Peirce: The Fixation Of Belief

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Article: The Fixation of Belief
Author: C.S. Peirce
Published: 11/1877
Citations: 1048 (note: as of 04/2014)
Link: Here (note: not a permalink)
Other Resources: Outline (found this via Google Search, but quality isn’t bad)

Summarization text is grayscale, review text (my take) is orange.


Peirce kicks off this article with a historical survey, nicely showcasing the fact that the scientific enterprise is a quite recent phenomenon on this earth. This suggests that the construction of personal epistemologies is susceptible to cultural influences. As Peirce puts it, “We come to the full possession of our power of drawing inferences, the last of all our faculties; for it is not so much a natural gift as a long and difficult art.”

Peirce also gestures towards the following question: can the reliability of our faculties be evaluated on a domain-by-domain basis? Peirce invokes evolutionary theory in an important move:

Logicality in regard to practical matters is the most useful quality an animal can possess, and might, therefore result from the action of natural selection; but outside of these it is probably of more advantage to the animal to have his mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions, independently of their truth; and thus, upon unpractical subjects, natural selection might occasion a fallacious tendency of thought.

While many of Peirce’s views on evolution show their age, this particular insight is remarkably prescient: modern philosophers are currently exploring precisely this vein. Once this research is cast to cognitive science, neuroscientists will find themselves in a position to speak quantitatively on the matter. If the above argument is born out by data, this would be a real victory for the pragmatist camp.

Doubt vs. Belief

Doubt is a singularly important notion to Peirce: he conceives it as the primary motivator for critical thinking.

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change a belief to anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.

The self-preservation of belief is of particular interest to me. This phenomenon is explored in detail within social psychology and memetics.

The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. When doubt ceases, mental action on the subject comes to an end.

With this definition of doubt in place, Peirce goes on to rebut three erroneous conceptions of proof:

  1. The mere putting of a proposition into the interrogative form does not stimulate the mind to any struggle after belief. There must be a real and living doubt, and without this all discussion is idle.
  2. The premises of an argument need not be grounded in some firm metaphysical strata: they merely should be free from doubt.
  3. There is, then, no practical value in arguing a point after all the world is fully convinced of it.

This contextual backdrop resonates with anyone who has tried to persuade someone not subject to real and living doubt. There are times when words move the human heart, and times when they are “just words”. However, I am largely disappointed in this dichotomy as it stands. Questions concerning what underlies, motivates, or justifies doubt are unattended. Peirce may not have been in an empirical position to cognitively explain doubt, but surely he could have afforded to provide a more detailed sketch.

Peirce goes on to detail four methods for the fixation of belief. I will summarize each in turn.

Belief Fixation Method #1: Method of Tenacity

Peirce uses examples to shed light on this way of being:

I remember once being entreated not to read a certain newspaper lest it might change my opinion upon free-trade. “Lest I might be entrapped by its fallacies and misstatements,” was the form of expression. “You are not,” my friend said, “a special student of political economy. You might, therefore, easily be deceived by fallacious arguments upon the subject. You might, then, if you read this paper, be led to believe in protection. But you admit that free-trade is the true doctrine; and you do not wish to believe what is not true.” A similar consideration seems to have weight with many persons in religious topics, for we frequently hear it said, “Oh, I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be wretched if I did.” A man may go through life, systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions…

How, then, are we to evaluate such a method?

It would be an egotistical impertinence to object that his procedure is irrational, for that only amounts to saying that his method of settling belief is not ours. But this method of fixing beliefs will be unable to hold its ground in practice. The man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from him, and it will be apt to occur to him, in some saner moment, that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief. This conception, that another man’s thought or sentiment may be equivalent to one’s own, is a distinctly new step, and a highly important one.

Yes! In my language, I call this Symmetry Debiasing. I intend to write more on this; it has played a role in my own worldview maturation.

Now, this first method is typically localized to the individual. The second method solves the problem of socializing belief acquisition.

Belief Fixation Method #2: Method of Authority

Here, belief is a group activity. Doxastic content is something one inherits, and its contents are to be trusted.

Uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give its thorough approval. Following the method of authority is the path of peace. Certain non-conformities are permitted; certain others (deemed unsafe) are forbidden. These are different in different countries and in different ages; but, whoever you are, let it be known that you seriously hold a tabooed belief, and you may be perfectly sure of being treated with a cruelty less brutal but more refined than hunting you like a wolf.

Evidence for this sort of thing is ubiquitous; with political infighting serving as a nice example.

Thus, the greatest intellectual benefactors of mankind have never dared, and dare not now, to utter the whole of their thought; and thus a shade of prima facie doubt is cast upon every proposition which is considered essential to the security of society.

I like to play a game when I read pre-modern philosophers discuss religion: count the number of sentences wasted in defensive posturing “always remember that when I say X I do not mean Y”. Keeping your eye tuned to this kind of historical artifact, which I call the Placating Price, is a good heuristic for approximating the degree of fear behind the artful prose of the academic. And it has been considerable. Reviewing the posthumous publication of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion underscores this point nicely.

For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this. If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain.

Fighting words.

Belief Fixation Method #3: A Priori Method

Systems of this sort have been chiefly adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed “agreeable to reason”. This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe. Plato, for example, finds it agreeable to reason that the distances of the celestial spheres from one another should be proportional to the different lengths of strings which produce harmonious chords. Many philosophers have been led to their main conclusions by considerations like this…

This method is far more intellectual and respectable from the point of view of reason than either of the others… but its failure has been the most manifest. It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion.

Philosophy has acquired a poor reputation in many intellectual circles for precisely this reason. Certain strains of metaphysics constitute, arguably, Diseased Disciplines. Peirce also manages to anticipate modern arguments towards the refactoring of analytic philosophy.

Belief Fixation Method #4: Scientific Method

Peirce goes on to sketch a method familiar to our modern ears: the scientific method.


He also makes the interesting move in tying the method to scientific realism (the belief that things like atoms really exist, are really embedded in spacetime). His defense of scientific realism is as follows

It may be asked how I know that there are any Reals. The reply is this:

  1. If investigation cannot be regarded as proving that there are Real things, it at least does not lead to a contrary conclusion; but the method and the conception on which it is based remain ever in harmony. No doubt of the method, therefore, arise from its practice, as is the case with all the others.
  2. The feeling which gives rise to any method of fixing belief is a dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions. But here already is a vague concession that there is some one thing which a proposition should represent. Nobody, therefore, can really doubt that there are Reals, for, if he did, doubt would not be a source of dissatisfaction. The hypothesis, therefore, is one which every mind admits. So that the social impulse does not cause men to doubt it.
  3. Everyone uses the scientific method about a great many things, and only ceases to use it when he does not know how to apply it.
  4. Experience of the method has not led us to doubt it, but on the contrary, scientific investigation has had the most wonderful triumphs in the way of settling opinion. These afford the explanation of my not doubting the method or the hypothesis which it supposes; and not having any doubt, nor believing that anybody else whom I could influence has, it would be the merest babble for me to say more about it.

If there be anybody with a living doubt upon the subject, let him consider it.

Peirce and I even share a similar sense of humor. 🙂 I love this parody of Mark 4:23!

Concluding Thoughts

After reading this essay, I do not see myself walking around and categorizing people with Method 1, 2, 3, or 4 (nor even some linear superposition of all four). I am simply not persuaded that these epistemological preferences represent natural kinds.

One might imagine combining Methods 3 and 4, and then casting the three resultant categories to personal dispositions: one based on fear/simplicity/opportunism, another on social belonging, a third on the need for cognition. With this tripartite division of epistemology based on disposition, one could then layer on cultural distinctions, such as intuitive vs quantitative philosophizing. But even this, more sophisticated, account doesn’t feel precise enough for my liking.

Why spend time on this essay if I don’t agree with its central thesis? For one, it brings key questions to the fore:

  • How does doubt affect belief construction?
  • How do individuals go about constructing personal epistemologies?

But, more importantly, the journey to our destination was interesting.

I’ll close with Peirce explaining his preference for the scientific method.

Yes, the methods [besides the scientific method] 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 condemn the others; on the contrary, he may honor them deeply, and in so doing 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 complain that there are blows to take, and will strive to be a worthy knight and champion of her from the blaze of whose splendors he draws his inspiration and his courage.

A man on fire…

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Sapolsky: The Trouble With Testosterone Summary

A series of brief essays on various behavior-biology topics.  Easily digestible material with some useful recommended readings appended in the conclusion.  List of essays:

How Big Is Yours?

Concerns the relationship between biological determinism and personal autonomy.  Speculates about the effects of growing scientific literacy and issues of how society will change when everyone carries a dozen or so biological labels/diseases.  Title originates from disputed study claiming that a particular brain region’s size can predict sexual orientation.

Primate Peekaboo

A brief essay on the similarities between primate (baboon and human) voyeurism.

The Night You Ruined Your Pajamas

Discusses the timing of puberty.  Draws the distinction between stable species that invest in quality offspring (e.g., humans), versus opportunistic species that invest in quantity of offspring (e.g., flies).  Attempts to make sense of the conflicting data relating familial instability with earlier periods and less guarded reproductive behavior.  Ends by summarizing the cloudiness of the subject matter, and the need to acknowledge the (probably relatively-insignificant) nature of perceived effects.

Measures of Life

Explores the interrelationship between built-in human biases and the death penalty.  Explores how humans are prone to de-personalize percentages, but personalize frequencies and whole-number analyses (“the human face”).

The Young and the Reckless

Discusses the effects and mystery of the drive found within adolescent primates to forage into the unknown, and explores how this maps to the cosmopolitan-specie flavor of, and intellectual  fertility period of, humanity.

The Solace of Patterns

People progress through life through remarkably predictable patterns; for example, grief follows a Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance (DABDA) pattern.  Perhaps these patterns can be modeled by investigations of biologic cellular-automata concepts.  Perhaps these patterns can mystically resolve our dislike of the chaos of existence.

Beelzebub’s SAT Scores

Musings on the troubled relationship between the Unabomber and geek culture.

Poverty’s Remains

People irrationally are repulsed by autopsies.  Historically, the poor dominate the autopsy-supply.  Since poverty is associated with chronic stress, the nonrandom sample made medical students declare unhealthy thyroid levels as “normal”.  When Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was being investigated, this norm translated to healthy thyroids being implicated in respiratory failure.  The key moral is that obvious problems such as sample distribution can lead to tens of thousands of deaths via thyroid irradiation.  Caution is always an appropriate prerequisite of medical intervention.

Junk Food Monkeys

Insight sought into the effects of junk-food consumption via explorations of garbage-dump-diet baboon troops.  Unsurprisingly, junk food trades increased caloric density for poor vascular effects and risks to health.

The Burden of Being Burden-Free

Psychological profiles affect disease response via psycho-immune stress responses.  Typically test cases found in hostile people, people with too much personal autonomy (“John Henry-ism”) and repressed personalities.  Repressive profiles, in particular, are interesting insofar as it is difficult to self-diagnose.  One of the few good methods is looking for unambiguous emotive responses.

The Trouble with Testosterone

Testosterone correlates to aggression.  It turns out, unexpectedly, that in the typical correlation-causation investigation, often aggression causes hormonal secretion.  This is sociologically difficult to accept – scientists tend to label more reductive elements as causally basal (“physics envy”).  This hormone does have a permissive effect – aggression is diminished by castration.  However, behavior is non-modulated by a wide range of non-pharmacological hormone levels.    In other words, hormones tend to modulate pre-existent behavioral tendencies.  Nature-nurture interactions are more potent than either cause separately.  Reductionism to physics curtails real explanatory power.

The Graying of The Troop

Physiological responses to aging are modulated by personality.  Baboons who age are often subject to strong social abuses; half of all baboons risk death by old-age emigration.  The half that do not find solace in non-sexual friendship.  This maps fairly well to the human need for sustained intimate contacts.

Curious George’s Pharmacy

Animals may prefer pharmaceutical diets when inflicted with various diseases.  Research progress is difficult, however, and the mechanisms underlying this purported learning are all unknown.  This essay heavily emphasized the need for lay-skepticism, and was subject to a critical review by four leaders in zoopharacognosy; however, the disagreement seemed to me facile.

The Dangers of Fallen Souffles in the Developing World

“You don’t want to receive the gift of a Western diet until you develop a Western pancreas, kidneys, and stomach lining” (p. 203).  In general, the effects of stress are worsened by the African lack of an outlet of frustration and a sense of control.  Perhaps the developing world’s appetite for consumption is outpacing the corresponding drive of production.

The Dissolution of Ego Boundaries and the Fit of My Father’s Shirt

Begins by telling of a Hawking lecture, in which an arrogant youth translates his murmuring.  Hawking apparently picked the youth as his student, and the two in some sense felt as one.  Moves towards the hard problem of consciousness, including a discussion of bicameralism and multiple personality disorder.  The author concludes by arguing that pathologizing ego dissolution is not necessarily a good thing; that sharp individuation and ritual-less living may come with disadvantages.

Why You Feel Crummy When You’re Sick

This essay explores why feeling sick is associated with common, non-specific symptoms.

Circling the Blanket for God

Schizotypal disorder – the milder twin of schizophrenia – is associated with meta-magical thinking, and contributes to theological development.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder, associated with numerology and the repetitive doctrines of ritual, contributes to many expressions of organized religion.  In the epilogue, Sapolsky also mentions Skinner’s superstitious pigeons (that associated with eccentric, non-causal behavior to be linked with a randomly-distributed reward) and temporal lobe seizures (which is also researched by Sapolsky and the makers of the “god helmet”.)

Evans-Pritchard: Witchcraft, Oracles & Magic Among The Azande Summary

Part Of: Witchcraft, Oracles & Magic Among The Azande sequence
Content Summary: 1600 words, 16 min read

Chapter 1: Witchcraft is an organic and hereditary phenomenon

Witchcraft is discovered by means of oracles.  Both oracles and stories of witches obey certain hierarchical expectations.  Witchcraft is not strange, but an expected part of everyday life.  Azande believe it to physically manifest through the the small intestine.  In accord with their sexual beliefs, being-a-witch promulgates along relatives of the same sex.  Witchcraft powers grow with the small intestine, and so children are generally considered harmless.  As a strategy, accusing social superiors of witchcraft often backfires. Distance is seen as proportional to susceptibility to witchcraft. By these mechanisms, witchcraft accusations are local affairs that do not often cross social boundaries of class, sex, and age.

Chapter 2: The notion of witchcraft explains unfortunate events

Witchcraft is primarily invoked for social phenomena that are deemed significant and/or slow-moving.  Witchcraft complements, rather than dominates, the causal beliefs of the Azande.  If a man is killed by spear throw in battle, the explanatory criteria (social, involves death) point towards witchcraft.  But the Azande do not deny that the spear killed the man; rather, they say that the witchcraft and the spear in tandem caused the tragedy.  They draw parallels to their hunting experience where a man first spears an animal, and his compatriot delivers the fatal second blow – witchcraft is often denoted as “the second spear”.  In this way, the Azande infuse a narrative into socially significant events.

Chapter 3: Sufferers from misfortune seek for witches among their enemies

Witchcraft is most often invoked for slow-developing illness.   The victim’s kinsmen will appeal to an oracle, bringing forward names of social equals typically suspected of the jealousy motive. If the oracle indicates the witchcraft-inspired responsibility of one or more of these, a messenger will be sent to politely request cessation of psychic violence.  The accused will deny the charges while maintaining goodwill towards the victim.  Should the victim recover, life proceeds; else the cycle continues.  If the victim should die, the kinsmen can resort to compensation demands or vengeance magic.  Since this process is considered private, little is known about individual cases other than by the kinsmen, oracle, and political authorities.  Witchcraft, not theism, is the fuel of Azande morality: witches are generally accused as a function of their adherence to social norms.

Chapter 4: Are witches conscious agents?

Azande asserts intentionality and scheming to participants of witchcraft.  However, for Europeans, witchcraft was an omnipresent, metaphysical reality; for the Azande, witchcraft only manifested for personal misfortunes.  As such, accused Azande could not deny the oracle’s decision, but typically denied intentionality of their purported actions.  Contrary to many accused European witches, Azande were willing to live with this inconsistency, modelling themselves as exceptional cases.

Chapter 5: Witch-doctors

Witch-doctors practice magic to provide leechcraft, revelatory information, and witchcraft protection.  Their modus operandi is the seance, which serves as a rare opportunity for the community to participate in an extra-familial social situation.  Seances are typically hosted by someone affected by misfortune desiring the services of the witch-doctor.  At least one practitioner performs for the commoners in attendance; to drums and song he wildly dances, so as to acquire answers to questions.

Chapter 6: Training of a novice in the art of a witch-doctor

Trade information obtained through sole informant, although it is typically well-protected.  Witch-doctors generally charge prospective students fees for ritual participation and medicinal information.  Trade knowledge of medicines and their correlated plants are shared by journeys into nature.

Chapter 7: The place of witch-doctors in Zande society

This particular profession is not considered politically important; only commoners adopt its methods.  The associated magic and revealed wisdom are not held to be as important as the poison oracle, or even the termite oracle; rather, it is held roughly as authoritative as the lowest of the oracles: the rubbing-board oracle.  Witch-doctors apart from the seance are treated as any other commoner.  Intelligent commoners may pursue the craft in order to explore more diverse social roles.  Skepticism on the efficacy of witch-doctors is prevalent, and possibly increasing on account of contemporaneous developments (influx of more practitioners more readily revealing a greed-motive).  However, observer suspicions of trickery are couched in context of the Azande metaphysic: witch-doctor spells do not work but they secretly coordinate efforts with witches.  Even witch-doctors themselves may believe in the authenticity of their colleagues; and their secret understanding of the efficacy of their medicines does not conflict with their beliefs.  Azande cannot readily explore pure skepticism as they know no other explanatory worldview than the witch-oracle-magic paradigm.

Chapter 8: The Poison Oracle in daily life

Oracle poison is socially valuable, and its potency must be preserved.  Poison is protected via observance of taboos, hiding it from malevolent witches and women, and from the sun.  Use of the poison oracle represents a function of social control: women are formally prohibited from its use, or even knowing its relevance, and the poor cannot often afford to spare fowls during the ceremony.  The seance is performed away from the village, and the constituents are the operator, the questioner, the witnesses, the poison, and the fowls.  First, the operator administers the poison to the fowl (proportionate to its size).  Then, the questioner formally addresses the poison inside the fowl, its lethality is thus hinged on the answer to a certain pressing question.  No mechanism of the operator to manipulate the resultant verdict is known.  Verdicts are not considered binding until their opposite verdict is confirmed (oracle must kill for confirmation of the affirmative, and then spare for dis-confirmation of the negative); however, questioners are known to delay secondary verdicts according to their interests.

Chapter 9: Problems arising from consultation of the poison oracle

All Azande oracles are addressed as people, even though they are not personified.  Rather, their efficacy is attributed to their spiritual dynamism, or soul.  Further, Azande exhibit contradictory behavior and beliefs when it comes to benge poison.  Azande are careful not to eat fowls killed through the poison-test of the seance.  However, no one can express the reasons behind this behavior – for an Azande, benge only functions as poison when in a magical context.  Further, given that the poison acts randomly, often the confirmatory answer will contradict the initial answer.  However, the Azande utilize no less than eight explanatory vehicles to justify these contradictions, the result of which paradoxically results in a stronger affirmation of poison oracle efficacy.  Contradictions are further dismissed via a combination of language barriers, disinterest, and the promotion of ambiguous expectations.  Doubt is not repressed but is always couched in the context of the mystical paradigm.

Chapter 10: Other Zande oracles

Azande use other, less expensive and reliable, oracles for preliminary or less significant matters.  The termites oracle is operated by sticking two different sticks into a termite mound and assigning different answers to the consumption of either stick.  The rubbing-board oracle is imbued with medicine and had the detachable rim circumvents the table, with smooth motions and getting stuck being associated with different outcomes.  The three sticks oracle is arranged as a tent on the hut floor, and its status overnight (collapsed or not) is indicative of its message.  Finally, dreams are sometimes imbued with oracle-like significance.

Chapter 11: Magic and medicines

Magic is the third component of the Azande belief-triangle.  Its use through various medicines can either be socially accepted (positive magic) or condemned (sorcery).  Use of magic is used towards a large set of social goals, through a diversity of plants.  Magic is generally private and rarely practiced.  Magic is moral.  Good magic is impersonal: it will affect unknown individuals whose guilt is assured.  Bad magic is personal: it is used against a particular person in malice.  Sorcery in its full sense probably is not practiced, and only exists in rumors.  Light afflictions are treated empirically, only significant ailments are cause for magical remedies.  Magic is not thought to positively affect everyday life, but only to ward off negative mystical effects.

Chapter 12: An association for the practice of magic

New communal, illegal magic gatherings have become eminent due to current (circa 1920s) political events.  They represent wide and deep social change.  These Mani exhibit crude evidences of associative groups: organization, leadership, grades, feeds, initiation rites, and esoteric vocabulary.  Water immersion contributes to initiation rites, as does other behavior reminiscent of freshman hazing.  Four officials lead the group: the leader, cook, stirrer, and sentry.  None have much authority.  Meetings are highly emotional, in stark contrast with more public ceremonies.  Mani allow for female members, youth, poor (fees are minimal), and royalty (although, significantly, their authority is moot).  Nobility dislikes these groups on grounds of sorcery suspicion, marital jealousy, and general conservatism.  The organizations are grassroots, and lack inter-group cohesion.

Chapter 13: Witchcraft, oracles, and magic, in the situation of death

Azande belief structures are ill-defined and are only partially expressed in any given situation.  Their beliefs reach an cohesion and the height of synthesis in situations of death.  During later stages of illness, witchcraft is identified and addressed and both magic and leechcraft are invoked.  Should these efforts be unsuccessful, vengeance magic is prepared.  Vengeance practitioners are generally young men who will not suffer sex and food taboos as forcefully as others, although all kinsmen are affected.  Vengeance magic requires significant patience, and after enough time has past, kinsmen will oracle-inquire whether a socially-relevant death is the result of their magic.  Reactionary outburst are thus channeled through magical recourse, and are thereby tempered through uncomfortable, extended taboo-observances and wait-times that scale to years.

See Also: Quotes from The Azande Book