a rigid scientific way. I think of science and religion both working on the same immense jigsaw puzzle, with science rigidly sorting out all the edge pieces and carefully fitting pieces one into the other, trying to build up in a consistent manner from the border to the inside, while religion plucks pieces out of the box and tries to fit them together without knowing or caring which way up they go or how they relate to the border. A lot of the tabs are very similar in shape and size, so quite often both parties make errors in fitting pieces together. Each trumpets the other's errors as evidence that the other is all wrong, and even spends some time trying to take apart the other's assembled pieces. The advance of science has now built the puzzle to the point that religion has had to realize that many of their pieces are from a different puzzle altogether, but I suspect we're just reaching the point where some of the pieces that religion has assembled are going to match up with what science has assembled. No one, of course, has access to the picture on the box. It's probably kittens with string.

Whee, that was so much fun I never got to the story. Next time. Oh and Canadians, don't think about it too long: your 2008 taxes have to be filed by midnight tonight.


Unknown said...

Wow...sort of a state of the universe address. I think your jigsaw puzzle analogy is fabulous.'t tomorrow April 30th?

david said...

To paraphrase one particularly intelligent Middle Eastern god-ist, "Render unto Darwin that which is Darwin's, and unto God that which is God's." Religion makes lousy science, and science makes lousy religion.

nec Timide said...


I had the same "What!" moment. But of course like a good pilot Aviatrix files in Zulu time so today is April 30th. By that metric though we have to file our taxes by 2000Z tonight. So I have just over 21 hours. Lots of time.

Very nice treatment of the topic. Can hardly wait for the story that goes with it.

Unknown said...

Of course! If only the government were so logical...

Aviatrix said...

Ah yeah, I've been filing my blog posts at midnight Zulu all year. In that context, "Midnight tonight," was poorly phrased. Sorry if I scared anyone.

And how lucky I am to have readers who are more startled by a slightly premature tax deadline than an out of the blue manifesto on neither believing in science nor basing logical on religion.

Ward said...

I don't think the difference in axioms needs to involve God. I think the other side point of view could be reduced to "people who think there are things in the universe that can't conceivably be explained by science." To me, it doesn't need to be God, what about miracles? What about souls?

Unknown said...

It's really logical that "god" would create sentinent beings that destroy each other competing for resources that they are aware they don't need or want.

I'm with Ward on this one There's too much "coincidental luck" to fully explain sci....and too much misery, pestilence,predation and violence to explain the commercialy packaged "god" that all religions are bound to find a "flavour" to suit you, if that's your bag.

Yes, i'm a "sci" but i'm also pretty sure there's "something" out there and equally sure it's not the "big man on a throne in the clouds"

(though, when you know that in UK "the throne" can have a different meaning-and see the crap that descends upon us....perhaps the godists are right) ;-)
I love the new lexicon, -godist,sciist and especially Godotics
is that the science of "waiting for Godot?"

ps. i failed to get back the "cockney" part of my name, so just another Steve nowadays.

Scoon said...

Aviatrix! Thank you! I thought I was just about the only one in the world who framed the argument thusly. I happen to be on the God-ist side, exactly as you described - that what science has discovered is the how, not why.

But thank you for putting in to words what I have thought both 'sides' should have latched on to a long time ago.

nec Timide said...

@ward, @steve & @Aviatrix

One of the problems with postulating an omniscient and omnipotent agency, and then trying to ascribe motives or goals to that agency is that, not being omniscient we can not possibly know or understand what has lead to those motives or goals. Let alone the methods used.

On the other hand there is evidence that Steve calls "coincidental luck" is selective memory. We remember bad things happening to good people, or on Friday the 13th, because we are designed/have evolved to remember associations rather that cold facts.

On the gripping hand, taxes are immediate, theology and science are eternal.

dpierce said...

I've often found the root of disagreements to be an incongruence in core values when it was presumed all parties held the same values (whether or not values are axiomatic is debatable). Shared experience and background is another biggie.

I heard an interesting perspective from a Catholic about "faith" versus "belief". In his view, belief is knowing, in your core, that God exists -- taking his existence to be axiomatically true. Faith is not holding this axiom, but rather choosing, as an article of 'faith', or leap of 'faith', to make the assumption and hold faith in it. According to he, those who believe have it easy, since they carry no doubt or question. Those merely with faith have a harder path and demonstrate real strength in maintaining their faith.

Wes Bredenhof said...

As one of your faithful readers, I'm tempted to take the bait, but I'll resist. I suppose if a pastor can expostulate from time to time about aviation, an aviatrix can do the same regarding matters religious. But let me just say that I appreciate your recognition of the fact that people on both sides of the God question hold to axioms or (as I prefer to call them) presuppositions.

Sarah said...

Oh boy, philosophy. What fun! Coincidentally, I went to my first Socrates cafe meeting a week ago. It was 15 folks meeting at a coffee shop to have a discussion centered about a single question. The question is determined at the start by voting on suggestions. It was a wildly diverse group in ages and backgrounds, and a lot of fun despite the topic we had. ( "What and how does the fear of death affect us and society?" )

My ( very long (nested) parenthical) reply follows.. First, I mean no offense to people who think differently, these are just my thoughts and opinions on the matter.

Religious beliefs/axioms seem to me to be deeply connected to emotion & the non-rational or pre-rational. They sooth the pain of our mortal conscious existence in an apparently uncaring world, and have evolved to do so. ( she said with a small wicked smile. )

"Do you realize - we're floating in space - ... - Do you realize - that everyone you know someday will die? " The Flaming Lips

I think deist religious ideas came from treating the world as if it were somehow another person, a reflection of the individual. It is a useful adaptation to understand the inner life ( motives and independent action ) of other people; it's a leap to begin doing that with the natural world and god at large.

Sciists... ( really?) ... Well I guess I belong in that group. We entirely rely on logic and mathematics, and are all about understanding the universe & everything in it with the scientific method: Hypothesis, experiment and theory. And how well it works! Anyone who enjoys the use of that cathedral of engineering, the computer, knows that. As does someone who enjoys the glory of flight. ( warning, adult language in comic. )

As your wiki link points out though, Gödel's incompleteness theorem is a famous fly in the scientific ointment:

Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. In particular, for any consistent, effectively generated formal theory that proves certain basic arithmetic truths, there is an arithmetical statement that is true,[1] but not provable in the theory.Isn't that great? It seems to build in a non-rational "truth" that must be just "believed" without proof within the system. Mathematics and philosophy is still wrestling with broader implications of that one.

Like quantum theory, though, you can extend Gödel's theorem into broader human experience wrongly. Quantum physics is another wonderful non-intuitive theory that relies so heavily on mathematics it is regularly abused in wordy philosophical arguments ( see some WTFDWK criticism. Sorry, I've not seen the film but have heard we sciists slam it vigorously for this fault & others. )

As a non-theist philosopher, I don't think (or feel) belief in a super-human god above or permeating the universe is necessary. I can find happiness, morality and peace without theism, but don't begrudge "another set of axioms" those who do choose godism. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Thanks for a thoughtful blog post. You must be enjoying some sitting & thinking time.

saislor said...

scoon (and Aviatrix), your comment strikes a chord. There was a movie called "Creator," starring Peter O'Toole as a mad scientist (molecular biologist) trying to clone his dead wife. He had a graduate student at the time, Boris, who was looking for love, in the form of Virginia Madsen, who is still quite hot. I was a graduate student in molecular biology at the time and this one hit home. Boris asked the professor if he believed in God, and the answer was yes. I got the line wrong, but my memory of the answer is: When science reaches the top of the mountain, God will be sitting there saying "What took you so long?"

When I discuss the origin of the universe with my "God-ist" friends, I try and point them to a book by Francis Crick, called "The First Three Minutes." His thesis was that, according to the Big Bang theory, there were a number of random paths that could have been followed regarding the formation of stable particles and such, but that the existence of a stable universe was pretty much settled after three minutes, and the rest was simply kinetic and potential energy (in relativistic and quantum equations, of course).

While some would argue that the mere existence of the stable universe, in the face of an infinite number of possibilities, is simply random chance, I often offer an alternative view to God-ists: The Bible says that it took a day for God to create the heavens and the earth. Science currently believes it took Him only three minutes. Genesis was written for the ancient Hebrews, but is it possible that God continues to reveal the mystery of creation through science? I tend to prefer the latter explanation. Try and grasp the idea that eleven physical dimensions are needed for the Big Bang math to work, and it is hard for me to believe that there is not a God in there somewhere.

The resulting discussion can be quite entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Count me as a person who believes in both: God (as a creator), and in what science tells us.... which is arguably even more questions to figure out as we look further into the most large and small things (space and subatomic particles) that we can currently fathom.

I won't attempt to reason one way or another on why "bad things are allowed to happen". I have no idea whether God influences these things or not. I have no idea if there is a heaven or hell and aren't really compelled to believe them (they seem man made to me), but I do strongly believe in a creator.

I fear that my viewpoint is so often unrepresented in this sort of "either or" axiom discussion.

What if creation was the establishment of the rules by which matter interact with each other?... just another concept to chew on.

PS, the 'word verificaiton' I had to type in to submit this was "poomen" I find that funny.

zb said...

Kittens with strings are sooo cute!

Seriously, I think the metaphor about putting together a puzzle is great and puts it right. And it also hints towards what may be the core difference between the two groups that causes so much trouble and shouting: It appears there is a tendency amongst Sci-ists to constantly question their reality because most Sci-ists admit they've been proven wrong more than once. On the other hand, I have the feeling that God-ists tend to question their truth less, which leads them to establish strong values. This is why I liked dpierce's distinction between faith and belief a lot.
The shouting turns into fighting whenever sci-ist thinking leads to a foundation (read: fundament) for progressionalism, often going along with the belief that more money equals more progress equals the best possible solution for humans, while god-ist belief often leads to a point of view that is just as dogmatic as the sci-ist one and paired with most religions' aim to gain more influence, lays a foundation for just as much fighting.

So much would be better if we could agree to the fact that we just don't know enough to claim any truth and that we solely rely on judgement based on the experiences we have made in our world and admit that others have made their own observations leading them to good judgement as well.

david said...

"Creationist" != "god-ist" -- most god-ists, Christian or otherwise, have no problem with Darwin.

Creationism is a faction in the Fundamentalist movement in the Protestant branch of the Western branch of the Christian branch of the Abrahamic religions. It just happens to be particularly effective at getting its message out.

Jim said...

nex timide - Alas, taxes are also (apparently) eternal. To a government, taxes are like crack cocaine.

Aviatrix - great post. You really went down the rabbit hole with this one. Though I am thinking your basic message is that two individuals (or clusters of individuals) find it very difficult to communicate when they come from a different frame of reference or set of beliefs... and that many will be focused on your example instead of your premise.

I'm going to muck this up, but in a Change Management class I took once upon a time, a model was presented about the different types of understanding. The context was the effort required to change a person's thinking, and I think there was something like 8 levels. At the trivial end there was resistance to change based on a misunderstanding - "I thought it was $1000 not $10". And the other end of the pendulum swing was resistance to change based on core beliefs.

An excellent communicator is one who tries to understand what your opposite is saying, not one who imposes "hearing" on the other.

zd said...

The only way to really resolve this as to which side is right, is to die and find out the answer.

I, personally, am prepared to wait quite a while until the answer is revealed to me.

The answer must be satisfactory to those who have died as none of them has ever come back to complain.

The real difference between death and taxes is that once you are dead, you can not be more dead, whereas with taxes, once you are taxed,...........

Unknown said...

@zd that reminds me of the parachute -packer who said nobody came back complaining about his workmanship.

Chad said...


Have you ever read or heard of the book "Miracles" by C.S. Lewis?

The book is a philisophical and theological book on the existence and possibility of miracles based on the Naturalists (sci-ist) view versus the Supernaturalists (god-ists) view. A good portion of the beginning of the book however sets out to address exactly what you wrote about in this post - the axioms governing how a naturalist thinks (someone who believes everything works within a system) versus how a supernaturalist thinks (someone who believes some being can/does intervene in the system from time to time).

It addresses the issue of viewing things from a different set of assumptions, and attempts to define the playing field before launching into the philosophy.

If you enjoy this type of philosophy I highly recommend that you read it, it seems right down your alley.

(Long time reader very seldom poster)