Charles S. Peirce

Chapter 4: Four Methods of Settling Opinion

MS 189 (Robin 366, 371,333): Writings 3, 24-28
May-June 1872

[Editorial note: The editorial symbol: "[ . . . ]" indicates an ellipsis in the sentence (i.e. an omission) of one or more words, usually because of illegibility.]

        If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry, and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end, by taking any answer to a question which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, by dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it? This simple and direct method is really pursued by many men. 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 [... ] a stomach-pump. But then the man who adopts this method will not allow that its inconveniences are greater than its advantages. He will say, "I hold steadfastly to the truth, and the truth is always wholesome." And, in many cases, it may very well be that the pleasure he derives from his calm faith overbalances any inconveniences resulting from its deceptive character. Thus, if it be true that death is annihilation, then the man who believes that he will certainly go straight to heaven when he dies however he may have behaved in this life, has a cheap pleasure which will not be followed by the least disappointment. A similar consideration seems to have weight with many persons in religious topics, for we frequently hear it said, "O, I could not believe so and so, because I should be wretched if I did." When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger and then calmly says there is no danger; and if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see? A man may go through life systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions, and if he only succeeds—basing his method as he does on two fundamental psychological laws—I do not see what can be said against his doing so. 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. He does not propose to himself to be rational and indeed will often talk with scorn of man's weak and illusive reason. "In our free country he has a right to think as he pleases."

        But this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of obstinacy, will be unable to hold its ground in practice. The social impulse is against it. 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. It arises from an impulse too strong in man to be suppressed without danger of destroying the human species. Unless we make ourselves hermits we shall necessarily influence each other's opinions so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.

        Let the will of the state act then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually and to teach them to the young, having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men's apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted so that they may regard private & unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar and feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment. When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way, has proved to be a very effective means of settling opinion, in a country. If the power to do this be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to separate them as radically as possible from the Influence of the rest of the world.

        This method has from the earliest times been one of the chief means of upholding correct theological and political doctrines, and of preserving their universal or catholic character. In Rome, especially, it has been practised from the days of Numa Pompilius to those of Pius Nonus. This is the most perfect example in history, but wherever there is a priesthood—and no religion has been without one—this method has been more or less made use of. Wherever there is an aristocracy or a guild, or any association of a class of men whose interests depend, or are supposed to depend, on certain propositions, there will be inevitably found some traces of this natural product of social feeling. Cruelties always accompany this system, and when it is consistently carried out they become atrocities of the most horrible kind, in the eyes of any rational man. Nor should this occasion surprise, for the officer of a society does not feel justified in surrendering the interests of that society for the sake of mercy, as he might his own private interests. It is natural therefore that sympathy and fellowship should thus produce a most ruthless power.

        In judging this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of despotism, we must in the first place allow its immeasurable mental and moral superiority to the method of obstinacy. Its success is proportionately greater, and, in fact, it has over and over again worked the most majestic results. The mere structures of stone which it has caused to be put together, in Siam, for example, in Egypt, and in Europe, have many of them a sublimity hardly more than rivaled by the greatest works of nature. And except the geological epochs, there are no periods of time so vast as those which are measured by some of these organized faiths.

        If we scrutinize the matter closely we shall find that there has not been one of their creeds which has remained always the same; yet the change is so slow as to be imperceptible during one person's life, so that individual belief remains sensibly fixed. 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.

        But no institution can undertake to regulate opinions upon every subject. Only the most important ones can be attended to, and on the rest men's minds must be left to the action of natural causes. This imperfection [ . . . ]

EDITORIAL MISTAKE MADE HERE (See Editorial Note below)

may affect every man. And though these affections are necessarily as various as are individual conditions yet the method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man shall be the same. This is called the scientific method. Its fundamental hypothesis stated in more familiar language is this. There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses, according to regular laws, and though our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet by taking advantage of the laws which subsist we can ascertain by reasoning how the things really are, and any man if he have sufficient experience and reason enough about it, will be led to the one true conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of reality. It may be asked how I know there are any realities. If this hypothesis is the sole support of my method of inquiry, my method of inquiry must not be used to support my hypothesis. The reply is this. 1st 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 doubts of the method, therefore, necessarily arise from its practice, as is the case with all the others. 2nd, 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 to which a proposition should conform. Nobody, therefore, can really doubt that there are realities, or 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 me to doubt it. 3rd, Everybody uses the scientific method about a great many things and only ceases to use it when he does not know how to apply it. 4th Experience of the method has not led me 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 either 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.

        To describe the method of scientific investigation is the object of this book. In this chapter, I shall only notice some points of contrast between it and other methods of inquiry.

        This is the only one of the four methods which presents any distinction of a right and a wrong way. If I adopt the method of Obstinacy and shut myself out from all influences, no matter what I think necessary to doing this, is necessary according to that method. Now with the method of despotism, the state may try to put down heresy by means which from a scientific point of view seem very ill ill-calculated to accomplish its purpose, but the only test on that method is what the state thinks, so that it cannot pursue the method wrongly. So with the a priori method. If I endeavor to lay my susceptibilities of belief perfectly open to the influences which work upon them, I cannot on those principles go wrong. But with the scientific method, the case is different. I may start with known and observed facts to proceed to the unknown; and yet the rules which I follow in doing so may not be such as investigation would approve. The test of whether I am truly following the method is not an immediate appeal to my feelings and purposes, but on the contrary itself involves the application of the method. Hence it is that bad reasoning as well as good reasoning is possible; and this fact is the foundation of the practical side of logic.

        When a man has once chosen the scientific method he positively violates it when he allows any weight [ . . . ]

[Editorial note by Joseph Ransdell (Feb 20,2008): The editors of Volume 3 of the Writings made a serious error in reproducing this manuscript, treating what would have to be some two or more pages of missing text as if it were a simple ellipsis of a few words, as indicated by "[ . . . ]". The effect of this was to fuse together and thus to confuse the third with the fourth method: what appears before the ellipsis marker concerns the third method; what appears after the ellipsis marker concerns the fourth method. This draft document is similar enough to the published version of the paper ("The Fixation of Belief"] to make clear what the missing pages would be more or less like.)