Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ending with Peirce

After many years of hearing about and reading about Charles Peirce, I finally finished reading a comprehensive selection of the writings of Peirce himself.  In March the experience started very positively. The introduction to my reader, by Justus Buchler, provided a very clear overview, and the first selections gradually built a coherent edifice. Peirce’s system explained logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, psychology, science, and mathematics, and I began to see why he has been called the greatest American philosopher.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished the book, but if I can continue with the house-building metaphor, I must say that the roof looked full of holes and on the verge of collapse. Peirce started out sounding like Aristotle to me but ended up sounding like Hegel without the force of his picturesque, Romantic prose style. Consider the following neat brickwork. According to Peirce, a probabilistic syllogism consists of rule, case, and result. (That covers logic.) In the mental process, the rule corresponds to a habit (i.e. knowledge), the case to a sensation, and the result to a volition. (There’s psychology.) Looking for the result is called deduction, for the rule, induction, and for the case or cause, hypothesis or abduction. (And there’s epistemology.) And science, he says, has need for all three searches: the formulation of rules, the identification of causes, and the prediction of results. Everything works together so well, it seems that Peirce has uncovered the pattern of the universe, the thread that binds the human and the natural.

But then I discover that Peirce says universal laws are not fixed, that they evolve along with everything else. Really? Even the laws of the syllogism? His argument for evolution of law begins with the observation of the diversity of the universe. Science seems to indicate that everything works by laws, but that’s only because it looks at things that act uniformly. If we could get ourselves interested in the chaotic multiplicity all around us, we’d see that chance must happen in the universe. The universe could not have started out uniform and developed variety (unless true chance exists, which means the universe wasn’t really totally uniform to begin with). So it must have begun in fortuitous chaos, after which laws evolved. I want to ask, how does he know that it evolved either one way or the other? Could it not have started out with both law and chance, determinism and indeterminism, and then continued with each operating in its own sphere?

Peirce also loses me when he says that only by accepting the existence of chance can we explain personality. He sounds a lot like C. S. Lewis for a moment when he points out that if our thoughts were deterministic, they couldn’t be logical, not even the thought that thoughts are deterministic. But then he diverges sharply from Lewis’s argument against naturalism. Having tossed out determinism, Peirce says he’s proved that chance exists. Are those the only two choices? If the mind works by chance, then haven’t we lost logic and personality just as much as when we accept total determinism?

But Peirce does see and accept personality and mind. In one of the final sections of the book, he says that in order to explain the two fundamental facts, mind and matter, we have only three choices: either mind is principle, or matter is principle, or they are co-equal. Materialism he rejects as “repugnant” to logic (although I think he might mean that it pulls the rug out from under logic – the argument I referred to in the previous paragraph). Dualism he rejects by Occam’s Razor. (Is Occam’s Razor an epistemological law that merely evolved?) So what’s left is . . . Despite his hasty dismissal of the first two theories, I was excited to see him exalt the mind of God as the ultimate reality, the last viable option. But instead, when he determines that mind is the principle of existence, he concludes that “the one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind.” The dessicated corpse of mind? Really? Several billion people believe one way or another that matter is not mind but was created by a divine mind. Is the theory of the majority of the earth’s population really beneath notice?

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