In 1877 the great scientist and logician, Charles Sanders Peirce, wrote a mercifully short, but not simplistic, essay for Popular Science Monthly titled, “The Fixation of Belief.” It’s a stunner. I stumbled across it in a 1964 anthology of philosophy essays, and I’m definitely going to assign it to an upcoming college freshman English class that starts up next week.
Peirce’s thesis is that there are four methods that people use to arrive at the truth of matters, three of which are bogus. Using the names he gives them, here’s his list:
- The method of tenacity
- The method of authority
- The method of using “a priori” reasoning
- The method of science
I summarized the introductory content of Peirce’s essay here. In this post I summarize Peirce’s take on the method of tenacity.
METHOD OF INQUIRY #1: THE METHOD OF TENACITY
The first method of inquiry that Peirce disapproves of is “the method of tenacity.” This is where a person only seeks out information from sources that accord with his or her already existing beliefs. Blogger Julian Sanchez recently coined a rather nice phrase for this intellectual (or, rather, anti-intellectual) move. He calls it “epistemic closure.” A variation on Peirce’s “method of tenacity” and Sanchez’s “epistemic closure” is what critical thinking textbooks tend to refer to as “confirmation bias”: fitting (or, rather, forcing) data to a pet theory; noticing confirming hits but not the misses. Confirmation bias can be unconscious—indeed, perhaps it usually is—but where we do it deliberately, as a way of warding off doubt, is what Peirce takes issue with. Here’s how Peirce describes this loathsome (but very, very human) methodological practice:
If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry [as opposed to truth], and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end by taking any answer to a question, which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it? This simple and direct method is really pursued by many men. I remember once being entreated not to read a certain newspaper lest it might change my opinion upon free trade. ‘Lest I might be entrapped by its fallacies and misstatements,’ was the form of expression. ‘You are not,’ my friend said, ‘a special student of political economy. You might, therefore, easily be deceived by fallacious arguments upon the subject. You might, then, if you read this paper, be led to believe in protection. But you admit that free trade is the true doctrine; and you do not wish to believe what is not true.’
Ultimately, Peirce attributes the method of tenacity to a desire for comfort and the fear of doubt:
[T]he instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take. The man feels that, if he only holds to his belief without wavering, it will be entirely satisfactory. Nor can it be denied that a steady and immovable faith yields great peace of mind.
We are not, in other words, emotionless computers, and we do not reason in a vacuum absent all hope. We are inescapably interested, and so reality, if it is really independent of us, can intrude on our most comforting and optimistic beliefs, and upend them:
We are, doubtless, in the main logical animals, but we are not perfectly so. Most of us, for example, are naturally more sanguine and hopeful than logic would justify. We seem to be so constituted that, in the absence of any facts to go upon, we are happy and self-satisfied; so that the effect of experience is continually to counteract our hopes and aspirations. . . . Where hope is unchecked by experience, it is likely that our optimism is extravagant.
Peirce has a theory for why we are, as a species, capable of both rationality and optimism (even as they vie so fiercely with one another for the possession of our minds). That theory has to do with natural selection:
Logicality in regard to practical matters is the most useful quality an animal can possess, and might, therefore, result from the action of natural selection; but outside of these, it is probably of more advantage to the animal to have his mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions, independently of their truth; and thus, upon unpractical subjects, natural selection might occasion a fallacious tendency of thought.
Fallacious tendencies of thought are what critical thinking is designed to counter, but they may also provide us with hope, which is important to survival. Hope gives us the energy to live. The most obvious and suggestive example is religious hope in relation to death:
[I]f it be true that death is annihilation, then the man who believes that he will certainly go straight to heaven when he dies, provided he have fulfilled certain simple observances in this life, has a cheap pleasure which will not be followed by the least disappointment. A similar consideration seems to have weight with many persons in religious topics, for we frequently hear it said, ‘Oh, I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be wretched if I did.’
Thus, Peirce (who, by the way, believed in God) essentially likens religious faith to the evolved strategy of the ostrich dipping its head in the sand. Religious belief can keep a person calm in a stressful situation, and so can be part of an evolutionarily favored survival strategy. Indeed, Peirce makes this very analogy:
When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see?
In other words, the tension between sustaining acute reasoning and energy for living at the same time—both of which are crucial to human survival—makes evolutionary trade-offs between the two almost inevitable. Of course, this can also make for grave danger to any person poorly calibrated on these scores, for she might believe things that could kill her (like snake handling):
[The method of tenacity] may, indeed, give rise to inconveniences, as if a man should resolutely continue to believe that fire would not burn him, or that he would be eternally damned if he received his ingesta otherwise than through a stomach-pump. But then the man who adopts this method will not allow that its inconveniences are greater than its advantages.
In addition to the inherent dangers in the method of tenacity, Peirce notes its ultimate impracticality. We are, after all, social animals, and that means—if we are to be sociable—that we must invariably crash into the ideas and opinions of others:
The social impulse is against it [the method of tenacity]. The man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from him, and it will be apt to occur to him in some saner moment that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief.
A variation on the method of tenacity is to withdraw completely from any attempt to verify your beliefs. God, you might posit, speaks the truth directly to your heart in an unmediated fashion. You know the truth because God simply tells it to you in a still small voice. You can’t prove your experience to others, they just have to take your word for it. John Calvin is someone who posited such a view. He claimed that humans possess a sensus divinitatis—a divine sense—that picks up the God signal. Though not specifically targeting Calvin, Peirce goes after this thesis thusly:
To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be caused by nothing human, but by some external permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no effect. Some mystics imagine that they have such a method in a private inspiration from on high. But that is only a form of the method of tenacity, in which the conception of truth as something public is not yet developed.
Peirce’s key critique here is his challenge to the claim that mystical experience is “something upon which our thinking has no effect.” Countering this, Peirce asserts that truth is not something that simply comes to us, as a sound that comes to our ears; instead, truth is something we must ultimately work at, and the work that gets us to the truth is thought.
So, by Peirce’s lights, the method of tenacity has a lot of problems. It needs help. That help comes from the method of authority, Peirce’s second target for derision. I’ll summarize Peirce’s critique of that method for securing belief in the minds of people in my next post.