Grasping beauty

· 6 min read

Our flawed foundations

root, Chaokun Wang, 2015 root, Chaokun Wang, 2015

In a recent podcast, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris discuss dogmas - beliefs that people hold to be true, irrespective of evidence for or against them. They highlight the negative consequences of this - certain foundational beliefs lead to bad behaviours. Their discussion focuses on religions, which have written, well defined axioms and so are straightforward examples to discuss. However, I do not think their reasoning went far enough. It's not just religions that have foundational beliefs. Every person must have a set of beliefs they assume to be true without evidence. 1

Consider the difference between subjective and objective 2. We usually assume objective facts and statements are more true than subjective ones (or at least that the objective truth exists beyond any particular subject). Subjective and objective is actually a spectrum or multi-layer hierarchy. On the most subjective end, we have a story of the literal emotions and events that happened to a particular individual, which can then be made more objective by having this story told from a 3rd person perspective, which can be made more objective by moving the story across the perspectives of different individuals involved. At the most objective, we cannot even have a story. A story must have subjects that experience things 3. The most objective story we can imagine still involves the subjective. True objectivity is not a story, but a list of facts. The list itself cannot be ordered, because that would require a subjective framing, so true objectivity is a random list of facts. This would look something like this - frogs have an average toe length of 3mm, a particular lightbulb uses 10 watts of electricity, the peak temperature on Mars today is 2 degrees warmer than yesterday. True objectivity is meaningless and arbitrary.

True objectivity would be an impossible position for any living being to take on. True objectivity has no preference or ordering, and it would be totally random whether you take the actions that mean you survive. Although we appreciate the certainty that objectivity gives us, and accord positive sentiment to 'objective' work, the nihilistic state of maximal objectivity is a frame devoid of life, and far worse than a state of full subjectivity. We have to incorporate both - using the stability of objective facts in the service of our subjective ideals. True objectivity isn't something we can strive for.

We're forced to conclude there must be some degree of subjectivity in our framing of things. Though if we think about it, this shouldn't be too surprising - we are subjects in the world, and an objective frame could not contain any subjects. A subjective framing must also have a purpose - the subjective element has an aim they are working towards, a directionality. A subject looks out at the world from a certain perspective, and that perspective must have a direction. It would not be a perspective otherwise. This directionality is the goal, telos or purpose of the subject. We must have an orientation, whether we choose it or not.

For a human to have a goal, there must be a starting point or foundation from which it first moves and builds on top of. You can't move towards something if you don't know your starting point, as it would be impossible to get an orientation. Even with a compass, if you don't know whether you are north, east, south or west of where you are trying to reach, you'd have no way to get there. The foundation that your goals and perspectives are built on is your axioms. Everyone must have a foundation - axiomatic beliefs that they construct their world-view on top of.

But what if you could choose your axioms to be certain, objectively provable truths? Then you could avoid the negative implications of a subjective foundational belief, as it would be guaranteed to be objectively true in all situations. Unfortunately, this isn't possible. A foundation of belief for a subjective, living being cannot be constructed from objective truth. As mentioned, true objectivity is arbitrary and meaningless. It is incompatible with life. So to construct such a foundation, to ensure the continuing life of the subjective being, you would have to set subjective beliefs at the top of your foundations. A pure, objective foundation would be one without life and impossible to use.

Every person has subjective, unprovable foundations of belief - dogma. This is true for everyone, irrespective of their religious beliefs 4. The only difference between axioms and dogmas is the positive or negative connotations associated with them. Axioms are seen as good and important. Dogma is seen as negative and something to be avoided. In fact, they are just the positive and negative consequences of the same thing - foundational beliefs. The foundations can't be removed, but in certain contexts these core beliefs also lead to harm and bad outcomes that a different set of ideas would avoid - they become dogmatic. Everyone is unavoidably dogmatic, and in certain contexts their foundations will reveal themselves in negative ways.

A somewhat trivial example of what these axioms look like - consider the belief of whether people are inherently good or inherently bad. If you believe people are inherently good and you run into a criminal, you can be taken advantage of. If you believe people are inherently bad, you can't build trusting relationships with other people and benefit from that. If you believe neither, you are unsure how to interact with people and you need a more complex belief to guide your behaviour. All of these beliefs have situations where they perform better and worse than the others. There isn't one belief that is strictly better than the rest in all contexts.

There are certain situations where any possible set of axioms is harmful. This happens because the environment changes, and our foundation beliefs do not change. The answer to this must be to update our beliefs. If we can move to foundations that better fit the current context, we have solved the problem. Unfortunately, changing axioms is not easy. To change your foundational beliefs, you have to remove some of your existing beliefs and then add new beliefs in. Removing beliefs is very difficult, as it moves you closer to the nihilistic state of nothingness. We become attached to our axioms, and we build many other ideas and dependencies on top of them. Removing an axiom is equivalent to having a part of us die - a whole chunk of our ideas and identity gets wiped out. Losing a part of ourselves and moving closer to nothingness is a real loss and experienced as painful. We avoid it for as long as we can, until the cost of not updating our axioms is even higher.

Axioms aren't easily or frequently changed in individuals, but they do change. This process of updating happens slowly, as foundational beliefs evolve culturally over generations. It is easier for the youngest generation to choose new, different beliefs than it is for older generations to update theirs. We have experienced this first hand, where we often see the upcoming generation take the opposite stance of their parents in certain areas. Sometimes this change is made for the sake of change and rebellion, but at other times it is a genuine positive move that older generations are unwilling to make themselves. The cost of changing axioms goes up the longer those axioms have been held. Ideas and identities are constantly being added on-top of the foundations, so the longer the foundations have existed, the higher the cost of switching.

Is there an ultimate or perfect axiom? The best I can come up with is - embrace the fact that you have flawed, imperfect axioms that will be harmful in certain situations and need to be updated. The challenge with this is, how do you know when to update your beliefs? Changing them too often would create a lot of uncertainty and chaos. Perhaps you can say - if your life isn't going the way you want it to go and you aren't progressing towards your goals at the rate you expected over many months, you need to update your foundational beliefs.


The only difference between axioms and dogmas is the contexts we usually associate them with (maths and science vs religion and culture)


Even if those subjects are themselves objects! Although not the most compelling story, we could craft a story about how a mountain is formed. The subject of the story is the mountain, and how it came to exist from what was previously level ground. The thing the mountain is experiencing in this case might be time.


Though religion does often feature in the foundations for many people. One definition of religion is 'that which is most deep'.

Got any questions or comments? Drop me a message on Twitter @graspingbeauty