PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday January 14, 2015




[2.1.6.] Against the Inexplicable.


C4. There are “absolutely inexplicable” facts—facts that can never be explained—“unless to say ‘God makes them so’ is to be regarded as an explanation.”


P4. The supposition that something is “absolutely inexplicable ... is never allowable.


Peirce asserts P4 in the following passage:


                Every unidealistic philosophy supposes some absolutely inexplicable, unanalyzable ultimate; in short, something resulting from mediation itself not susceptible to mediation. Now that anything is thus inexplicable can only be known by reasoning from signs. But the only justification of an inference from signs is that the conclusion explains the fact. To suppose the fact absolutely inexplicable, is not to explain it, and hence this supposition is never allowable (72).


There is a lot going on here, and we will not be able to discuss all of it. I will limit my explanation to just a few points.


Descartes defended the following metaphysical view:


dualism (a.k.a.  mind-body dualism and Cartesian dualism): the mind and the body are two totally different things, capable of existing separately.


A huge problem for any form of dualism about mind and body is to explain how the two interact.


Descartes held that

·         the mind is essentially something that thinks;

·         the body is essentially something that is extended in space; but

·         despite being separate things, the mind and body can interact:


mental states/events


e.g., desire to move


can cause


bodily states/events


e.g., movement



e.g., pain


can cause




e.g., stubbing my toe


But if the body, including the brain, is a physical thing, and the mind is non-physical, it is mysterious how one can interact with the other. This is because it is mysterious how a physical event can cause a non-physical event to happen, or vice versa.


On Peirce’s view, if we adopt dualism, then we have given up any possibility of explaining how the mind and body interact:

·         In 1890’s “Logic and Spiritualism”, he says that “[t]he obsolete Cartesian dualism, that soul and body are two substances, distinct, independent, [is] untenable as positing a double absolute, rendering connection of soul and body absolutely inexplicable either on mechanical or on psychological principles”.[1]

·         Dualism prohibits us from ever explaining how what happens in the mind can affect what happens in the body or vice versa. Ordinary facts, like the fact that scraping my knee causes me to feel pain, become inexplicable.


But why isn’t “God makes it so” an acceptable explanation of mind-body interaction, or of anything else, for that matter? The reason Peirce rejects the appeal to God as an explanation is revealed in his criticism of…


the doctrine of pre-established harmony (df.): what seem to be causal relationships between a person’s mind and his body, e.g., stubbing one’s toe seeming to cause pain, are no such thing. Rather, mental events and physical events run in harmonious parallel with one another, a parallel that was established by God when he created the mind and the body.

·         On this view, the explanation why I feel pain when I stub my toe is ultimately this: God did it.

·         This view was defended by Gottfried Leibniz.[2]


On Peirce’s view, this sort of “explanation” is really no explanation at all.


This is because it fails to meet a basic criterion that a theory must meet in order genuinely to explain:


Leibnitz’s explanation merely comes to this, that the motions and changes of state of atoms are relative to one another, because God made them so in the beginning. But nothing can be deduced from this theory, since it is impossible for man to predict what God might see fit to do. This stamps the theory as one of those [that is] unverifiable (6.273, c.1893).


A proposed explanation of a puzzling observation is acceptable only if it has implications that can be tested against future experience.


The following story illustrates Peirce’s point…

·         Suppose you come home one evening to find that your front door is standing wide open. You quickly jump to the conclusion that you have been burglarized.

·         The hypothesis that you have been burglarized implies that you will make some further observations, e.g., that some of your valuables will be missing, your door lock will be busted or a window will be broken, and that other parts of your house will be in disarray. So the hypothesis is testable against that future experience: you can walk into your house and see whether in fact there are valuables missing, whether any pieces of furniture have been turned over, whether any drawers have been emptied, etc.

·         But now let’s suppose that instead, you come up with a different hypothesis to explain why your front door is open: you conjecture that God did it. On Peirce’s view, there are no further observations that can be derived from this hypothesis, “since it is impossible for man to predict what God might see fit to do.” The hypothesis that God caused your door to open is not testable against experience, and so it fails to meet this basic standard of acceptability for explanations.


Likewise, the hypothesis that God causes the mind and the body to interact has no implications for what further observations we can expect to make. There are no further observations that we can make that would show either that the hypothesis is true or that it is false.[3]



[2.2.] Peirce’s Theory of Inquiry: “The Fixation of Belief.”


The second article by Peirce that we will read is “The Fixation of Belief,” published in 1877 in Popular Science Monthly. It is one of his two most famous works (the other of which is “How to Make Our Beliefs Clear, which we will read next) and the first in a 6-article series entitled Illustrations of the Logic of Science.[4]


As this title suggests, this series of articles is concerned with reasoning, and in particular the sort of reasoning used within science.


In much of the first article from which we read (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” 1868), Peirce was concerned with criticizing Descartes’ views about inquiry, especially philosophical inquiry. In “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce provides more details about his alternative to Descartes’ view, especially about doubt and how it differs from belief.


But what he says in that regard is in support of the main point of the article: to provide a history of the development of the concept of truth, i.e., to show how the concept of truth has developed over the history of inquiry.


So in this article, Peirce will be adding to the Traditional View’s account of belief (as representation) and of truth (as correspondence).



[2.2.1.] Historical Prelude.


Peirce begins the article with a brief history of inquiry. He describes a number of different historical stages and the assumptions made by inquirers at each stage about how knowledge is to be attained:







According to...

knowledge is to be attained...

the scholastics / medieval schoolmen

either by authority or by reason (specifically, reasoning from something accepted on authority); and anything “deduced by reason depends ultimately on a premise derived from authority” (108).

Roger Bacon


only by experience; but Bacon had a very broad conception of experience, according to which it included “interior illumination” (so that by experience we might come to “know” that bread is transubstantiated into the body of Christ during communion ceremonies). (108)

Francis Bacon


experience, which “must be opened to verification and reëxamination.” But this Bacon’s view of scientific procedure was inadequate. (108)

Johannes Kepler


experience; a better view of scientific procedure than F. Bacon: astronomers should “not content themselves with inquiring whether one system of epicycles was better than another but [instead] sit down by the figures and find out what the curve, in truth, was”. But still he lacked “the weapons of modern logic” and stumbled from “one irrational hypothesis to another” until finally getting it right. (109)

Antoine Lavoisier


experience, and reasoning about what one experiences; he “carr[ied] his mind into the laboratory  and ... [made] of his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning as something which was to be done with one’s eyes open, by manipulating real things instead of words and fancies” (109).


This can be read as an implicit criticism of the Cartesian method of inquiry, a form of reasoning that one can engage in with one’s eyes closed.


Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) & James Maxwell (1831-1879); Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

experience and statistical reasoning


This historical progression is echoed in the Four Methods of Fixing Belief described by Peirce in section V of this article (part of your next reading). As you will see, those four methods are:

·         Tenacity

·         Authority

·         A priori

·         Science


The progression through those four methods of “fixing” belief somewhat echoes the history of science that Peirce gives in section I of this article.


If you read carefully between the lines, you will also be able to detect that there is a different conception of truth accompanying each of the four methods, and as one method gives way to another, so does each concept of truth, until at the end, when we reach the method of science, we come to the most sophisticated of the four conceptions of truth.



Stopping point for Wednesday January. For next time (one week from today), read pp.115 (starting with section V) to p.123 (stopping at the end of the first paragraph).





[1] CP 7.580, W 6:391, 1890; not in your textbook. The work was incorrectly dated as being from around 1905 by the editors of the Collected Papers.


[2] For more information, see Mark Kulstad and Laurence Carlin, “Leibniz’s Philosophy of Mind”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[3] Says Peirce, “an explanation should tell how a thing is done, and to assert a perpetual miracle seems to be an abandonment of all hope of doing that, without sufficient justification” (CP 2.690, W 3:34, EP 1:168, 1878; not in your textbook).


[4] 1877, CP 5.358-87, EP 1:109-123, W 3:242-57.


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