Discussion on C S Peirce The Fixation of Belie
You can discuss the reading questions, but I want you to focus your discussion on the critical questions on page 381.

Also, continue the discussion as to why we should trust science more than other methods of attaining knowledge. Add to your discussion what I said in the video lecture and what Peirce has to say about the scientific method.

How Do We Come to Believe? Charles S Peirce
Read pages 374–381. Charles Sanders Peirce, The Fixation of Belief

Answer all reading and critical questions.
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Notes
The Nature of Belief According to Charles Sanders Peirce
Peirce (1839-1914) developed the basic idea of pragmatism as a method for improving science’s accuracy in its pursuit of truth. His father was a mathematician on the Harvard University faculty. This allowed the younger Peirce to attend Harvard and meet a number of important and interesting people. He performed poorly in his university courses and graduated last in his class, indicating that Harvard’s hierarchical grading system at the time did not accurately correspond to intellectual ability. Peirce’s novel philosophical method gave rise to a new school of thought. He was a physical scientist first and foremost, having spent more than 30 years studying minute differences in the Earth’s gravitational field. His philosophy was motivated by the importance of precise measurements and rigorous data interpretation.

Peirce approached the question of what truth is in a variety of ways. His first strategy is to revive the old notion that words are signs. John Duns Scotus, who inspired William of Ockham’s nominalism, was the first to discuss words as signs. Peirce extends the concept of signs by using the term “semiotics” to refer to the study of the formal usage of signs, influenced by John, William, and Immanuel Kant. Signs were traditionally seen in a dyadic formula of signifier (the word) and signified (that to which the word refers), as seen by John, William, and even Augustine before them, and by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in Peirce’s time (1857-1913).

Peirce added the term “interpretant” to this list, which refers to the social set of meanings that interpret signifiers. Signs succeed as symbols for things because interpreters associate them with those things. A sign is a brute fact in and of itself. The social system of meanings is what gives the symbol meaning. A flag is simply a piece of cloth, but interpreters of the social habits and feelings elicited by the flag connect the piece of cloth to what it represents. To interpret the use of signs, all signs generate additional signs. Consider the dictionary to make sense of the interpretant. It interprets the meaning of words using words.

According to Peirce, our universe is perfused with signs, and the elaborate system of signs constitutes the world as well as our individual and collective consciousness. A society is a web of signs, words, symbols, meanings, significances, and interpretations that combine and interact in a continuous process of object and idea interpretation. Our sign language is not static, but is constantly in motion as we reinterpret what is true. This depiction of how signs functioned influenced Peirce’s pragmatist definition of truth.

Another way Peirce investigated the concept of truth was to consider what practical effects our conception of an object has, because our conception of these effects constitutes our entire conception of the object. This is what Peirce means when he says that we define what we think an object is based on what we think it does or what we can do with it. In other words, our perception of an object is based on our perception of its sensible effects. On the one hand, this is a rejection of speculative philosophy, as was done by Kant and others. However, it is a confirmation that our words and ideas must be testable. According to Peirce, if a quality or idea of an object cannot be tested, then our concept and word for that quality are meaningless. This is a philosophy of experience, and it encompasses much of what Peirce means by pragmatism. As philosophers and scientists, we must concentrate on the tangible, testable effects of objects. Anything else is a waste of time.

Peirce recognized that what we call “truths” are in fact beliefs. A list of what we believe to be true and a list of our beliefs would be identical. He defined beliefs as something we are aware of, that soothes the annoyance of doubt, and that produces habits in us. This is similar to Hume’s argument, but Peirce emphasizes how our beliefs, as habits, are linked to physical actions or psychological expectations. Our habits predispose us to react in certain ways to certain situations, and the essence of belief is the formation of habits that help us deal with the outside world.

Peirce, despite his scientific bent, recognized that all we have are beliefs about the world. Peirce was preoccupied with mathematics and hard science, so he did not investigate the full social implications of how society produces and relies on habits and the signs that represent beliefs. He did, however, provide an excellent foundation for understanding how we develop and maintain certain beliefs.

The Belief Fixation
Peirce identifies the ways in which we develop habitual beliefs and how they become fixated in our minds in his article “The Fixation of Belief” (1877). But first, he explains how beliefs work. He claims that our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions; they create psychological states in us from which we act. Believing in something or someone instills habits in us that condition us to behave in certain ways.

Peirce, like Hume, has no problem with our truths being formed by habits; Peirce sees our habits as beneficial as long as they result in positive practical effects. We have a habit or an inclination to obey a leader because we believe that obedience will result in positive results. Peirce distinguishes between doubt and belief. Belief is a pleasant and satisfying state that we want to maintain. “Doubt is an uncomfortable and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to liberate ourselves and enter the state of belief” (“Fixation of Belief,” III.3). This is one way to consider what Peirce is saying. We enjoy walking in comfortable shoes; however, if something breaks in our shoe and makes walking uncomfortable, we will stop and repair our shoe or buy new shoes. The annoyance that doubt causes is an important part of the learning process. Descartes used doubt as a means of gaining certainty. Peirce’s goal was more useful knowledge rather than specific knowledge, so he viewed doubt in that context. Our beliefs are not exact representations of truth, and we would be mistaken to believe otherwise. As we seek beliefs with practical value, our beliefs should be constantly self-correcting in response to our experiences. “The most that can be maintained,” he says, “is that we seek a belief that we shall think to be true.” We should be skeptical. Doubt causes us to reflect on our beliefs, reject unsatisfactory beliefs, and strive for new beliefs that ensure better habits and better results.

That is, at least, how Peirce believes we should act. But we don’t always. Peirce identifies four distinct methods for removing the annoyance of doubt and repairing our beliefs. He goes over the four methods in order of least desirable to most desirable, beginning with a common behavior caused by the nature of belief itself.

The instinctive dislike of being undecided, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, causes men [sic] to cling spasmodically to the positions they already hold. The man believes that if he just sticks to his convictions without wavering, everything will be fine. … [He] conceals the danger, then calmly declares that there is none; and why should [he] raise its head to see if there is none? A man may go through life, systematically avoiding anything that might cause him to change his mind. (“Belief Fixation,” V.1)

Piece refers to this behavior as “the method of tenacity.” He describes it as unstable because those who use it to fix their beliefs are constantly confronted with contrary evidence and people who think differently. Nonetheless, we frequently see people using this technique. These people try to eliminate doubt by ignoring any evidence or reasoning that might call their beliefs into question.

The tenacity method is applied at the individual level. Peirce identifies a second similar method of doubt suppression that operates at the community or social institution level. This is the “method of authority” that Peirce claims all great civilizations used, in which each established a set of correct doctrines and taught them to its people. Peirce recognizes that the method of authority promotes greater consistency of belief in a community by creating a comfortable, communal belief system with associated habits. The issue with this method is that it effectively elevates tenacity to the level of a community or entire society. It is also unsustainable because an institution cannot control every individual’s opinion. Like ibn Rushd (see Chapter 3), Peirce believes that the method of authority will always govern the masses of people who have no higher impulse than to be intellectual slaves. However, some people have a broader social awareness and become aware of other beliefs, which causes doubts to emerge.

A third way to eliminate doubt and fix belief is to simply hold opinions that are rational. This is referred to by Peirce as “the a priori method,” after the common philosophical belief in knowledge distinct from experience. But, as Peirce points out, these are just opinions, based not on evidence but on what we find ourselves inclined to believe. Many philosophers, according to Peirce, use this method. This method is more intellectual than tenacity and authority, but it reduces inquiry to something akin to a personal preference. What is rationally acceptable is a subjective issue that reflects one’s personal feelings and experiences. Peirce opposes speculative rationality because, in his opinion, it is a fractious collection of viewpoints, with philosophers expressing their personal preferences. The a priori method is ultimately nothing more than intellectual prejudices.

The shortcomings of the three most common methods of determining belief demonstrate the importance of using the proper method. We will have beliefs—we can’t function without them—and they will be all we have. The question is how to identify those that produce tangible results. What we require is a method of repairing belief in which our beliefs are caused by something external to our personal thinking rather than by something personal. Peirce does not advocate for our minds to be passive, but rather to be responsive to the world and the evidence it provides. When we use our active minds to follow a disciplined method of observing real things in the world that are independent of our minds, this is what he refers to as “the method of science.” We begin with known and observable facts and work our way to the unknown. We let the evidence, not our emotions, determine what we believe. When new information challenges our beliefs, we are using the method correctly.

If you are not willing to be puzzled or to question your beliefs, you will not be able to engage in the kind of inquiry that will lead to knowledge. We will always be tempted by the force of habit and the desire for comfortable conclusions, but reflection on the facts will overcome these temptations. The scientific method is an open-ended method that allows evidence to guide our thinking. Our beliefs are a response to the world, not to our personal prejudices, when using this method. We learn from what life has to teach us.

Science as a Public Good
Peirce, unlike many philosophers and scientists, rejected the idea that the universe is stable and perfectly predictable. Instead, he believed that the universe is constantly evolving, and that while it mostly exhibits signs of order, there is an element of randomness. Henri Bergson will have a similar idea (see Chapter 13). Peirce addressed the difficulties of human subjectivity in “Fixation of Belief.” He addresses the other end of the knowledge problem in his article “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1878): how to deal with a chance-laden universe.

According to Peirce, the meanings of our beliefs are defined by our interactions with the world. These interactions are visible to the public, and it is the actions that people take that provide us with the meanings of signs and beliefs. Meaning is public and performative. The public dimension of Peirce’s definition is critical. We only have our beliefs, but we can’t say that they are real and true because, as we saw earlier, people can base their beliefs on reasons that contradict evidence. Our beliefs have meaning when they can be demonstrated to be connected with what is real—what is the case regardless of our beliefs.

But how do we know what is real? Science, according to Peirce, connects meaning, truth, and reality. Individual beliefs do not determine what is real, but people collectively can determine what is real. Science, in its broadest sense, is about gathering information through observations. As a scientist, Peirce knew that experimenting with different methods was a good approach. He is confident that different scientists using different observation methods will initially produce different results, but that

As each perfects his method and processes, the outcomes will move steadily toward a predetermined center. This is true of all scientific research. Different minds may begin with opposing viewpoints, but the progress of investigation leads them to the same conclusion by a force outside of themselves. (“How to Communicate Our Ideas,” 300)

Peirce believes in an objective reality discernible by a community of dedicated humans. One person, or even a group of people, can be mistaken in their beliefs, but humanity as a whole will come to understand reality through concerted effort. Truth is determined collectively by people.

The truth is the opinion that is destined to be eventually agreed upon by all who investigate, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is how I would describe reality. (“How to Communicate Our Ideas,” 300)

In the basic idea that knowledge progresses from incomplete to more complete understandings, Peirce’s conception is similar to Hegel’s. Peirce, like Hegel, believes that humanity will eventually solve all problems. Peirce was far more inclined toward science and observation than Hegel and lacked Hegel’s concept of Geist. Peirce did not have the direct influence on scientific methods that he had hoped for, but he did have a strong influence on his friend, William James.

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