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Reasoning on Sunday
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Monday, August 01, 2011
Posted: Monday, August 01, 2011

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Logos tempered by logic may eventually save the world

Here I am again, on Sunday morning, a creature of habit, having a cup of syrupy java at Starbucks. People no longer come to Starbucks to meet and converse with one another, and perhaps foment a revolution, as people once did in coffee houses of old, but to talk on cell phones and use the Internet. Sometimes someone I know arrives, but they have no time to chat as they are in a big hurry to get hooked up to WIFI and be on the Internet.

At least everyone is remotely connected. I am rather remote myself. I bring old philosophical tracts to read before turning, ever more skeptically, to the Sunday paper. I have lately been perusing Charles Sanders Peirce’s essay on fixed beliefs. It might be good for people to have a few fixed beliefs, and, if contradictions arise, bury their heads in the sand until they blow over. To the best of my information and belief, I am not an ostrich, but after reading some of the essay last Sunday, I believed things might turn out well enough for enthusiastic people who believe in what passes for reasonable today, or at least do not openly dismiss reason for the sake of divine foolishness. Economics, for instance, pretends to be as scientific as physics, and its faith in rational expectation, equilibrium, and free market theories panned out well for the power elite until the most recent collapse. After some recriminations and feeble regulatory reform, irrational business-as-usual guided by the Invisible Hand continues under the same political-economic faith, embracing such rationalized nonsense that, if everyone tries to overcharge everyone, and if everyone competes to get to the top of the heap, everyone will prosper.

Yet philosophers really should not believe in anything fixed because fixed beliefs would the death of philosophy. I prefer to believe in Nothing on Sundays, having been taught by philosophy that that is the reasonable thing to do, especially when I cannot stand the world anymore because it is nothing but illusion. A philosopher who follows in the footsteps of the greatest of all sophists hence practices virtual suicide should die to the world while preparing for death. And what is death? Nothing. So there is faith in Nothing, at least nothing we know of in this world.

Some dissenting philosopher, say, Ortega y Gasset, who embraces Being because that is all that can be, is bound to discredit belief in Nothing because Nothing does not exist to be believed in; wherefore faith in Nothing is actually faith in something indefinite and therefore destructive of everything finite, rendering the faithful into floundering fools in want of the usual illusive straws to clutch at.

"The World as deception is a most unpleasant reality which we can describe only by calling it and feeling it as Nothing-being, being so for us. Pure Nothing is better because one is satisfied with an absolute non-being and only its self is reduced to nothing. But to be in Nothing, as we are in basic doubt, is to find ourselves subdued and given over to an operative, active Nothing which exercises its terrible crushing, annihilating power on us to live in an atmosphere of substantial deceit, is to witness moment to moment the destruction of every one of our actions and our conditions, the ruination of our enjoyment of life. The anxiety, the deep uneasiness which must have been felt by these first men who did not believe in the gods, for whom the world had collapsed as 'security' and had become a deception for them, must have been terrible. Hence the heroic reaction with which they sought to emerge into something firm and to find certainty for themselves."

Peirce was a practical or reasonable man concerned with what really works. What we see is what we get. What we know about what we see should be reasonable. True conclusions arrived at by reasoning must be supported by observations every objective observer can agree on. A concept is meaningless if it has no practical effect on the way we live and think. The scientific method is the best means to fix belief, eradicate doubt and progress to certain knowledge. As for the reasoning process, he said that "the object of reasoning is to find out, from the consideration of what we already know, something else which we do not know," and points out that "each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic."

Lessons in logic provided Peirce, who turned out to be one of the world’s greatest logicians, with a sense of certainty at an early age – Benjamin Peirce, his father, was a Harvard mathematics professor and a co-founder of the Coast Guard and the Smithsonian Institute. By now we should all know that logic, no matter how right its path and true to its principle, cannot prove anything true to fact, but it certainly can expose falsehoods. Charles was never thoroughly certain of anything, and from his doubt he developed a doctrine dubbed fallibilism.

He would find a great deal of consolation for his own fallibility and material poverty in his beloved philosophy, particularly in his love of logic, which led him to conclude early on that all problems are logical problems. At age 19 he had the audacity to claim that the great Kant's logic was childish. Yet he could not put Kant down for the rest of his life, hence was in part a transcendental idealist himself, minus Kant's Euclidean bias and a priori methodology:

 "The a priori method is distinguished for its comfortable conclusions. It is the nature of the process to adopt whatever belief we are inclined to, and there are certain flatteries to the vanity of man which we all believe by nature, until we are awakened from our pleasing dream by rough facts."

To wit, a priori's are by definition prejudices. Of course we must assume something, a so-called first principle in order to proceed with our deductions there from, but the presumptions must stand the test of experience, have some practical consequence, to be of any real benefit, to be "true ." Scientific inquiries may ultimately converge on Reality, i.e. the Truth, which we may suppose can be logically elucidated by a unified theory, an ideally rational system.

 Of course that ideal smacks of the rationalism spawned by the very a priori or first-principle reasoning Peirce ostensibly abhorred; something quite contrary to his practical and experiential predilections. He believed in the reality of abstractions, in effect created his own a priori categories. Setting aside Kant, he criticized Hegel's dialectical approach yet he embraced his own triunal dialectic to the extent that we might call him an objective idealist and a hypocrite to boot, a traitor to his coined pragmatism. But since we are fallible, and are all hypocrites to the extent that we do not factually achieve our stated ideals, we chose not to resort to the water-tight, intolerant compartmental thinking that his tolerant friend and co-founder of pragmatism, William James, impugned in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Incidentally, Peirce believed that James was unduly afraid of logic and that his pragmatism was too “nominalistic,” while James believed Peirce’s formulas were too complicated and obscure.

Suffice it to say that all clear concepts are definite terms and as such are bound to terminate in their definitions; but there are, thankfully, leaks between the compartments, relations not always opposite that we can relate, of con-fuse, without resort to either/or logic, with the permission of Hermes, god of the terminus.

No one wants to believe in a fallacious argument once the fallacy is pointed out, and then to be perceived by others as a fool. Yet we note well that arguments may be well reasoned or quite logical yet may have no facts whatever to support them. And irrelevant facts may be cited in support; it might be said that the world proves that god exists, to which the response may be that the world is god, to which the response may be “Blasphemy!” Furthermore, defining just what a fact is can be a troublesome endeavor. Leave it to William James to leave some room for subjective facts, facts of personal experience:

"Even the errors of fact may possibly turn out not to be as wholesale as the scientist assumes… The religious conception of the universe seems to many mind-curers 'verified' from day to day by their experience of fact. 'Experience of fact' is a field with so many things in it that the sectarian scientist methodically declining, as he does, to recognize such 'facts' as mind-curers and others like the experience, otherwise than by such rude heads of classification as 'bosh,' 'rot,' 'folly,' certainly leaves out a mass of raw fact which, save for the industrious interest of the religious in the more personal aspects of reality, would never have succeeded in getting itself recorded at all."

Despite his criticism of a prior reasoning, Peirce too leaves ample room for intuition, for revelations out of the clear blue, for “abduction” in contrast to induction and deduction. He recognized that the empirical method of trial-and-error, until what really works is discovered, wants further development, thanks to lessons in logic, into a more efficient science. Thankfully we are more hopeful than logic would justify, says Peirce. Although practical logicality is an animal's most important asset, and may well be the consequence of blind evolution, it may otherwise be more advantageous for the "animal to have his mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions," thus evolution would also foster a fallacious bent of mind to keep man going. Wherefore hope springs eternal.

Thus Peirce leaves tolerable room for dreams while emphasizing pragmatic experiment, the manipulation of real things instead of depending on fancies and figments. He does not neglect the imagination here, the mind that makes the things its own and dreams of different results. So the man is mind and hand developing conjointly. For example, Peirce relates that Lavoisier’s method "was not to read and pray, but to dream that some long and complicated chemical process would have a certain effect, to put into practice with dull patience, after its inevitable failure, to dream that with some modification it would have another result, and to end by publishing the last dream as a fact."

Logic must still have priority over other method of inquiry: “Yes, the other methods do have their merits; a clear logical conscience does cost something, just as any virtue, just as all that we cherish, costs us dear. But we should not desire it to be otherwise. The genius of a man's logical method should be loved and reverenced as his bride, whom he has chosen from all the world. He need not contemn the others; on the contrary, he may honor them deeply, and in doing so he only honors her the more. But she is the one that he has chosen, and he knows that he was right in making that choice. And having made it, he will work and fight for her, and will not complaint that there are blows to take, hoping that there may be as many and as hard to give, and will strive to be the worthy knight and champion of her from the blaze of whose splendors he draws his inspiration and courage."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English champion of the inductive method, that of reasoning from particular facts to general theories about those facts, a modified Greek invention introduced to Europe by Arabs and Jews, in contrast to deducing conclusions from preordained premises, famously remarked that, "Empiricists are like ants, they collect and put to use; but rationalists, like spiders, spin threads out of themselves." So Peirce is both an ant and a spider, or rather something mythical in between.

We should not blame a mathematician for counting things, or a physician for measuring them, or a physician for being a metaphysician after hours, or a philosopher for reaching for a reality beyond his grasp as if it were something tangible with cash value. I myself think of induction and deduction as two triangles overlaid on one another in the form of the shield of my namesake. The  truth of the matter must be deduced both from the top down and induced from the bottom up.  

What is wanted is integrity: "Above all, let it be considered that what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief, and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it might turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray."

Peirce was no angel, his behavior with women was scandalous at times and it was not beyond him to get into a fight, but he was a man of integrity in the sense that he was true as he could be to his metaphysical principles. We recall that his penury was utterly pathetic during the last twenty years of his life. William James kindly raised funds from fellow academics to put real food on Peirce's table; otherwise, his fare was stale bread from the local baker. In sum, Peirce paid the highest price for food for thought; he literally had his head buried in it, apparently believing that he was on to something more worthwhile than the current profanities of this evolving world. Indeed, he believed everything was evolving, but for him the dominating factor was not unending strife and competition but that of love and cooperation.




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