The Inquiring Mind of Charles Sanders Peirce

At the science and nonduality conference I intend to make the subject of evolutionary ways of thinking part of what I present. I believe that the American Pragmatists were practicing an evolutionary form of thinking and Charles Sanders Peirce is a great example to use to describe it.

Charles Sanders Peirce believed that you should “never block the path to inquiry.” And so Peirce would always avoid settling into any conclusion or belief that would make further investigation impossible. He saw ideas not as endpoints to inquiry, but as stepping stones to deeper inquiry and because of that he approached all questions with a wild openness, remarkably unhinged from fixed ideas or preferential outcomes. His unbridled willingness to follow logic down whatever path it led was the source of many blind allies of inquiry, but it was also the source of his creative genius.

One of the things that made Peirce’s thinking so original was that he, like Emerson, was attempting to envision how everything evolves as one singular event that included not only matter and life, but consciousness and mind as well. 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. He did not, however, see language and ideas as signs that point toward some separate actuality. Ideas did not act like mirrors that reflect reality or hang like a cloud of knowing above the world. Language and ideas, as Peirce saw them, were an inseparable, essential and integral aspect of reality. The intelligibility of the universe is part of the ontological construction of the universe and so the growth of human understanding is not the growth of knowledge about, but is actually part of the growth of the universe itself. In a later paper “The Architecture of Theories” Peirce refers to Objective Idealism as the one theory of the universe that he found intelligible. “Matter,” he described, “is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.”  Peirce sees matter as being constructed out of habits of mind that have become so deeply ingrained that all of their fluidity has been removed until they froze into our experience of solid materiality. In this way Peirce held that there was not a sharp line between mind and matter. Instead Matter was solidified mind and so consciousness and material were part of the same continuum.

Peirce was a bold and fearless inquirer partly because he had come to peace with what he saw as the extreme limits of human understanding. In an essay called “Fallibilism, Continuity, and Evolution” he explains his understanding that all human reasoning comes through a process of “judging the proportion of something in a whole collection by the proportion found in a sample.” 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 human beings we experience the universe from the surface of only one planet out of trillions upon trillions. We have direct knowledge of only a few thousand years of recorded history on a planet nearly 5 billion years old. And the tiny slice of the universe that we are aware of is seen through the very limited filter of the perceptual and intellectual apparatus of the human form. Our attempts to understand the universe are akin to standing on a beach for a few hours peering through a drinking straw and from that information drawing conclusions about the nature and history of life on Earth. The sample of reality that we are able to investigate in comparison to the totality of the universe is minuscule and so Peirce didn’t assume to find final solutions to the mysteries of existence, he wanted only to find the next best step forward for humanity to follow.