Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Fixation of Belief

In 1877, Charles Sanders Peirce published a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly. The first essay, entitled: "The Fixation of Belief," has had a profound influence on my philosophical approach. So I thought it would be interesting to share some of those basic ideas and outline how I have expanded upon Peirce's original architecture.

First of all, Peirce was one of the first philosophers to acknowledge that the question of the nature of human belief is an important area of philosophical inquiry. Beliefs, according to Peirce, underlie many (if not most) of our actions. He argued the the formation, or "fixation" of a belief is the product of a natural process, which he called human inquiry. This process is initiated by an identifiable "feeling of doubt" that is generated by our brain and central nervous system. It is this "feeling" that initiates and sustains the involuntary process of inquiry until a new belief is established. Peirce suggested that the feeling that accompanies belief is more pleasurable than the state of doubt. So the psychological states of doubt and belief are marked by distinctive "feelings," and all humans naturally know the difference between the two. We, therefore, naturally, seek the pleasure of belief and avoid the pain associated with the state of doubt.  Over the course of our lifetimes many our "old beliefs" are cast into doubt by inquiry and are replaced by "new beliefs." Just because we happen believe or doubt something, either individually or collectively, does not mean that it is True or False.  Hence, Peirce is an epistemological realist in the sense that he believes that Truth is a correspondence between what be believe and something external to that belief.  

Now let's stop and think about all this so far. First, note that Peirce's theory of inquiry is rooted in biology, which implies an ultimate evolutionary explanation; and that this biological process generates mental states that we interpret as doubt or belief. Second, Peirce argues that since we "act" on the basis of our beliefs, there are social implications. Third, Peirce argues that there are better and worse ways for us to forge our beliefs. He therefore identifies four methods for the fixation of belief that all human beings have adopted over the long course of human history: method of authority, method of tenacity, the a priori method, and the scientific method. Although all four methods are "natural," but only one is likely to generate beliefs that are relatively stable over the long run and likely to be True. I'll explore these four methods in subsequent blogs.


1 comment:

Thomas McClanahan said...

Looking forward to the next few blogs...