On First Principles

“Anarcho”-Capitalist request LibSocs to state their first principles in order to understand their worldview. I explain why this is entirely to wrong question to ask.

Abstract Principles Taken to Their Logical Ext...
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In a recent conversation with Facebook ” Anarcho”-Capitalists I’ve been asked to provide an explanation of my beliefs starting from “First Principles”. As my initial answer didn’t seem to be enough, the same question was later posted, once more, in a location I couldn’t access ((h/t @Noor for letting me know and posting the discussion somewhere public)). I think this deserves an explanation on why it is entirely the wrong kind of question to ask when trying to understand Libertarian Socialism.

The confusion I believe starts from the way the Propertarians start to build their worldview. From what I understand about this point (and of course, I may be wrong – but concise information on this is not easy to find online) they declare a few particular normative propositions as inviolable or “true”, call them axioms or “first principles” and then build their ethical system from there. There’s no clear agreement on this but the axiom of Self-Onwership seems to be the primary basis on which the ideology is built. There are others like the Non-Aggression principle (Also called Zero-Aggression principle. NAP or ZAP) which may follow from Self-Ownership or may be asserted standalone.

I won’t go into details on why those “first principles” are flawed at the moment (soon though). The point is to explain why such propertarians expect someone to state their first principles initially so that they may grasp the concept. They just can’t contemplate a different way to reach a social framework than by starting from such “axioms” and when Anarchists point out that we don’t have any, they are unable to compute, as can be seen from the quote (from the discussion I linked above)

The implication is that logic is optional. She’ll deny it, of course, and say that she’s just not doing logic in the way that the oppressive capitalists demand, but it still amounts the the notion that logic itself is seen as a kind of oppression. It’s a religion.

The obvious flaw in this reasoning is that it is asserted that those first principles are the result of pure logic and therefore impossible to be flawed (thus the label of “axiom”). Of course if one starts from this assumption it is understandable that when someone else denies the necessity of “axioms” to base a socioeconomic theory on, they can be seen as denying logic itself.¬† But this is merely begging the question.

And this is where the biggest problem lies in this perspective. Using scholasticism (i.e. pure logic) to understand reality has been discredited for a while now and empiricism and inductive reasoning took its place. No matter how perfect one’s logic can seem, it’s very likely that some small errors or wrong assumptions have entered into it at some point, therefore leading to the wholly wrong results. Without empiricism thus, it impossible to find logical errors as there is nothing to compare the results with.

Thus (many? most? Well me at least.) Libertarian Socialists reject this perspective in favour of what has been shown to actually work in understanding and predicting reality. Science and Materialism. Talking for myself here, I find no reason to start from a principle of self-ownership (even if it wasn’t inconsistent) when I have the far better option to start from a (meta?)ethical question: “What bring the best results for the maximum amount of people?”. Starting from this question and then using scientific knowledge (on how humans behave and how human societies tend to work) we can try to compile a socioeconomic system which will achieve this result.

Adding a “first principle” such as the NAP or self-ownership would thus only come into the picture if it followed from the original question. Looking at it this way, one could call the Anarchist opposition to hierarchy and authority as a sort of “first principle” but not in the same absolute way as the AnCap ones are asserted but simply as means to an end.

And this is in the end why it’s completely misguided to ask an Anarchist what their “first principles” are. The most likely answer would be “Why do I need them?” and this is a perfectly valid response. To preempt those who would express the sentiment that having “First Principles” is obvious: It is not. The burden of proof is on people who assert that such principles are necessary to prove why this is so. An argument from obviousness just does not cut it as it’s far from obvious to me and many others.

I get the impression that people who assert that such first principles are necessary, are those who saw them expressed somewhere and immediately latched onto them as something that made obvious sense. Yes, it may make obvious sense but this does not make it an absolute or an objective fact of reality. There’s always the chance that there’s holes in the reasoning, or it does not make sense in some contexts. What I’m trying to say that even if something is making sense, it still does not validate the concept of “first principle”. This is akin to saying that because the golden rule makes sense, the Christian god exists.¬† It simply does not follow.

It is similarly¬† flawed thus to accept only a different set of first principles in order to counter your own ideology. It’s like a Christian asking someone trying to explain evolution to him, to first state which other deity they assert instead of the Christian god. A perfectly valid answer to both questions is still “None.”

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What is mathematics anyway? A system that can help us understand the world? A system of absolute truths? In this post I lay the case for their true purpose.

What Is Mathematics?
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What is Mathematics? As a concept, you’d be hard pressed to find someone not using it one a daily basis which tells us that this is something that comes somewhat naturally to humans.It is of course popularized and taught from a young age in the modern age, but this is not of course to mean that this is the reason for its popularity, since even unschooled people can intuitively understand and perform basic calculations.

However, this does not explain to us what Mathematics actually is and this is actually becoming a sticky point lately, as weird as that sounds. For this reason, I think we need to dispel some misconceptions about the role of mathematics in human life.

Mathematics is not descriptive

The role of mathematics is not to describe reality. In fact, mathematics cannot tell us anything useful in isolation. I cannot make any prediction at all from the equation of 1+1=2. I cannot make any conclusion, moral or empirical from any possible calculation or mathematical proof.

Rather, mathematics is explanatory. It’s role is not to provide us with knowledge, but much like logic and language, to provide us with a method to communicate ideas to other humans, or more explicitly, other brains that we expect to grasp the concept.

For example, language is not descriptive either. Me saying “this is an apple” only describes reality inasmuch as the other person understands what “this”, “is” and “apple” are. This is especially pointed in language, as it is obvious that its form is such as to utilize only the sounds the human mouth makes (and more specifically, the sounds a particular group of humans is used to make most)

And much like we can swap languages around and still communicate the same ideas, so we can swap mathematical systems around with the same effect. It is precisely because mathematics are only use to explain concepts, that the form they take does not matter, as long as those communicating use the same system.

To put it more simply: Logic, mathematics and language are not universal and external concepts, somehow outside and above reality, they are simply the means that evolved primate brains use to explain ideas to one another.

Mathematics is not a science

From the above, it naturally follows that mathematics cannot help us understand how the world works. They cannot provide us with knowledge. They can only help us express this knowledge once we have it.

However, this does not mean that they are not useful in the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, they, along with logic are immensely useful. But this is not because they are a tool that has been invented or discovered by previous generations. In fact it is a misconception to think them as such (which is why it leads to nonsense such as considering logic as proof of a deity) as they are simply the result of how human brains process information. That is to say, they are useful as much as our evolved brain is useful, as they are its result. The brain itself is the actual tool.

Certainly, mathematics take more and more complex forms, on which even more can be based on. However, all of these still do not constitute knowledge, but rather expressions of different logical concepts. That is to say, they are not useful because they give us information we did not possess before, but because they can easily transmit more complex information in a smaller package. One could even think of them as the brain’s compression capability.

The same of course applies to language with its more complex words, which only make sense if one knows a vast number of definitions required to explain them. And much like language, these compressed packets of info, can make no sense to others unless they already have the capacity (ie IQ ((Well, more appropriately I guess it should be Time*IQ)) ) to “decompress”‘ them.

Mathematics is not proof

Mathematics are axiomatic. They are like they are because we say so. Because it’s useful to have them in a particular form which other will understand. But an axiom is not a proof, it’s simply the starting points we set to start explaining the proof.

To give you an example, when I say “I put one apple in a bowl, and then I put another apple in the bowl, so I have 2 apples in the bowl now”, this is not because 1+1=2 proves it. That is simply what I used to describe how many apples I put in the bowl and how many I have in the end. It is simply used to communicate what I did.

It is nonsense to assume that anything that begins with axioms can prove or describe anything. Axioms are only useful only if there is external information which we can use them on, to discover knowledge. This is simply because they can tell us what to expect with the information we have at hand, and the deviation from this expectation, alerts us to the fact that we are missing something.

It is very important to recognise that axiomatic concepts by themselves are useless as it’s impossible to draw any conclusions without applying them to empirical observations. It is this very fine point that many seem to be missing which results in huge edifices of pure logic, which however have no relation to reality. That happens because, in order to turn an axiomatic edifice into a prescription, the ideologue needs to assume a fact, a descriptive concept for reality, and sneak that in as an immutable axiom as well. However, any assumptions that are not based in empirical testing cannot under any circumstances be considered true or unchallengeable.

Objectivism is a good example of this kind of fallacious thinking, as it tried to build itself on top of axioms (“A is A“) but in order to say anything of substance, had to assume facts out of thin air (eg “man qua man”), which of course, ended being it’s Achillean heel.

So to summarize: Mathematics do no describe reality, they merely provide the concept we need to do so. Mathematics do not provide any useful information, only the way to process it. Mathematics cannot prove or disprove anything, but can only draw our attention to missing facts, and that is only if we base them on previous proven facts, not assumptions.

Of course, one might rightly say now that this is all obvious and known. Perhaps, but in order to avoid confusions in my forthcoming posts, I think it’s important to lay some groundwork, and this should also provide an opportunity for people to point out errors in this analysis.

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