Whatever Works: Pierce’s Abduction, Darwin’s Evolution, Entropy, Bayes’ Rule, and Rorty’s Pragmatism

I’ve recently been struck by the similarity between Charles Sanders Pierce’s notion of abduction (reasoning to the best hypothesis; “may the best hypothesis win”), Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest; “may the best organism win”), entropy (what time turns to shit; “may the most probable arrangement win”), Bayes’ Rule (what’s probable; “may the most probable theory win”); and Richard Rorty’s pragmatism (in this contingent moment, what’s useful; “may the best tool win”).

When reasoning, we often ignore abduction, evolution, entropy, probability, and contingency. Instead, we tend to practice confirmation bias. We look at the hits in favor of our beliefs, and ignore the misses. We imagine that our way of thinking is best, and ought to be universal, without really considering the competing alternatives or the history that brought us to our conclusions in the first place. We don’t think in terms of probabilities, but certainties, and we don’t historicize. We try to reason as if we are taking a “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel); as if we’re out of history.

We’re also not ironic about what we believe, but passionate.

Not so evolution. Evolution is about history. It is content to dice diversity and is indifferent to what wins or loses. We are earnest while evolution is ironic. Thus, my way of thinking and being (“My way works!”) is always going to come into competition with evolution’s other ways of thinking and being (“Whatever works!”). If your way is not the very, very best at what it claims to do, evolution, like entropy, will, impartially and slowly, but surely, undo it and put something else in its place.

I thus see evolution as history and nature’s way of doing Pierce’s abduction, arriving at the best working “hypotheses” for each contingent environment. It is oddly democratic; justice with a blindfold. The votes get counted. All of them. It is the entropy that wears down systems that are no longer useful, and it replaces them with more robust systems. Evolution swarms monomania, breaking it up. “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.” Evolution is the fox of all foxes. Natural selection reveals the things that have the chops for survival; for what works best in any given ecosystem (biological, cultural, or intellectual).

So ask yourself: do my ideas and practices rise to the top in the 21st century?

Pretend you’re a Thomist, for example. With regard to Thomism, your answer is obviously no. In an open and competitive (as opposed to a protectionist) philosophical environment, Thomism fares poorly. Few professional philosophers today buy it, and for the past 400 years no genius philosopher has championed it. It’s why Thomism has gone from being the Google of the 15th century to a penny stock today. It still has a niche among intellectuals, but a narrow one.

So in the 21st century ecosystem of ideas and practices, where are yours? How do they fare as tools in the light of abduction, evolution, entropy, probability, and contingency?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Whatever Works: Pierce’s Abduction, Darwin’s Evolution, Entropy, Bayes’ Rule, and Rorty’s Pragmatism

  1. Keith says:

    Thought provoking! I love comparisons like this. And what about quantum mechanics? Isn’t it a probabilistic theory?

  2. colinhutton says:

    Having joined a tour, to an unknown destination, 5 weeks ago, and having watched our bus traverse dangerous neighbourhoods and negotiate tricky detours, this back seat observer is left wondering whether our guide knew full well the safe haven to which he has now steered us. Whatever, it worked. Nicely driven!

  3. Nick Gall says:

    Hi Santi,

    I came across your wonderful blog while googling [rorty bayesian]. This blog post was the first search result! I am delighted to discover that you too see a similarity among abduction, evolution, entropy, Bayesian probability, and pragmatism. I have been exploring these topics for quite a few years now and I’ve set myself the task of writing up my thoughts on their relationship (and a few others to boot: deconstruction, biological degeneracy, modularity/complexity/interfaces, ecological panarchy, Buddhism, etc).

    I’ve just shared my own thoughts on entropy and possibilities [1], and while I agree with most of what you say in your post, I disagree with one important aspect: the comparison of entropy to disorder, ie “what time turns to shit”. While this is the most common characterization of entropy, I think it is one of the most pernicious.

    Increasing entropy is not increasing disorder; it is increasing possibilities. Your insight that entropy means “may the most probable arrangement win” implies this because the most probable arrangement is the one that opens up the most possibilities. Thus, the Second Law can be interpreted as saying, “the overall possibilities of a system can never spontaneously decrease.” I find this to be an inspiring declaration of increasing freedom!

    And I think this way of looking at entropy fits well with Rorty’s ironism, which speaks of the “desire to embrace more and more possibilities” and which advises “take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.”

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

    — Nick

    [1] https://medium.com/@ironick/open-to-possibilities-ece1de1f78d1

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