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David Arthur Walters

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The Fixation of Belief on Sunday
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Thursday, July 21, 2011
Posted: Saturday, July 09, 2011

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It is best to peruse Charles Sanders Peirce's work before reading the Sunday paper.


Before picking up the Sunday paper today, I perused Charles Sanders Peirce's stimulating essay, 'The Fixation of Belief,' one of his illuminating series on clear or logical thinking, over my ritual coffee at Southpointe Starbucks in South Beach. Indeed, it is always useful to read a few pages of skeptical philosophy before turning to quotidian news.


When we do turn to our local Daily Sun, little therein is really new: we take it up with certain established beliefs or habits of mind for which we find reinforcement in the news. Of course credulous people find some comfort in believing everything they read in the so-called legitimate press no matter how terrifying the news may be. Some security may be found in knowing the nature of the threats advertised. No matter how remote the incidents may be, they are brought home by the media. At least the reports may break the boredom of free-floating anxiety by focusing attention on some particularly frightful event or the possibility thereof, such as a terrorist attack, or cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to maintain the lifestyle of the power elite. Attention may then be diverted to advertisements for products and services designed to assuage the fear of something or the other, especially death itself.


But experience has taught skeptics to doubt the reports, particularly the bad news that sells so well in this fearful society of ours. Even fact-like statements are suspect. For example, almost every fact-like statement made by mainstream media immediately after the assassination of Osama bin Laden was entirely false. Fast-breaking news is always in a hurry, and haste makes waste. Even when investigative reporters and their editors have truth-bearing facts under their noses and ample time to study them, false reports are published. For example, the Miami Herald published spurious and libelous reports about certain aspects of the Allen Stanford fraud; e.g. asserting that Arthur Simon, the state banking director, practically collaborated with the Stanford forces of evil in setting up in Florida a device to defraud investors, allowing the banking department to wink at the massive theft. The Herald stood by its story when confronted with its patent falsity; journalism societies handed out prestigious prizes to the reporters, one of whom bragged at length in her blog about it, after their faults were brought to their attention.


We have our doubts but we cannot live without fixed beliefs. Even our doubt of what we find in the mainstream news rests on fixed beliefs; for example, that publishers, editors and reporters are unreliable truth-tellers because they too are fallible or deceived in their perceptions and cognitions. Journalists who serve the power elite or are members of it are wittingly or unwittingly prejudiced and biased. Whatever their status, journalists are likely to believe in falsehoods that pervert the news reporting process and cause them to forge so-called facts out of opinions, and to selectively report unchallenged eyewitness accounts and hearsay as if they were truth-bearing facts.


Journalism is obviously an art with its subjective faults; it is not an objective science. But science has its faults as well. Rather, the fault is in human nature inasmuch as it falls short of that perfection we project and may call the Supreme Being; conversely, if we applied that infinite goodness to our definite persons we would not exist as human beings, an observation that gives some heretics cause to equate the deity with death. We might even thank god that nothing and only nothing is perfect, and proceed with our anxious lives in the mundane differences that make our world turn in a fashion that scientists can describe but cannot explain.


The best of scientists are uneasy; painstaking science does not render them perfectly certain in the law of something or the other. Experiments may reveal exceptions to rigorous logic. Logic may expose faults in thinking but does not make things true . It would appear from the continuous advancement of scientific theory that natural law evolves along with everything else, or so Charles Sanders Peirce thought. Our laws are abstractions from the law within nature, and without change nature would not be – only nothing, or god if you wish, is permanent. Thankfully, then, if life is loved and love is life, no proposition of law is absolutely true to or corresponds perfectly to the relative facts of nature.


By the way, Charles Sanders Peirce, the most famous of all American logicians, was the co-founder of the Metaphysics Club. One of his intellectual innovations, American "fallibilism," represented his tolerance of human foibles that do have their virtues for awhile. He had a wry sense of humor; he said something to the effect that what makes America great is that every poor slob believes he can get rich if he really wants to. But he was not greedy enough to pursue material wealth to its logical conclusion. You see, he was under the influence of the ancient doctrine of evolutionary love, which was eventually taken up by Jews and Christians, which he dubbed "agapeism." A devout evolutionist, he believed everything was evolving, but for him the dominating factor was not unending strife and competition but that of love and cooperation. He was offended by Social Darwinism with its glorification of unbridled capitalism, which he called "the Gospel of Greed." Still, he had his financial ambitions. He invested part of his inheritance in 2,000 acres of land near Milford, Pennsylvania, and built a house upon it, wherefore he had a place to live for the rest of his life, but the man who coined the term "pragmatism" got no return but his own usage of the property from his investment. He lost his job with the U.S. Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey when funding was withdrawn, was unable to secure a university position because of romantic indiscretions, then received pittances for odd jobs here and there, including writing reviews, and dictionary and encyclopedia articles. He lived above his means and found himself in dire straits, at one point a fugitive from justice over bad debts and an assault charge. His penury was pathetic during the last twenty years of his life. His great friend William James, raised funds from fellow academics to put decent food on Peirce’s table; otherwise, his fare was stale bread from the local baker. Peirce evidently paid the highest price for food for thought; he literally had his head buried in it, believing that he was on to something more worthwhile than the usual things of this world.


His practical profession was geodesy – measuring the Earth. He noticed that 1,000 measurements of the same thing did not return 1,000 identical results – only a statistical distribution of results is obtained. The probability of any one outcome or of anyone thing happening can never be 100%, wherefore true science can never end in absolutely certainty. Still, the scientific method, which is a skeptical method, has proven most useful, for the descriptions it gives for similar events, i.e. its laws, are reliable although evolving. We shall give Peirce the benefit of the doubt here and refrain from discussing the question of what is evolving; our knowledge, or the laws themselves. Or whether the ruler is not fine enough or the person doing the measuring is to blame for the lack of perceived identity in the same thing measured, which one might presume is identical to itself if real, since what is, is. We further note in passing that Protagoras’ saying, “Man is the measure of all things; those that are, that they are, those that are not, that they are not,” has been conveniently misconstrue d, in order to throw off tyranny, to mean that individuals make things what they are because nothing is absolutely certain; that things do not otherwise exist; that there are no objective laws, at least for ethical behavior, for everything is subject to interpretation hence relative to individual will, wherefore person may do whatever s/he can get away with for each one is a creator or god. But Protagoras’ use of the term meaning “that” posits That, and That is objectively existing reality. Suffice it to say that we may find certainty in Nothing until our understanding corresponds perfectly with the Thing-in-Itself.


Absent scientific thinking, belief tends to end the struggle for certainty that Peirce calls "Inquiry", and, "As soon as belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true of false.... We seek for a belief that we think to be true . But we think each one of our beliefs to be true ...." Even then we cannot be absolutely certain of any truth, not because belief is always contaminated by human thought, but because we are part of nature and are by nature fallible, for in nature we observe obvious spontaneity subject to no conceivable law.


Peirce espoused the peculiar doctrine of Tychism, which holds, crudely speaking, that Chance is a real entity or force. We observe statistical regularity or "habitual" activity in the universe, especially where large physical objects are concerned – the movements of the heavens appear to be most regular, a regularity the ancients attributed to gods  – yet this gross orderly behavior does not, according to Peirce, display deterministic law. Indeed, in the activities within quantum realm and the mental field, we find a significant degree of freedom and spontaneity. Although the habits we perceive as lawful behavior have evolved from virtually random behavior, from Chaos, if you will, objective indetermination or chance or luck or freedom shall always be operative in our universe.  Even the most fundamental laws are subject to change without notice. We may not predict with absolute certainty the future from past "causes," for our judgment, no matter how logically arrived at, is necessarily fallible. 


Doubt, claimed Peirce, is an irritant that motivates us to find peace in belief. That belief may be had in "tenacity" i.e. the tenacious clinging to personal opinion; or from social authority, perhaps enforced by moral terrorism; or found in intuition of only God knows what; or in 'a priori' metaphysical thinking, where conclusions are conveniently embedded in unchallenged premises to begin with. But the Scientific Method is the right way to settle differences of opinions, a logical path based on the "fundamental hypothesis" that "there are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them." The Scientific Method allows beliefs to "be determined by nothing human, but by some external permanency – something on which our thinking has no effect." 


Still, unscientific beliefs have their immediate comforts. Just yesterday I was advised that I would be doing myself a favor if I stopped reading newspapers and watching television, disassociated myself from all gossipers, stopped worrying about money, and buy a book on the secrets of happiness. I desisted because I would become ignorant, friendless, and broke, albeit happy.


 "If it be true that death is annihilation, “ he said of the fixation of belief, “then the man who believes that he will certainly go straight to heaven when he dies, provided he have fulfilled certain observances in this life, has a cheap pleasure which will not be followed by the least disappointment." And, "when an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger; and, if its feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see?"


I, for one, certainly appreciate the ostrich's method as I am an accomplished escapist in my own right. I frequently bury my head in metaphysics, for metaphysics has no end, although philosophers have said that philosophy's ultimate cause, or final cause, is to serenely embrace the inevitable end of all in death. And in embracing this virtually suicidal lifestyle, one becomes impervious to the perils of life because one is, so to speak, dead to the world. One becomes a member of the "living dead", a sort of spiritual zombie, or better yet, a vampire. Now I am informed by a postmodern philosopher whom I helped with a disorderly term paper that there are vampires among us who do not feed on blood, but obtain their energy from grocery store food, drink a lot of tomato juice and douse their pasta in tomato sauce, live in bat-like condos during daylight hours, or bar their homes for safety’s sake and are reassured by the sight of the downtown federal prison that they are not in prison.  He calls this blissful state "the Good Death," a state in which one does not think and is closest to God because God does not have to think, thought being a biological response to fear.


The world is certainly not as logical as it used to be. That is why I like to read Charles Sanders Peirce before turning to the newspaper on Sunday, providing that someone who bought one leaves it behind. I used to buy the Miami Herald for the TV guide section, but the publisher stopped stapling that section and then sized it down to a bare listing of programs, which I know by rote since I do not get cable. Otherwise the Sunday paper is usually boring for people like me. One rarely finds any new news there. But newspaper per se comes in handy on rainy days, for stuffing into soggy shoes to dry them out – try it!



-To Be Continued Sunday-




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