Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Fixation of Belief: The Method of Tenacity

Peirce argued that the laws of nature are habitual behavior and that our beliefs shape our  behavior.  Beliefs are individual, collective, generational, and inter-generational. Peirce distinguished between scientific beliefs (scientific theories) and non-scientific beliefs (or non-scientific theories).  Some of our beliefs are True and other are False, thus Peirce's theory of belief implies a theory of knowledge or epistemology. At a pragmatic level, sometimes our beliefs contribute to our long-term (and/or short-term) survival as individuals or collectives, sometimes our beliefs are neutral, and sometimes our beliefs work against us. When our individual or collective beliefs about the laws of nature enable us to predict, explain and control nature, we say that our beliefs are True. Ultimately, our survival is often contingent upon whether our beliefs are true or not: "Will that tiger eat me?" If you falsely believe that tigers are vegetarians you are not likely to survive that first encounter.  In my last blog I argued that the Fixation of Belief based on the Method of Authority, is natural, but highly fallible. 

The Method of Tenacity is also a "natural," but unreliable method of belief fixation. This method involves the willful avoidance of circumstances that might stimulate doubt within your current repertoir of beliefs. Recall that human inquiry is an involuntary process triggered by feelings of doubt, and that our old beliefs, naturally, compete with aspiring new beliefs. But Mother Nature stacks the deck in favor of our old habits, as our oldest habits are often the hardest to break. There's a lot of truth in the old saying: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!" (I have been teaching my Ethics course at 9:00 AM for the past 25 years. This semester it was changed to 10:00 AM. Guess what time I showed up for class!) So, we humans are naturally conservative and therefore tend to act based on our old habits, and protect those old beliefs from the onslaught of doubt. Now remember, the Method of Tenacity (like the Method of Authority) is perfectly natural. We all do it individually and collectively! It's just not very likely to lead to True beliefs.

Let's look at how the Method of Tenacity operates at the collective and individual levels. All organized social groups tenaciously protect their core ideological beliefs. That's why the core beliefs espoused by the oldest world religions have changed very little over thousands of years. For example, the Roman Catholic Church still tenaciously protects its belief that only men can become priests and therefore it actively discourages nuns from discussing or teaching the ordination of women. Indeed, censorship is the primary instrument for exercising collective tenacity. Although, we usually associate ideological censorship with religious organizations, all organizations do it. Scientists tend to tenaciously protect their most important theories, and resist the onset of doubt by marginalizing scientists that seek to undermine scientific orthodoxy. 

Political regimes are especially adept at protecting their ideological moorings. The well-known positive techniques for implimenting collective tenacity include: the institutionalization of regime reinforcing symbols, oaths (..."I pledge allegiance to the flag of the...), patriotic songs and stories. Negative techiques include  censorship of the media and criminalization of dissent. Now obviously, our own individual beliefs are often shaped by collective ideological tenacity. But as Peirce recognized the "social impulse" tends to undermine the method of tenacity. Today, communication technologies such as the television, Internet, and cell phones have made it especially difficult for all of us to protect our core beliefs from the irritation of doubt. It has become increasingly difficult for religious political regimes to deprive women of the right to vote, drive automobiles, receive health care, receive an education, get a job, and/or control their own reproductive lives. In short, the Method of Tenacity just won't work as well as it used to!

Today the irritation of doubt is difficult, if not impossible, to control. For Peirce, that's a good thing. We'll never know if our old beliefs are True or False unless we allow them to compete with new ideas. The methods of Authority and Tenacity both undermine human inquiry and impede our quest for true belief. Now, what about the A Priori Method?  

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Fixation of Belief: The Method of Authority

So far I've suggested that we act based on our beliefs and that those beliefs that address either matters of Fact (Truth or Falsity) and matters of Value (Good and Bad). Peirce argues that we "fixate" our beliefs in four different ways. All of these methods have advantages and disadvantages. Among humans, the most common method for fixating our beliefs is based on authority. Let's take a close look at it.

Given our natural propensity to live in groups and organize those groups, hierarchically, based on leadership and followership, we all fixate at least some of our beliefs based on the "authority" of others. The hallmark of any authority is that we trust them! Given our longstanding attraction to religious authority, many neuroscientists argue that our brains have been programmed by biological evolution to believe in a God, trust God, and obey God. Hence, the question of whether the pronouncements of religious authorities are True or Good is settled based on whether we trust that the authority is truthfully interpreting the pronouncements of God. If we trust an authority we tend to believe them and willingly give them power over us. Worldwide, most human beliefs are fixated based on the religious authority. God is the supreme religious authority. Sometimes religious authority is based on what leaders of the past have written in the form of "sacred texts." But usually, religious authority is based on how contemporary religious leaders interpret those sacred writings. Thus inquiry into the Truth or Goodness of the pronouncements of religious leaders is about "who they are" not "what they say." Today we know a lot more about the psychological basis for trust in authorities than Peirce knew. For example, we know that most of us will do things that we ordinarily wouldn't do when we are told to so by trusted authorities. The Holocaust and the Jonestown Masssacre are prime examples.

Today we all trust many different authorities: physicians, scientists, journalists, and celebrities. Although Peirce doesn't say much about it, there are more and less trustworthy authorities. I trust my family physician because I've known him for 20 years and because he has taken good care of me and my family. For libertarians the most pernicious form of authority is government. One of the most serious problems we have here in the United States is that the vast majority of Americans do not trust our government? Why because it hasn't taken very good care of us for a long time. Libertarians argue that government tends to take care of itself and its cronies, often at the expense of the rest of us. If we don't believe what the government says, it forces us to submit to it's edicts, whether we believe those edicts or not.  

Today, many political scientists question whether its possible for us humans to escape from the influence of various authorities. Peirce was a realist, which means that he believes it is at least possible to base our beliefs on something other than authority. But he might be wrong. It may be the case that Truth is nothing more than what the prevailing authorities say is True and that Truth is "socially constructed" based on the self-interest of leaders. Maybe Truth is "manufactured" by those who hold power over us and not really discovered?                       

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Fixation of Belief

In 1877, Charles Sanders Peirce published a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly. The first essay, entitled: "The Fixation of Belief," has had a profound influence on my philosophical approach. So I thought it would be interesting to share some of those basic ideas and outline how I have expanded upon Peirce's original architecture.

First of all, Peirce was one of the first philosophers to acknowledge that the question of the nature of human belief is an important area of philosophical inquiry. Beliefs, according to Peirce, underlie many (if not most) of our actions. He argued the the formation, or "fixation" of a belief is the product of a natural process, which he called human inquiry. This process is initiated by an identifiable "feeling of doubt" that is generated by our brain and central nervous system. It is this "feeling" that initiates and sustains the involuntary process of inquiry until a new belief is established. Peirce suggested that the feeling that accompanies belief is more pleasurable than the state of doubt. So the psychological states of doubt and belief are marked by distinctive "feelings," and all humans naturally know the difference between the two. We, therefore, naturally, seek the pleasure of belief and avoid the pain associated with the state of doubt.  Over the course of our lifetimes many our "old beliefs" are cast into doubt by inquiry and are replaced by "new beliefs." Just because we happen believe or doubt something, either individually or collectively, does not mean that it is True or False.  Hence, Peirce is an epistemological realist in the sense that he believes that Truth is a correspondence between what be believe and something external to that belief.  

Now let's stop and think about all this so far. First, note that Peirce's theory of inquiry is rooted in biology, which implies an ultimate evolutionary explanation; and that this biological process generates mental states that we interpret as doubt or belief. Second, Peirce argues that since we "act" on the basis of our beliefs, there are social implications. Third, Peirce argues that there are better and worse ways for us to forge our beliefs. He therefore identifies four methods for the fixation of belief that all human beings have adopted over the long course of human history: method of authority, method of tenacity, the a priori method, and the scientific method. Although all four methods are "natural," but only one is likely to generate beliefs that are relatively stable over the long run and likely to be True. I'll explore these four methods in subsequent blogs.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stewardship Part 2

So the concept stewardship is usually invoked in a context where something valuable is being shared over time. In ethical terms that suggests that sharing over time is good; that is to say, it's a virtue, a duty, or a preferable consequence.

If stewardship is a virtue it signifies excellence in character. For Aristotle, it would relate to distributive justice. Hence, a "good person" takes no more nor less than he/she deserves. Now Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics really doesn't get into intergenerational justice, but we know from his other writings that potential beings would have moral standing. We also know that if stewardship is a virtue, it would involve teaching, learning, and the establishment of a habit. But beyond that I'm not sure Aristotle takes us very far. The Judeo-Christian concept of the virtue of stewardship is based on the idea that God gave the universe to humans to share. There is a built in sense of value associated with any "gift" that comes from an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and "Good" being. God, by definition, does not give lousy gifts! No ugly ties or exploding cigars! Moreover, since God created Homo sapiens as an intergenerational community, he certainly would not favor early generations over subsequent ones. Nature is not a Ponzi scheme! Hence, previous generations took their fair share, we take, our fair share, and future generations take their fair share. The problem here is how do we know how much each generation can consume without shortchanging the next generation? The history of humans on earth suggests that virtue-based concepts of stewardship have led to intergenerational exploitation rather than intergenerational justice.

If stewardship is a duty, then we must think about it in a different way. First of all, we'd have to establish that all generations have an equal right to that good thing that is being shared between generations. So if we establish that each generation has an equal right to the fish in ocean then, each generation has a duty to determine it's fair share of fish and preserve the rest for the next generation. But there's a lot more here than meets the eye. Suppose subsequent generations will have more living persons than our generation? Do we have a duty to take into account the fact that the next generation will "need" more than we do? And, of course how far into the future does this obligation extend? Moreover, the human ability to exploit the earth's bounty changes relative to technology. We can catch more fish, cut down more trees, extract more oil and coal than previous generations. Hence, the potential for intergenerational injustice is magnified over time. All I want to say here is that even if we all agree that we have a duty to hold back a few fish for future generations we really don't know what this duty entails. In short, it's a lot easier to assign rights and duties across generations than it is to fulfill them.

Finally, if stewardship is conceived as the means to a preferable set of consequences or outcomes across generations, we must be able to assess cost/benefit ratios across generations. Thus stewardship might imply aiming at the "greatest happiness for the greatest numbers" across generations. If this is our goal, then it's not at all clear how much we ought to hold back, given that we really don't know how many generations will follow us. I would argue that if stewardship requires utilitarian calculus exercised across generations, each generation's rate of consumption would be minicule if not zero. Of course, that would solve the obesity problem, but that's another topic worth exploring.

So what does all of this say about stewardship as a moral concept? First of all, there's a lot of muddled thinking about "sustainability." If we have a moral obligation to consume at a "sustainable" rate we have to decide how far into the future that obligation extends. If we limit our obligation to the next generation we might be able to calculate a sustainable rate of consumption. On the other hand, if todays politicians seek to be responsible stewards of the earth's bounty and neglect the needs (and wants) of our present generation in order to save a few fish for future generations, those politicians won't be in office very long. Future generations aren't old enough to vote!                 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stewardship Part I.

The moral concept of "stewardship" is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Today, it is used primarily as a set of moral obligations that are associated with the responsible use of something that belongs to someone else. Or as Merriam Webster puts it: "...the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care." In light of my recent rants on intergenerational justice, I thought I'd deconstruct that slippery concept a bit.

First of all, today "stewardship" is most often encountered in the context of the sustainable management of resources. A "steward" is someone that takes care of someone else's property, hence the notion of ownership plays a key role. A "responsible steward," therefore, preserves or "sustains" the value of that property while an "irresponsible steward" does not. Stewards are not entrusted to sustain something of no value. And there's also a temporal component to stewardship; that is to say, the steward's "sustenance" of something valuable extends over a period of time.Therefore, stewardship has two moral components: the goal (or motive) of sustaining valuable something and knowledge of the means of sustaining that value. Thus, a responsible steward must be motivated to sustain something and know how to do it. An irresponsible steward (or a non-steward) either lacks the motivation to sustain something, or doesn't know how to do it. Thus, stewardship involves both knowing the Good and being able to do the Good.

Suppose, I agree to loan you one of my guitars for a week. Naturally, I expect you to be a responsible steward of it. At a bare minimum, I would expect it to be as returned without loss of value. A responsible steward might return it to me in better condition: maybe polish the finish and change the strings. You might replace the pickups or refinish it, which might or might not meet my approval. WARNING: Do not repaint my orange guitar with black spray paint. So responsible stewardship implies knowledge of the interests of the owner.

Stewardship also shares common ground with the concept of "agency," where one person serves as an "agent" for another person (or "principal"). A responsible agent, who possesses specific knowledge or skills is expected to serve the interests of the principal. Thus, the common ground is the expectation that another person will serve the interests of someone else. But there is also an underlying expectation that the steward or agent will benefit from serving as a steward or an agent. Today, we generally pay agents (insurance agents, financial advisors, and physicians) to serve our interests while stewards benefit by using what they are entrusted to sustain.

So far, the idea of stewardship between individuals seems fairly clear cut, and hardly worthy of a philosophical diatribe. But when stewardship is applied in the context of collective ownership, and/or collective stewardship the waters get muddy fast! I'll dive into that morass next.