What Are Axiomatic & Properly Basic Beliefs? Definitions & Examples.

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What is a Properly Basic Belief?

In philosophy a properly basic belief is a belief that is viewed as justified on the basis of experience or intuition or both. Such a belief is deemed properly basic and has no external, empirical justification. These beliefs cannot be proven which means that they are inaccessible by the scientific method. Rather, as opposed to them being baseless, they are beliefs that are grounded on our human experience of the world. A properly basic belief is one that is not only unprovable but also one that the individual is rational to hold to in the absence of a logical defeater. If, say, I was presented with a defeater of my belief in the external world of physical objects then I must do two things. First, I must either give up my belief that I previously deemed properly basic or I must be able to defend my belief by finding a defeater of the defeater. Here we briefly examine a handful of empirically unprovable beliefs that we are rational to hold to.

The Existence of Other Minds

The existence of minds other than my own is a belief about the world that I cannot prove. For example, there is no way that I could disprove the proposition that other people are just robots, have no minds, and display the external behaviour of persons (see the Metaphysical Zombie concept). However, I find myself believing that other minds exist on the basis of my own experience. First, I believe that I myself have a mind, and that with my mind I can engage other human beings of whom I perceive to exist. Moreover, I tend to witness how these other humans appear to respond to me as well as engage in similar behaviours between themselves. I therefore form the belief that other minds exist. The alternative to this belief is that my mind is the only one to exist which  does not seem to be at all consistent with my experience of the world.

The Existence of the External World

When one says that she believes in the external world she means the world that exists independently of her own mind. Existing In this world are things like physical objects such as chairs, tables, and cars. Although this is considered intuitively obvious to the majority of us it still remains an unprovable belief. For example, my attempt to prove that this world exists would require me to have to use my own mind in order to prove that it does. But since my sensory perceptions from which I form the belief that the external world exists are themselves a product of my cognitive faculties then I would effectively be guilty of reasoning in a circle. It is clear then that there is no way that I could prove this beyond any doubt. Nonetheless, on the basis of my sensory perceptions such as my ability to feel, see, and hear, I form the belief that the external world of physical objects exists. The alternative to this would be solipsism, the philosophical view that just my own mind exists and that anything outside of my mind (the external world and other minds) are unsure to exist or even might not exist.

The Existence of Objective Morality

These are beliefs regarding what is good and evil. For example, the moral objectivist/realist will argue that experimenting on elderly people in order to conduct scientific research is objectively evil. Alternatively, helping an impoverished and destitute elderly man is an objectively good act. Now, when one says that an act is objectively evil he means that it is not determined by subjective human opinion. In other words, raping a child would still be objectively evil if society viewed it as a good or attempted to justify it on some other grounds. Nonetheless, if one doubts that objective moral values exist then, as some philosophers have argued, we would also have to doubt that external world exists given that both are dependent on our experience of the world. Thus, just as we are rational to hold to the belief that the external world exists from our experience alone so are we also rational to hold to the belief that certain acts are objectively morally evil or good. However, it is clear that to affirm this we have to go on our experience of the world for there is no empirical means in which we can establish the truth of objective morality.

The Existence of the Past

That the past exists is also an unprovable metaphysical belief. It is impossible, for example, to use the scientific method to prove that the universe was not created six minutes ago with the appearance of age, and that our memories suggesting the alternative (for example that the past did exist because I know that ate breakfast this morning, and other events in the past) weren’t just merely placed into our brains. Rather, we must simply assume our memory is reliable, and that our memories are true and that the world is real.

What is an Axiom?

This brings us to our next point: axioms. An axiom is a statement that is so well established that it is accepted without question. Moreover, it does not rely on anything else in order to be valid, and it cannot be refuted given that any attempt to refute it requires the usage of the axiom in a premise. In other words, they are statements that one cannot deny without using them in his denial. There are are few major examples of these although some have postulated more.

That I Exist – That I exist is an axiom for any argument that would seek to deny my own existence would assume that I exist. In other words, I have to exist to make an argument that seeks to refute my own existence.

That Existence/Reality Exists – The same reasoning applies here. All arguments assume that reality exists and that the arguments establish something about reality. By reality one means that there is a world that exists objectively and independently of one’s own mind and views. The person discovers this reality by examining it and acting within it, and it would still exist even if human beings were never around to perceive it. Moreover, one could learn true things about this reality whereas elsewhere she could also form beliefs about it that are false. Now, any argument that one were to forward against reality would assume that it exists. Any argument would attempt seek to describe something about reality, thus the view that reality does not exist undercuts itself.

That Absolute Truth Exists – When I use the term “truth” I mean to say beliefs, thoughts, and propositions about the world that corresponds to the part of the world that it describes (the correspondence theory of truth). Truth is therefore the conformity or correspondence between my thoughts, views, and opinions, and the world. By truth being “absolute” I mean that it is unchanging and independent of human views about it. For example, that the Earth revolves around the sun is simply a natural fact and does not depend on whether or now we believe it happens. Nonetheless, to formulate an argument that attempts to deny that truth exists will assume that truth exists. In fact, it is not logically possible to argue for a point without attempting to establish the truth of the premises as well as the truth of the argument’s conclusion. In fact, one could go further. An argument that has premises that are false results in a conclusion that does not follow and an argument that is unsound. The argument must then be rejected. Either way it is impossible to propose an argument without intending the argument to be true, therefore denying the existence of truth undercuts itself.

The difference between a properly basic belief and an axiom is that the former is capable of being shown wrong through someone providing a possible defeater of the belief whereas the latter is incapable of being shown to be wrong since it assumed in any argument that seeks to refute it.

 

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8 responses to “What Are Axiomatic & Properly Basic Beliefs? Definitions & Examples.

  1. Objective morality? The concepts of good and evil are enormous generalizations. Not sure they are objective. For instance some Christians have declared some things to be evil/demonic in the past that we no longer consider evil. https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2012/03/list-of-things-christians-have-been.html And certainly most Christians in the U.S. are not as horrified at doctrinal differences as they once were, and even seem to get along living near people of other religions, even having their children marry into families of other denominations or religions.

    • Of course morality is objective. What some obscure Christian or other religious sect decides is moral or not is entirely irrelevant, as is their interpretation of evil.

    • Objective morality is perhaps the most debated of the properly basic beliefs that i’ve mentioned here, but I think we are rational to hold to it for now.

      However, the examples you cite merely show that moral preferences change over time in societies as the develop. The same goes for Christians who are also susceptible to social influences and changing attitudes and pressures. Every moral realist would admit that this happens. This is, however, besides the claim that there are objective moral facts (rape and torturing for enjoyment is evil etc.). For example, it is a warranted generalization that cowardice in defending one’s own people, land, and property is a moral wrong across all cultures. Not all cultures have viewed rape as wrong, however, we know its wrong because violates human beings, a proposition that only makes sense on moral realism.

  2. Absolute truth is another huge generalization, and I would sooner say we have truth enough, truth enough and reason enough to continue investigating the cosmos and discovering more about it. Same with ethics, we have reason enough to want to have more friends than deadly enemies.

    • It wouldn’t be absolute if it weren’t a generalization.
      The point you make here is besides the one I made in the essay, that it exists (which you don’t appear to deny, and which you couldn’t rationally do anyway).

  3. Pingback: 16 Important Metaphysical Terms Everyone Should Know | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

  4. Pingback: Engaging & Critiquing Bertrand Russell’s Teapot: Is Belief in God Irrational? [#2] | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

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