Evolutionary Duality and the Limits of Science

Next week I will be giving an afternoon lecture in Philadelphia about the relationship between philosophical inquiry and the challenges of our time, and the roots of Integral Theory and Evolutionary Enlightenment in Classic American Philosophy. (Find out more here.) In preparation for this I have been rereading some of the papers written by Charles Sanders Peirce and I think they have something to add to the contemplation we are in the middle of.

Charles Peirce was a brilliant mathematician and scientist. Peirce was educated at Harvard during the second half of the 19th century and worked a great deal of his life for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. In this position he did extremely significant scientific work including making the first attempt to determine the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy as determined by the relative brightness of stars. He also was the first to think to measure the length of a meter in wavelengths of light, the standard that is still used today. In addition he was the first American to represent the United States in an international conference on physics.

Besides being a scientific genius, Peirce was also a brilliant philosopher although he never held any official full time position in philosophy. He was a lifelong friend of William James and was enormously influential in the thinking of virtually all of the classic American Philosophers including John Dewey, Josiah Royce and George Herbert Mead. Peirce was also the originator of the philosophical conception behind the American philosophy of Pragmatism. In short he was a creative genius who is probably only a lesser known figure than some of his contemporaries because of having lived such a troubled life.

Through his work with the Coast Survey Peirce was very aware of the limits of science. He recognized that our understanding of the world was largely obtained through measurement sampling and generalization. In other words we take a few measurements – say depth to the bottom of the ocean – and from that sample we try to generalize a topographical map of the ocean floor. The larger our sample size is, the more accurate our map will be.

Peirce was aware that an understanding of the nature of the universe gleaned from the measurements that we are able to make from this one planet would most likely be grossly inaccurate. As an example, he felt that our belief in Euclidian space would someday be found untrue. It didn’t make sense to him that space would extend infinitely in three dimensions. He felt that space must curve so that the universe would ultimately be bounded and not infinite in extension. Because of this he was sure that if we could measure a triangle that was large enough we would find that it’s angles would measure either less than or more than 180 degrees, depending on whether the curve of space was concave or convex. He knew that the largest triangles that had been measured in his time were those whose points were formed by the Earth and two distant stars and he believed that we were not yet able to measure accurately enough to see the deviation from 180 degrees.

Analogously he believed that the idea that the process of evolution was governed by “natural laws” was also erroneous. His work was done in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species and he certainly believed in the power of Natural Selection to guide the evolution of species. But when it came to the universe itself he felt that there could not be natural laws that govern the whole process because the natural laws would have evolved as part of the process.  For Peirce thinking that the universe evolved due to natural laws represented a kind of evolutionary duality. It is easy to think that the laws of time and space and energy etc. exist and govern a process of evolution that occurs within those laws. Peirce was asserting that those laws evolved within the universe and therefore could not have governed their own evolution.

Peirce attempted to create the foundation for an evolutionary philosophy that could be used to describe our evolving universe. He believed that there were three characteristics that must exist for evolution to take place, chance, continuity and habit. Chance means the possibility for novelty, somehow something new must be able to come into existence. Continuity means that things that come into existence must have the ability to remain in existence. And habit means that when something comes into existence it becomes more likely to happen again and the more it happens the more likely it is to happen more times until it becomes a permanent fixture in the universe.

Peirce believed that this evolutionary thinking could produce a completely different philosophical description of reality, but that it would take centuries to work out. Many of his ideas have been dated by the advancement of science, but I do think he was essentially correct. Charles Sanders Peirce was a profound intellect and a true evolutionary and integral thinker.