abba's way, theology

Charles Sanders Peirce on the Sanctity of Guesses

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914)

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This generous quote from Charles Sanders Peirce bears all the marks of the excitation that his thought continues to produce. My cap is tipped to Matt and my sense of propriety is modified by Peirce’s own insistence that thought is a continuous and communal process and by the fact that this is a free blog not Jstor.

Ms. 692 pg. 25-31:

Any novice in logic may well be surprised at my calling a guess an inference. It is equally easy to define inference so as to exclude or include abduction. But all the objects of logical study have to be classified; and it is found that there is no other good class in which to put abduction but that of inferences. Many logicians, however, leave it unclassified, as sort of logical supernumerary, as if its importance were too small to entitle it to any regular place. They evidently forget that neither deduction nor induction can ever add the smallest item to the data of perception; and, as we have already noticed, mere percepts do not constitute any knowledge applicable to any practical or theoretical use. All that makes knowledge applicable comes to us via abduction. Looking out my window this lovely spring morning I see an azalea in full bloom. No, no! I do not see that; though that is the only way I can describe what I see. That is a proposition, a sentence, a fact; but what I perceive is not proposition, sentence, fact, but only an image, which I make intelligible in part by means of a statement of fact. This statement is abstract; but what I see is concrete. I perform an abduction when I so much as express in a sentence anything I see. The truth is that the whole fabric of our knowledge is one matted felt of pure hypothesis confirmed and refined by induction. Not the smallest advance can be made in knowledge beyond the stage of vacant staring, without making an abduction at every step.

When a chicken first emerges from the shell, it does not try fifty random ways of appeasing its hunger, but within five minutes is picking up food, choosing as it picks, and picking what it aims to pick. That is not reasoning, because it is not done deliberately; but in every respect but that, it is just like abductive inference. In man, two broad instincts common to all animals, the instinct for getting food, and the instinct for reproduction, are developed into some degree of rational insight into nature. The instincts connected with getting food require that every animal should have some just ideas of the action of mechanical forces. In man these ideas become abstract and general. Archimedes and Galileo make right guesses about mechanics almost at once. Only a few of their notions have to be rejected, because they know how to do their guessing piece-meal and in an orderly sequence. Out of their guesses, corrected by induction and deduction, the science of dynamics has been built. Guided by the ideas of dynamics, physicists have guessed at the constitution of gases, the nature of heat and of sound, and experiment has only corrected errors and measured quantities. By analogous processes, on science suggesting ideas for another, the whole physical side of our theoretical knowledge has grown up out of the original seed of the food instincts.

The instincts connected with reproduction require that every animal should have some tact and judgment as to how another animal will feel and act under different circumstances. These ideas likewise take more abstract forms in man, and enable us to make our initial hypotheses successfully in the psychical side of science, – in such studies, for example, as psychology, linguistics, ethnology, history, economics, etc.

It is evident that unless man had some inward light tending to make his guesses on these subjects much more often true than they would be by mere chance, the human race would long ago have been extirpated for its utter incapacity in the struggles for existence; or if some protection had kept it continually multiplying, the time from the tertiary epoch to our own would be altogether too short to expect that the human race could yet have made its first happy guess in any science. The mind of man has been formed under the action of the laws of nature, and therefore it is not so very surprising to find that its constitution is such that, when we can get rid of caprices, idiosyncrasies, and other perturbations, its thoughts naturally show a tendency to agree with the laws of nature.

But it is one thing to say that the human mind has a sufficient magnetic turning toward the truth to cause the right guess to be made in the course of centuries during which a hundred good guesses have been unceasingly occupied in endeavoring to make such a guess, and a far different thing to say that the first guess that may happen to possess Tom, Dick, or Harry has any appreciably greater probability of being true than false.

It is necessary to remember that among the swarms who have covered the globe, there have not been above these individuals, Archimedes, Galileo, and Thomas Young, whose mechanical and physical guesses were mostly correct in the first instance.

It is necessary to remember that even those unparalleled intelligences would certainly not have guessed right if they had not all possessed a great art of so subdividing their guesses as to give to each one almost the character of self-evidence. Thus, the proof by Archimedes of the properties of the lever, which makes the foundation of the whole science of mechanics, is composed of a series of abduction, or guesses. But look at the character of those guesses. He begins by saying that equal weights freely hanging from the extremities of an equal-armed balance will be in equilibrium. That was a mater of familiar knowledge; at least when the two weights were suspended at equal distances from the balance. But Archimedes guessed that the length of the suspending thread would make no difference, otherwise than by its own weight. [Peirce goes on from here to describe the orderly sequence of Archimedes piece-meal guesses.]

— Matt


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