Friday, March 13, 2009

A Fascinating Feature of Peirce's "Neglected Argument"

C. S. Peirce’s “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” possess this extraordinary feature: It blocks critique on the level at which it is presented. That feature is at once, potentially, a troubling and/or exciting feature of the argument. It deserves our attention.

Recall the core of the extremely short presentation from last week.

A universal feature of our scientific understanding of the universe is “its provision for later stages in earlier ones.”1

This line of reflection “will inevitably suggest the hypothesis of God’s Reality.”2 (By “God” here Peirce meant “an analogue of mind.”3)

Since you can refer back to the previous post, I will get right to the extraordinary feature, and to make it stand out, I will present it in the starkest possible terms.

The extraordinary feature becomes apparent when we review how science confirms Peirce’s “God hypothesis.”

The only way to confirm the hypothesis that an analogue of mind is suggested by the universe’s “provision for later stages in earlier ones,” is to examine it to the best of one’s ability to see whether it conforms to human understanding. Thus, the success of science becomes the basis for belief in God.

Peirce, however, was careful to separate the Reality of God from this misunderstanding: that God “reacts with other like things in the environment,” which he called “fetishism.”5

But if so, neither can the kind of understanding science provides undermine the God hypothesis. For that would be to analyze the God hypothesis at the logical level of fetishism. (See comments for further explanation.)

Consequently, Peirce’s argument advances a hypothesis that science and only science can support, but cannot critique.

Peirce sometimes calls his “Argument” a “suggestion”; other times a “hypothesis”; it is in fact a hypothesis based on an analogy. He goes into some depth, actually, to explain the “retroductive”—-yes, yet another word for it--reasoning used in this “Argument” as a form of what he elsewhere called “an appeal to one’s own instinct, which is to argument what substance is to shadow…”6

In summary, Peirce begins with an analogy, and science supports it, but cannot critique it without falling into “fetishism.” That's the "feature." If I were to write a monograph explicating the idea, I would call it "The Flaming Sword of God" to make use of the Genesis Chapter 3 metaphor.

In the following comment to the Templeton Foundation’s Big Question site on “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete” I suggested that the Foundation might “assign an investigation of Peirce’s view to a real scholar." (I had actually posted the comment with the thought that it was for internal use, not public, and addressed it to “The Editors” of the site to explicitly make that designation. After the fact I realized that it is customary for publications to post letters “To the Editor.” If my web readers think that in meeting me they would be impressed by my evident brilliance, keep that in mind. :-) That said, this post shows that my hubris is tenacious: I fear that any “real scholar” who evaluates of Peirce’s argument may very well miss the “extraordinary feature” I just pointed out. That's the reason for this post. At any rate, it will be interesting to see whether anything comes of this.)

RE: Whole Series

Tracy Witham
I just came across an article by the founder of pragmatism, C.S. Peirce, titled "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God." Its content is tremendously relevant to this conversation. Peirce thought that "many of the [scientists] of [his] generation" believed in the reality of God, without knowing it. Why? Because "the discoveries of science, [with] their enabling us to predict what will be the course of nature, is proof conclusive that . . . we can catch a fragment of [God's] thought."

Peirce's view follows from his claim that a universal feature of our scientific understanding is "its provision for later stages in earlier ones" and from his view that the statement in quotes entails an analogue of mind, and therefore God. In Peirce's view, science is the confirmation of the God hypothesis. Since a famed philosopher of science and the founder of America's only native philosophy framed a view of the relationship of science and God that turns your "Big Question" upside down, I thought you'd like to know about it.

It's an idea that brings to mind Paul Davies's "The Mind of God" and Einstein's famous statement to the effect that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility. So the idea's been around, but Peirce was correct in calling it a neglected argument. It deserves better. Maybe someone at your foundation should assign an investigation of Peirce's view to a real scholar. My guess is that people of good will on all sides could applaud it.

1. Charles Sanders Peirce, "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God," here.
2. Ibid.
3. "The Concept of God," in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, (Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1955) 376.
4. "Neglected."
5. Ibid.
6. "Concept," 377.)


Tracy Witham said...

A note of clarification:

I just edited the statement that "...the kind of understanding science provides [cannot] undermine the God hypothesis. For that too would be fetishism." The explanation now reads, "For that would be to analyze the hypothesis at the logical level of fetishism."

Here's the reason for the change.

The argument establishes an analogy between the analogue of mind suggested by the success of science and the attributes of mind necessary for an understanding of the world.

Here's a quote from Noam Chomsky's Russell Lectures that expresses the idea:

"We might say...that our mental constitution permits us to arrive at knowledge of the world insofar as our innate capacity to create theories happens to match some aspect of the structure of the world." (Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (Pantheon, New York, 1971) 20)

The analogy is between the mental constitution and the world. It can be a strong or a weak analogy. But it is necessary to assume for the success of science. What science cannot do is think of God as an explanation in the workings of the world, and then show that not to be the case, or to be a gratuitous assumption that is extraneous to science. Science cannot do the latter. And to the extent it succeeds it provides support for the analogy. Therefore, it only supports the analogy, and so cannot critique it--as claimed. Sorry that this explanation got left out of the post...

Ben Udell said...

I'm glad if, ah-ah-ahem, my placement of Peirce's "A Neglected Argument" at Wikisource is having its intended effect of bringing it a little more attention. Yet, a complete version of "A Neglected Argument" is here. (Also see CSP bibliography entry here.

Tracy Witham said...

Hi Ben,

I'm delighted to see that you're encouraging others to look into Peirce's thought. A very worthy project. And thanks for putting the argument "out there" for me!

As you might have seen, I'll be taking a six-week break from blogging, but intend to look into Peirce's thought in greater detail.

In my opinion Peirce has so much more to offer than is widely know because he valued precision and accuracy over popularity. And that puts someone like me in an interesting dilemma, since I think doing my little bit to popularize the man would be a good thing--just not something Peirce would have wanted...

What's your take?

Ben Udell said...

My take is: Peirce liked receiving popularization, so long as it wasn't too distorted and so long as he had the opportunity to correct errors, speak for himself, and persist in his own courses of thought. And it's not very hard to help him do that, in a sense, these days with the online resources available.

Peirce liked to be exact. Edward Dahlberg once said that Peirce's words "are isolated and austere, and have a dry Nantucket vision about them," and Dahlberg meant that favorably in contrast to other pragmatists whom he thought were loose with their words.

I did a post noting and linking to your posts on "A Neglected Argument" but no readers commented on it, I mean at The Peirce Blog which some of us have started at the suggestion of Joe Ransdell (the Peirce Arisbe Website).