The Radical Inquiry of Charles Sanders Peirce (Part I)

I first encountered the radical inquiry of Charles Sanders Peirce while reading his essay entitled, “Design and Chance,” a paper Peirce used as the basis for a lecture he gave on January 17, 1884 to the members of the Metaphysical Club that he founded at Johns Hopkins Universi.1 Thit is wasn’t the first thing I had read by Peirce and as the education director of an organization dedicated to an evolutionary philosophy, I was familiar with the territory Peirce was traversing. Still, I found something in that essay that was strikingly original, profound and deeply compelling and I believe I came in contact with the world as Peirce saw it. In that encounter my sense of the solidity of the world melted away into a realization of its inherent fluidity, the seeming solidity itself being recognized as structures formed out of mental habits.

In his essay Peirce asks questions such that their mere asking challenges the constraints of common sense. Do real things exist? Does causality have a cause? Certainly these are not questions alien to philosophical inquiry, but Peirce approached them with a wild openness, unhinged from metaphysical predispositions or preferential outcomes. His unbridled willingness to follow logic down whatever path it led him was surely the source of his creative genius. It was that spirit that grabbed hold of my imagination and riveted my attention squarely not on any new object of truth, but on the fact of indeterminacy itself.

I was not aware of it at the time, but Peirce’s unconventional thinking had its roots in his semiotic approach. Semiotics is the study of how signs and symbols communicate and hold meaning. Peirce recognized that the human mind creates intelligibility through a never ending succession of signs pointing to other signs in an infinitely complex web of interrelated meaning. What makes Peirce’s thinking so free is that he does not see signs as existing over, apart from and pointing toward reality, but rather as an inseparable, essential and integral part of reality. In a later paper “The Architecture of Theories” Peirce refers to Objective Idealism as the one intelligible theory of the universe. “Matter,” he holds, “is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.” 2 Peirce sees matter as being constructed of habits of mind that have become so deeply ingrained that all of their vigor has been removed and they assume the feeling of solidity. The blurry line that Peirce draws between the physical and the mental liberates his thinking and allows his inquiry to roam into seemingly forbidden logical territory.

The exact moment of my encounter with Peirce’s radical form of inquiry came only upon my third reading of the essay. I had embarked upon this third reading because the first two had left me agitated at not being able to grasp something that struck me as extremely compelling. In the essay Peirce, who had done extensive studies in mathematics and non-Euclidian geometry, described how he believed that someday the measurement of the angles of a triangle formed between two distant stars and the Earth would prove to us that space was in fact curved. When I read the description of his thought process around this it seemed that some solid mental floor fell away from under me. At that moment I recognized the profound fallibility of human knowledge. Peirce insisted that the only reason we had not yet been able to confirm the curvature of space by measuring the angles of triangles was simply because we had not yet managed to measure a triangle big enough.

I had already learned that fallibility was central to Peirce’s thinking. In fact, I had read Peirce’s essay “Fallibilism, Continuity, and Evolution” in which he states that all reasoning comes to us by way of “judging the proportion of something in a whole collection by the proportion found in a sample.”3 As a trained scientist and engineer this concept seemed obvious enough. We take sample measurements of a test tube full of water and assume that it is representative of the entire lake. We can never be absolutely certain of anything because we are always making judgments based on what we can observe and we can never observe every possible occurrence of any phenomenon. As I sat reading about Peirce’s interest in measuring gigantic celestial triangles something struck me about the infinitesimally small size of the human sample of reality.

We are looking at the universe as seen from the surface of only one planet out of trillions upon trillions. We have direct knowledge of only a few thousand years of recorded human history in a nearly 5 billion year planetary lifespan. And even the tiny slice of the universe that we are aware of is continually filtered through the very limited perceptual and intellectual apparatus of the human form. This, I imagined, was analogous to standing on a beach for an hour peering through a drinking straw and trying to assess what life was like on the rest of the Earth. In so imagining, the degree of uncertainty inherent in human knowledge took on proportions I had never considered. The sample of reality that we are able to investigate in comparison to the totality of the universe is unimaginably tiny.

In his essay Peirce goes on to question the fundamental categories of reality and in particular some of those imagined by Immanuel Kant. And he did so in light of the new understanding of evolution that Darwin’s recent publication of “On the Origin of Species” had brought to the world. The Kantian categories included space, time and causality, and together, so Kant proposed, they create an ontological framework or container for our interpretation of reality. This implies that the universe evolved within that container much like a calf grows to be a cow within the container of a farm. Peirce took exception to this notion. Certainly time, space and causality are part of the universe, he reasoned, and must therefore have also evolved. This deceptively simple notion may seem obvious at first glance but its implications are enormous.

Why must moments in time be ordered sequentially? Maybe the first moments appeared in random order – one appears now in the year 2010 – the next ten days in the past – then one four months in the future – then one a thousand years in the past and on and on. Perhaps those moments that happened by chance to appear in sequential order had a “survival advantage” and soon all of the non-sequential moments died out of existence. Maybe that is why we only find sequential moments in the universe today. And finding the universe as it is we imagine that that is how it must always have been. The same may be true with space; perhaps adjacent spots in space were not always adjacent. And again with causality, maybe things happened randomly initially and causality only gradually developed.

These are the kinds of common sense defying thoughts that Peirce’s liberated and penetrating mind took seriously. His inquiry gives us a glimpse of how much we take for granted as “real” that, when considered more deeply, turn out to be unquestioned and unproven assumptions. You may find these avenues of inquiry whimsical and disconnected from reality, but they must be considered in light of Peirce’s semiotic approach. Sequential time, adjacent space, and causality make the universe more intelligible, and to Peirce human intelligibility is part of the ontological construction of the universe. And so, our growing understanding of the universe is an important way in which the universe itself grows.