Wisdom of the Moderns: The Conquering of Doubt

In Charles Sanders Peirce’s essay, “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce gives a defense of the scientific method. He does this by exploring four methods which people have used and continue to use in order to expel doubt from their minds. Interestingly, the goal of his methods is not to find the truth, but specifically to remove the discomfort of being unsure of what one believes. He notes that this is possible to do with or without the truth. The four methods he discusses are the tenacity method, the authority method, the a priori method, and the scientific method. He discusses the benefits and problems with each method, and ultimately concludes that the scientific method is the strongest.

The first method he considers is the tenacity method. In this method, a person who wants to remove all doubt simply believes the first thing that pops into his head, and then resolutely holds to it. He refuses to listen to any evidence to the contrary. This method has the benefit of simplicity and speed. Peirce writes of it, “This is one of the splendid qualities which generally accompany brilliant, unlasting success.” The men who adhere to it are able to easily accomplish great things because “they do not waste time in trying to make up their minds to what they want.” They will likely have great peace of mind, because uncertainty is uncomfortable. Though many people adopt this method either knowingly or unconsciously, it ultimately fails. If a person happens to strike upon an actually harmful belief, for example, that fire will not burn him, then either he will be forced to reject his method, or he will suffer great harm. But even if he happens to believe no harmful ideas, Peirce says, it is still true that “The social impulse is against [the tenacity method].” When people live with others, difference of opinion is inevitable. It will eventually occur to a person that others’ opinions are just as likely and legitimate as his own, and when that thought arrives, doubt has arrived and the method has failed.

This brings us to the second method, the authority method. The tenacity method fails in an individual because a community has internal disagreements. The authority method attempts to solve this by removing the internal disagreements of a community. Some institution will be set up that enforces a unanimous public view by constantly teaching it and punishing any dissent. It is impossible to enforce every belief, of course, so the institution will only endeavor to enforce the truly important ones. Peirce writes that this method, in some form, has been adopted by every priesthood in history. Indeed, it has been extremely successful throughout time. As Peirce points out, “Except the geological epochs, there are no periods of time so vast as those which are measured by some of these organized faiths.” Two examples of the ability for this method to produce powerful and long-lasting kingdoms are the Egyptian worship of Pharaohs and the dominance of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. It met much success, and this prompts Peirce to speculate, “For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this.” Though this may be true, the method still has serious flaws. A man might be aware that other cultures who are implementing the same method as his own native culture still believe different things than he does. This is essentially the same difficulty that the tenacity method has, but with a difference between cultures instead of a difference between individuals. A reasonable man will realize that all of his own beliefs are the direct result of the culture in which he has grown. This causes him to doubt, thus the method fails.

Not only will the intelligent man realize that one particular belief is the result of his environment, he will realize that all of his beliefs are the result of his environment. To solve this, he may appeal to the a priori method. Essentially, this method advises men to believe whatever seems to be the most beautiful or “agreeable to reason.” On this phrase, Peirce comments, “This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe.” The a priori method is an appeal to order and elegance, not experience. If a proposition is appealing, than it should be accepted. This method has had wide appeal to philosophers, and has been the cause of many noble and grand philosophic systems. However, its problem is the most obvious. “It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion.” This method does not really have anything to do with reality, and men who use it go back and forth over its conclusions. They think they are debating something substantial, when in reality, they have no reason to believe one way or the other. In addition, it is evident that a person believes a certain system is beautiful if he was raised to believe it was beautiful. When this person realizes this fact, the a priori method falls prey to precisely the same problem as the authority method. A person’s beliefs are still entirely decided by his environment, even though he freely chose them. With this contemplation, doubt resurfaces, and the method fails.

The final method is the scientific method. The problem with the previous methods is that our beliefs are caused by humans, and humans are fallible. The scientific method enables us to have our beliefs caused by something external to humans. Thus, the method assumes there is a reality that can affect our senses in some consistent way, and through the use of reason, we can fashion beliefs about this reality that every other man would eventually decide upon given the same set of observations and experiences. This solves the underlying problem of all three of the previous methods: the problem of disagreement. What caused doubt in the tenacity method, the authority method, and the a priori method is not some zealous pursuit of the truth, but the mere fact that another person has disagreed. In Peirce’s conception of the scientific method, universal agreement is eventually attainable. This gives a sure way to fix beliefs and remove the effects of doubt. He spends a great deal of time describing exactly how this is done in later essays, such as “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” His solution to the problem of doubt has clearly had immense success, even far more than he could have imagined at the time of writing, 1877. By that time science and technology had begun to become mature, but in the next century they exploded into tremendous discoveries and inventions. This shows the great potential of the scientific method.

A potential problem, however, is that the method still rests on several controversial assumptions. Peirce solves this problem with four arguments. First, practice of the scientific method will never prove that its assumptions are false, unlike all the other methods. Second, doubt is caused by a mixing of two opposed beliefs. But, Peirce says, no one truly doubts that there are realities that can be known, so the problem of disagreement is an illusion. Next, everyone already uses the scientific method all the time. And finally, a large-scale use of the scientific method has resulted in enormous success, and has not given us any reason to doubt it. With these rebuttals, Peirce firmly positions the scientific method as the superior method of quelling doubt.

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