Reflections: First Principles

Note: I’ve been toying with the idea of putting together a series of essays of my worldview and thoughts on different subjects. Partly as a way of working them out myself, and partly just for the interest. Below is a draft of the first installment.

No one starts from first principles when developing a worldview; they are only ever found by working backwards from a worldview already in place.

You see, by the time we’re rational and reflective enough to even understand the concept of first principles (assuming we ever reach that stage), most of our basic assumptions and attitude toward life have already been established, learned from our parents, teachers, religion, and culture. Philosophy isn’t a matter of developing a worldview, but of examining one that you had formed in the cradle. The initial act of forming an understanding of the world is done absent rational thought, received as gift from our parents.

This parallels the experience of humanity as a whole, by the way. History does not go back to the beginning. By the time we find man able to leave a real record of his thoughts and experiences, it is a mankind already grown old. As Chesterton put it, the first few chapters of that great drama have been torn out and we cannot read them.

As a side note, starting history with tales of evolution or developing nomadic cultures seems to me all wrong, for the simple reason that those are modern ideas of what happened, and thus give little help to understanding ancient cultures. Even if man evolved from an ape, for most of history, he didn’t know that and so the fact formed no part of his decision-making framework. If you want to get a sense of, say, the Egyptian civilization, you should begin the story with the Egyptian creation myth, then proceed through the half-historical legendry until you come to the first records. That would give you an idea of how the Egyptians thought of themselves, which is much more helpful to illuminating the course of their history than a narrative that never entered into their heads.

Anyway, the most basic, fundamental assumptions of a person’s philosophy are not things that he works out for himself, but things he acquires in infancy. Most people never even know what theirs are. Hence, the proper way to philosophize is not to start from first principles and try to build outward, but to start from what you currently believe and continually ask yourself why? First principles tend to be a conclusion rather than a starting point of philosophy.

But they are the starting point in discussing philosophy, since if your first principles differ from those of your audience, you’re liable to be talking cross-purposes. And, having worked backwards from my own impressions, assumptions, reactions, and so on, I think I can tell you what mine are. As far as I can make out, they boil down to two major points.

The first is the objective reality of value. That is, when we call something good or bad, true or false, beautiful or ugly, we’re describing a real facet of the thing we’re speaking of, something that is so independent of our perception of it. A rose would remain beautiful though no one saw it. Doubtless there are sunsets of surpassing beauty on far distant planets that are seen by no eyes but the Creator’s, yet are no less beautiful for that.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’, under whatever language we speak of them, are real, objective facets of reality. I take this to be axiomatic. For one thing, we can’t even discuss the question without tacitly assuming the truth of it; if you ask “is value objective?” you are assuming “it is better to know the truth than to accept a falsehood”. That is, a value judgment. If the question means anything at all, or is worth discussing, then it can only be because truth has value. If you are going to argue that value is not objective, then you’d have to be claiming that truth is more important than the concept of value….that is, the value of truth matters more than value itself, which is nonsense.

Similarly, if you were to make that case, you’d be faced with the problem that I would have no reason to go along with you. If value is not objective, then there is no reason to think value is not objective, because it’s up to me to decide how much I care to think truthfully, and thus there is no reason for me not to decide to simply go on thinking value is objective.

Which is, I think, why I have to call it a first principle. Simply put, I cannot accept a world where value is only subjective or a matter of conditioned response. If I somehow thought that were true, I would still reject it because that would be an intolerable way to approach the world, and there would be then no real value in accepting it anyway.

I’m buoyed in this conclusion by the fact that almost no one actually believes the contrary. The people who push relativism or pluralism do so because they think it is beneficial, or more moral, or more honest; that is, because they think it is better, objectively speaking (they also tend to be extremely intolerant and defensive on the values they consider important, but we’ll leave that for now). The very fact that someone condemns ‘bigotry’ or ‘intolerance’ or ‘narrow-mindedness’ as such shows that they do not actually believe in the subjectivity of value.

I also note that the few people who do seem to actually believe this are not enlightened, highly-successful paradigms of humanity, as one would expect of someone who sees a truth that everyone else is blind to. On the contrary, they tend to be deranged, destructive lunatics bringing untold harm to themselves and those around them. This itself is, not exactly a first principle, but something I think should be kept in mind: that it seems, let’s say, intuitively highly probable that living according to the truth – according to the actual nature of what we are and what the world around us is – will leave us happier, healthier, and more effective than living according to a lie. If we find that a certain proposition put into practice produces misery, stagnation, and destruction, then I’d at least say it imposes a heavy burden on its adherents to explain why.

So axiom number one: value is objective. Axiom number two is that being is objective.

(I suppose logically that should have gone first).

Now, this may sound obvious, but people have a tendency to ignore it or discount it when convenient. How often do you hear someone say “Well, that doesn’t matter” about, say, sex, or race, or family, or what have you? But the thing is, if you can make a distinction between these things – if you can make a distinction between a Pole and a Belarusian, for instance – then there must be some difference at work. That difference is a real difference and thus must have real consequences.

Putting it another way is that I don’t believe in magic or random chance (okay, actually I do believe in magic, but that’s a different subject, and I certainly don’t think anyone should rest their philosophy on its regular application). Things don’t just ‘happen’ for no reason, there are no causes without effects or effects without causes, and distinctions are very rarely arbitrary.

For instance, it’s still popular today to say things like “there should be no distinction between men and women,” or “sex only matters where sex itself is concerned.” This is an example of what I would call ‘magical thinking’. Obviously, there is a difference between men and women; a clear biological, physical difference. They have different DNA, different chromosomes, different bodily structures. The claim being made appears to be that these differences go no further than themselves; they do not affect the brain, the personality, etc. Somehow, magically, different causations add up to the same effect.

This is what I axiomatically reject. If a thing is, then it was caused by something and effects something. The effect may or may not be relevant, but it is not non-existent. The distinction may not be relevant to the case, but the distinction is not arbitrary.

And the more you say that some aspect of reality doesn’t matter, or doesn’t count, or can be explained away, the more I suspect that your position is simply wrong. I mean, “it’s true if you ignore certain facts” is more or less just another way of saying “it’s not true”.

As indicated, a consequence of this is the reality of different natures; that different creatures and different kinds of objects are really different and distinct, and that these differences have consequences.

Even what are usually called ‘subjective’ responses have, on investigation, objective causes: if I like a certain book, it is because I am of a certain character, with certain experiences and associations that the contents of the book harmonize with. This is ‘subjective’ in that the response is particular to myself, but it doesn’t mean it has no cause or is simply random.

To summarize, value is real and things don’t ‘just happen’.

Now, there is what seems to me a conclusion to these two, particularly the first one. Value is always comparative; a good dog is compared to a better dog to a bad dog, both relative to an idea of ‘perfect doghood’. Or, if you wish to narrow it down further, you have a good dog insofar as it is like to the ideal of that particular dog.

This ideal does not exist in our experience, yet we must have some notion of it if we are to speak of value at all; that something is good or true or beautiful because it is ‘more like to’ some idea of perfection, or idea of goodness, truth, beauty as such. And even if something seems as good as it can be, yet we still have that notion of goodness, of the best that it could be, else we could not identify it as such.

I tend to think of it as a frequency of sorts; a wave harmonizing more or less with an ‘ideal’ wave (or perhaps we should say a ‘wave of an ideal’). The point is, we can’t tell if a note is in tune unless it has something to be in tune with. Value requires a standard.

But since value is objective, that must mean an objective standard; a supreme, sovereign value.

And ‘supreme, sovereign goodness’ is more or less what is meant by ‘God’.

Summarized, I don’t see how you can logically have objective value without God, and without objective value, the whole human experience – including logic itself – falls apart.

Now, I don’t think this is the most philosophically air-tight argument for the existence of God – I think the cosmological argument and the argument from contingency are objectively stronger – but it’s the one that makes the most appeal to me, since as I say, I simply cannot accept a world without objective value. But axioms differ from person to person (I wonder if that’s part of the differentiation of temperament?); I’m simply telling you what mine are.

Value is real, things don’t just happen, and therefore God is real. I don’t know if I’d say everything follows from those three, but certainly everything has to be consistent with them.

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