The First Three Self-Evident Principles of Speculative Reason

Philosophy is the study of the ultimate natures of things. It is the study of first causes and principles. Philosophy is not investigative, that is, its conclusions are not resolved on the level of sensation. Rather, philosophy begins with ordinary experience, but from that point it ascends towards principles that cannot be investigated through the senses, but established through reason alone, and it reasons on the basis of these principles. In short, philosophy reasons from first principles to conclusions.

Below are some fundamental principles of speculative reason. We can be absolutely certain of the truth of these principles, for they are known whenever we know anything at all, and to deny them leads to absurdities; for one has to use them in order to deny them, which is contradictory. Furthermore, if a certain school of thought can only stand on the basis of denying any one of these principles, we can be certain that the particular school of thought is false.

The Principle of Identity: The first self-evident principle that is presupposed whenever we know anything at all, is the principle of identity, which runs: Each being is what it is. For example, a carrot is a carrot, not a watermelon; a dog is a dog, not a cat; etc. Without the principle of identity, one could not know anything at all. For example, if it is not true that each thing is what it is, then it follows that each thing is what it is not. A dog is a cat, a pig, a goat, and anything else. It would mean that nothing has any intelligible determination. Nothing exists determinately. Everything is indeterminate. And if nothing exists determinately, then nothing is known determinately. In other words, knowledge is impossible; for it would mean that 'is' and 'is not' are the same. One could not distinguish between anything.

The Principle of Non-Contradiction: Another first principle that is self-evident and presupposed whenever anything is known, is the principle of non-contradiction, which runs: Nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. The logical formulation of this principle runs: "Nothing can be both true and false at the same time and in the same respect."

Notice how the principle of identity and non-contradiction are related. If one denies the principle of identity, then one denies non-contradiction, and vice versa. If it is not true that "each thing is what it is", then each thing is what it is not. But that is contradictory.

To deny the principle of non-contradiction leads to an absurd state of affairs; for one would have to use the principle in order to deny it. Consider the following:

If I say that it is not true that "nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect", then I am saying that something can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. If that is the case, then I cannot assert that it is not true that "nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect". I would not be able to put that forth as something definitively true. Rather, I'd have to assert that it is both true and not true at the same time. In other words, I would have to hold that denying non-contradiction is just as true as affirming it. My denying it would mean nothing, in other words.

If the principle of non-contradiction were not true, then I could give an F to all the best students, and an A to all the worst students, and those marks would mean whatever I want them to mean. No student could complain that an F is a bad mark. It is both a bad mark and a good mark at the same time.

The Principle of the Excluded Middle: A thing either is or it is not, there is no in between. What could possibly exist between being and non-being? If it exists, then it is. If it does not exist, then it is not.

It is sometimes suggested that "becoming" is that which is between is and is not. But a little reflection will show that this is not really true. "Becoming" refers to change, that is, some existing thing that is changing. As the word 'becoming' indicates, to change is to "come to be" in some way. If something is changing, then it "is". It must first "be" in order to change in some way, that is, in order to come to be in new way, either more fully or less fully, or just in some other way. So, becoming is clearly on the side of "being".

Denying Truth is Absurd

It has become very popular to deny the existence of truth. Often people will say things like: "What is true for you might not be true for me", or "You have your truth, and I have mine". In other words, truth becomes entirely subjective, like your taste in ice-cream or soda pop. As a result, they maintain that there is no "objective truth".

But as we said above, to assert that "there is no truth" is contradictory. In fact, it violates the principle of non-contradiction. To declare "There is no truth" is to put forth this assertion as something true. And so, if the statement "there is no truth" is true, it follows that the statement itself is false. If the statement is false, then "There is truth".

Now that is an absurd position: If the statement is true, then it is false. That is like saying "If you got an A in this class, then you got an F, and if you got an F, it means you got an A. Imagine a world in which the principle of non-contradiction did not apply. You would call up the local department store to ask whether there are any light bulbs on sale. The salesclerk tells you "Yes, there are many", which means they have none. But if they have none, they have an entire stock, which means they have sold out, which means no one purchased any since they arrived, which means they never got to the store, because the truck broke down, which was running perfectly, etc. A world in which the principle of non-contradiction did not apply would be an absurd and unintelligible world in which knowledge and communication would be impossible.

And so we can conclude with certainty that there is truth. That does not mean we possess it. But it is not possible to deny its existence. Subjectivism is simply impossible to maintain consistently.

Next Page: Chapter 05: Change, Principles, and the Absurd
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