On the fixation of belief

Recently I was able to resurrect an old external hard drive that had been corrupted, and was pleased to find an unfinished piece on something I had planned to write on, Peirce’s “The Fixation of Belief”. While a bit technical in places, it’s not unreadable to the layman, and any obscure references can be skipped without losing the overall point. I finished it and am happy to post it as both something I had wanted to tackle in its own right and as a timely companion to On happiness.

“Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already.” (The Essential Peirce, I.109) Peirce begins by noting that for the scholastics, logic was believed to be something both simple and complete; once learned in the academy there was nothing more to know. (This is reminiscent of Leibniz’s belief that if the language of logic could be perfected then everything that could be known about existence would be settled in a few short years.) It was a field based ultimately on authority. “Read, read, read, work, pray and reread” was the rule of the day. On the other hand, Peirce sees in the early scientists such as Bacon, Galilleo and Copernicus a new procedure, a kind of stumbling in the dark until one hits upon a new theory that advances knowledge beyond its presently happy confines. (In fact, he refers to such hypotheses as “irrational”, an idea Feyerabend makes central to his Against Method.) Such advances are statements about the defective state of reason at the time as they are made. Progress is not simply a matter of building upon the inherited wisdom of the past, as much as the tradition would like it to be that way. It is at times a direct challenge to it. Peirce sees in this a clue as to the true nature of logic.

“We are, doubtless, in the main logical animals, but we are not perfectly so.” (I.112) Peirce believes that in regard to practical matters, most people are quite logical: we see truth as a question of fact. We reason in order to learn something we did not know from the perspective of what we do. We let reality act as a check upon what we think and do. If I want to use my computer to type this entry, I have to learn how it works. I cannot dream up any old scenario I please and expect the computer to behave according to my wishes. It has certain properties that need to be obeyed: it requires power, a keyboard, monitor, etc. It cannot read my mind and make me coffee, as nice as that would be. On the other hand, in the absence of contrary facts, we tend to be optimistic about reality. We do dream about how we hope things will be, with the only thing serving as a check to this is some fact to the contrary. In this way logic as a factual engagement with reality coexists with a hopeful nature about that same reality. (Peirce even speculates that these two seemingly contrary qualities may be advantageous from the perspective of human evolution.)

Using this model Peirce reworks the standard definition of validity. In logic, validity is seen as a question of form and not of fact. That is, an argument is valid if it’s structured in such a way that if its premises are true then the conclusion will necessarily be true. Whether or not the premises and conclusions actually are true is not important; that is a question of the soundness of the argument, not its validity. For Peirce, however, validity is necessarily a question of fact: “A being the premises and B the conclusion, the question is, whether these facts are really so related that if A is B is. If so, the inference is valid; if not, not. It is not in the least the question whether, when the premises are accepted by the mind, we feel an impulse to accept the conclusion also.” (I.112) The role played in the traditional model by the form of the argument is seen by Peirce to be a matter of mental habit. Validity is a question of whether our habits of mind are such as to produce true conclusions from true premises. These habits can be stated as guiding principles, which are logical expressions whose truth has to do with the validity of their inferences. Again, in practical matters our knowledge is mostly a matter of routine. But in an unfamiliar situation we quickly see the limitations of reason when it has no guiding principles at hand. We are then like “a ship in the open sea, with no one on board who understands the rules of navigation.” (I.113) Peirce believes we can distinguish those guiding principles which are necessary for all reason from those which pertain to a particular question of research.

The most fundamental guiding principle is that of inquiry. Unlike Descartes, who famously used inquiry as doubt to establish the clear and distinct idea of self-existence, Peirce believes inquiry cannot simply be an academic exercise. (Elsewhere he refers to Descartes’ method as mere “paper doubt”.) Inquiry has to do with real belief and doubt. Logic already suggests that there are distinct states of belief and doubt, and that there are ways of moving from one to the other. Peirce notices three differences between them. 1) Each corresponds to a different sensation, similar to that of the difference between asking a question and pronouncing a judgment. 2) Beliefs indicate the presence of habits that guide actions, something doubt cannot do. 3) Doubt is an irritant, a dissatisfied state that always struggles to resolve itself into belief. Belief, on the other hand, is content and does not wish to move into a state either of doubt or another belief. In fact, we not only believe certain things but do so tenaciously. (I.114) Peirce sees both of these effects as positive: belief puts us into a position to act in a certain way when the right situation arises, while doubt causes us to act immediately until it is destroyed.

“Hence, the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion.” (I.115) In the same way that Peirce revised the standard notion of validity he reworks the notion of truth. Truth cannot be considered apart from our disposition toward it. It does not exist in a separate, intellectual realm of ideas, to be apprehended by the pure light of reason. Truth can only be approached via belief. As much as we would like to say inquiry must result in true belief, this is redundant, since we take our beliefs to be true by definition, whether they are or not. Belief is in and of itself a satisfaction to doubt, it cannot be made more satisfactory by requiring it also to be “true”. The only way to challenge belief is by a new doubt, which begins the process all over again, leading ultimately to a new belief. If this is right then it leads to an interesting modification of the standard model of proof. Instead of requiring axioms that are first principles of reason or experience, all that is needed are propositions that are not, in fact, doubted. It is not necessary to establish such first principles as self-evidently true beyond proof (which is what an axiom is). Instead, they are simply ideas that are believed to be true because nobody seriously doubts them, or can imagine a way to honestly do so.

In the remainder of the essay Peirce lays out four models for settling belief, in increasing order of preference. The first is the method of tenacity. If the goal of inquiry is the settlement of opinion, then why not settle it any way we choose, rejecting out of hand anything that would disagree with it? Many people do, in fact, settle opinion in this way. They believe what they want to believe and find ways to nourish that belief, both by surrounding themselves with others who think the same way and by avoiding those who don’t. Peirce gives the example of a friend who warned him not to read a certain paper, lest he be led away from the truth. The logic is the familiar one of 1) We already know what is true; 2) This book (or article, or person) does not agree with us; 3) Therefore it is not true; 4) To read it would be to risk being deceived. Peirce points out the frequency with which this happens in religious contexts, a place in which I have found it to be all too common as well. This phenomenon occurs among both liberals and conservatives. Each side fears that an engagement with the thought of the other (apart from their own control over the presentation, which almost always amounts to a straw man) would risk the corruption of the faithful (defined as those who think like we do). I remember asking one of my professors a question after class about the problem of theodicy, and his reply was curt: “Don’t go there. You don’t want to ask that question.” His answer baffled me, since I did, in fact, want to ask the question—a point I assumed was obvious by my asking it.

The method of tenacity, while appearing dishonest, has the advantage of providing a blithe peace: “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see?” (I.116) Moreover, Peirce points out that one is not in a position to say the method is wrong, only that it is not one’s own method. To call it irrational does little to dissuade its practitioners, since they often scorn what others call reason in the first place. However, there is a problem that the method itself not only cannot solve, but that it produces: how to form a community of opinion. Tenacity only works on the individual. If he or she wishes to join with others it can only be done with the hope that they are tenacious in the same way regarding the same things. Even if this can be done it represents only the most tenuous of bonds, making any type of civilization precarious at best.

The second method is that of authority. Its strength picks up where tenacity leaves off. That which is to be believed is settled by those who are in control. Communities can be organized and stabilized by dogma and the magisterium. In the same way that the method of tenacity has the individual’s best interest in mind, that of authority serves those in control. Whether they are philosopher-kings, priests, aristocrats, a guild, or academics, the official opinions prescribed to the masses will inevitably secure their own power. (In this regard it is interesting to see that Peirce anticipates the ideas of social critics like Adorno and Foucault.) In fact, to disagree with official belief is to bring about censure and repression, often violent. On the other hand, the method of authority has the ability to facilitate some of the great feats of civilization: architecture, art, empire.

The method of authority conceals one weakness and produces another. While it presents the appearance of stability it, in fact, constantly evolves. Usually this process is so slow that few notice it. The story that tradition tells of itself is one of identity: in a world of change it unites its children across time. Yet those who study it know this is only an illusion. Doctrines are always modified by those who hold them. On the other hand, a centralized teaching authority can only script so many beliefs. At some level individuals will always need to think for themselves, if only concerning trivial affairs. Even concerning ideas that are settled there arises the problem of relativism. Once the individual encounters doctrines decided in a different way by other cultures or authorities a question arises: what makes my beliefs right vis-à-vis theirs? Is a population’s view of the truth simply a “mere accident of their having been taught as they have, and of their having been surrounded with the manners and associations they have”? (I.118) Doubt enters in and demands another resolution.

The third approach Peirce calls the a priori method. The desire is not simply to induce an impulse to believe, but to find that which is right to believe. Unlike mere preference or the threat of an external authority, the standard here is reason. The assumption is that reason, as a faculty, is naturally suited to grasping truth. All that is required is for it to be set free, to “let the action of natural preferences be unimpeded.” (I.118) Under these conditions reason can do its work without bias. Whereas the first two methods are fundamentally arbitrary, the a priori method alone can penetrate into the highest region of knowledge, where Ideas dwell in their purest forms. This has been the lure of all mathematical systems of philosophy, from the Pythagoreans to Spinoza. It can be done alone or in community, in conversation or through texts. Reason must obey only the laws of logic and act under the impulse of intellectual cause and effect. It strives to discern the logos of reality and systematically lay it out.

Peirce notes that historically this method finds its fullest expression in metaphysics. The one thing it does not take seriously, however, is experience. In this way it is less like science and more like art. The problem then is that, like art, the a priori method must ultimately reduce to a question of taste. If so, then it cannot hope to achieve the very objectivity it set out to find. At first this charge may seem inappropriate, as reason has almost universally reigned as the king of the soul since Plato’s Republic. Compared to appetite and passion, its superiority is typically unquestioned. But if a tree is best known by its fruit, then consensus and certainty are the last things that can be attributed to metaphysics: “Taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy, from the earliest times to the latest.” (I.119) In fact, the irony is that the a priori method, despite its best intentions, ends up differing little from the first two. It resembles tenacity to the degree its adherents resolutely hold on to their precious systems at all costs, despite evidence to the contrary; it resembles authority to the degree it enforces its schools of thought and grants its imprimatur to select thinkers, deeming anything outside of this heresy (albeit of an intellectual kind, but with all the vigor of the inquisition, backed by the might of tenure and endowments). Once this is recognized, doubt resurfaces.

“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 permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no effect.” By external permanency Peirce is referring to his idea of firstness—that things have a nature in and of themselves irrespective of how they are perceived. He does not think that we have direct access to firstness (in fact, he is seen as one of the leading figures in the development of semiotics), but his concern is to support a kind of realism, if only of the Kantian sort. That is, the world is made up of things that are real and have natures that can be known, however imperfectly. Their natures can affect our perceptions of them and thoughts about them, and over both an infinite amount of time and an infinite community of inquirers, can lead to truth: “And, though these affections are necessarily as various as are individual conditions, yet the method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man shall be the same.” (I.120) (In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” he states it as “The opinion which is fated 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.”) This method he calls the scientific, and its core conception is that of reality. Using his paradigm of the nature of belief vs doubt, he cleverly dismisses skeptical views of reality as ones which neither compel belief nor are arrived at by any real doubts.

The scientific method possesses what the first three lack: the ability to distinguish between right and wrong ways of knowing reality. To paraphrase him, the essence of the first three is to think as one is already inclined to think. The scientific method, however, starts with where one is and moves forward to the unknown, with an openness to being corrected all along the way, including an openness to (and if Feyerabend is right, a necessary dependence on) unconventional paths: “I may start with known and observed facts to proceed to the unknown; and yet the rules which I follow in doing so may not be such as investigation would approve. 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; and this fact is the foundation of the practical side of logic.” (I.121) In other words, if reality is something that can oppose us with rough facts that can awaken us from our pleasing dreams, then any method of getting there, no matter how absurd, serves to further truth if we are willing.

Peirce ends by cleverly commending the strengths of the first three methods. If all we are looking for is something to believe in order to not bother with the complexities of life, any of them will do. I remember having a conversation with someone about this in which I gave a thumbnail sketch of the four ways of going through life. To my dismay she looked at me and said that she was fine with some version of the first three. I was bemused and honestly had no idea how to reply. She is very bright and I naively assumed would see the beauty of the scientific method. Had I remembered Peirce’s essay better I would have seen this coming and realized it’s just not for everyone. And even that fits his model, for without the irritation of doubt there is nothing that can drive a person to seek a better way of knowing things. Yet his conclusion rings true: “The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it will carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.” (I.123)

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