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.