Jan 2, 2008

Meaning of "self-evident"?

In Objectivism, the phrase "self-evident" refers to a certain kind of truth, that is, a certain kind of statement that identifies a fact of reality. Example statements about reality are:
- This table is brown.
- My computer is a Mac-mini.
- Most dogs bark.
- To survive and flourish, man requires freedom in society.
- Existence exists.

Which of these statements are self-evident? Ayn Rand observes: "The layman's error, in regard to philosophy, is the tendency to accept consequences while ignoring their causes--to take the end result of a long sequence of thought as the given and to regard it as 'self-evident' or as an irreducible primary, while neglecting its preconditions. [...] As a philosophical detective, you must remember that nothing is self-evident except the material of sensory perception."[1]

In the philosopy of Objectivism, there are no self-evidencies except philosophical axioms. An example axiom is: "Existence exists."[2] You look around, and you see things that are. Proof, in the form of an argument, is required to validate all other ideas.

An axiom is the widest of all abstractions, but it requires no further validation than sense-perception. The same rule applies, I would suggest, to particular, sense-perceptible concretes. An example is: "This table is brown." The fact that this particular table exists and is brown is self-evident to me. Not self-evident are what it is, in all its characteristics (weight, dimensions, and so forth); how it works (screws hold it together); and how much value it has for me (resale, very little).[3]

CONCLUSION. "Self-evidency" refers to the fact that sense-perception--and only sense-perception--is cognitively self-justifying, requiring no proof. "Self-evident" applies only to (1) philosophical axioms, which are validated by reference to sense-perception, and (2) the existence (but not the nature) of individual sense-perceptible entities. So, ironically, "self-evident" applies only to particular, sense-perceptible concretes and to the widest of abstractions.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Ayn Rand, "Philosophical Detection," Philosophy: Who Needs It?, p. 15. I assume "sensory perception" here includes introspection of mental concretes. (For mental concretes: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., p. 156.)
[2] Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 8.
[3] In informal discussion, an objective speaker might loosely say something like this: "The conclusion is self-evident." What he would mean is: "You who are listening to me have all the information you need. Draw a conclusion. And there is only one conclusion you can draw logically within the limits of our shared knowledge."


Jason said...

Since you share an affinity for Aristotle, let me pose a challenge from his philosophic framework.

Aristotle has a slightly different interpretation of "self evident" in De Anima. There he says that the only thing that is indubitable is the proper objects of sense: color for sight, etc. Thus I cannot be mistaken that I see something red (nor that I see something). I can, however, be mistaken that the red thing I see is a cup, since this is a judgment. I think this is an interesting contrast for the way you have presented Objectivist epistemology and may help us to further the field by providing rational contrasts and formulating more precise epistemological principles.

Another related discussion would be that Aristotle did think that logical proofs were self-evident in precisely the same way.

Burgess Laughlin said...

First, because this weblog is a sort of journal, I note that while all self-evidencies are "indubitable," not all indubitables (certainties) are self-evidencies. But that is another discussion.

Second, before I can think about Aristotle's comments and then respond to them, I would need to know where in De anima Aristotle spoke of the issues. That will allow me to examine the passages in the original, if necessary. (My main interest in Aristotle and other philosophers is primarily socio-intellectual history [what intellectuals did in society to get their ideas out into the world] rather than philosophy.)

Third, and independent of Aristotle's comments, is this issue: If I see a table, is my identification of it as a table self-evident?

No, not in the primary sense of "self-evident" that I describe in the article. A table's sense-perceptible characteristics (such as color) are self-evident, and the fact that it is an object is self-evident. That it is a table is not self-evident (in the primary sense).

One of the defining characteristics of a table is its functionality. That identification is an abstraction requiring proof. A man from the paleolithic past would see the color and the object, but could not explicitly identify it as a table. (He would have no such concept.)

If all that is correct, then I would provisionally generalize: Other than axioms (which are a peculiar form of semi-concept), no concept (or principle or theory) is self-evident (in the primary sense). A concept is an abstraction, and the process of forming a concept requires steps in a certain method. However, a concept such as "brown" or "object" must be part of an explicit identification of any self-evident fact ("This is a brown object."). Identifications, as propositions stating even self-evident truths about reality, require concepts.

In a secondary sense (mentioned in footnote 3), that a particular object is a table, is self-evident to a speaker and his audience given a certain level of knowledge as preliminary and shared background.

This has already been a helpful discussion. My distinction between primary and secondary senses of self-evidency might be helpful to me in the next article I am developing. It addresses this question: How much proof should a historian offer in a lecture, essay, or book?

Burgess Laughlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael M said...

Thanks for providing needed support for my hunches about the self-evident. I agree almost 100%!

I am uncomfortable with your inclusion of the specific color brown as self-evident, because the ability to experience that is conditional. You said "The fact that this particular table exists and is brown is self-evident to me." I would say the most primary and self-evident fact you can grasp is that "this particular entity exists".

While it is self-evident from the perception that it is an entity with a shape, it is not self-evident what shape it has, nor what color it is. Those are identifications that require validation like weight and dimensions do.

The visual sensation of shape is the product of relationships among the colors we perceive each separate surface of the table as having. The colors that make up our visual perception of three-dimensional objects are never perceived to be identical even when every surface is actually the same color. (If they were seen as the same, we would perceive only its silhouette). Every color has three separate attributes that are simultaneously perceived: hue (color), intensity(of the hue), and value (lightness or darkness). Shape is a perception of the value relationships alone.

Our visual perception of the shape and the color of any object is determined by the light from some source being reflected off the object's surface. Different light sources can produce very different reflected light that can alter both our perception of its shape and of its color. The validity of those "altered" perceptions is still self-evident. But at the point of self-evidence, it is too early to apply a word like "brown." It could be a purple table under an orange light. It is also to early to apply the word "table". It just might be trompe-l'oeil.