Charles Sanders Peirce is usually described as the founder of pragmatism, but that is no more accurate than describing Wittgenstein as the founder of logical positivism. Wittgenstein's account in the Tractatus of significant propositions was transformed by the positivists into a theory of everything, though he himself declared that what couldn't in this sense be said was much more important than what could be. Similarly, it appears, Peirce's account of the appropriate grounds of belief was transformed by the pragmatists into a general theory of truth, even though Peirce thought belief of merely practical significance and held that mere belief had no place in science--which, on the contrary, was to be guided by reason and cognitive instinct. Here is a quotation from a wonderful, relatively late work of his:
We believe the proposition we are ready to act upon. Full belief is willingness to act upon the proposition in vital crises, opinion is willingness to act upon it in relatively insignificant affairs. But pure science has nothing at all to do with action. The propositions it accepts, it merely writes in the list of premises it proposes to use. 1.
Peirce, Reasoning and the Logic of Things, edited by Kenneth Laine Ketner , with introduction and commentary by Ketner and Hilary Putnam ( Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 112. It is the text of eight lectures delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1898.
In science, the correct method is to avoid becoming attached to any propositions in the manner of belief (I find this use of the word "belief" somewhat peculiar, but the point is clear), however necessary that may be for practical affairs. The only way we can have any hope of advancing toward the truth is to be continually dissatisfied with our opinions, to be always on the lookout for objections, and to be prepared to drop or alter our theories whenever counterevidence, counterarguments, or better-supported alternatives present themselves. Only the willingness to change one's mind gives any ground for thinking that what one hasn't been persuaded to change one's mind about may be right, or at least on the right track.
But if not belief, in the sense of what one is prepared to act on, what is the proper aim of science, according to Peirce? Far from being a pragmatist in the currently accepted sense, he seems much more of a Platonist:
Belief is the willingness to risk a great deal upon a proposition. But this belief is no concern of science which has nothing at stake on any temporal venture, but is in pursuit of eternal verities, not semblances to truth, and looks upon this pursuit, not as the work of one man's life, but as that of generation after generation indefinitely. 2.
Here we may have some indication of the familiar Peircian idea of convergence at the end of inquiry, but if so, it is certainly not presented as a definition of truth, but as a hope that rational inquiry will lead us to truths that depend not on our minds but on nature:
The only end of science, as such, is to learn the lesson that the universe has to teach it. In Induction it simply surrenders itself to the force of facts. But it finds . . . that this is not enough. It is driven in desperation to call upon its inward sympathy with nature, its instinct for aid, just as we
Ibid., p. 177 .
find Galileo at the dawn of modern science making his appeal to il lume naturale. . . . The value of Facts to it, lies only in this, that they belong to Nature; and nature is something great, and beautiful, and sacred, and eternal, and real,--the object of its worship and its aspiration. 3.
And one final Platonic morsel:
The soul's deeper parts can only be reached through its surface. In this way the eternal forms, that mathematics and philosophy and the other sciences make us acquainted with will by slow percolation gradually reach the very core of one's being, and will come to influence our lives; and this they will do, not because they involve truths of merely vital importance, but because they [are] ideal and eternal verities. 4.
Now I find these declarations not only eloquent but entirely congenial; but they have a radically antireductionist and realist tendency quite out of keeping with present fashion. And they are alarmingly Platonist in that they maintain that the project of pure inquiry 5. is sustained by our "inward sympathy" with nature, on which we draw in forming hypotheses that can then be tested against the facts. Something similar must be true of reason itself, which according to Peirce has nothing to do with "how we think." 6. If we can reason, it is because our thoughts can obey the order of the logical relations among propositions--so here again we depend on a Platonic harmony.
The reason I call this view alarming is that it is hard to know what world picture to associate it with, and difficult to
Ibid., pp. 176-7 .
Ibid., pp. 121-2. Unhappily, while writing the lectures Peirce had been urged by William James to concentrate less on logic and consider instead addressing "separate topics of a vitally important character." (See the introduction, p. 25 .)
This is Bernard Williams's name for the Cartesian project of trying to discover the truth, without regard to any practical considerations whatever; see his Descartes: the Project of Pure Inquiry ( Penguin, 1978).
Reasoning and the Logic of Things, p. 143 .
avoid the suspicion that the picture will be religious, or quasireligious. Rationalism has always had a more religious flavor than empiricism. Even without God, the idea of a natural sympathy between the deepest truths of nature and the deepest layers of the human mind, which can be exploited to allow gradual development of a truer and truer conception of reality, makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable. 7. The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous. I believe this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper--namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself. I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. 8.
To a lesser degree, the same might be said of the idea of human access to values that are objective or universal.
I won't attempt to speculate about the Oedipal and other sources of either this desire or its opposite. (About the latter there has already been considerable speculation-- Freud The Future of an Illusion, for example.) I am curious, however, whether there is anyone who is genuinely indifferent as to whether there is a God--anyone who, whatever his actual belief about the matter, doesn't particularly want either one of the answers to be correct (though of course he might want to know which answer was correct).
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. 9. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world. Instead they become epiphenomena, generated incidentally by a process that can be entirely explained by the operation of the nonteleological laws of physics on the material of which we and our environments are all composed. There might still be thought to be a religious threat in the existence of the laws of physics themselves, and indeed the existence of anything at all--but it seems to be less alarming to most atheists.
This is a somewhat ridiculous situation. First of all, one should try to resist the intellectual effects of such a fear (if not the fear itself), for it is just as irrational to be influenced in one's beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist. But having said that, I would also like to offer somewhat inconsistently the reassurance that atheists have no more reason to be alarmed by fundamental and irreducible mind-world relations than by fundamental and irreducible laws of physics. It is possible to accept a world view that does not explain everything in terms of quantum field theory without necessarily believing in God. If the natural order can include universal, mathematically beautiful laws of fundamental physics of the kind we have discovered, why can't it include equally fundamental laws and constraints that
Colin McGinn makes a related suggestion about the mystery-fearing motives which drive many modern deflationary theories in Problems in Philosophy ( Blackwell, 1993). But he proposes that the mysteries are a function of our own cognitive limitations, and that itself seems to me, at least with respect to the case of reason, too demystifying.
we don't know anything about, that are consistent with the laws of physics and that render intelligible the development of conscious organisms some of which have the capacity to discover by prolonged collective effort some of the fundamental truths about that very natural order? (I am interpreting the concept of "physics" restrictively enough so that the laws of physics by themselves will not explain the presence of such thinking beings in the space of natural possibilities. Of course, if "physics" just means the most fundamental scientific theory about everything, then it will include any such laws if they exist.)
This need not be a particularly anthropocentric view. We are simply examples of mind, and presumably only one of countless possible, if not actual, rational species on this or other planets. But the existence of mind is certainly a datum for the construction of any world picture: At the very least, its possibility must be explained. And it seems hardly credible that its appearance should be a natural accident, like the fact that there are mammals.
I admit that this idea--that the capacity of the universe to generate organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe is itself somehow a fundamental feature of the universe--has a quasi-religious "ring" to it, something vaguely Spinozistic. Still, it is this idea, or something like it, which Peirce seems to endorse in the passages I have quoted. And I think one can admit such an enrichment of the fundamental elements of the natural order without going over to anything that should count literally as religious belief. At no point does any of it imply the existence of a divine person, or a world soul.
Actually, I find the religious proposal less explanatory than the hypothesis of some systematic aspect of the natural order that would make the appearance of minds in harmony with the universe something to be expected. Here, as elsewhere, the idea of God serves as a placeholder for an explana-
tion where something seems to demand explanation and none is available; that is why so many people welcome Darwinist imperialism. But there is really no reason to assume that the only alternative to an evolutionary explanation of everything is a religious one. However, this may not be comforting enough, because the feeling that I have called the fear of religion may extend far beyond the existence of a personal god, to include any cosmic order of which mind is an irreducible and nonaccidental part. I suspect that there is a deepseated aversion in the modern "disenchanted" Weltanschauung to any ultimate principles that are not dead--that is, devoid of any reference to the possibility of life or consciousness.
It is unclear what would have to be included in a more mind-friendly cosmology. Even if nature includes laws that explain the possibility of intelligent life, those laws won't explain its actuality without the further presence of the right initial conditions. These are specific conditions of the primordial state of our universe that, given its general laws, will lead to the formation of molecules, galaxies, organisms, consciousness, and intelligence. My hypothesis is only that the laws are such as to make not only the first but also the last of these developments intelligible, given the initial conditions that lead to the development of some organisms or other.
An evolutionary explanation of human reason is endorsed in Robert Nozick's recent book The Nature of Rationality. 10. What he says belongs to the genre of naturalized epistemology, but he uses the evolutionary hypothesis to explain certain limitations on reason, as well as its successes. He proposes a reversal of the Kantian dependence of the facts on reason.
Princeton University Press, 1993.
[I]t is reason that is the dependent variable, shaped by the facts, and its dependence upon the facts explains the correlation and correspondence between them. It is just such an alternative that our evolutionary hypothesis presents. Reason tells us about reality because reality shapes reason, selecting for what seems "evident." 11.
Though its full development is extremely interesting, I won't be concerned with the details of the hypothesis, only with its status. Here is Nozick's metacomment:
The evolutionary explanation itself is something we arrive at, in part, by the use of reason to support evolutionary theory in general and also this particular application of it. Hence it does not provide a reason-independent justification of reason, and, although it grounds reason in facts independent of reason, this grounding is not accepted by us independently of our reason. Hence the account is not part of first philosophy; it is part of our current ongoing scientific view. 12.
Nozick is operating here with the idea that the facts and reality are what they are independent of what we think, and I shall follow him in this. He insists that our finding something selfevident is no guarantee that it is necessarily true, or true at all--since the disposition to find it self-evident could have been an evolutionary adaptation to its being only approximately, and contingently, true.
The proposal is supposed to be an explanation of reason but not a justification of it. Although it "grounds" reason in certain evolutionary facts, this is a causal grounding only: Those facts are not supposed to provide us with grounds for accepting the validity or reliability of reason. So the explanation is not circular. But what is it intended to provide? It seems
The Nature of Rationality, p. 112 .
Ibid., p. 112.
to be a proposal of a possible naturalistic explanation of the existence of reason that would, if it were true, make our reliance on reason "objectively" reasonable--that is, a reliable way of getting at the truth (allowing for the equally important function of reason in correcting and improving its own methods).
But is the hypothesis really compatible with continued confidence in reason as a source of knowledge about the nonapparent character of the world? In itself, I believe an evolutionary story tells against such confidence. Without something more, the idea that our rational capacity was the product of natural selection would render reasoning far less trustworthy than Nozick suggests, beyond its original "coping" functions. There would be no reason to trust its results in mathematics and science, for example. (And insofar as the evolutionary hypothesis itself depends on reason, it would be self-undermining.) 13.
Unless it is coupled with an independent basis for confidence in reason, the evolutionary hypothesis is threatening rather than reassuring. It is consistent with continued confidence only if it amounts to the hypothesis that evolution has led to the existence of creatures, namely us, with a capacity for reasoning in whose validity we can have much stronger confidence than would be warranted merely from its having come into existence in that way. I have to be able to believe that the
I'm not sure I fully understand Nozick's position. He acknowledges that "Enhancement of inclusive fitness yields selection for approximate truth rather than strict truth" (p. 113 ). But he then goes on to say that we can selfconsciously sharpen our methods once we know this. My problem is, what are we supposed to rely on for this knowledge and these revisions?
The difficulties of evolutionary epistemology are thoroughly explored by Alvin Plantinga in chapter 12 of Warrant and Proper Function ( Oxford University Press, 1993). He argues that it is irrational to accept evolutionary naturalism, because if it were true, we would have no reason to rely on the methods by which we arrive at it or any other scientific theory.
evolutionary explanation is consistent with the proposition that I follow the rules of logic because they are correct--not merely because I am biologically programmed to do so. But to believe that, I have to be justified independently in believing that they are correct. And this I cannot be merely on the basis of my contingent psychological disposition, together with the hypothesis that it is the product of natural selection. I can have no justification for trusting a reasoning capacity I have as a consequence of natural selection, unless I am justified in trusting it simply in itself--that is, believing what it tells me, in virtue of the content of the arguments it delivers.
If reason is in this way self-justifying, then it is open to us also to speculate that natural selection played a role in the evolution and survival of a species that is capable of understanding and engaging in it. But the recognition of logical arguments as independently valid is a precondition of the acceptability of an evolutionary story about the source of that recognition. This means that the evolutionary hypothesis is acceptable only if reason does not need its support. At most it may show why the existence of reason need not be biologically mysterious.
The only form that genuine reasoning can take consists in seeing the validity of the arguments, in virtue of what they say. As soon as one tries to step outside of such thoughts, one loses contact with their true content. And one cannot be outside and inside them at the same time: If one thinks in logic, one cannot simultaneously regard those thoughts as mere psychological dispositions, however caused or however biologically grounded. If one decides that some of one's psychological dispositions are, as a contingent matter of fact, reliable methods of reaching the truth (as one may with perception, for example), then in doing so one must rely on other thoughts that one actually thinks, without regarding them as mere dispositions. One cannot embed all one's reasoning in a psychological theory, including the reasonings that have led to
that psychological theory. The epistemological buck must stop somewhere. By this I mean not that there must be some premises that are forever unrevisable but, rather, that in any process of reasoning or argument there must be some thoughts that one simply thinks from the inside--rather than thinking of them as biologically programmed dispositions.
So my conclusion about an evolutionary explanation of rationality is that it is necessarily incomplete. Even if one believes it, one has to believe in the independent validity of the reasoning that is the result.
None of this is to deny that our capacity to reason had survival value (though God knows, plenty of species have survived perfectly well without it). At any rate, it has certainly enabled us to dominate the planet and wipe out most of our competitors and predators, as well as a lot of innocent bystanders. Rationality in our case, at least, has not been extinguished and may have been extended by the mechanism of natural selection. (And it may have been distorted by natural selection: Compare Nozick's hypothesis about why Euclidean geometry seems to us self-evident, even though it is not strictly true of physical space. 14. ) I am denying only that what rationality is can be understood through the theory of natural selection. What it is, what it tells us, and what its limits are can be understood only from inside it.
But that leaves the question, how can we integrate such an attitude toward reason with the fact that we are members of a biological species whose evolution has been shaped by the contingencies of natural selection? To this I don't have a proper positive response, only a defensive one: Natural selection has to operate on the biological possibilities that are actualized, and we do not really know how those possibilities and their likelihoods of actualization are constrained by the funda-
The Nature of Rationality, pp. 109-10.
mental laws of nature. In spite of the evidence that the entire biological creation, including ourselves, is the product of a stupendously long sequence of chance chemical events, 15. the story is radically incomplete in two ways. First, there is so far nothing but speculation about why the space of physicochemical possibilities contains this path, and how likely it was, given the physical state of the early universe, that some path of this very broad kind would be followed. Since it did happen, it must have been possible, but that may be for reasons we do not yet understand. Perhaps the evolution of the universe and of life operates on a much more constrained set of options than our present knowledge of physics would enable us to imagine. Second, the physical story, without more, cannot explain the mental story, including consciousness and reason.
I suppose it is possible that rationality--the capacity to recognize objectively valid reasons and arguments--is a distinctively accessible member of the set of biological possibilities, one that becomes likely at sufficiently high levels of biological complexity--much more likely than would be predictable on the basis of random mutation and natural selection alone. Like the possibility of molecules or the possibility of consciousness, the possibility of rationality could be a fundamental feature of the natural order. 16. So it is not inconsistent to regard ourselves as rational in this sense and also as creatures who have been produced through Darwinian evolution. On the other hand, as I have said, the theory of evolution as usually understood provides absolutely no support for this
Like most laymen, I have learned whatever I know about current evolutionary theory from popular writings, especially those of Richard Dawkins : The Selfish Gene ( Oxford University Press, 1976), The Blind Watchmaker (W. W. Norton, 1986), and River out of Eden ( Basic Books, 1995).
But as Mark Johnston has said to me, if one asks, "Why is the natural order such as to make the appearance of rational beings likely?" it is very difficult to imagine any answer to the question that is not teleological.
conception of ourselves, and to some extent it renders the conception suspect. 17.
An argument to the contrary would require two things. First, it would be necessary to analyze the kind of human rationality that makes possible both the creation and understanding of scientific and mathematical knowledge. What are the component processes of abstraction and inference and grasp of complex logical structures that in combination produce the results of human intelligence, when applied to widely different subject matters? Perhaps a general analysis of the phenomenon into a limited set of functional elements could be carried out, though I suppose it is also possible that there is no such analysis. Second, it would be necessary to consider the relation between this set of capacities and the simpler habits of mind that might plausibly have carried selective advantage in the period when the human brain evolved. It is conceivable, though at first glance not very likely, that the first set of operations might be understood as nothing more than the piling up and recombination and repetition of the members of the second set, applied successively to the results of previous operations using only the same basic mental tools.
But even if such speculations reduce the apparent clash between rationality and natural selection, they cannot underwrite our use of reason. Whatever justification reason provides must come from the reasons it discovers, themselves. They cannot get their authority from natural selection.
So we are left with a profound problem. Can we engage in reasoning in the way we inevitably do without disregarding the radical biological contingency of the human species and
Philip Kitcher also rejects an evolutionary defense of reasoning; see The Advancement of Science ( Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 300-1. The book is mainly an argument against Kuhn-inspired relativism, notable for its supererogatory patience and for the detailed examination of historical examples of scientific progress.
the human mind? I think there is a conflict here that remains unresolved. The reliance we put on our reason implies a belief that even though the existence of human beings and of ourselves in particular is the result of a long sequence of physical and biological accidents, and even though there might never have come to be any intelligent creatures at all, nevertheless the basic methods of reasoning we employ are not merely human but belong to a more general category of mind. Human minds now exemplify it, but those same methods and arguments would have to be among the capacities of any species that had evolved to the level of thinking--even if there were no vertebrates, and a civilization of mollusks or arthropods ruled the earth.
What about ethics, and practical reasoning more generally? There a reductively evolutionary explanation of our deepest dispositions, of what we find self-evident or not in need of further justification, is not directly self-defeating. We can think it, relying only on our theoretical reasoning capacities to get "outside" of our ethical and practical judgments. That appears to be true even though we must also remain inside the standpoint of practical reason at least to the extent necessary to make decisions. So here we are faced with two genuine competing hypotheses, the evolutionary and the rationalist. But we are not forced in this case any more than in the other either to accept a debunking evolutionary account or else to deny that our species is the product of natural selection. Practical reason, like theoretical reason, may be among the fundamental biological possibilities on which natural selection operates, and we may be instances of it.
In this case we can do no more than see whether the external view is more convincing than the internal content of practical and moral argument. For example, does it make
sense to say that race would be an irrelevant ground for discrimination even if we were intuitively convinced that it was relevant and that it brought the need for further justification to an end? If we say that it would be irrelevant nonetheless, and if we also believe that that answer cannot itself be regarded merely as the manifestation of a disposition whose causes are ultimately biological, then we will be opting for a rationalist conception. We will be relying on our moral reasoning in itself, in virtue of its content and independently of its biological sources.
I think the right way to react to the cruder suggestions of the sociobiological outlook is to consider the alleged biological causes of this or that motivational disposition, and then go on to ask whether, if those are the facts, we are justified in continuing to act on it. There might well be an innate, biologically explicable disposition to racism, for example, yet that does not exempt racism from moral criticism.
But what if the tests of impartiality and mutual justifiability that lead us to count race as objectively irrelevant to how people should be treated could themselves be explained, in their appeal to us, through a further evolutionary story? Would that not then deprive those arguments of their standing as criticisms of racism--unless it could be claimed that they were somehow also objectively correct? Or could we be content just to discover that they weighed more heavily with us than the feelings against which they were directed--regarding this as a brute psychological fact about ourselves which no doubt had its own evolutionary (or perhaps cultural) explanation?
What does it mean to say that my practical reasonings are efforts to get the objectively right answer about what I should do, rather than manifestations of biologically selected dispositions that have no more objective validity than a taste for sugar? The idea of a harmony between thought and reality is no help here, because realism about practical reasons and
ethics is not a thesis about the natural order at all, but a purely normative claim. It seems that the response to evolutionary naturalism in this domain must be almost purely negative. All one can say is that justification for actions is to be sought in the content of practical reasoning, and that evolutionary explanation of our dispositions to accept such arguments may undermine our confidence in them but cannot provide a justification for accepting them. So if evolutionary naturalism is the whole story about what we take to be practical reasoning, then there really is no such thing.
Perhaps this will not worry many people; the response may be that we are then left free simply to be ourselves. But it is an attitude toward decision and evaluation that clashes with my (natural) Kantian intuitions. And I suspect that for most people, it is really inconsistent with what they do--even though, as with antirealism in other domains, it is perfectly possible to accompany the continuation of substantively realistic thought and judgment with ritualistic metacomments declaring one's allegiance to subjectivism, relativism, or whatever. Still, the supposition that there are no objective values seems intelligible in a way that the supposition that there are no facts of any kind is not--and it seems to be one possible respect in which one might, however mistakenly, come to regard oneself as a mere biological product.
Once innocence has been lost and reflective consciousness has begun, however, there is no way back to a merely biological view of one's own thoughts in general--nor a merely psychological, or sociological, or economic, or political view. All such external forms of understanding are themselves examples of thought, and in the end, any understanding we may achieve of the contingency, subjectivity, and arbitrariness of our desires, impressions, and intuitions (whether or not it is accompanied by acceptance) has to depend on thoughts that are not so qualified--thoughts whose validity is impersonal and whose claim to our assent rests on their content alone.
It is natural to look for a way in which our understanding of the world could close over itself by including us and our methods of thought and understanding within its scope. That is what drives the search for naturalistic accounts of reasoning. But it is also clear that this hope cannot be realized, because the primary position will always be occupied by our employment of reason and understanding, and that will be true even when we make reasoning the object of our investigation. So an external understanding of reason as merely another natural phenomenon--a biological product, for example--is impossible. Reason is whatever we find we must use to understand anything, including itself. And if we try to understand it merely as a natural (biological or psychological) phenomenon, the result will be an account incompatible with our use of it and with the understanding of it we have in using it. For I cannot trust a natural process unless I can see why it is reliable, any more than I can trust a mechanical algorithm unless I can see why it is reliable. And to see that I must rely on reason itself.
Once we enter the world for our temporary stay in it, there is no alternative but to try to decide what to believe and how to live, and the only way to do that is by trying to decide what is the case and what is right. Even if we distance ourselves from some of our thoughts and impulses, and regard them from outside, the process of trying to place ourselves in the world leads eventually to thoughts that we cannot think of as merely "ours." If we think at all, we must think of ourselves, individually and collectively, as submitting to the order of reasons rather than creating it.