Thursday, 10 May 2012

Outline of Peirce’s “The Fixation of Belief”


Charles Sanders Peirce argues that the aim of inquiry is the fixation of belief, and that the scientific method is the most effective way of so doing. 


Step 1: Peirce begins with a historical sketch of different approaches to the art of reasoning (109-111*).

Argument: The Romans and medievalists took all knowledge to rest on authority or reason, with the latter also ultimately derived from authority. Roger Bacon, in the 13th century, held that knowledge was derived from subjective experience, while Francis Bacon, in the Novum Organum, argued that experience must be understood as something open to verification. The chemist, Lavoisier, initiated a shift away from the maxim, “read, work, pray and re-read” to a method focused on manipulation of substances, rather than words. Finally, Darwin employs the statistical approach used to explain the movements of molecules to explain biological variation.

Upshot: The conception of what constitutes proper reasoning has varied over time.

Step 2: Peirce argues that the value of learning the guiding principles of inference is that they allow us to draw true conclusions from true premises (111-113).

Argument: We have a tendency to form beliefs that go beyond what logic would justify.  This is especially true in domains where our beliefs are not constrained by experience.   Hence, what constitutes a valid pattern of reasoning may fail to correspond with what feels, to us, like the most natural pattern of reasoning.  This provides some motivation for learning the principles of valid inference.

Upshot: Patterns of reasoning that ensure true conclusions, given true premises count as valid irrespective of the feelings or impulses of those who rely on them.
Step 3: Peirce imposes a restriction on which guiding principles may be considered determinants of validity (113).

Argument: We may draw a distinction between guiding principles that are necessarily taken for granted in asking whether a certain conclusion follows from certain premises and those that are not implied by that question. With respect to the former, it does not make sense to inquire into their truth since such an inquiry already requires that such principles be assumed true.  Moreover, so long as we stick to these principles, we will always arrive at true conclusions from true premises.

Upshot: The guiding principles that determine valid reasoning are those that are presupposed by the very concept of reasoning.

Step 4: Peirce draws three points of contrast between belief and doubt that are relevant to inquiry (114).

Argument: Belief and doubt differ (i) in terms of their sensation, (ii) in that belief guides our desires and actions while doubt only prompts us to take steps towards its dissolution, and (iii) doubt is an uneasy or dissatisfied state we wish to change into belief while belief is a calm and satisfactory state we do not wish to change into some other belief.

Upshot: Belief and doubt play different roles in inquiry, with the former constituting its destination and the latter its driving force.

Step 5: Peirce argues that doubt is the driving force behind inquiry and that the settlement of opinion is the end of inquiry (114-115).

Argument: The irritation caused by doubt motivates us to inquire, and inquiry comes to an end once we arrive at a settled opinion, whether or not that opinion is true. Truth cannot motivate us because whether or not an opinion is true always lies outside the mind, and therefore could not affect it.

Upshot: This falsifies at least three conceptions of proof: (i) the thesis that inquiry begins with the posing of any question one pleases, (ii) the thesis that inquiry involves a search for certainty, even with respect to things that are not actually doubted, and (iii) the thesis that we may continue to inquire about something that everyone is already convinced about.

Step 6: Peirce considers the effectiveness of the “method of tenacity” as means of fixing belief (115-117).

Argument: Often, our instinctive dislike for an undecided state of mind prompts us to cling to the views we already have.  Subjects may also embrace beliefs they find agreeable, and attempt to shield themselves from considerations that would prompt them to change their mind. These are examples of the method of tenacity.  However, this method of fixing belief often proves unsuccessful since subjects who are confronted with the competing opinions of others are often led to revise their own.  

Upshot: The method of tenacity often proves to be ineffectual for fixing belief.
Step 7: Peirce considers the effectiveness of the “method of authority” as a means of fixing belief (117-118).

Argument: The method of authority represents a shift from a focus on the individual (as with the method of tenacity) to a focus on a certain community. It involves the imposition or regulation of the beliefs of a population by social institutions, and has proven to be more effective at fixing belief than the method of tenacity.  However, institutions cannot regulate opinions on every subject.  Moreover, as subjects come to recognise that members of other societies believe differently, they are often led to question the beliefs of their own.

Upshot: The method of authority is ineffectual as a general means of fixing belief.

Step 8: Peirce considers the efficacy of the “a priori method” as a means of fixing belief (118-120).

Argument: Although the a priori method is superior, with respect to reason, than those discussed thus far, the intuitions that underlay the method (like tastes) tend to vary from time, in step with the intellectual fashions of the time.  Moreover, when it is observed that people from other cultures have quite different intuitions, this leads many to question the assumption that their own intuitions are somehow privileged or right.  This, in turn, ultimately gives rise to doubt.

Upshot:  The a priori method ultimately proves less than satisfactory as a means of fixing belief.

Step 10: Peirce considers the “scientific method”, and argues that it is most preferred method (of those discussed) for fixing belief (120-121).

Argument: The scientific method is able to satisfy our doubts because it bases belief on external rather than human factors.  This frees it of the vicissitudes of human nature.  Moreover, the wide reliance on the scientific method, and its long track record of success, instils confidence, making the method less likely to give rise to doubt when it is consistently applied.

Upshot: The scientific method is the most successful of those considered, for fixing belief.

Step 11: Peirce outlines what he takes to be the primary contrast between the scientific method and the others he considers (121).

Argument: There is no wrong way to employ the methods of tenacity, authority, and a priori reasoning, from the point of view of the methods themselves.  This is because they all endorse whatever belief a subject already has about the best way to employ that method.  However, the scientific method, which has an objective standard of what counts as good reasoning, allows for the possibility that a subject may fail to reason correctly.

Upshot: The scientific method alone is able to allow for the possibility of both bad reasoning and good reasoning.

Step 12: Peirce concedes that the scientific method is not superior to the other methods of fixing belief in every respect (121-123).

Argument: The a priori method may generate more comfortable conclusions; the method of authority will always be preferred by institutions to stamp out inconvenient beliefs and may better facilitate peace and social stability; the method of tenacity requires a resolute character and is to be admired for its simplicity and directness.

Upshot: The scientific method is not superior to the others in every respect.


Although the scientific method is not superior, as a means of fixing belief, in every respect, it is still worth adopting and defending.


1. What, according to Peirce, is the primary goal of inquiry? Do you agree? Why or why not?

2. Based on what Peirce has to say about the role of doubt in inquiry, how would he feel about the Cartesian search for certainty?

3. What is the fundamental hypothesis of the scientific method? Is it consistent with the possibility that we are in the Matrix? Why or why not?

4. What, according to Peirce, makes the scientific method superior to the other methods of fixing belief? Do you agree? Why or why not?

*Page numbers based on The Essential Peirce anthology.


Benjamin Altshuler said...

Pierce distinguishes between belief and doubt with regard to their implications on action; belief, he says, guides our actions passively while doubt, in opposing belief, invokes urgent action to navigate back to a state of belief. According to Pierce, doubt is an undesirable state which invokes its own dissolution. Thus, doubt orients us toward beliefs.

Descartes doubts all his beliefs in order to determine which are most certainly true. Cartesian doubt is methodological, tasked with sorting knowledge beliefs and revealing those that are beyond doubt. Thus doubt points us away from (some) beliefs.

Pierce and Descartes disagree, then, about what doubt is and further, its role in inquiry. Cartesian doubt is not active, but reflective, and so does not pursue new bouts of knowledge. Rather, such a skeptical strategy is oriented at parsing what is already known. Pierce's theory of belief is couched in action, and though inquiry based on doubt does not lead to immediate action, a change in action is expected where beliefs are threatened.

Taylor ffitch said...

Pierce argues that the fundamental and only goal of inquiry is the eradication of doubt by "attaining a state of belief." Actually, to be more precise, he defines inquiry as the struggle to gain a state of belief, and says that it is motivated by the irritation of doubt. I agree with this as far as it goes, but this seems to discount a large branch of inquiry. It seems to me that inquiry can be inspired not only by doubt, but by curiosity. I suppose the definition of "doubt" might include all sorts of not-knowing, in which case my objection isn't valid, but if we take it to mean suspecting that a held belief is not true, then I think it is valid. Inquiry can be motivated by simply not knowing something, not only by doubting something that is already believed. For example, if I decide to walk from one room in a museum to another, I am motivated to take this action of inquiry not by my doubt about some preconceived belief about what I will find, but by the fact that I don't know what I will find. This is a sort of minor objection, but I think it is an important nuance to add.

Pierce does seem to dismiss Descartes with his idea that all inquiry must be based on actual doubt, and therefore that it is not necessary for all proofs to rest on indubitable bases, but only on bases that are not in reality doubted. Since Descartes even admits that he doesn't truly doubt the facts of the physical world around him, it seems his whole project is silly by Pierce's measure. I'm somewhat inclined to agree, but I think you could make the argument that since Descartes' project of doubting began with actual doubt of some of the things he believed, and doubting all his assumptions seemed to him to be a way to resolve that doubt, then his project was based on actual doubt and is therefore valid.

Caleb R said...

What I found most interesting about this reading was how Peirce made doubt and belief such opposing feelings, but how those feelings are both interconnected in gaining beliefs.

Also, the way in which he defines the two as both affecting us in a positive way: doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; belief is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.

I think that if this definition is accurate, then doubt and belief could be troublesome. What happens if a person has a false belief, so they think that their belief is true but it isn't; or a false doubt, where they think that something is untrue, but in fact it is? Isn't that individual fairly "screwed" in ever being able to believe in true beliefs? How then does that individual find truth and redefine their belief?

Russell Buehler said...

I think Pierce has an incredibly simplified view of inquiry and a naive conception of both what it is to doubt and what doubt is (we're not friends). As has already been pointed out, Pierce apparently views doubt as an uncomfortable position that drives us to remove it; to the contrary, I believe that, past a certain point, doubt becomes more comfortable than belief. Moreover, I believe that this is an inherently more philosophically pleasing position that pushes individuals to believe in proportion to their justification and to avoid falsehoods; compared to Pierce's apparent ideal of an individual who assumes a great deal of what he/she believes, and then hops from belief to belief, I will happily sit in skepticism.

In a similar vein, I must confess myself confused as to what Pierce could mean by 'actual doubt' in his discussion of erroneous conceptions of proof; since much of that section appears to target Descartes in particular, I'll consider a popular doubt attributed to him. I certainly feel like I doubt the world exists; I doubt it in precisely the same way that I doubt other things. Perhaps Pierce would like to claim that 'real' doubts are doubts that can be acted upon, but even here I confess myself truly in doubt of the real world; after all, I spend a great deal of time thinking about how I don't know it exists. Maybe Pierce means something more along the lines of 'things most people doubt' by 'real' doubts (he certainly seems to lean this way in his third example), but that is certainly not right. If I convince everyone of a highly dubious proposition, it doesn't suddenly become legitimate. In short, then, I'm not sure what Pierce means by `real doubt', and I think he may very well have a difficult time cashing that idea out. As a last note, I would also like to push the idea that realizing that something is not known, that it is dubitable is, in and of itself, valuable. That Descartes' experiment is not silly or trivial, that it teaches individuals that there exists a very real limitation on their knowledge of the world, that knowing that you don't know is a valuable thing.

Andrew Cely said...

I actually really like Russ's comments on this one, since I find that they reflect my own ideas comcerning Pierce's essay. I continue to realize that doubt is one of the most effective methods of obtaining a clear path to knowledge, whereas belief becomes kind of the connotation of "giving up." To settle on belief is to realize that there is no farther you can go in your search for knowledge, and that to me is more unsettling than continuing to search for the truth.

Benjamin Altshuler said...

Pierce, himself a physical scientist, prefers the scientific method to other means of reasoning because it is an active way to dispel doubt. Unlike the other methods, experimentation can be employed to provide an avenue to the comfortable state of belief. Methods of tenacity, authority, and a priori reasoning are less active and so presumably less reassuring in the prickly face of doubt. More importantly than the active quality of experimentation, though, is the prescriptive manner of the process; the scientific method provides rules for proceeding from the known to the unknown safely and independently of the experimenter's opinions. Considering how Pierce's definition of inquiry and doubt is entirely oriented around avoiding unpleasant feelings and uncertainty, this equitable approach is unexpected, but appreciated.

Of the four methods of reasoning outlined here, science strikes me as the most beneficial avenue, not because of the the presence or absence of feeling, but because it exists outside of the beholder. External bases for belief seem to me the only reasonable way for understanding concepts of the outside world. Still, I do not think of any of these methods as "fixing belief", but rather forging them: beliefs are not broken so much as incomplete without evidence.

Taylor ffitch said...

Pierce argues that the scientific method is the best way of fixing belief because it allows for the use of reason to evaluate whether or not a belief is true (or at least to evaluate the probability of its being true), in contrast to the other methods he mentions. This strikes me as a bit of a straw man argument. Tenacity, authority, and a priori reasoning don't strike me as "methods of fixing belief" in the same category as the scientific method at all. The three other options don't have much to do with forming beliefs, rather they are simply three different types of assumption, and the scientific method is the only method he considers which actually has to do with reasoning. We can basically boil his point down to the idea that it is better to have reasons for your belief than to not have reasons.
I happen to think the scientific method is a pretty good way of forming beliefs, but by arguing this way Pierce loses the opportunity to address real flaws n it and other options.

Na'Quelle D. said...

I'm going to break this down into two posts since I forgot to post for Tuesday.

According to Peirce, the primary goal of inquiry is to eradicate the "irritation of doubt" or the settlement of opinion, and he says that that irritation is the "only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief." I'm not sure that I agree with this entirely; however, I cannot hone in on what exactly what part of it I disagree with.

As far as what he would say about the Cartesian search for certainty, I feel his view discounts the whole process as illegitimate and founded on erroneous methods. I find the Cartesian search for certainty to be more palatable than Peirce's view because I find it's definition of doubt more complete and more satisfactory. Peirce defines doubt in a very narrow way that leaves his argument incomplete and unacceptable as is.

Na'Quelle D. said...

Peirce defines the fundamental hypothesis of the scientific method as saying that there are real things and that, through our perceptions, we can determine how things really are. His view is inconsistent with the possibility that we may be in the Matrix because he advocates for his hypothesis of the scientific method by citing the very act of investigation as, if not proof of an external world, then at least not disproof of it. However, there seems to be no room in his theory for the possibility that there may be some reality which our perceptions may not perceive/extract by themselves.

He claims that the scientific method is superior to other methods because it is something that can be checked against reality and against the opinions/beliefs of others. He also claims that, with the scientific method, one can speculate on the unknown using known and observed facts. He finds the other methods lacking because, according to him, they privilege the beliefs you are already inclined to believe and does not do enough in the way of pushing us to look for an objective truth.

Caleb R said...

Like other posts before, I too see an importance in doubt when trying to attain knowledge. I particularly liked when we touched on the idea of the ancients teaching in the Socratic method and how highly they held/regarded doubt. I don't know if this is out of context or putting things into very dumbed down terms, but in the discussion of doubt being even more important than belief in the attainment of truth I thought about history in this way: What if back in the day, you can pick pretty much anywhere in history, everyone believed everything? If people believed that the world was flat and no one doubted it, there would have been no advancements in geography. If people just belief for the sake of believing, than is there actually knowledge happening? I think that doubt is either more important, if not equally important by mixing both doubt and belief, in the argument for trying to obtain knowledge.

Andrew Cely said...

I'll just jump in here to agree with Taylor's assessment. Tenacity, authority, and a priori reasoning, at first glance, don't exactly seem to be the most impressive of options for fixing belief since they don't really tend to result in using evidence to justify a belief. Instead they seem more like options spread by word of mouth or assumptions based on a higher comprehension. The scientific method in this one is easily the most effective way of finding the truth because of its objectivity, whereas as the others all deal with subjective reasoning for belief. Pierce's assessment doesn't leave much alternative to finding the scientific method as the best possible method, and as such, I think his ideas falter because of it.

Russell Buehler said...

Peirce argues at length that the other methods of fixing belief--tenacity, authority, and a priori reasoning--are inferior to the scientific method. His primary point seems to be that the others are all subjective, that--in the end--they all come down to arbitrary experiences and preferences, that the scientific method is the only method with a claim to eventually producing facts. In addition, Peirce argues that the methodology of science is unique in that it offers a methodologically right and wrong way to go about the scientific method, even after we've accepted it as our method of inquiry; that it fails to be self-justifying in the same way as the others, again apparent evidence in support of its individual-neutrality.

I actually don't have a particularly huge problem with Peirce on this; since his archetype of a priori inquiry seems to be Hegel, I agree with the majority of his claims, but would suggest that he's missed a type of inquiry. That Hegel's version of a priori thought is not the only possible version, and that this other version may very well avoid the pitfalls of Hegel's. On a side note, I have to disagree with Taylor's post. In my experience, the other ways mentioned by Peirce are ways that many individuals form beliefs, and while they, on the surface, may appear to just be assumptions, I think you will find that many people--especially those who practice them--believe that they are a great deal more than that. In particular, practitioners of all of Peirce's other methods do have reasons for their beliefs, e.g. The bible is the literal word of god, the state's reason for existing is to protect its citizens, it follows 'logically' from our basic intuitions about the world. Indeed, they can even possess sophisticated theories that provide additional justification; simply dismissing them as assumptions is highly unconvincing, Peirce needs to produce a principled set of reasons for why they are inferior.