C.S. Peirce on Science and Belief
“…above all, let it be considered that what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief, and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. 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.”
— C.S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief” (1877)
Human beings are ordered for truth
To be ordered for truth: this means our whole being, our whole existence, has an orientation towards truth.1placeholder Naturally, the skeptic will echo Pontius Pilate’s “Quid est veritas?” while the sensualist discards this article in favor of Hollywood (or Las Vegas; or, darker yet, a search engine). But the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake reaps a reward only of ever-increasing disappointment, while disputing the nature of human beings by asking the nature of truth only reinforces the claim of our truth-orientation.
To be ordered for truth: this does not mean that we are ordered towards truth alone; for the truth comprises all things towards which we can be ordered. We are ordered, for instance, also towards the good.2placeholder But to be ordered towards a good which is good for us, and not what is good in itself but not good for us, requires some prior possession, however inchoate or incomplete, of the truth about the good.3placeholder Concern with the truth grounds all other species-specific, distinctive characteristics of the human being: the concern, that is, with grasping the meaning of our cognitive objects not merely as they are in a context of reference to us, but as they are in themselves.4placeholder
This concern with meaning — this fundamental orientation which anchors our identity as human — falls victim, however, to a vulgar hubris. That is: we believe we have the truth too quickly, not only about the world around us, but about what “truth” is, about how we acquire it, about what it means for us. We “cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.”5placeholder We see this tenacity not only in adherents of political parties or political figures (whether Left or Right or anywhere in between), in religious fundamentalism, or in cults, but also in social scientists, where people lock in to a set of theoretical commitments as an ideology: be that theoretical comportment one of critical realism, critical theory, critical Marxist theory, Jungian psychology, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Derridean deconstructionism, intersectional postgenderism, and so on; or we see it in the myopic pride of natural scientists, who see in physics the root of all existence, or in evolution — in the genetic blueprint — the determination of all behavior; or we may see it in the schools of philosophy, where all wisdom is thought to be concentrated in the analytic school, or the continental; or perhaps in Wittgenstein, in Kant, in Hume, in Aquinas, or in Aristotle.
This ideological fixity of belief must be recognized for what it is: namely, a vicious cycle of arrogance and ignorance. The more we believe our understanding sufficient, the less we truly know, and the less we truly know, the less we realize we need still to learn. This does not mean we should hold our beliefs without conviction; a belief held without conviction is no belief at all, but a suspended opinion. Nevertheless, the chief conviction we must hold is that our beliefs may yet be wrong, and may be shown to us as wrong; that methods which fix our beliefs such that they are closed off to change, to correction, or to improvement are inadmissible.
It is an attitude held by many within the scientific community that they themselves are adherents of this all-important belief; and yet, many there maintain an uncritical conception of science as holding the key to unlocking all the doors of knowledge; that, if philosophy is to be a contribution to knowledge, it become as much like science as possible or perhaps as a means to better communicating the truths discovered by science; that “scientific knowledge in the modern sense — based on systematic observation, experiment, and mathematization — could ultimately replace all of prescientific human opinions… And indeed today who would trust an opinion that has not received something of scientific scrutiny?”6placeholder Thus, scientists (and even many trained philosophers who have bought into this supremacy of science, such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett) conceive of philosophy as a discipline of secondary importance in the collective human pursuit of truth.
I’d like to argue here that something of the inverse is true: not that science needs to become more like philosophy, or that philosophy will replace all scientific knowledge, but rather that only with philosophical insight can the discoveries possible only through science become incorporated into a specifically human world of meaning. What is needed most of all, therefore, is a perspective which can not only embrace the philosophical and the scientific alike, but which can understand the specific relevance of each in the disclosure of truth and development of knowledge.
The fixation of belief
A keen practitioner of scientific study and philosophical inquiry who unified the investigations of both — and a sound starting point for seeking our universal perspective — Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) defined “belief” as what disposes us to act a certain way when the situation arises.7placeholder In other words, to believe is not simply to pay lip service or profess, but to ingest that in which one believes and make it a part of one’s daily being. Consider, for instance, the pivotal question of belief in God: for the most part, someone who does not believe in God acts as though there is no ultimate intelligible structure or order to the universe which may ground moral norms. Absent a strong belief in nature as giving grounds for moral normativity, social conventions and social contracts likely stand for such non-believers as the basis of all human morality. Contrariwise, the believer in a deity orients his or her life around that belief, doing certain things and not doing others because of that belief. A social contract may still be found necessary, but it is considered a just contract only insofar as it accords with the belief in God and that belief’s attendant doctrines.
Doubt, as Peirce further claimed, is misunderstood as the lack of belief. Rather, it must be seen as the irritation of the mind at the lack of having a belief on a matter that calls for action; more like the stimulation of a nerve which causes an itch than a fog which causes uncertainty. Doubt — earnest, genuine doubt, which throws into question our presuppositions, our current beliefs — is uncomfortable. We, who take to caterwauling and gnashing of teeth when the internet goes down for five minutes or our favorite restaurant runs out of our favorite item, go to great lengths to avoid discomfort of all kinds, but perhaps most especially do we avoid the discomfort of doubt. Least of all do we want to see where the pursuit of some serious doubt might lead us: to something even more uncomfortable than itself, namely, to the realization that our current beliefs, perhaps even our deepest and most fundamental beliefs, are unsupported in truth. To doubt God’s existence, for instance, is not simply to call it into question: it is to pursue that question until resolved one way or the other; and with the belief in God’s existence or non-existence all the rest of our moral and cosmological convictions stand or fall. Truly, uncomfortable. But just as truly, necessary.
To avoid commitment to false belief, we should find a manner, Peirce says, of fixing our beliefs which seeks truth rather than comfort and possibly even at its expense. He calls this a scientific method — which will require some explanation, for his “science” is not so limited as our own. But prior to outlining this approach, he examines and exposes three deficient, common methods for affixing our beliefs, three errors against which we should all guard ourselves.
The first of these, and a method most common among college-aged youth and social activists of every generation, Peirce names the method of tenacity: “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”.8placeholder At the possibility of ruffling some feathers, I would suggest that the bitterest social and political divides today experience such vitriol because each side has established its beliefs through tenacity alone. Specifically, I mean here the cultural divides over abortion, same-sex marriage, postgenderism, and gun control. The genesis of these beliefs may be from some authority — parents, teachers, schools, media — but the fixation of the belief comes from a tenacious unwillingness to open one’s eyes to anything but what one has already accepted.
Those beliefs which an individual makes central to his or her identity likewise tend to be held by tenacity: religious affiliation, alma mater, home town or state, being a fan of sports team or professional athlete, musical taste, and so on. Rather than bring any of these — let alone the more socially-pressing issues listed above — into question, “the instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take.”9placeholder
Belief by tenacity has grown in proportion with individualistic liberal society. To establish belief by authority is for the persons in authority — who may themselves fix their beliefs by other means — to exhort certain thoughts and practices and prohibit others for those under the authority. It is often though not always an extrinsic form of belief by tenacity: repetitious prohibitions and directives being given in the forum, the courtroom, the pulpit, sanctioned texts, and so on:10placeholder
Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time 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. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and, when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment.
Peirce’s words evoke imagery of the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials; of kings and cardinals and popes — an overblown exaggeration of religious authority, a kind of caricature produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, for the right audience, Peirce’s words likely also conjures more recent events: controversies over free speech at college campuses, in television, and in attempts to control the messages distributed through social media. Perhaps we are not as individualistic in our tenacity as we would like to think ourselves.
In other words, belief is still widely fixed by authority, but by authorities hidden under new guises, and thus, not even authorities against whom we may consciously rebel. Much more so than by explicit suppression of heterodoxies, an authority may “prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed” effectively by dismissing them as irrelevant, outmoded, or backwards — or most effectively of all, by ignoring them. Modern authorities have been strengthened in their suppressive selective capacities by centralized media: radio and television, but also standardization of educational systems. Digital media — social networking, but much more the emergence of websites and forums aiming at developing the intellectual culture— is breaking this paradigm. Authoritative doubt-suppressing monologue is giving way to growth in inquisitive dialogue; if, today, this growth seems rebellious, quarrelsome, and unruly, this is only because it is in its adolescence.
But even within the inquiry-enabling, de-centralizing paradigm of digital life, a faulty method of fixing belief remains. In every age, ours no less than any previous, there are those guilty of what Peirce terms an “a priori” method of establishing belief — “a priori” for it finds its justification in something prior to a truly experiential mode of investigation:11placeholder
Systems of this sort… have been chiefly 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.
In other words, the a priori system of belief, or the method of fittingness, is one which accepts or rejects propositions according to those propositions’ fittingness with one’s unexamined fundamental presuppositions. Generally, we may formalize this method as, “Given X, Y fits, but Z does not.” In this way, certain propositions are found apt, and others are not; to some, therefore, we incline, while to others we disincline. We may articulate the reasons for our inclinations and disinclinations, even quite eloquently. We may produce complex but seemingly coherent arguments (which the scholastic thinkers of the Latin Age named arguments “convenientia”) which organize these beliefs into a system. We may be lulled, therefore, into believing we have constructed an impenetrable defense of our convictions — when we have built a solid edifice but upon weak foundations set in shaky ground: the presumed givenness of X. When we realize that other persons from other cultures — or even within distinct subcultures of our own — hold radically different convictions but have no less sophisticated or developed systems of belief, and therefore claim their positions just as “agreeable to reason” as our own, we perhaps see that something in our method proves no ultimate justification. Given Q, Z fits, but Y does not.
For instance, consider the divisive question of abortion. The pro-life may say: given the sanctity of life, any abortion is atrocious. The pro-choice may say: given the non-sentient (or minimally-sentient, depending on length of fetal development) capacity, legal access to abortion is pragmatic. Each “given” rests upon other presuppositions, likely taken as givens as well; each “given” accepted due to its apparent coherence with what one has already accepted as true. Is there a first “given” accepted by all? Is there some lapse in the fittingness of our accepted givens? The a priori method possesses a seductive ease; we are comfortable in the framework of beliefs not indubitable but treated as such, and accepting or rejecting new ideas on their fittingness to this framework gives us a ready-solution to whatever might appear before us. But the strongest such edifice rests nevertheless upon shaky grounds.
Having dismissed the insufficient methods of tenacity, authority, and the a priori, Peirce states: “it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be caused by nothing human, but by some eternal permanency — by something upon which our thinking has no effect.”12placeholder That is, the a priori — which he holds in higher esteem than tenacity or authority — depends still upon human precedents, since fittingness depends upon a specific enculturation, but lacks ultimate justification. This leaves belief subject to caprice; but the capricious election of a first principle does not soothe the irritation of doubt. Rather, to resolve all our doubts, Peirce says, we need a method that can fix our beliefs by thorough discernment of the truth, a method which he calls the scientific:13placeholder
Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in a more familiar language, is this: There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though 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.
On the one hand, this “fundamental hypothesis” for a scientific method of inquiry seems straightforward and any serious natural scientist would likely agree with it, at least on the whole (perhaps quibbling here or there). On the other hand, Peirce did not limit science to the empirical or empiriometric approaches: he included not only the special investigations of the laboratory, which, following Jeremy Bentham, he named idioscopic science, but also the general investigations of the mind, termed cenoscopic science, which more generally receives the name of philosophy.14placeholder Each without the other remains forever incomplete and an individual who pursues one to the absolute exclusion of the other is thereby condemned to never more than a glimmer of truth.
Science: idioscopy and cenoscopy
The idioscopic pursuit of truth is one that seeks new phenomena, specifically by means of specialized observational means: through instruments or experiments, through a practice which requires tools (be they physical or mental) which are not ordinarily applied in our day-to-day common experience.15placeholder Idioscopic training is, accordingly, as specialized as the specific means which belong to the specific idioscopic discipline.
In contrast, the cenoscopic pursuit of truth — more commonly called philosophy — requires only that one be able to reflect upon one’s common experience. For this reason, particularly in contrast to the high degree of specialization requisite to idioscopic inquiry, the cenoscopic seems less rigorous, sophisticated, and as though something in which no one needs any training. Yet nothing could be further from reality; for the observations proper to cenoscopic inquiry, concerning matters so close to our everyday experience, are obscured by their very obviousness: “These observations escape the untrained eye precisely because they permeate our whole lives, just as a man who never takes off his blue spectacles soon ceases to see the blue tinge.”16placeholder
That is, the cenoscopically-trained, the philosopher, is not a specialist in the sense that a chemist or a biologist or a psychologist is a specialist; but trained nonetheless, and a training which should not be ignored or marginalized. Unfortunately, much of what masquerades under the name “philosophy” today is sophistry, and sophistry of such sophistication that its practitioners genuinely believe themselves to be philosophers. With shameless envy of the idioscopic fields, “philosophy” has devolved into hyper-specialization and has, in a desperate search for a claim to scientific legitimacy, been sliding towards experimental and mathematized methodologies. The true philosopher has for the object of study the fullness of the meaning of the objects of our experience. Idioscopy is incapable of grasping this: that is, insofar as an idioscopic specialist ascribes some meaning to discovery, that ascription is only made “upon the virtual assumption of sundry logical and metaphysical beliefs”.17placeholder It is through idioscopy that we accumulate new facts; but it is only through cenoscopy that our interpretations of those facts are not constrained by licentious human caprice; not fixed by tenacity, authority, or an “agreeableness to reason”.
What methodologically unites the two, or what ought to unite the two, is logic, or what Peirce termed semiotics (quite different from the European-based Ferdinand de Saussure-derived semiology of Derrida and Deleuze, et al.); which is properly a cenoscopic discipline but which has a universal scientific scope and application. That is: if logic or semiotics is the study of signs, and all knowledge is mediated by signs, then a study of signs is a study of all knowledge: “someone already master of or on their way to mastering a given subject matter — physics, chemistry, literature, sociology — turning to semiotics would discover that their chosen specialization already depends upon — is not reducible to, indeed, but completely depends upon — the action of signs as revealing and distinguishing the very subject-matter which is the object studied by the specialization.”18placeholder For this reason, Peirce went so far as to term semiotics the “normative science of truth”; normative not only for the various subdivisions of cenoscopic science but embracing the whole expanse of idioscopic endeavors as well.
With such a common basis — the nature, validity, and operation of signs in the relations whereby knowledge is acquired — we can resolve both the discoveries of idioscopic science, the new phenomena we empirically discover, and the discoveries of cenoscopic inquiry, the meaning of the discovered phenomena (their intelligibility, their referential and contextualized being, and their importance for the world and human life) into a common, coherent whole.
The fragmentary state of today’s intellectual world — including not only the university, but the public arena of ideas; including not only the “two cultures” of C.P. Snow, but within each culture and indeed within each discipline belonging to each culture — could sorely use such a unifying normativity, especially if we wish to fix our beliefs in a truly scientific manner. That is, if we are truly to “fix” our beliefs, we will need the philosophical, not as window dressing or for rhetorical force, but for supplying both the logical insight through which all science is conducted and the metaphysical resolution needed to bring both idioscopic and cenoscopic discovery into a coherent whole.
Deely, J., 2009, “Semiotics and Academe: At the Heart of the Problem of Knowledge”, in John Deely and Leonard G. Sbrocchi (eds.), Semiotics 2008 (Ottawa: Legas, 2009), 476-493.
Kemple, B., 2017. Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition.
Peirce, C. and Burks, A., 1958. Collected Papers Of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
Peirce, C., Houser, N. and Kloesel, C., 1992. The Essential Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Wojtyla, K., 1976. “The Person: Subject and Community” in Person and Community: Selected Essays
Aristotle c.348/7bbc: Μετά τα Φυσικά, 980a21: “All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing.”
Aristotle c.349bc: Ἠθικὰ nικοάχεια, 1094a1: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good.”
Karol Wojtyla 1976: “The Person: Subject and Community” in Person and Community: Selected Essays, 234: “Without this transcendence — without going out beyond myself and somehow rising above myself in the direction of truth and in the direction of a good willed and chosen in the light of truth — I as a person, I as a personal subject, in a sense not myself.”
Cf. Brian Kemple 2017: Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition.
Charles Sanders Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief” in The Essential Peirce, vol.1 (EP), 114.
John Deely 2008: “Semiotics and Academe” in Semiotics 2008, 477.
Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief”, EP.1.114.
Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief”, EP.1.115.
Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief”, EP.1.116.
Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief”, EP.1.117.
Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief”, EP.1.118–19.
Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief”, EP.1.120.
Peirce 1877: “The Fixation of Belief”, EP.1.120.
“Idioscopic” and “cenoscopic” indicating by their Greek etymology, respectively, the specialized or particular scope and the common scope.
Cf. Peirce 1903: “An Outline Classification of the Sciences”, EP.2.258–62; “Review of Wilhelm Wundt, Principles of Physiological Psychology” in The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (CP), vol.8, §199.
Peirce 1902: “A Detailed Classification of the Sciences”, CP.1.241.
Peirce 1905: “Consequences of Critical Common-Sensism”, CP.5.521.
Deely 2008: “Semiotics and Academe”, 485.