Charles S. Peirce

Peirce: On Doubt and the Fixation of Belief


Since “doubt” in Peirce’s view is the motor of thought and thus critical to learning, it is important to raise the issue of how doubt is suppressed and beliefs are held, which Pierce discusses as below [note 1]:

That the settlement of opinion is the sole end of inquiry is a very important proposition. It sweeps away, at once, various vague and erroneous conceptions of proof…. It is a very common idea that a demonstration must rest on some ultimate and absolutely indubitable propositions….In point of fact, an inquiry, to have that completely satisfactory result called demonstration, has only to start with propositions perfectly free from all actual doubt. If the premises are not in fact doubted at all, they cannot be more satisfactory than they are….
When doubt ceases, mental action on the subject comes to an end; and, if it did go on, it would be without a purpose…. There must be a real and living doubt, and without this all discussion is idle….

If there be a real and living doubt, what then ? This is the problem Peirce called the fixation of belief and which he addressed with this taxonomic mini-theory:

Method of Tenacity
If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry, and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain thee desired end, by taking any answer to a question which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it. This simple and direct method is really pursued by many men. The man who adopts this method will not allow that its inconveniences are greater than its disadvantages. He will say, “I hold steadfastly to the truth and the truth is always wholesome.”… It would be an egotistical impertinance to object that his procedure is irrational, for that only amounts to saying that his method of settling belief is not ours….

But this method of fixing belief, which may be called the METHOD OF TENACITY, will be unable to hold its ground in practice. The social impulse is against it. The man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from him, and it will be apt to occur to him in some saner moment that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief…. Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community….

Method of Authority
Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before tthe attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time the power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions….

When complete agreememt could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country. If the power to do this be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world. This method has, from the earliest times, been one of the chief means of upholding correct theological and political doctrines, and of preserving their universal or catholic character….

Cruelties always accompany this system; and when it is consistently carried out, they become atrocities of the most horrible kind in the eyes of any rational man. Nor should this occasion surprise, for the officer of a society does not feel justified in surrendering the interests of that society for the sake of mercy, as he might his own private interests. It is natural, therefore, that sympathy and fellowship should thus produce a most ruthless power. In judging this method of fixing belief, which may be called the METHOD OF AUTHORITY, we must in the first place, allow its immeasurable mental and moral superiority to the method of tenacity. It success is proportionally greater; and in fact it has over and over again worked the most majestic results….

For the mass of men, there is perhaps no better method than this. If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain. But no institution can attempt to regulate opinions on every subject…. This imperfection will be no source of weakness so long as men are in such of culture that one opinion does not influence another — that is so long as they cannot put two and two together. But in the most priest-ridden states some individuals will be found who are rised above that condition…. They see that men in other countries and in other ages have held to very different doctrines from those which they themselves have been brought up to believe…. And their candor cannot resist the reflection that there is no reason to rate their own views at a higher value than those of other nations and other centuries; and this gives rise to doubts in their minds…

A Priori Method
The willful adherence to belief, and the arbitrary forcing of it upon others must, therefore, both be given up and a new method of opinion must be adopted, which shall not only produce an impulse to believe, but shall also decide what proposition it is which is to be believed. Let the action of natural preferences be unimpeded, then, and under their influence let men conversing together and regarding matters in different lights, gradually develop beliefs in harmony with natural causes…. The most perfect example of it is to be found in the history of metaphysical philosophy. Systems of this sort have not usually rested upon observed facts, at least not in any great degree. They have chiefly been adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed “agreeable to reason”. This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe….

This method is far more intellectual and respectable from the point of view of reason than either of the others which we have noticed. But its failure has been the most manifest. It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but tase, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly, metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement. And so from this, which has been called the A PRIORI METHOD, we are driven, in Lord Bacon’s phrase, to a true induction.

Scientific Method
When I come to see that the chief obstacle to the spread of Christianity among a people of as high a culture as the Hindoos has been a conviction of the immorality of our way of treating women, I cannot help seeing that, though governments do not interfere, sentiments in their development will be very greatly determined by accidental causes…. To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be caused by nothing human, but by some external permanancy — by somthing upon which our thinking has no effect…. Our external permancy would not be external, in our sense, if it was restricted in its influence to one individual. It must be something which affects, or might affect, every man. And though these affections are necessarily as various as are individual conditions, yet the method must be such that the ultimat1e conclusion of every man shall be the same….

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are real things, whose characters are entirely iindependent of our opinions of them; whose realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and, thought our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really are, and any man, if he have sufficient experience and reason enough about it, will be led to the one true conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of reality….

Contrasting the Methods
This is the only one of the four methods which presents any distinction of a right way and a wrong way. If I adopt the method of tenacity and shut myself out from all influences, whatever I think necessary to doing this is necessary according to that method. So with the method of authority: the state may try to put down heresy by means which, from a scientific point of view, seems very ill-calculated to accomplish its purposes; but the only test on that method is what the state thinks, so it cannot pursue the method wrongly. So with the apriori method. The very essence of it is to think as one is inclined to think….

But with the scientific method, the case is different…. The test of whether I am truly following the method is not an immediate appeal to my feelings and purposes, but, on the contrary, itself involves the application of the method. Hence it is that bad reasoning as well as good reasoning is possible….

It is not to be supposed that the first three methods of settling opinion present no advantage whatever over the scientific method. On the contrary, each has some peculiar convenience of its own. The a priori method is distinguished for its comfortable conclusions…. The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way….

Singularly enough, the persecution does not all come from without; but a man torments himself and isoftentimes most distressed at finding himself believing propositions which he has been brought up to regard with aversion. The peaceful and sympathetic man will, therefore, find it hard to resist the temptation to submit his opinions to authority. But most of all I admire the method of tenacity for its strength, simplicity, and directness. Men who pursue it are distinguished for their decision of character, which becomes very easy with such a mental rule. It is impossible not to envy the man who can dismiss reason, although we all know how it must turn out at last.

Such are the advantages which the other methods of settling opinions have over scientific investigation. A man should consider well of them; and then he should consider that, after all, he wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact, and that there is no reason why the results of these three methods should do so. To bring about this effect is the prerogative of the method of science…. Different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion. the activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreoredained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. this great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated [note 2] to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.

Yes, the other methods do have their merits: a clear logical conscience does cost something — just as any virtue, just as all that we cherish, costs us dear. But we should not desire it to be otherwise. The genius of a man’s logical method should be loved and reverenced as his bride, whom he has chosen from all the world. He need not condemn the others; on the contrary, he may honor them deeply, and in so doing her honors her the more…. He will work and fight for her, and will not complain that there are blows to take, hoping there may be as many and as hard to give, and will strive to be the worthy knight and champion of her from the blaze of whose splendors he draws his inspiration and courage.

Ever so charming as one finds Peirce’s vision, is it not clear that profound problems exist ? His definition of truth and reality depends upon a convergence over time and extra-human intelligences as well [note 3]. His definition of reality finesses the issue of its characterization. As Peirce knew well, reality, the veritable thing itself, is strictly unapproachable. We may CHOOSE to believe in the eventual convergence of opinion to a possible singular truth if we are able to take the viewpoint of eternity but our world of science, as Kuhn describes it, [note 4] seems more like a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night. Too often, this assumed convergence with its implication of progress supports in practice the worst sort of physicalist reductionism — where efforts are only judged scientific if they grow directly out of or attach directly to the canonical theories of the hard sciences [note 5]. After Peirce, other notable philosophers have struggled with the same issue. Among these, the perspicuous and profound effort of Goodman is most congenial to the presuppositions of this work [note 6].

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