Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 2

Last time I discussed how the American philosopher C. S. Peirce’s pragmatism saw meanings in terms of how we’d verify a predicate. So “hardness” is wrapped up in all the measurement practices of determining if something was hard. Peirce saw this literally as following Jesus’ adage to judge things by their fruits. An other important aspect of knowledge for Peirce was recognizing that belief was something that happens but isn’t chosen. All we can choose is where we inquire. 

The reason for thinking belief is non-volitional[1] is simple. Imagine you’re outside looking up into the sky. It’s a deep blue you can’t miss. Now make yourself believe it is pink. You can’t do it. When we analyze carefully the types of control we have over belief it’s always seems to be indirect. This isn’t to say we can’t delude ourselves but the way we do this is by avoiding thinking about certain things. Non-volitional belief is also quite in keeping with Mormon scripture. D&C 46:13-14 suggests that both knowledge and belief is a gift of God. That suggests it’s not something we simply choose.

The traditional rejoinder among Mormons is that scripture often condemns not believing. How could God condemn belief or non-belief in something if we didn’t have control over it? But note that I didn’t say we can’t have some measure of control over the belief. It is just that our control is only indirect and incomplete. I might not choose to have my car roll into the street when I forget to put the parking break on. That doesn’t mean I am not responsible for it rolling into the parking lot. Even if I can’t by force of will stop it from moving, I still have a kind of indirect control over whether it rolls. In the same fashion I can’t will whatever belief I want when I want. Yet I still have a great deal of infuence over my beliefs. My control is mediated in various ways rather than an absolute immediate act of will.

Understanding why this view about beliefs is important requires stepping back to the origins of the modern study of knowledge (epistemology) with Descartes. Descartes put an absolute gulf between the outside world and the inside of my mind. Epistemology fundamentally was about correlating my thoughts with events out in the world. It’s really Descartes who ushers in the modern way people think about knowledge. For Descartes there were fundamental undoubtable beliefs we knew. To know something is to build up a justification based upon these foundational absolutely known beliefs. As time went on philosophers evolved away from Descartes but this fundamental way of thinking about the problem remained part of western culture well into the 20th century. This idea that there are undoubtable base elements of knowledge is called foundationalism. Foundationalism for various reasons has fallen out of favor (although some still hold to it) yet despite this much of Descartes’ approach to knowledge still remains an important part of philosophy.

For Peirce there are things we simply can’t doubt as a practical matter. Unlike Descartes who felt the undoubtable was true, Peirce is a thoroughgoing fallibilist. We may be unable to doubt something yet it may be false. Much of philosophy following Descartes saw belief as a kind of choice we make when we make a judgement. That is fundamentally epistemology hinges upon judging the world around us. Peirce in contrast sees judgement as an “act of consciousness in which a person thinks he recognizes a belief…” (EP 2:12, 1895) For him epistemology shifts from making a belief to seeing that we already have a belief. It is a type of discovery rather than creation.[2] Instead of beliefs as moments of choice Peirce sees them as habits. Beliefs aren’t merely propositional but reflect habits of deliberate action. The implication of this is that Peirce separates mere intellectual assent (where I say something is true) from acting as if it were true. The later tells us much more about a person’s belief.

The idea that beliefs aren’t volitional has quite a few important implications. The one I’ll focus most on is justification. With Descartes justification for knowledge was seen as a kind of ethical status. Were we right in believing something? Peirce maintains this ethical aspect but for several reasons doesn’t give it quite the place Descartes and most philosophers do. For one if one isn’t free to choose one beliefs how one is responsible for them shifts.

A second important distinction is that Descartes fundamentally saw justification for belief as akin to mathematical proof. (This actually goes back to Aristotle, but again Descartes gave it some important shifts) Ones indubitable beliefs are akin to mathematical axioms. To know something is the be able to (in theory) provide an argument where one moves from these axioms of foundational beliefs to conclusions. Thus justification of knowledge is a kind of right or wrongness akin to how how a mathematical claim is right or wrong. If beliefs aren’t volitional though this can’t guarantee knowledge since our axioms are themselves always open to question. That is there are no foundational beliefs. An other criticism Peirce makes of Descartes is that reasoning itself can be fallible. The way we reason to arrive at a belief simply isn’t done the way we do mathematical deductive reasoning. That doesn’t mean our beliefs aren’t justified. 

Next time I’ll continue onto the role inquiry plays in Peirce’s thought about knowledge.

Sorry for the delay on this series. Work and then Christmas kept me from posting. Posts will come more regularly now.

[1] I actually did a post on this last April here at T&S. I also touched on some of the issues discussed in this post at my old blog last year. I’m revisiting the topic because it’s one of the four main ideas in Peirce’s thought that I think relate to Mormon epistemology. How one thinks about knowledge and judgement differ significantly with Peirce’s scheme versus many others. I believe these implications help us understand Mormon thought.

[2] While still somewhat controversial, this would line up with certain interpretations of psychological experiments regarding choice. It appears that the brain makes decisions even before we’re aware of them. That is the choice happens before awareness. This is usually taken to problematize certain views of free will (although things are a bit more complex than it appears at first glance). However it also lines up with the brain determining a belief before we’re aware of it. That is the idea that we become aware of beliefs but don’t have conscious control of it.

3 comments for “Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 2

  1. 1) As you know, I draw a sharp line between an ethics of communicative claims and an ethics of utterly private belief. I also think that the latter is utter nonsense since its not obvious that I myself have access to my own utterly private beliefs, let alone that anybody else has the access necessary to pass any kind of judgement either way on them.

    2) I think Mead’s distinction between the “I” and the “me” are a much better approach to an ethics of belief. Whereas the “I” is the pre-reflexive will that acts, the “me” is a constructed (re)presentation of the “I” that is intrinsically social and normative in nature. Thus, if we want discuss the ethics of belief, it would be much more profitable to discuss the ethics of attributing beliefs to any person’s “me” – which is much closer to an ethics of claims than an ethics of beliefs.

    3) Did Peirce really think that that is what Jesus literally meant about fruits? If so, that’s really sad.

  2. Of course Mead – who was the forth most famous pragmatist after Peirce, James and Dewey – thought the social construction of the “me” could be accounted for in terms of a 2-person relationship between a person and “the other”… something which I totally reject.

  3. Absolutely private beliefs become difficult to make sense of, especially if beliefs aren’t merely some quasi-linguistic proposition we have private mental access to. I don’t mind distinguishing between belief and the representation of that belief. That seems a natural distinction to make.

    To the point of Peirce’s religion, I don’t think that’s what he meant. Rather he thought the principle Jesus taught applied here. His religion is a bit mysterious to me. He was raised unitarian at a time that was common for the intellectual class. (Emerson was unitarian too) However he converted to trinitarianism and saw significance to that. He opposed James’ view of religion that saw it judged purely in terms of what worked in a loose sense for the individual. He felt religion was an empirical matter as with everything else with empirical claims. (Indeed that distinction over the pragmatic maxim was the major break between the two and it’s quite significant) Yet his own religious views seem an odd mixture of Christianity and something akin to Buddhism. Some have drawn similarities with the process theology of Whitehead and Hartshorne although I think that’s pushing it in places. But he’s definitely a process styled thinker.

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