Don’t Be An Ostrich

 

In The Fixation of Belief Peirce describes four methods for the “fixation of belief”. According to Peirce, the goal of inquiry is to settle one’s opinion. Thus Peirce asks, “why should we not attain the desired end, by taking as answer to a question any we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything that might disturb it?”[1] This is what Peirce refers to as the “Method of Tenacity”. Now I must wonder whether or not this reminds you of anyone you know? Apparently Jehovah’s Witnesses suggest that you should not read the Bible without the Watchtower or else you might become a Trinitarian.[2] If you have had a Mormon at your door before, perhaps he or she told you to just pray (based on a horrible twisting of James 1.5) and you will see that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. And then there are the many atheists who will not open their eyes up to anything, including their unnecessary arrogance.

When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see? A man may go through life, systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions…[3]

Peirce takes no moral offense at this, as he is concerned only with the fixation of belief. As far as the fixation of belief is concerned, there is no worry about this irrational method of tenaciously holding on to a belief and violently opposing anything which may lead to further question concerning it. So then, the problem according to Peirce is not that this method is immoral. The problem as Peirce sees it is that this method ultimately fails to satisfy the person utilizing it. It fails as a means to fixating belief, the reason being that encounters with others who may be doing the same thing or even utilizing a different method will inevitably and often disagree. He writes to this effect.

But this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of tenacity, will be unable to hold its ground in practice. The social impulse is against it. The man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from him, and it will be apt to occur to him, in some saner moment, that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief. This conception, that another man’s thought or sentiment may be equivalent to one’s own, is a distinctly new step, and a highly important one. It arises from an impulse too strong in man to be suppressed, without danger of destroying the human species. Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[4]

With this said Peirce moves on to consider other methods. We leave him here, divorcing his observations from his wider pragmatic programme. While Peirce identifies one problem with this method which is consistent with his overall goal in writing, he leaves two problems unaddressed that the Christian should call attention to. The first is that one person’s “opinion” (which can refer to just about anything) is just as good as another’s. We must reject this in most every case, depending upon what is meant by “opinion”. While some things are only subjective opinions, there is such a thing as Truth, the very concept of which Peirce objects to in his works. Second, Peirce is not too interested in the prospect that this method is vile; that it is morally repugnant. Such is never his argument against this method. However, we should be repulsed by the suggestion that someone fix his or her belief in this manner. Did you not find moral complaint with the JW and the Mormon examples above? Why then do we allow the following to occur?

I was saved (to use the Christian phrase) when I was seven years old, after being raised in the Christian faith all of my life. I wasn’t baptized until I was eleven, shortly after my sister was. However, for the past few years (I’ve forgotten since when), I’ve been questioning my faith, and why I believe what I do. It’s been a burden to me, but I never told anyone about it, not even my family.

I cannot help but wonder about whether the Method of Tenacity may play a significant role in the lives of Christians and create hidden doubts like those in the example above. Christianity is not meant for this skeptical, unbelieving, anxiety filled box of paranoia. Christianity is true and thrives in an open environment full of intellectual discussion, hence the need for its enemies to silence it. By all means keep the main thing in focus and avoid endless questions about useless subjects…but don’t be an ostrich either.

[1] http://www.peirce.org/writings/p107.html
[2] http://www.carm.org/jw/not_bible_alone.htm
[3] http://www.peirce.org/writings/p107.html
[4] Ibid.


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