Can Science Tell Us What’s Objectively True? Part 3

We finished up the last post with a quote from Charles S. Peirce, founder of pragmatism. In it, he argues that something called a “social […]

We finished up the last post with a quote from Charles S. Peirce, founder of pragmatism. In it, he argues that something called a “social impulse” is “too strong in man to be suppressed without danger of destroying the human species.” That sounds pretty dramatic—What does he mean?

The impulse he’s referring to is a peculiar feeling that can move some people to “find that other men think differently from [them]” and then respond to this realization by losing confidence in their own beliefs. Peirce’s whole point is that this impulse is so strong and so common that, in time, people everywhere will be forced to doubt their own convictions, leaving only science as an effective recourse for restoring belief.

But how strong is this impulse in “the human species” really? Not as strong as Peirce thinks, if you ask me. In the first place, there is simply no getting around the existence of a huge number of people who fulfill one of two conditions: either they never, or rarely, examine the contentious beliefs of other people, places, or times; or, if they do, they dismiss those rankling beliefs (by whatever means, and through whatever degree of effort) as wrong. Maybe it takes a trip outside the ivory tower to see this, but, my hunch is that such people —who practice some form of what Peirce calls the “method of tenacity” (see previous post)—make up the greater part of our species, and likely the far greater part. And what’s really crucial to think about is this. Even among those better souls whose “candor” (to recycle Peirce’s term) really does compel them to doubt their own beliefs – How much doubt? With respect to which beliefs? Important ones or trivial ones? Many or few?

My implied answers are easy to guess. Those who “cannot help” but consider the largely accidental nature of their belief-origins—whether such people are common or scarce—do not throw out their beliefs whole hog, indiscriminately. And they can’t start over and doubt everything, either: mental resources are limited, and time is short. Meanwhile, core beliefs almost certainly remain intact—and for my money probably never feel the spotlight-glare of Peirce’s “wider” social impulse in the first place. We should probably agree with Peirce that, assuming we are not hermits, we may certainly “influence each other’s opinions” — but I just can’t bring myself to think that this influence compels so high a level of “candor” as Peirce describes (see previous post) except in rare cases.

Of course, I can surmise all day. The answers to these questions are empirical in nature—they must be found out by looking. But let’s assume for now that I am right and that the members of this “social impulse” class—that is, those people who are legitimately moved to deep self-skepticism by a “wider social feeling”—are relatively few. Then all I am saying is that the scientific method may not fare so well, on pragmatic grounds, as Peirce would have us think. For these select individuals it might work (if we go along with Peirce on this), but what about the rest of us? Indeed, for many—too many, in my opinion, for Peirce to be convincing—science is either completely flummoxing or mysterious and even scary. Those with the nerve to pursue science professionally must submit to years of intense training to become competent in its practice, while those who suffer from “scientific illiteracy”—if the reports are right—are so great in number that we can hardly be asked to believe that human nature and science sing in harmony. Science doesn’t come naturally to us; it comes with a fight.

Can I get away with this claim? I think so. I’m not the first to make it. But you won’t be convinced unless I take some time to clear up what I mean—and what Peirce means—by “science.” Here is why. Suppose that by “science” Peirce means something like “the application of logical thinking to empirical matters.” And suppose that what I mean by science—following my word choice in the last paragraph—is something more along the lines of ‘professional’ science in its modern form. Then to say that science of the second type is “unnatural” would score me zero points against the naturalness of the first, and I’d have succeeded only in abusing some scarecrow definition of my own design. So let me set myself a challenge. I will define science in the broadest, simplest terms I can imagine—as something in the vicinity of ‘fact-sensitive reasoning’—and try to show that such a thing, even so generously construed, is nevertheless a struggle for our species. And I’ll use Peirce’s own words to do it.

“Few persons care to study logic”—he writes at the beginning of “The Fixation of Belief”—“because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already.” Yet despite this fact, “we come to the full possession of our power of drawing inferences, the last of all our faculties; for it is not so much a natural gift as a long and difficult art.” Doesn’t that prove my point? But consider the following as well. Speaking about science directly, Peirce invokes a patently high standard—way higher than the provisional “simple” definition I’ve just given. He criticizes even Francis Bacon—the oft-hailed ‘father’ of the scientific method—for the primitiveness and inadequacy of his approach, saying that “every work of science great enough to be well remembered for a few generations affords some exemplification of the defective state of the art of reasoning of the time when it was written; and each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic.”

If ‘mere’ reasoning is not, as Peirce himself puts it, “a natural gift”—how much less so is science likely to be, however it is defined? And what are the implications of this for Peirce’s argument? Tune in next week to find out …


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