Axioms, beliefs, and ideas

I recently had dinner with a good friend, in which we discussed (among other things) conversations that I’ve had with people whose world views differ sharply from my own. We were not referring to people with different opinions on things – that is an unavoidable consequence of being around other people. What we were talking about were people whose entire view of how the world works is different. Imagine for a moment someone starting with the mindset of a creationist asked to explain some geological finding – while to the rest of us the existence of a 5 million year-old fossil would be sufficient proof that the world isn’t just a few thousand years of age, the creationist would be looking for the flaw in the dating technique – not out of an effort to overtly distort the truth that they simply wish to deny, but because their fundamental understanding of the world does not permit fossils that old.

My friend questioned the value of bothering to discuss issues with people like this. After all, he suggested, there can be no meeting of the minds or resolution of differences in opinion in this kind of conversation. Inevitably the dispute will drill down to the fundamental differences, which cannot be resolved in most cases. Someone who believes, a priori, that the universe has to be 6-10,000 years old simply cannot accept contradictory evidence. Someone who thinks that a zygote is the same as a grown human person is never going to see abortion as anything other than murder. Someone who thinks that government is the source of social problems (as opposed to a potential solution to those problems) will never agree that affirmative action policies can benefit society.

My response to my friend was that a) I enjoy the challenge of a spirited debate, and b) I used the arguments as a whetstone to sharpen my rhetorical skills, and as a probe to find flaws and holes in my own ideas and beliefs that ought to be addressed. However, in our discussion, he raised a word that I have been chewing on ever since – axioms. I have spoken before (in years past) about the need to separate one’s evaluation of a person with the evaluation of their ideas – in a nutshell while I may disagree with your ideas, that doesn’t mean anything about how I feel about you as a person. It is of crucial importance to separate these two types of evaluation, because failure to do so is the first step towards demonizing and dehumanizing those who have different beliefs – a frightening path that can lead to serious abuses.

However, when your beliefs are axiomatic – self-evidently true with no need for evidence – such separation becomes impossible. Not only that, but no amount of contradictory evidence or reasoned argument will penetrate the force field of your confidence. And then you start to make the same mistakes over again:

Ontario is one step closer to the legalization of marijuana after the Ontario Superior Court struck down two key parts of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that prohibit the possession and production of pot. The court declared the rules that govern medical marijuana access and the prohibitions laid out in Sections 4 and 7 of the act “constitutionally invalid and of no force and effect” on Monday, effectively paving the way for legalization…

Anti-drug action groups and others against the legalization of marijuana have said legalizing marijuana could lead to widespread use and increase crime rates.

If you’re axiomatically wedded to the mantra “drugs are bad”, then this might make sense. After all, if the force of law is the only thing keeping ordinary citizens from becoming drug addicts, then relaxing the legislation around drug prohibition would result in higher rates of drug use. However, since the only real barrier to accessing drugs is how much money you have and how badly you want the drugs, making them legal doesn’t really put a dent in use. The fact is that most people who want to use drugs are already using them – marijuana particularly.

However, this jives with the axiom, so it cannot be true. Despite the evidence we have from places like Portugal and Amsterdam (and my own city of Vancouver), we are still spending billions every year punishing drug users rather than finding ways to reduce the harms of drugs.

And we find other ways to spend billions on our axioms:

With the future of federal corporate tax cuts playing a role in the election campaign, a new study says the planned reductions will not stimulate the economy. A new report from the labour-oriented Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-profit research organization, suggests historic trends show businesses’ fixed capital spending has declined as a share of GDP and as a share of corporate cash flow since the early 1980s, despite a series of federal and provincial corporate tax cuts.

If you want to have any credibility among the conservative set as an economist, learn the following set of axioms: a) businesses create jobs, b) taxes reduce business revenues, and c) reduced revenue means reduced job creation. With those axioms firmly in hand, how could anyone conclude anything other than “tax cuts create jobs”? If you give businesses more money and space to innovate, they will find ways to be competitive, resulting in more jobs, right?

The problem is what happens when our axioms come up against evidence. Can we learn to abandon our world view when it is refuted by observation, or will we always insist on finding ways to square our circle? Nobody likes to admit that their beliefs are incorrect, let alone the entire way you see the world. How can we be sure that our studied skepticism isn’t just us clinging to another set of axioms? This is the true challenge of the skeptic – constantly searching ourselves to make sure that we are not just as rigid as those whose opinions we oppose.

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  1. Kevin Cedrone says

    Regarding your mention of affirmative action. We have had several discussions and I have, almost exclusively due to your influence, reformed my position on affirmative action. That is because most, if not all of my beliefs are not axiomatic. They are conclusions I have reached based on thought, evidence or corporate sponsorship.

  2. Lars says

    Noticed a rather important typo in axiom b: It should be “taxes reduce business revenues”, not “tax cuts”.

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