What is an axiom?

From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) [web1913]: Axiom, n.-- L. axioma, Gr.; that which is thought worthy, that which is assumed, a basis of demonstration, a principle, fr.; to think worthy, fr.; worthy, weighing as much as; cf.; to lead, drive, also to weigh so much: cf F. axiome. See Agent. 1. (Logic and Math.) A self-evident and necessary truth, or a proposition whose truth is so evident as first sight that no reasoning or demonstration can make it plainer; a proposition which it is necessary to take for granted; as, ``The whole is greater than a part;'' ``A thing can not, at the same time, be and not be.'' 2. An established principle in some art or science, which, though not a necessary truth, is universally received; as, the axioms of political economy.

These definitions are the root of much Evil in the worlds of philosophy,
religion, and political discourse. These two definitions are both
universally taught (generally in the first form, generally in Euclidean
Geometry that is the only serious math course that nearly all citizens
in at least the United States are *required* to take). A
relatively few students may move on and hear the term used in the
second, ``wishful'' sense (wishful in that by calling an established
principle an ``axiom'' one is generally trying to convince the listener
that it is indeed a ``self-evident and necessary truth'').

Alas, they are both *fundamentally incorrect* (although the second
is closer than the first). When I say incorrect, I mean that they are
*completely, formally, and technically incorrect*, not just a little
bit wrong in detail. Neither of these is what an axiom is, *in
mathematics* (from which *technical* usage the term's definition is
derived).

This can best be illustrated by means of a simple example, well known to
anyone who studies mathematics beyond the elementary level. Everybody
(as noted above) learns the geometry of Euclid, as the archetypical
Axiomatic System. One begins with the Axioms of plane geometry and
proceed to derive Theorems. Euclid (and his many overawed successors)
did indeed hold the axioms to be self-evident truths, although one
should carefully note that the Latin root means *``that which is
assumed''* and *not* ``that which is self-evidently known''.

Well then, what about *non*-Euclidean geometry?

As was long ago discovered, geometry on (say) the surface of a sphere is
*not the same* as geometry on a plane. Unique parallel lines *always meet exactly twice*. Triangles have *more* than
180, with 180 being a strict lower bound for
``small'' triangles that lie approximately in a plane. That isn't to
say that there *is no* geometry on the two-dimensional surfaces of
spheres, or hyperboloids, or ellipsiods, or arbitrary
amoeba-like-bloboids, only that it is *different* from geometry on
the plane.

Different axioms, different theorems, different results, with all the
axiomatic systems *equally empty* in terms of ``meaning''.

This leads one to dangerous, convoluted reasoning. The axioms of
mathematics themselves can become *variables* in a higher order
application of mathematics. In some cases those axioms can be *quantified* (parametrically mapped into numbers) so that one can ``dial
a theory'' by selecting a set of numerical parameters. In others the
axioms cannot be sensibly denumerated (numerated in an ordinal sense
with any sort of metric of ``closeness'') and are unique, disjoint,
random.

Worse, once mapped into numbers, the axioms themselves can become *self-referential*. One can write axioms and reason axiomatically to
derive theorems *about* the axioms. Alas, as Gödel observed many
years ago while working all of this out, the resulting mathematical
systems can easily become *fundamentally conflicted*, with true but
unprovable propositions and propositions that ``sound'' like meaningful
hypotheses which in fact cannot be proven true or false and somehow
appear to be neither.

Why should questions (including this one) have answers? For any of a
wide class of questions, especially including questions that might in
any way direct or indirect refer to themselves (like this one) *they
don't*. That is, it is perfectly possible to formulate expressions that
*look* like questions, *sound* like questions, *fool the
mind* into thinking that they are questions to the extent that all sorts
of time and energy are expended attempting to answer them, but that *are not questions* (or more generally, hypotheses, propositions, other
entities whose truth or falseness or relationships we might wish to
explore).

Everybody is probably familiar with the old chestnut:

- The following statement is false.
- Was the preceeding statement true?

(reformulated as a ``question''). If you answer the question yes, it
should have been no, which means that it should have been yes (ad
infinitum) *if one orders the answer sequence in a temporal order*.
Of course there is no reason to consider an answer and follow a
sequential chain, especially in mathematics where logic should transcend
sequence. This isn't a question, it is a pseudoquestion. It has no
answer because it isn't a question. The answer isn't ``yes'', or
``no'', or ``because'' - it is a great, rushing silence in response to
a set of disjoint meaning fragments that, when integrated, have no
meaning at all...

Unfortunately, *all propositions concerning the state of existence
can be formulated as pseudoquestions*.

Not necessarily self-referential ones - psuedoquestions can easily
appear to reference external ideas like ``God'' or ``reality''. They
are pseudoquestions in the sense that they have *no deriveable
answer*. The only answers possible are then none at all or an *axiomatic* answer, and an axiomatic answer may or may not lead to an
non-conflicted, consistent, complete deductive system when combined with
other axioms.

It is amusing before moving on to recall a couple of the many times pseudoquestions like this have been used to destroy Evil Computers in books and movies. The Prisoner, for example, asking ``The General'' the one word question ``Why?'' The very question above causing an Evil Robot to melt down in the sequential cycle in the old television version of Lost in Space. Harlie (in Gerrold's When Harlie was One) concluding that all one needs to answer this sort of question is an infinite amount of time and awareness, as it sets out to perpetuate its own, greatly augmented, existence for that purpose.

Hah. Good Luck Harlie.

All of this digression is really only intended show that axioms, far
from being ``self-evident truths'' or even the gentler ``established
principles'' are, in both mathematics and derived usage in physics,
science, philosophy and other disciplines nothing greater than *assumptions*. There is nothing more dangerous or powerful in the
philosophical process than selecting one's axioms. There is nothing
more useless than engaging in philsophical, religious, or social debate
with another person whose axioms differ from one's own.

An axiom is at heart something that *cannot be proven*. It is
something whose truth or falsehood *cannot even be addressed*
(except, of course, in any of a variety pseudoquestions and additional
axiomatically derived answers that will soon have all the participants
melting down in a puff of smoke or writing grants for the purpose of
perpetuating existence while working out the ``answers''). An axiom is
a *free choice*, a selection out of an infinite space of
possibilities, upon the back of which which we will *choose* to
derive our system of so-called reasoning, dealing with contradictions
and inconsistencies as best we can - or just ignoring them.

How to convince you of the *importance* of coming to a full,
conscious realization of the truth of this observation in real human
affairs? We have to take a journey of two parts. The first is through
a historical exploration of fundamental axioms of The Cosmic All, with
David Hume as our tour guide (accompanied by his two clowns, Decartes
and Berkeley). The second is through a very much *current*
exploration of genetic optimization, self-organized structure, and
social geneto-memetics.

Yes, sorry, this may or may not be easy for you (depends, for example, on whether or not you are fully sentient or just pretending) but there is little alternative. If you've been paying attention and haven't already figured out where I'm going with everything to the point where you are horribly bored, you should now be intellectually poised above a pit of existential despair.

I hate to leave you poised there (so I'll write on and possibly give you
something a bit more comforting than existentialism at the end of it
all). However, I equally well hate for you to be going ``huh'' and
scratching your head, when you are *supposed* to be poised and
screaming at glimpse of philosophical Nothingness beneath, so permit me
to get out the block and tackle and tie this rope around your feet -
there, comfy now? Now we'll just swing you out over this pit, hold on
to your loose change. There. Now look up - errr - down.

Note that *all the questions that you hold most dear* (no matter
what they are) have just had their legs kicked out from under them - if
*all* the fundamental questions are really *pseudoquestions*, is
it not the case that we can build little chains of sensible-sounding
questions leading from any tiny question to one of the biggies? It is.

Ah, you begin to see the pit? Don't whimper too much, now. Consider:

How can we ask whether we should have a reuben or a grilled cheese
sandwich for lunch when we can't answer the pseudoquestion at the base
of the whole question chain of why eat lunch in the first place (to stay
alive), why stay alive (because god wants me to, because I'm evolved
want to), why did I evolve, why are there laws of physics, why is there
a God? Psuedoquestions. There is basically *no reason* to choose
between reuben, grilled cheese, or a hot shit on marble sandwich for
lunch until we find a *pragmatic* way of dealing with this issue.

Note that a variety of smart-ass solipsictic answers work, but only if
you are *already living* on the *bottom* of the pit of
existential despair. After all, the solipsists get to choose whether or
not to continue imagining that they're reading all of these words that
they were clever enough to think up in third person. Surely they can
imagine some way to make hot shit tasty.

The rest of us have no Good Reason for Doing Anything without *first* having a good reason for being, and right about there we run into
trouble as *reason* and *being* in a single proposition is
totally pseudo. Yet we generally *do* choose a sandwich, and that
choice sometimes even works out well for us. We only get in trouble if
we think too deeply about it and the waiter starts to fidget and look
around longingly at his other tables. And of course there are days that
you choose grilled cheese but the cook prepares grilled shit...

This is more than a bit of a shame; so much so that sensitive souls
literally go mad over it. What is the suicide's standard apology? I
have no reason for living. Surrounded by choice, a mentally ill person
often has little to no free will. Confronted by an endless parade of
choices big and small we make them, badly and well, for better or worse,
yet *most* humans never work out *why* they do what they do from
the beginning (the most fundamental of questions that underlie those
decisions) to the end (the choice of lunch today). At best their choices
work if not examined too closely or deeply, lest they fall into the Pit.

We should be able to do better.

This is why it is *important* for you to clearly recognize the True
Nature of the most *fundamental* factors that you *do* use as
the deepest basis of all of the casual decisions you make throughout the
course of the day. Ultimately, they are founded on your *axioms*,
both philosophical and memetic. If your philosophical axioms include a
belief in God, and your memetic axioms include the particular
interpretation of Leviticus that prohibits pastrami and provolone or
bread made with milk in the same bite, well, the reuben is out. If your
personal axioms *also* include the laws of temporal continuity and
causality (and hence, physics, biology, and all the rest), you might
well conclude that hot shit on marble isn't likely to be either tasty or
nutritious, leaving you with grilled cheese. This decision would be
even more soundly based (given these same axioms) if you both have
memories of enjoying toasted cheese sandwiches past *and* are silly
enough to believe that something as ephemeral as a memory has any
bearing whatsoever on the Now.

We leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out how to resolve a
set of axioms that includes God, Leviticus, temporal continuity and
causality into a system of reasoning and decision making that doesn't
have *too* many internal contradictions.

You may not agree, of course, but according to *my* axioms, the
Truth Shall Make You Free. In particular, simply having the epiphinaic
insight that axioms are ultimately both a matter of totally free choice
(as in they are *neither* true *nor* self-evident in any sense
of the word, and cannot even be judged for consistency or esthetics
without *more* axioms to tell you how to do so) *and* that most
of the axioms you *do* have are very probably geneto-memetic social
imprinting and not something you ``chose'' at all (providing that we
agree on enough axioms for us to be able to continue a discussion at
that point) might just empower you to, perhaps for the first time in
your axiomatically surpressed and conditioned existence, to *choose
your axioms* as a matter of absolute, conscious, meta-reasoned choice.

I will, of course, offer up a set that I find particularly lovely and
useful, and even moderately consistent (although Gödel teaches us not
to take that horribly seriously). They come with a free shave and
haircut, metaphorically speaking, as we sloppily adopt as an *esthetic standard* (not really an axiom) a wee bit of the William of
Ockham's single contribution to Western Thought. *Once accepted*
these axioms can form the irrational basis for a reasonably rational
view of the Universe, and can even provide at least some poetic
meta-answers to some of the unanswerable pseudoquestions, which is the
best one can ever hope for.

In the meantime, I'll have the reuben on rye, chips on the side, with a frosty cold beer. Mmmmm. Don't worry, my axioms permit it. As long as I get enough exercise, so does my wife...