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Revisiting a Neglected Argument for the Reality of God

Phyllis Chiasson

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The issue of God may not seem like a topic with which a good scientific mind need bother himself. After all, the issue of a God--or not; or an after-life--or not shouldn't make any difference to a good scientist. Sciences--including the philosophy of science--are disciplines for the seeking of actual truths--not metaphysical ones.
If this is so--and I'm sure most scientists would agree it is--then why would Peirce, the consummate scientific mind of the 19th (and possibly 20th) century-even bother to apply his own logic to lay out an argument for proving the Reality of something that didn't matter one way or another to his life's work? This was certainly not the habit of Peirce--paying attention to things that didn't matter. Was his article, "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God", merely the result of wishful thinking by an old man nearing the end of his life? Or was there something else going on for Peirce as he wrote this article?
Certainly Peirce's self-proclamed core perspective of absolute idealism could have pointed him towards a belief in God. It's generally accepted that, even if Peirce didn't believe in a God, he--at the very least--wanted to. While most scholars who accept Peirce's pragmatism in other ways may believe that he failed in this attempt at proving God's Reality, it's generally agreed that Peirce did succeed remarkably in this essay at laying out what is perhaps his best description of the abductive reasoning process. In fact, most everyone familiar with this Peirce essay would probably agree that he's mainly addressing the issue of abduction.
But why?

"Why did he bother to do this? He could have laid out examples of the abductive process in any number of ways. Is there more to this essay than what it tells us about Peirce's spiritual inclinations or about his ongoing attempts to 'prove' his theory of abduction? Is there something that Peirce showed us by means of this essay that he'd failed to successfully communicate anywhere before this?

Peirce may very well have thought he'd proven the Reality of God in this essay. He'd strictly applied his own prodigious mental faculties to this issue over many years to the development of the hypothesis of God and shaped his personal conduct in accord to this hypothesis-thus testing it out.
But what if Peirce actually did prove the Reality of God in this essay--just not in the way most people think he was trying to do? What if, as Peirce claimed, the Reality of God is a particular sort of hypothesis--or purpose--obtained in a particular way and used for directing choices of conduct in life. What if this hypothesis of God is truly an hypothesis that any sane person would reach if she has hypothesized and tested as Peirce had?
What if Peirce's hypothesis of God was correct at the very highest of levels--and that, from this same level an apparently opposite hypothesis (that there is no God) can also be true--and yet produce the same sorts of consequences. And what if Peirce's neglected argument effectively 'proves' them both?
This brief essay will show that, in demonstrating his meaning of abductive reasoning, Peirce laid out the attitude and method from which all decisions of importance to the conduct of a life should begin. It will then show, based upon Peirce's Neglected Argument, that it is the attitude from which the abductive reasoning process is undergone--and not a particular hypothesis resulting from the abduction--which produces the sorts of hypotheses worthy of testing out by means of making one's various life choices accordingly .
Peirce contends that the very first step in abductive reasoning is a form of Pure Play which he calls Musement. While most readers of Peirce's essay won't agree with his belief that everyone who engages in Musement will be sure to come to the same conclusion as he did--the structure of his argument provides a very significant point that enables this writer to agree with two seemingly opposite points of view at the same time. These points of view are: a) that there is a need for a belief in God (as ens necessarium--something greater than oneself) for directing an individual towards the sorts of ethical choices that result in the living of a good life; and 2) that it's not necessary to believe in such a God to have the perspective from which make these same sorts of choices.
If you follow Peirce's 'argument' all the way through--with a focus on abduction rather than "God"--it becomes apparent that it's not necessary to believe in the Reality of God (or an after-life) to have the long-term hopefulness that Peirce implies is necessary for constructing good hypotheses. Once he's laid out his 'argument', Peirce states that everyone "whose disposition is normal" will agree with him. But that 'pessimists', who aren't 'thoroughly sane', won't agree with his argument because "the difference between a pessimistic and an optimistic mind is of such controlling importance in regard to every intellectual function, and especially for the conduct of life, that it is out of the question to admit that both [optimists and pessimists] are normal, and the great majority of mankind are naturally optimistic". Since 'the majority of every race depart little from the norm of that race", he concludes that optimism is 'normal'. Then Peirce describes three kinds of pessimists: 1) those whose tormented lives have made them that way; 2) those who are just misanthropical by nature; and 3) philanthropical types who are "easily excited and become roused to anger at what they consider the stupid injustices of life."
The real key to the meaning of Peirce's "Neglected Argument" (and to his concept of his own theory of abduction) resides in this statement: "the difference between a pessimistic and an optimistic mind is of ...controlling importance in regard to every intellectual function, and especially for the conduct of life...".
The Optimist/Pessimist dichotomy that Peirce describes in his 'Neglected Argument is as much about abduction as it its about God. What he really seems to be suggesting is that you can't perform abductive reasoning properly if you're a pessimist. This makes perfect sense if you consider that his first stage of abduction (Pure Play or Musement) is supposed to be undergone without rules or restrictions as to what can or cannot be considered. A pessimistic outlook eliminates the possibility that you can examine anything with an 'open' mind. There are all sorts of relations you're not at liberty to make if you've decided a priori that they're not worth making.
Of course, optimism alone won't produce good hypotheses or good conduct--just as belief in an after-life won't. An optimistic (or hopeful) *vision* must be connected to 'right conduct' if it's going to mean anything at all (since the meaning of every proposition lies in its effects upon human conduct). It's the way in which such a vision is connected to conduct that affects the good (or the damage) it will do. For example, an optimistic belief that 'everything is going to turn out fine' is not enough to make it do so--but, a situation certainly has a better chance of 'turning out fine' if the individual engages himself in the experience with an attitude of identifying what needs to be done and doing what he can--rather than dismissing the whole thing out of hand as pointless or impossible (as a pessimist might) or engaging only in magical thinking (as an airy-nothing optimist might) and leaving the doing to merely responding to whatever comes along.
Peirce argues throughout this essay that the development of the hypothesis of God--from the point of view of his pragmaticism--is inexorably tied into the earliest stages of abduction--Pure Play. The only way you can have Pure Play (or Musement) is to be free, as much as possible, from any rules or boundaries guiding what you can and cannot think about. This means that that Pure Play can't be undergone from the perspective of pessimism, (though Musement about pessimism could be an activity of pure play). Pessimism, which has nothing to do with critical thought, is a boundary to thought which locks out an entire range of possible thoughts. Therefore, since the perspective of pessimism limits the contents of what abduction can deal with--a person isn't able to engage fully in the abductive process when he's being pessimistic--because pessimism limits the quantity and qualities of possible hypotheses available to him.
The perspective of optimism, however, allows one to explore all sorts of possibilities (including the possibility of being pessimistic--though this can't be done this the other way around). Of course, most everyone will agree--considering Peirce's life's work--that he didn't think of optimism as a Pollyanna-like denial of "reality". It's clear that he intended the meaning of this term to indicate a perspective from which to operate that allows the abductive process full reign.
So Peirce conceived the hypothesis of God as developing out of the unfettered abductive activity of Pure Play. This 'hypothesis' is formed as a sort of ethical proposal which ultimately develops into a habit (or belief) by being continuously tested out and refined over the course of a life. The 'meaning' of the hypothesis of God, therefore, resides in the effects that it has upon the way in which the individual lives his life.
Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that Peirce is suggesting in this essay that that it is the inability to access hopeful options due to a pessimistic performance of the Musement stage of abductive reasoning that results in athiesm. But what if it is the attitudes of pessimism and optimism alone--and not any particular hypothesis that results from the Musement stage of abduction--that's the real issue?
What if pessimistic Musement is the real squasher of the possible options concerning the genus of a sort of hypotheses--of which the hypothesis of God might be a kind? The category of hypotheses of this sort could be called:

Good hypotheses for identifying the higher purpose(s) of one's life and for directing one's choices of conduct in ways that produce desireable consequences throughout the living of that life.
What's being proposed here is the possiblity that the Actual consequence (as Peirce defines Actual in N.A.) of the optimistic Musement stage of abductive reasoning (the only way in which a sane person would perform this stage) is not an hypothesis of the Reality of God, but rather the Reality of the sort of hypotheses of which the Reality of God might be a type?
When thought of in this way, it's possible to see that it could be the clearly psychological state of pessimism, and not atheism, that is the squasher of potentially good hypotheses about the ways in which lives should be (and are) lived. Considered in this way, the hypothesis of the Reality of God, could instead be thought of as the hypothesis of the Reality of a Hopeful Vision for guiding the living of one's life.
From this perspective, it would be the general sorts of hypotheses (and not in the specific contents of these) which abductive reasoning guided by optimism would likely produce. [This is not Peirce's first mention of a psychological barrier (and its inferred opposite--a psychological predisposition) to good reasoning. In another essay, he mentions that even someone with an experimentalist sort of mind won't think properly "upon topics where his mind is trammeled by personal feeling or by his bringing up".] "Vision" and "hopefulness", then, are among the spacious sorts of psychological filters--those which allow into consciousness greater quantities of the qualitative raw materials upon Musement feeds. The raw materials available to one during the Musement stage of abduction provides the sorts of options one perceives as viable during the selection and rejection of possible relationships among things and ideas. The sorts of relationships one selects by means of abduction as worth exploring determines the sorts of over-arching hypotheses--and eventually the sorts of beliefs--upon which each of us constructs a life. If these beliefs are limited in the "vision" department, there are certain inevitable consequences--since it's these beliefs which direct conduct--and since all conduct produces consequences based upon how the conduct is formed and acted out.
Belief in God, or an after-life--or in any continuation of individual identity beyond the grave--is one way of providing a vision for directing conduct over the long term. "Follow these rules of conduct and St. Peter will let you in." or "Burn off your old karma in this life so you can come into a better one in the next." But such beliefs don't necessarily provide visions that result in conduct that produces good outcomes. The way in which these visions are interpreted and acted upon are what produce the consequences, not the visions themselves. Remember when a certain Secretary of the Interior nearly sold off some and nearly destroyed other huge parcels of our public lands because he was operating under the premise that the Kingdom of God was near at hand so we wouldn't be needing all that land anyway? And think about the Untouchable caste in India who were doomed to miserable lives because of some preconceived belief in who gets which Karma.
The capacity (or willlingness) to engage in the activity of abductive reasoning from an optimistic perspective can--without ever arriving at an hypothesis of God--produce qualitatively based hypotheses of other sorts which provide the same sort of vision and hopefullness that Peirce implied was necessary for directing one's choice of purpose and resulting conduct in positive ways.
So, both perspectives--that we need the Reality of a God to have a hopeful vision and that we do not need a God for this--can be 'true' at the same time if we follow out Peirce's Neglected Argument. It appears that confusion between these two perspectives can be--at least at the level of Peirce's argument-- language-based. What one calls a hopeful vision that must be connected to the belief in God, another might be willing to agree is one sort of (form of) long-term optimism. This latter form of optimism needn't be hooked to the survival of a 'time-based" self--but rather to 'the out of time" experience that is abduction. The optimistic application of abductive reasoning allows an individual to engage in an aesthetic exploration of options and to then filter these options through the lens of ethics (or right conduct) before establishing one or another hypothesis as worthy of development and testing out in the inquiry that is one's life. Peirce called this 'right reasoning'. John Dewey called this activity undergoing an 'aesthetic experience'.
Though God is a value-laden term for most people--the idea of God's Reality, in Peirce's sense, does not have to signify a specific being--nor need it have a religion connected up to it. It appears that Peirce's use of the term, God, may have signified an ongoing inquiry into the hypothesis that there is meaning resulting from the way in which an individual conducts his life. This meaning is a consequence of deliberate choices of conduct based upon having abductively developed the hypothesis that what he does matters to both the immediate and ultimate outcome of things that may be beyond his ken.
Because of this hypothesis--which through repeated testing is likely to become a belief--such an individual sees that there's an ongoing need to refine his conduct as various beliefs and propositions interact with experience. "All you have any dealings with", wrote Peirce in another essay, "are your doubts and beliefs, with the course of life that forces new beliefs on you and gives you the power to doubt old beliefs." In this way, based upon his abductively-derived hypothesis of an optimistic long-term vision of some sort, the individual has use of highly polished aesthetic and ethical lenses. By means of these lenses, he can bring his attention to those behaviors and attitudes that need to be changed in order to bring his conduct into ever better alignment with the ethical principles to which he must conform if he is to follow that vision.
And that's the short version of of Peirce's "Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" in action. But what does this essay mean in terms of Peirce's pragmatism--in terms of the meaning of abduction?
Peirce's argument here appears to be much the same as all the rest that he wrote about the role of abduction in pragmatism. He argued in this essay for the place of optimistic meandering by means of abduction to develop the hypothesis of God. (We could just as easily call this optimistic, aesthetic meandering) He argued for the place of ethical principles as the basis for developing the explication and demonstration of this hypothesis. He emphasized the place of action-reaction-interpretation as the ongoing process for setting out to prove the hypothesis of God-the same way as he would have us set about to prove anything else. The only apparent difference between this essay and Peirce's more 'scientific' ones is that the experiment in this case requires an individual to consciously engage himself in the experience of living his life. The proof--if it can be called that--resides in testing and adjusting as necessary to the conditions of the hypothesis throughout the conduct of one's life and not in any other objective measure.
In 'A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God", then, Peirce really argued for the Reality of the ways in which one's perspective (or vision) directs the aesthetic; the ethical and the reasonable (as practiced) to the living of a good life. With this in mind, perhaps it would not be too far a stretch to temporarily change the religiously (and even politically) loaded word God into a more neutral term when contemplating this essay. Perhaps words like Hope and Vision are good enough to use as we consider the effects of the attitudes of optimism and pessimism on the formation of hypotheses and the fixation of beliefs in general. After all, Peirce is not claiming that the proof of the Reality of God resides in an after life--but in the effects which this belief has on the way in which we conduct ourselves in this life.
From this criterion, perhaps we could say that we could redefine Peirce's use of the word God into: any hypothesis-formed by means of optimistically undergone abductive reasoning--that leads one into consciously choosing ethical conduct that results in the living of a good life--whether or not the concepts we know as God or an after-life enter into the matter at all.
It is in this sense that Peirce's "Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" appears to make the most sense and to have the greatest application to human conduct--and this may be, indeed, its very meaning. As Peirce wrote in "What Pragamtism is":

But of the myriad forms in which a proposition may be translated, what is that one which is to be called its very meaning? It is, according to the pragmaticist, that form in which the proposition becomes applicable to human conduct, not in these or those special circumstances, nor when one entertains this or that special design, but that form which is most directly applicable to self-control under every situation and to every purpose.
What more is there that the Hypothesis of God could mean?

If one can define accurately all of the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing else in it.
Perhaps Peirce's Neglected Argument is suggesting to us that this is it. Perhaps this is all there is to the meaning of abduction and the meaning of pragmatism that follows from this. Maybe this is the point from which we can begin to understand what Peirce was hoping to do when he wrote to Lady Welby in 1911: "I am just now trying to get a small book written in which I positively prove just what the justification of each of the three types of reasoning consists in...and showing the real nature of Retroduction."
Perhaps logicians who want to approach abduction as a stricly logical process (which it clearly is) must look to psychology for an understanding of what it is not. If optimism (clearly a psychological attitude) is necessary for performing good abductive reasoning, perhaps there are other psychological filters as well which serve to squash or enhance the effectiveness of abductive reasoning processes. Perhaps some of these also affect the making of good abductive inferences in general terms--and perhaps some only affect the making of abductive inferences for specific topics. After all, every bias--psychological or otherwise--has the potential for enhancing or diminishing the making of abductive inferences by nature of the sorts of options this bias allows in for consideration--or not.
Maybe it is not merely sanity and insanity in the forms of optimism and pessimism, as Peirce suggested here--that promote or retard good abductive reasoning but other differences in mental perspective as well. Perhaps by exploring and defining as thoroughly as possible other psychological filters which might limit the all important Musement stage of abduction, we might be able, by means of negation, to develop a better concept of what Peirce intended for abduction to mean. Perhaps it is by examining the activities at this earliest stage of abductive reasoning (Musement)--where new possibilities first present themselves for consideration--we can begin to build a clearer idea of what Peirce actually intended for abduction--and his theory of pragmaticism to mean.

END OF:  Phyllis Chiasson: Revisiting a Neglected Argument for the Reality of God

CONTRIBUTED BY: Phyllis Chiasson
Posted to Arisbe website on January 19, 1999


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