Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Fixation of Belief: The Method of Tenacity

Peirce argued that the laws of nature are habitual behavior and that our beliefs shape our  behavior.  Beliefs are individual, collective, generational, and inter-generational. Peirce distinguished between scientific beliefs (scientific theories) and non-scientific beliefs (or non-scientific theories).  Some of our beliefs are True and other are False, thus Peirce's theory of belief implies a theory of knowledge or epistemology. At a pragmatic level, sometimes our beliefs contribute to our long-term (and/or short-term) survival as individuals or collectives, sometimes our beliefs are neutral, and sometimes our beliefs work against us. When our individual or collective beliefs about the laws of nature enable us to predict, explain and control nature, we say that our beliefs are True. Ultimately, our survival is often contingent upon whether our beliefs are true or not: "Will that tiger eat me?" If you falsely believe that tigers are vegetarians you are not likely to survive that first encounter.  In my last blog I argued that the Fixation of Belief based on the Method of Authority, is natural, but highly fallible. 

The Method of Tenacity is also a "natural," but unreliable method of belief fixation. This method involves the willful avoidance of circumstances that might stimulate doubt within your current repertoir of beliefs. Recall that human inquiry is an involuntary process triggered by feelings of doubt, and that our old beliefs, naturally, compete with aspiring new beliefs. But Mother Nature stacks the deck in favor of our old habits, as our oldest habits are often the hardest to break. There's a lot of truth in the old saying: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!" (I have been teaching my Ethics course at 9:00 AM for the past 25 years. This semester it was changed to 10:00 AM. Guess what time I showed up for class!) So, we humans are naturally conservative and therefore tend to act based on our old habits, and protect those old beliefs from the onslaught of doubt. Now remember, the Method of Tenacity (like the Method of Authority) is perfectly natural. We all do it individually and collectively! It's just not very likely to lead to True beliefs.

Let's look at how the Method of Tenacity operates at the collective and individual levels. All organized social groups tenaciously protect their core ideological beliefs. That's why the core beliefs espoused by the oldest world religions have changed very little over thousands of years. For example, the Roman Catholic Church still tenaciously protects its belief that only men can become priests and therefore it actively discourages nuns from discussing or teaching the ordination of women. Indeed, censorship is the primary instrument for exercising collective tenacity. Although, we usually associate ideological censorship with religious organizations, all organizations do it. Scientists tend to tenaciously protect their most important theories, and resist the onset of doubt by marginalizing scientists that seek to undermine scientific orthodoxy. 

Political regimes are especially adept at protecting their ideological moorings. The well-known positive techniques for implimenting collective tenacity include: the institutionalization of regime reinforcing symbols, oaths (..."I pledge allegiance to the flag of the...), patriotic songs and stories. Negative techiques include  censorship of the media and criminalization of dissent. Now obviously, our own individual beliefs are often shaped by collective ideological tenacity. But as Peirce recognized the "social impulse" tends to undermine the method of tenacity. Today, communication technologies such as the television, Internet, and cell phones have made it especially difficult for all of us to protect our core beliefs from the irritation of doubt. It has become increasingly difficult for religious political regimes to deprive women of the right to vote, drive automobiles, receive health care, receive an education, get a job, and/or control their own reproductive lives. In short, the Method of Tenacity just won't work as well as it used to!

Today the irritation of doubt is difficult, if not impossible, to control. For Peirce, that's a good thing. We'll never know if our old beliefs are True or False unless we allow them to compete with new ideas. The methods of Authority and Tenacity both undermine human inquiry and impede our quest for true belief. Now, what about the A Priori Method?