Thursday, October 20, 2005


C. S. Peirce does not deny the lawfulness of nature, but he does dispute the notion that the laws of nature of "iron necessities." They should be seen as statistical regularities or, in his idealist language, habits. Such an interpretation of the facts would allow for chance--hence, his doctrine of tychism; furthermore, it would be compatible with growth and novelty.

But why is determinism mistaken? Peirce takes up three arguments for determinism and refutes each one.

1. Determinism is a postulate of scientific reasoning. Peirce says this does not make it true. "It is as if man should come to borrow money and, when asked for his security, should reply he 'postulated' the loan. To 'postulate' a proposition is no more than to hope it is true."

2. Determinism is known to be true, or at least highly probable, by the observation of nature. Against this point, Peirce argues that the "constants" of nature (e.g., the n in PV = nRT or the gravitational constant G in a = GM/r^2 or even the exponent 2 in the acceleration rate) are only elements of regularity in nature. Perhaps the 2 could be some number 2.000...001. No matter how often they are measured, such observations will never decide whether such regularity is exact and universal. In fact, as regards exactitude, all observation actually offers contrary evidence.

3. Chance is unintelligible because it demands the acceptance of arbitrary givens without disclosing "to the eye of reason the how or why of things." To this Peirce argues that determinism requires no less swallowing of arbitrary givenness in the form of "immutable and ultimate facts" for which no account can be offered. The only difference is that in this case the facts are all given up front at once--a bitter pill that can be swallowed and then forgotten only at the expense of self-delusion. In other words, what is rational about 9.8 m/s^2 rather than 9.800001 m/s^2.000001? Instead, Peirce suggests we acknowledge the immense amount of change in the universe and recognize the implications of it: "the history of states, of institutions, of language, of ideas . . . paleontology . . . changes in stellar systems. Everywhere the main fact is growth and increasing complexity." From these facts of change and growth all around us, Peirce infers that "there is probably in nature some agency by which the complexity and diversity of things can be increased; and that consequently the rule of mechanical necessity [determinism] meets in some way with interference."

It is not that any of this proves "tychism," his doctrine of chance, to be true, but as a metaphysics it avoids the dead end of basing all thought on brute facts which admit of no further explanation. By taking the universe as an evolutionary development in which habits successively emerge, Peirce imposes no automatic dead ends on his metaphysical inquiry. Everything is part of an ongoing process and can be explained as the outgrowth of an earlier stage. This all happens according to the laws of evolution, but, of course, even these laws are habits which have been forged within the process.


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