Seminario del Grupo de Estudios Peirceanos
Universidad de Navarra, 16 de febrero 2006
Versión oral (Una versión más desarrollada
se publicará en el International Journal of
Philosophy of Religion


Bernardo Cantens
(Barry University, Florida)

In this paper I want to address that aspect of Charles Sanders Peirce’s (1839-1914) philosophy that is essential for an understanding of his philosophy of religion. Since Peirce was a systematic thinker, there are various strands of his philosophical system that permeate all of his thought. Thus it may be tempting to argue, for instance, that his pragmatism, logic, synechism, categories, or semeiotics is that aspect of his philosophy that is a prolegomena to his philosophy of religion. However, I believe that these doctrines are more a part of his philosophy of religion than a prolegomena to it. Instead, I will argue that to properly understand Peirce’s philosophy of religion one must first understand his methodeutic logic. My thesis, then, is that it is Peirce’s conception of the method science that one is required to comprehend first to fully appreciate his notion of religiosity. I will begin with one of Peirce’s most controversial statements against religion. In his The Cambridge Lectures of 1898, Peirce says:

In my opinion, the present infantile condition of philosophy, (...) is due to the fact that during this century it has chiefly been pursued by men who have not been nurtured in dissecting-rooms and other laboratories, and who consequently have not been animated by the true scientific Eros, but who have on the contrary come from theological seminaries, and have consequently been inflamed with a desire to amend the lives of themselves and others, a spirit no doubt more important than the love of science for men in average situations, but radically unfitting them for the task of scientific investigation1.

This statement disapproves of those with theological training to engage in metaphysical inquiries. Theistic philosophers tend to view this and other similar statements as antagonistic and hostile to all forms of religiosity. On the other hand, atheistic philosophers tend to view it as a declaration of anti-religiosity and a resolution contra religion. How are we to interpret Peirce’s statement? Why does he believe that those with theological training should not engage in metaphysical research? There is also the question of how this apparently anti-religious statement can be reconciled with his more supportive writings on religion, especially his Neglected Argument (1908)2. In this paper, I will argue that a deeper meaning of Peirces’ claim concerns the incommensurability between the method of theology and the method of science. Moreover, I intend to show that religious philosophers are not the intended target of Peirce’s critique.

My thesis coincides with Kelly Parker’s view; he argues that “Peirce’s negative characterizations of religion are not critical of religion and theology per se, but of their tendency to favor this unscientific approach toward establishing belief”3. Parker’s essay, however, is not concerned with elucidating the differences between the approaches of science and religion. What is the scientific method? What is the theological method that Peirce criticizes? What are the differences between the religious attitudes that he views in a positive light and those he criticizes? For consistency sake, throughout the paper, I will refer to those with the latter attitude as the "practical theologians" and to those with the former as the "theoretical theologians".

The analysis will usher our discussion into the controversial topic concerning the relationship between science and religion. This analysis, therefore, is not simply an archeological exegesis of Peirce’s philosophy; it raises important issues concerning our contemporary understanding of the relationship between science and religion4. will defend Peirce’s view of the scientific method, as interpreted here, and his view that the method of the practical theologian is incommensurable with the method of science.

1. Peirce’s Scientific Method

1.1 The Scientific Spirit

One way to understand Peirce’s scientific method is by considering his conception of science. In his search for the definition of science, he strives for those properties that are necessary and sufficient for science. He argues that science requires neither truth nor method per se, but only an attitude or “spirit.” He reduces science to the raw, basic instinct from which all scientific investigations burgeon. From this raw, basic instinct, scientific investigations bring forth scientific hypotheses, discoveries, and theories. According to Peirce, therefore, the core definition of science, when reduced to its most absolute basic property, is simply the spirit that tirelessly seeks truth and is relentless in that search5. This is not to suggest that there are no other important elements involved in science and scientific inquiry. However, the body of knowledge that constitutes the features of science and scientific inquiry are neither sufficient nor necessary for science. Instead they are features that have been derived and adopted by science as a result of the scientist’s basic disposition to learn the truth about the world.

The two essential properties, then, in Peirce’s definition of science are the cognitive disposition held by the scientific inquirer and the object of cognition. The cognitive disposition is the mental attitude that motivates the scientific inquiry and subsists throughout the inquiry. It resembles a desire. Peirce refers to it as "spirit". The object of cognition is truth. In other words, what the inquirer is after is truth. Therefore, according to Peirce, science is simply the attitude that seeks truth. He describes it as follows:

That which constitutes science, then, is not so much correct conclusions, as it is a correct method. But the method of science is itself a scientific result. It did not spring out of the brain of a beginner: it was a historic attainment and a scientific achievement. So that not even this method ought to be regarded as essential to the beginning of science. That which is essential, however, is the scientific spirit, which is determined not to rest satisfied with existing opinions, but to press on to the real truth of nature6.

He emphasizes that his understanding of the scientific spirit, as a cognitive disposition, is not equivalent to our understanding of the scientific method, that is, the steps science uses to carry out an inquiry. The latter is itself a result of scientific inquiry, a result of the search for truth. The only thing essential to science, therefore, is the scientific spirit: the determination "not to rest satisfied with existing opinions, but to press on to the real truth of nature"7.

1.2 The Highest Maxim of Logic

Peirce’s understanding of logic is much broader than our contemporary understanding of it. He views logic as inseparable from semiotics8, the categories9, and pragmatism, which he refers to as “a mere maxim of logic”10. For our purposes, we can begin by dividing his understanding of logic into two parts. The first is concerned with predicate calculus, which he thought belonged to the discipline of mathematics and refers to it as the “Mathematics of logic.” The second belongs to philosophy and he refers to it as “normative logic”. Normative logic is divided further into three parts: 1) speculative grammar, 2) critic, and 3) methodeutic. Methodeutic logic is concerned with the proper method of inquiry for conducting scientific investigations. Thus, what Peirce refers to as normative methodeutic logic, today would be a part of the philosophy of science11. He describes it as follows: "Methodeutic, which studies the methods that ought to be pursued in the investigation, in the exposition, and in the application of truth"12. Having this distinction in mind will help us understand Peirce’s terminology and how it applies to our contemporary conceptual scheme. For instance, when he refers to “the highest maxim of logic”, he is referring to the highest maxim of the method of scientific investigation and not to the principle of non-contradiction.

Given this terminological clarification, it should be clearer why Peirce’s foundation of the scientific method is his highest maxim of logic. Moreover, it should not be surprising that for Peirce science and logic are necessarily interdependent. He expresses this interdependence as follows: "In the same way, every work of science great enough to be well remembered for a few generations affords some exemplification of the defective state of the art of reasoning of the time when it was written; and each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic"13. Indeed, his early writings entitled "Illustrations of the Logic of Science" confirm his understanding of normative logic to include the study of correct scientific reasoning. What is the proper method of scientific reasoning? What is Peirce’s normative methoduetic logic?

1.3 Do not Block the Way of Inquiry

As Peirce prepared his 1898 Cambridge Lectures, he wrote to James describing the content of each of the seven lectures. In his description of the third lecture, which eventually was delivered as the fourth, he says: "My third lecture is to be upon the highest maxim of logic, which is that the only strictly indispensable requisite is that the inquirer shall want to learn the truth"14. The claim that "to want to learn the truth" is a maxim of logic, let alone the highest, may now begin to make sense.

What does the "highest maxim of logic" mean? What does "to want to learn the truth" mean? This Peircean concept refers to the ideal cognitive disposition a scientific inquirer should have in his or her investigations. It is one of the essential features that constitutes the scientific spirit (the other being truth). He reduces the meaning of this maxim to: "Do not block the way of inquiry". He explains:

Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you are already inclined to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy.

Do not block the way of inquiry15

Peirce believes that to block the way of inquiry is inconsistent with wanting to learn the truth. He identifies and discusses four ways in which the path of inquiry may be blocked. The first is by making "absolute assertions", which are submitted as self-evident truths. The second is by claiming that something transcends human knowledge and thus cannot be known. The third is by claiming that some proposition is basic or inexplicable. Finally, the fourth is by claiming that some law or truth has found its last and perfect formulation. At first glance, these four roadblocks to the path of inquiry seem controversial. Does Peirce mean, for instance, that humans can know everything and that nothing transcends human knowledge? Does he mean that there are no basic or inexplicable propositions? To understand these roadblocks to inquiry, we have to interpret them within the spirit of his overall philosophical thought.

These four ways of blocking the road of inquiry can be best understood within his doctrine of fallibility. By interpreting Piece within this context, we offer a more intelligible rendering of the four roadblocks. First, he is not claiming that there are no self-evident truths, but rather that claiming that there are self-evident truths that we know infallibly, blocks the road of inquiry. Second, he is not claiming that there are no knowledge claims that transcend human knowledge, but rather that claiming that there are such truths and that we know infallibly which ones they are, blocks the road of inquiry. Third, he is not claiming that there are no inexplicable propositions, but rather that claiming that there are and that we know infallibly which ones they are, blocks the road of inquiry. Fourth, he is not claiming that there is no final and perfect formulation to the laws of nature, but rather that claiming that we have arrived at such formulations and that we know infallibly that we have, blocks the road of inquiry. What Peirce is insisting on is that we leave open the possibility that what we believe today to be self evident may turn out to be false tomorrow, or that what we believe to be unknowable today may turn out to be knowable tomorrow, or that what we believe to be inexplicable today may turn out to be explicable tomorrow, or that what we believe to be the perfect and final formulation of a law of nature today turns out to be wrong tomorrow. In other words, the road of inquiry, according to Peirce, is blocked whenever one holds the truth of any proposition in a manner that implies its infallibility.

These obstacles to the path of inquiry are not only related to religious belief, and thus they do not only affect Christians. Indeed, many forms of scientism, skepticism, and rationalism are prime examples of the aforementioned roadblocks to the path of inquiry. In this paper, however, my interest lies with Christianity and whether there is something inherent in its nature that blocks the path of inquiry. I will argue below that there is a fifth obstacle to the path of inquiry that is inseparable from some forms of expression of Christianity, namely, the mingling of practical reasoning with theoretical reasoning. I will argue that it was this fifth obstacle that Peirce was referring to when he said that those trained in theological seminaries ought not to engage in metaphysical research.

2. Practical and Theoretical Reason

Peirce emphasized the importance of method and how each discipline required a distinct method. He was aware of the Aristotelian distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge and the different methods of reasoning that accompanied each. He began his 1898 Cambridge lectures by drawing on this distinction:

This theoretical science was for him [Aristotle] one thing, animated by one spirit and having knowledge of theory as its ultimate end and aim. Aesthetic studies were of a radically different kind; while Morals, and intellectual activity, radically foreign in its nature and idea, from both the other two. Now Gentlemen, it behooves me, at the outset of this course, to confess to you that in this respect I stand before you an Aristotelian and a scientific man, condemning with the whole strength of conviction [my emphasis] the Hellenic tendency to mingle Philosophy and Practice.

Not only did Peirce believe it vital to draw the distinction between theory and practice but also he thought it was as important to maintain it in a conscious and reflective manner, for he realized that there is a strong human tendency to conflate practical affairs with scientific issues. Peirce claims that concerning matters of "Vital Importance" or practical matters, whether of everyday business or great crisis, theoretical reasoning is of very little use. These matters are better handled by human sentiment and instinct than by theoretical reason. He says, "A Logica Utens, like the analytical mechanics resident in the billiard player’s [instinctual] nerves, best fulfils familiar uses"16. A great billiard player does not understand the theoretical explanations behind his great shots at the pool table. Moreover, his having this theoretical knowledge would probably benefit his game very little.

On the other hand, Peirce believed that just as theoretical reasoning is not and should not be involved in practical matters; sentiment should not be involved in the resolution of theoretical and scientific affairs. Peirce says: "I would not allow to sentiment or instinct any weight whatsoever in theoretical matters, not the slightest. Right sentiment does not demand any such weight: and right reason would emphatically repudiate the claim if it were made"17. The only exception to this would be the role of instincts in offering hypotheses. Peirce says, "True we are driven sometimes in science to try the suggestions of instincts; but we only try them, we compare them with experience, we hold ourselves ready to throw them overboard at a moment’s notice from experience"18. Ironically, even though Peirce was asked by James to talk about things of vital importance in his 1898 Cambridge Lectures, Peirce insisted in his lecture that things of vital importance are not relevant to theoretical reason or science. But why did Peirce believe that it was so important to maintain the distinction between reason and sentiment? What does this distinction have to do with the poor status of metaphysics?

According to Peirce, metaphysics is an abstract science and thus its method should be purely theoretical. As a consequence, sentiments and instincts have no place in metaphysics. But even if we grant Peirce that sentiments and instincts should not get involved in scientific matters and that the conduct of everyday life is probably best handled by sentiments and instincts, the question remains why this is so crucial to Peirce’s Highest Maxim of Logic, namely, to want to learn the truth? Or, in other words, why is the mingling of theoretical reasoning and practical reasoning a roadblock in the path of metaphysical inquiry?

2.1 Why Mingling Practical and Theoretical Reason Blocks the Road to Metaphysical Inquiry?

Peirce claims that belief does not pertain to scientific thought but only to practical thought. Belief has three properties, according to Peirce: "first, it is something we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit"19. Peirce explains, "our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions"20. Thus, "We believe the proposition we are ready to act upon. Full belief is willingness to act upon the proposition in vital crisis, opinion is willingness to act upon it in relatively insignificant affairs"21. If actions are necessarily connected to beliefs, and if beliefs do not pertain to scientific thought but only to practical thought, then science must have nothing to do with actions. This is Peirce’s conclusion: “But pure science has nothing at all to do with action22. The notion that science has nothing to do with action may seem startling. Peirce’s intentions need further clarification.

The proposition it [science] accepts, it merely writes in the list of premises it proposes to use. Nothing is vital for science; nothing can be. Its accepted propositions, therefore, are but opinions, at most; and the whole list is provisional. The scientific man is not in the least wedded to his conclusions. He risks nothing upon them. He stands ready to abandon one or all as soon as experience opposes them. ...There is thus no proposition at all in science which answers to the conception of belief23.

Peirce claims that scientific inquiry never reaches an absolute stopping point, since in science we never arrive at full belief. Instead, all scientific conclusions are open to questioning and their falsity is a possibility. Science or the attitude of "wanting to learn the truth" requires that one always be questioning, probing, and never resting contently at any given stage of the knowledge process.

Peirce’s methodeutic logic prescribes pure, unadulterated theoretical reasoning as the proper method of metaphysical inquiry. Is this possible? It depends on what is meant by theoretical reasoning. Theoretical reasoning, according to Peirce, is reasoning that is performed with no intention (or as if there were no intention) for its results to be applied to solve practical problems. Theoretical reasoning should be performed as if the action of no one depended on the knowledge with which it is concerned. The only consideration for a theoretical investigation is the truth of the matter – or as Peirce would say "perfect truth". Theoretical reasoning, therefore, cannot be constrained by time or any other practical matters.

There are many scientific inquiries that adapt well to the purely theoretical environment Pierce advocates. Consider, for instance, the scientific question concerning the origin of life. There have been various hypotheses throughout scientific history, such as spontaneous generation hypothesis, the biogenesis hypothesis, Oparin’s hypothesis and others. How does the answer to the question of the origin of life affect us practically? It doesn’t. Therefore, there doesn’t seem to be any obstacles in conducting a theoretical scientific inquiry concerning the origin of life. Consider the scientific inquiry concerning whether space is traversed with ether. Maxwell’s hypothesis that ether permeated space and all matter in space and served as the medium for light traveling through space was later rejected by Einstein. This discovery led Einstein to the development of specialized relativity theory. Hence, the question concerning the existence of ether had important scientific implications. However, does the answer to this scientific problem affect us practically? It doesn’t. This is not to say that scientific knowledge cannot be applied in a practical manner or that its application is not important. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, once scientific inquiry is steered more by either practical concerns or the practical consequences of the inquiry than by truth, we can no longer claim that we are pursuing the inquiry theoretically.

The most notable practical element that precludes theoretical reasoning is time. Investigations that are severely limited by time and are of great practical concern cannot be theoretical in nature. Answers derived with these kinds of practical constraints do not reflect "perfect truths", but rather the most plausible truths given the information available at a specific point in time. Let me present an example of such an inquiry. Imagine that one is diagnosed with a fatal kind of skin cancer. The doctors tell the patient that there is a window of six months within which the cancer can be treated and eradicated. They present him with three possible methods to treat the cancer. The question is which of the methods will be most effective in treating the cancer? If this were treated as a theoretical inquiry, then we would conduct our investigations until we produce clear and sufficient evidence in support of one of the methods. The only concern of our investigation would be truth. This, however, would not be a practical way of carrying out the investigation. The patient is more concerned with another practical matter, namely, his survival. This, in turn, would make the six month window the doctors have given him to treat the cancer just as essential as the answer to which of the methods will be most effective. In other words, for the patient, the scientific investigation is a practical one; time is as important as truth. Thus, his decision will be based on the best information available. If the scientific information that is available is not sufficient to make a well informed decision, he may have to simply go with his gut feeling.

Practical decisions are an everyday event. Most of these decisions are not scientific in nature, such as whom to have as friends, whom to marry, what to study, etc. How do we make these decisions? Should these decisions be based on a similar ground as the decision over which hypotheses is true concerning the origin of life or the existence of ether? No. The former decisions are practical and are primarily guided by sentiment and instinct informed by culture, authority, experience, and common-sense. Practical decisions are more concerned with our happiness than with truth. But what is the danger of mingling theoretical and practical reasoning?

For Peirce the essence of theoretical reasoning was that it gave truth primacy over everything else. Truth, he thought, ought to be theoretical reasoning’s primary and only goal. To accomplish this goal, science requires freedom in its inquiry; inquiry cannot be limited or restricted by practical matters. Peirce viewed the mingling of practical and theoretical reasoning as an obstacle, which would frustrate this first and only principle of scientific inquiry: to want to know the truth. However, in the examples above, there doesn’t seem to be any difficulty in maintaining the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning, since they seem to be concerned with very different kinds of issues (e.g. Whether ether exists? Whom shall I marry?). Nevertheless, Peirce argued that it is very easy to confuse and mingle sentiments and reason. Peirce realized the powerful influence human sentiments and instincts have in human affairs. Indeed, he says, "It is the instincts, the sentiments, that make the substance of the soul. Cognition is only its surface. Its locus of contact with what is external to it"24. In addition, the need to act on vital issues concerning practical matters along with our egotistical nature to believe that we are acting from reason produces fertile ground for self-deception. Therefore, the confusion between practical reasoning and theoretical reasoning may be one that a person is not conscious of.

Men many times fancy they act from reason when, in point of fact, the reasons they attribute to themselves are nothing but excuses which unconscious instinct invents to satisfy the teasing "whys" of the ego. The extent of this delusion is such as to render philosophical rationalism a farce25.

The problem becomes poignant when we enter the realm of metaphysics, particularly questions concerning the existence of God. How does one consider the problem of the existence of God in the way that Peirce’s scientific method prescribes, if God’s existence is a part of one’s practical everyday life?

3. Science and Religion

There is an apparent incommensurability between theoretically reasoning about the existence of God and believing in God. It is precisely this incommensurability that is at the heart of Peirce’s claim that theologians should not do metaphysics. He believed that the theological method entailed the use of sentiment and practical reasoning, and thus it was incompatible with the scientific method. Indeed, Peirce, himself, was reluctant to engage in philosophy of religion for this reason26; he believed that it was difficult, if not impossible, to deal with the problem of God from a purely theoretical perspective. He expresses this concern vividly in an unpublished letter to his brother Herbert Peirce. Since the letter is unpublished and it reveals Peirce’s feelings about discussing issues in religion, I found it necessary to cite a large portion of the letter.

I want to explain to you why your idea that I should just sit down and give a brief account of my ideas of God and religion doesn’t fit the situation; and I want to explain it that it will throw some light on the nature of the problem.
For this purpose I want to call to your mind some features of science, some features of philosophy as it has usually been pursued, and some differences between that and philosophy as I have always striven to have it pursued. I make no such distinction in the case of the non-philosophical sciences, because I think that broadly speaking, they are pursued as they ought to be pursued.
There are three features of science, – true science, natural and other, - which I wish to call your attention to; and to give them strongly marked labels, I will epigrammatically and paradoxically say that they are these: 1st that science aims at perfect truths; 2nd, that science recognizes the impossibility of getting at the perfect truth; and 3rd, that that theory which is alone admissible in science may be far from being the most probable theory. I have worded these three points so as to give them a somewhat startling appearance, although in reality there is nothing startling about them.
When I speak of "science" I mean heuretic theoretical science, not codification of knowledge, not development of knowledge with a view to accomplishing a purpose by basing action on the knowledge. When I say science aims at perfect truth what I mean is that in other departments we take the best information available. Some question has to be decided promptly and we decide it as best we may. But science has all time at its disposal, - or at any rate it has generations,- and it is the commonest thing in the world for scientific men to collect data of which only future centuries can make any use. The astronomer wants to know how the solar system is moving among the stars. This can only be known by comparing the apparent places of stars at different dates. But since the stars all have absolute motions of their own, the places of myriads of stars must be accurately ascertained so that 2 or 3 or 5 centuries later their new places may show how the solar system is moving. With such ideas, science is in no hurry at all to come to any decision and can wait for the very most superior kind of evidence. But this procedure would not answer at all the needs of practical life. If action is to be based on the knowledge sought and if the knowledge is sought while the laborers stand leaning on their shovels, evidently we must take the best guess available now and not wait five centuries to know what these laborers are to do27.

In this letter, Peirce claims that his reluctance to engage in philosophical issues that concern religious matters is founded on his belief that it is difficult to divorce religion from action, and thus from practice28.

Nevertheless, Peirce also believed that some forms of religiosity were commensurable with metaphysical inquiry. Here again, I concur with Parker. He says: "What I wish to indicate by this consideration of one of Peirce’s critical discussions of religion is that his ‘hostility’ is directed only towards certain types of religion and theology"29. However, the purpose of his essay leads him away from describing in further detail the difference between these types of religions and theologies. The elucidation of this distinction will take us deeper into the meaning of Peirce’s statement (that began this essay) and will sharpen our understanding of his distinction between science and religion. To differentiate between those whose religiosity is reconcilable with the scientific method and those whose religiosity is not, I maintain the same references I made at the beginning of the essay: the theoretical theologian and the practical theologian, respectively.

3.1 Who is the Practical Theologian?

Who is the theologian whose method is an obstacle to the way of metaphysical inquiry? What is the form of religiosity that precludes the practical theologian from engaging in the scientific method? The practical theologian is one who sustains the belief in God for practical reasons. There is nothing wrong with being a practical theologian. However, what Peirce objects to is that, while investigating metaphysical issues, the practical theologian continues to cling to the belief in such a way that he becomes unwilling or unable to relinquish it for the wrong reasons, i.e. practical reasons rather than theoretical. Thus, it is not simply that she believes in God and that she cannot relinquish the belief. Peirce viewed such doxastic states as very natural and appropriate in many instances. For example, consider my belief that George Bush is the president of the United States in 2005. I am unwilling and unable to relinquish it. The reason for this is the overwhelming evidence I have for the truth of the belief. Peirce would not object to this belief. Instead, what he objects to is when a person, engaged in scientific inquiry, sustains a belief for practical reasons. Since the belief is not supported by theoretical reasons, she would be unwilling to give up her belief even if a critical assessment of the evidence would warrant her doing so. Do such people exist? Are there practical theologians doing metaphysics today? Is this a fair assessment of anyone’s religious doxastic state?

The assessment of one’s religious doxastic state is inherently private, since it can only be performed through introspective reflection upon one’s own religiosity. An objective assessment of another’s religiosity is impossible. Thus, there is no objective evaluation that can determine who is a practical theologian. Although certain behavior may manifests such an internal state. For instance, a theologian that never considers objections to arguments for the existence of God or the problem of evil may manifest signs of being a practical theologian. Apart from this indirect evidence, the direct verification of internal religious states remains beyond the grasp of anyone except the subject himself. Does this make Peirce’s critique of practical theologians doing metaphysical investigations obsolete? I do not believe it does for two reasons. First, even though objective evaluations of one’s doxastic religious states are not possible, subjective evaluations are. We have the ability to understand, at least partially, our own religious doxastic states. I qualify this claim, because there may be causes (e.g. psychological causes) of our beliefs, which we do not have assess to. Nevertheless, we can know what religious beliefs we have; why we have them (to a certain extent); how strong they are at some moment in time; when their strength changes; what causes us to doubt them; and what strengthens them. We can even speculate what evidence could cause us to lose our religious belief. Similarly, an atheist could speculate what evidence could cause her to gain religious belief. Second, there is something misleading about being a practical theologian and performing metaphysical inquiries. It is misleading because the practical theologian, when doing metaphysics, is implicitly committing herself to the use of theoretical reasons for her metaphysical conclusions. However, if what are really holding her conclusions in place are not theoretical reasons but practical reasons, then the inquiry is not authentic. As Peirce states above, the majority who mingle practical reason with theoretical reason are not aware of it. The problem is more prominent with religious beliefs. Why?

Religious beliefs are not ordinary beliefs insofar as they implicate a substantial personal commitment on the part of the believer. This personal commitment entangles religious beliefs with practical issues in such a way that they become inseparable. The intimate connection between religious belief and practice arises from three elements that are an inherent part of the nature of the belief in God. The first element is the act of worshipping on the part of the believer. It is not simply that Christians believe that God exists, they also worship Him. They conceive of God as a being worthy of worship and thus as a loving creator who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly moral. Compare this with the belief in the Big Bang Theory. It is difficult to imagine that anyone would worship the Big Bang as they do God. The second element is that belief in God implies a way of life. The belief in God permeates a person’s heart and soul and embraces the most fundamental aspects of his way of thinking and living. It is a belief that provides a foundation for a moral system. As a result, it produces beliefs that are strongly connected to action and practice and thus problematic for the scientific method. The third element is that the person’s salvation is embodied in the belief in the existence of God. Thus, the hope for eternal and everlasting happiness creates a momentous personal interest in the truth of the belief in God. These three elements that accompany religious belief give some insight as to why there are practical theologians.

3.2 Why Does Peirce Say That the Practical Theologian Can’t Engage in Metaphysical Inquiry

I have argued that according to Peirce science and metaphysics should be pursued through theoretical reasoning alone. Peirce argued that practical reasoning, or thought guided by the sentiments and instincts, had no place (with the exception of suggesting hypotheses) in scientific research. The main reason for the exclusion of practical reasoning from science is that it blocks the way of inquiry and this violates the scientific spirit and the highest maxim of logic. We should not confuse Peirce’s view with the view that instincts and sentiments have no place in science and, therefore, a scientific person should act as a robot, without feelings; this would be impossible. Instead, he argues that the scientific person should never, under any circumstances, will a belief in the realm of the theoretical sciences30. Instead, the scientific person, when doing science, should not have full beliefs concerning the research in question.

The idea of full belief seems unclear. What does Peirce mean by full belief? He defines it as follows: "We believe the proposition we are ready to act upon. Full belief is willingness to act upon the proposition in vital crisis, opinion is willingness to act upon it in relatively insignificant affairs”31. We need to elucidate this notion of full belief in relation to the theological method and the scientific method. On the one hand, full belief is an essential aspect of the theological method. Since the theological method is primarily concerned with practical issues and how we should guide our actions in everyday affairs, it must essentially deal with full beliefs. Its concern with everyday affairs is why Peirce claims that it needs to employ practical reasoning. On the other hand, full belief should never be a part of the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily concerned with truth and not with action. However, one may object to this distinction since, scientists have beliefs about scientific hypothesis. Sometimes they are even willing to act upon these beliefs. Moreover, philosophers have beliefs about issues that they are investigating. They, too, may be willing to act upon these beliefs. Does this mean that theses philosophers and scientists ought not to engage in scientific inquiries? If this were true, not only practical theologians using the theological method should refrain from metaphysical inquiry, all religious persons should do so. Why stop here? Atheists, too, should refrain from doing metaphysics. As a matter of fact, anyone who has a belief about the topic of their investigation and is willing to act upon that belief should refrain from the inquiry in question. Under this interpretation only a skeptic could do metaphysics. What is required, in my judgment, is a clearer criterion for what we should designate as a full belief.

When Peirce says that full belief is connected to action what he means is that the justification for the belief is not based on theoretical reasons but on practical reasons. If the strength of a belief is supported only by practical reasons, then theoretical reasons will have less (if any) influence on one’s commitment towards the truth or falsity of the belief. If theoretical reasons cannot influence one’s commitment towards a belief, then we can say that we have a full belief. According to Peirce, the scientific person exhibits the scientific spirit only if her personal interests are detached (or are capable of being detached) from the issues and possible conclusions being considered to the extent that the theoretical evidence can have a real effect on her belief-forming process. On the one hand, then, in science all opinions are temporary, open to change, and a scientist should be willing to reconsider them as soon as theoretical evidence to the contrary is available. On the other hand, a scientist not only can have beliefs, he needs to have them to carryout his investigations. Moreover, there is no need for him to abandon his beliefs, if there is no theoretical evidence that undermines them. The chief difference between one having full belief and one not having full belief is that the latter is willing to risk losing his belief at the hands of theoretical evidence, while the former is not. Parker correctly discerns in Peirce this core feature of scientific inquiry. He says, "[according to Peirce] Scientific investigation puts our current opinions at risk"32.

Is the concept, therefore, of a "metaphysician-theologian" an oxymoron? Peirce seems to defend an affirmative answer to this question in the quotation at the beginning of this paper. However, once we understand the deeper meaning of his claim, we can argue that Peirce’s criticism was not directed at theologians or religion, as such, but at the method used by practical theologians in their metaphysical investigations. A method, he thought, that lacked the "true scientific Eros".

3.3 Can a Theologian be a Metaphysician?

We can conclude that, according to Peirce, it is possible for a theologian to do metaphysics. He refers to this alternative as "a religion of science". A religion of science is a form of religiosity that embraces the scientific spirit and adheres to the highest maxim of logic. A religion of science engages in scientific inquiry with a high degree of self-control, so that the inquirer respects and abides by the rules of logic of inquiry. It gives its loyalty to truth, making truth its primary goal. A great degree of self-control is required by an inquirer that intends to be loyal to truth. Indeed, in this respect, Peirce viewed normative logic as parallel to ethics. Ethics prescribes the right actions, and the ethical person must exhibit self-control in his conduct to act in accordance with them. Similarly, normative logic prescribes the rules of scientific inquiry, and the scientific person must exhibit self-control in his thinking so as to reason in accordance with them. It is through an act of the will, therefore, that the religious person, in her quest for truth, frees their belief in God from practical reasons sufficiently to allow theoretical reasons to play an influential role in their belief forming process33.

In contrast to the practical theologian, then, the theoretical theologian participates in the search for truth in such a way that the undermining of his or her beliefs is possible. This does not mean that the religious person needs to abandon their belief in God. Instead, the central property that characterizes the theoretical theologian’s search is the primacy of truth. This form of questioning opens itself up to the risk of losing one’s beliefs, even one’s belief in God. While the practicing theologian, therefore, limits their inquiry to apologetics, establishing their conclusion first and performing inquiries whose sole purpose is to defend and promulgate its truth, the theoretical theologian considers hypotheses that rival the hypothesis of God.

4. A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God

Peirce’s view on the incompatibility between the method of theology and the method of science is consistent with his line of argumentation in "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" (henceforth NA). Moreover, as I have already demonstrated, his hostility towards religion was circumscribed to the method of the practical theologian. To further demonstrate the consistency between his critique of the practical theologian’s method and the NA, I will consider the general frame work of the NA. I do not intend, nor does space permit, to present a comprehensive or extended analysis of the NA34.

Notice that the NA must be understood within the framework of Peirce’s scientific method. Therefore, not only is it consistent with his scientific method, it is difficult to see how one can understand it without reference to it. Thus we must begin with his conception of a thorough and complete scientific inquiry. Such an inquiry has three parts: 1) the positing of a hypothesis (retroduction); 2) the explication and the deductive consequences of the hypothesis (deduction); and 3) the comparison of the consequences of the hypothesis with experience (induction) and the determination of the hypothesis’s truth. Peirce argues that there is “a nest of three arguments for the Reality of God….” The first is the humble argument (henceforth HA). He intends the HA to be simply the termination of the first stage of scientific inquiry, and thus it represents an argument for the hypothesis of the reality of God35. The second argument is a defense of the HA. This second argument is what Peirce refers to as the NA. There is still a third and final argument, namely, the testing of the hypothesis of the reality of God. It may be objected that even though the NA must be understood within the framework of his scientific inquiry, his notion of the scientific spirit is no where to be found in the NA?

This is simply false. Let us consider the HA where the hypothesis of the reality of God is introduced. Here Peirce argues that every inquiry arises from our encounter with an object of surprise or wonder. This object leads our minds to seek possible explanations for its occurrence. In most instances, various explanations may occur to us; therefore, we must choose the one that seems most plausible. The choosing of the plausible explanation is Peirce’s first stage of inquiry and the establishment of the hypothesis. This is what he refers to as a form of argument and not argumentation. It is characterized by reasoning from the consequent to the antecedent. He describes it as follows:

The whole series of mental performances between the notice of the wonderful phenomenon and the acceptance of the hypothesis, during which the usually docile understanding seems to hold the bit between its teeth and to have us at its mercy, the search for pertinent circumstances and the laying hold of them, sometimes without our cognizance, the security of them, the dark laboring, the bursting out of the startling conjecture, the remarking of its smooth fitting to the anomaly, as it is turned back and forth like a key in a lock, and the final estimation of its plausibility, I reckon as composing the First Stage of the Inquiry36.

He argues that under certain conditions the reality of God may arise to one’s mind as a hypothesis37. He says:

…in the Pure Play of Musement the idea of God’s Reality will be sure sooner or later to be found an attractive fancy, which the Muser will develop in various ways. The more he ponders it, the more it will find response in every part of his mind, for its beauty, for its supplying an ideal of life, and for its thoroughly satisfactory explanation of his whole threefold environment38.

This is Peirce’s HA, and it is also the first stage of scientific inquiry. Why should the hypothesis of the reality of God be considered a good argument? Elsewhere, I have provided the following argument: “…if from the HA the plausibility of the reality of God arises with a high degree of strength, and belief is uncontrollable, it follows that the strong inclination towards one’s believing the hypothesis serves as justification for the truth of the belief”39. Peirce thought that the force of one’s inclination for the hypothesis of the reality of God was strong and this provided some evidence for its truth. He says:

In the first place the Plausibility of the hypothesis reaches an almost unparalleled height among deliberately formed hypotheses. So hard it is to doubt God’s Reality, when the Idea has sprung from Musements, that there is great danger that the investigation will stop at this first stage, owing to the indifference of the Muser to any further proof of it. At the same time, this very Plausibility is undoubtedly an argument of no small weight in favor of the truth of the hypothesis40.

Even though he argues that this stage of inquiry represents an argument in which one may be rationally justified in believing in the reality of God, he never advocates that we either abandon the scientific spirit or become unresponsive to theoretical evidence. On the contrary, he does not consider the HA as a complete inquiry. All three stages must be considered together and as parts of one inquiry. His view is that if we do not complete the inquiry, then we undermine the search for truth. He says: "Retroduction does not afford security. The hypothesis must be tested"41. More importantly, the crucial test of the scientific spirit is if one is willing to risk one’s belief. According to Peirce, we should not feel safe with the belief in the reality of God that arises from HA. Moreover, even if we accept that it is a rationally justified belief, we should be ready to reconsider it if evidence to the contrary arises.

5. Conclusion

In this paper I have argued that Peirce’s claim that theological training is the primary cause for the lack of advancement in the science of metaphysics should not be interpreted as an anti-religious view per se.

Instead, Peirce’s criticism is directed at the underpinnings of the method used by theologians in their metaphysical investigations, a problem that is not limited to theologians. Specifically, he objects to the mingling of practical reasoning and theoretical reasoning. He denounces as a farce any method that investigates scientific issues and is not theoretical, no matter who carries it out.

Peirce, therefore, did not have an antagonistic view towards religion, even though a superficial reading of his writings may lead one to this conclusion. On the contrary, he believed that science was essential for religion: it can help it survive and grow. Moreover, he believed that science can help maintain religion’s vitality. He admonished the faithful and religious against denouncing science, the scientific spirit, and the absolute search for truth. If they do, he says: "Like a plucked flower, its [religion’s] destiny is to wilt and fade". Thus he viewed the theoretical theologian and his metaphysical investigations as fruitful and beneficial for the development and growth of religion and faith43. He says:

Religion, from the nature of things, refuses to go through her successive transformations with sufficient celerity to keep always in accord with the convictions of scientific philosophy. The day has come, however, when the man whom religious experience most devoutly moves can recognize the state of the case. While adhering to the essence of religion, and so far as possible to the church, which is all but essential, say, penessential, to it, he will cast aside that religious timidity that is forever prompting the church to recoil from the paths into which the Governors of history is leading the minds of men, a cowardice that has stood through the ages as the landmark and limit of her little faith, and will gladly go forward, sure that truth is not split into two warring doctrines, and that any change that knowledge can work in his faith can only affect its expression, but not the deep mystery expressed44.


1. Charles S. Peirce, Reason and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898, edited by Kenneth Laine Ketner with an introduction be Kenneth Laine Ketner and Hilary Putnam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp.107-8.

2. Hibbert Journal 7 (1908), pp. 90-112. Reprinted in the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, (henceforth CP) ed. C. Hartshone and P. Weiss, vols. 1-6 and ed. A. Burks, vols. 7-8 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-1968). Numbers refer to volume and paragraph.

3. See Kelly Parker, “C.S. Peirce and the Philosophy of Religion,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 28 (1990): 194.

4. For recent works on Peirce’s philosophy of religion see (in chronological order): Bernardo Cantens, "Overcoming The Evidentialist’s Challenge: Peirce’s Conjectures of Instinctive Reason and the Reality of God" Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 40 (4) (2004): 771-786; Roger Ward, "Experience as Religious Discovery in Edwards and Peirce", Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 36 (2000): 297-309; Rolando T. Panesa, Science and Religion in Charles S. Peirce, Doctoral Dissertation, University de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, 1996; Douglas R. Anderson, Strands of a System: The Philosophy of Charles Peirce (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1995); Douglas R. Anderson, "Peirce’s Agape and the Generality of Concern", International Journal of Philosophy of Religion 37 (1995): 103-112; John E. Smith, Experience and God (New York: Fordham University Press, 1995); Robert Reuter, "Peirce and Testing the God Hypothesis", The Southern Journal of Philosophy 32 (1994): 289-302; C.F. Delaney, "Peirce on the Hypothesis of God" Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 28(4) (1992): 725-739; Douglas Anderson, "Three Appeals in Peirce’s Neglected Argument", Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 26(3) (1990): 349-362; Kelly Parker, "C.S. Peirce and the Philosophy of Religion", The Southern Journal of Philosophy 28 (1990): 193-212; Andrea Croce Birch, "Peirce’s Three Arguments for the Reality of God", Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 64 (1990): 203-210; Michael L. Raposa, Peirce’s Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Douglas R. Anderson, "An American Argument for Belief in the Reality of God", Philosophy of Religion 26 (1989): 109-118; Ralph Powell, "Degenerate Scondness in Peirce’s Belief in God", Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association (1988): 116-123; John E. Smith, "The Tension Between Direct Experience and Argument in Religion" Religious Studies 17 (1982): 487-498; Dennis Rohatyn, "Resurrecting Peirce’s ‘Neglected Argument’ for God", Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 18 (1981): 66-74; Robert H. Ayers, "C. S. Peirce On Miracles", Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 16 (1980): 242-254; Mary Mahowald, "Peirce’s Concepts of God and Religion", Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 12 (1976): 367-377.

5. For more on Peirce and science see the following: Andrew Reynolds, Peirce’s Scientific Metaphysics: The Philosophy of Chance, Law, and Evolution (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002); Cornelius Delaney, Science, Knowledge, and Mind (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993); and Nicholas Rescher, Peirce’s philosophy of Science (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978).

6. CP [6.428-6.434]

7. CP [6.428-6.434]

8. Peirce says: "Logic is itself a study of signs. Now a sign is a thing which represents a second thing to a third thing, the interpreting thought2. Charles S. Peirce, Reason and the Logic of Things, p. 146

9. Peirce says: "Upon careful analysis, I found that all three triads [that make up the principle part of Logic] embody the same three conceptions, which I call after Kant, my categories [Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness]". Charles S. Peirce, Reason and the Logic of Things, p. 146.

10. Charles S. Peirce, Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking: The 1903 Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism, edited by Patricia Ann Turrisi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 110.

11. For more on Peirce’s division of the sciences see Peirce, "An Outline Classification of the Sciences", in The Essential Peirce Vol. 2 pp. 258-63.

12. Charles S. Peirce, "An Outline Classification of the Sciences", in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2 ed. The Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 260.

13. CP [5.363]

14. Charles S. Peirce, "Reason and the Logic of Things", p. 28.

15. Ibid., p. 178.

16. Ibid., p. 109.

17. Ibid., pp. 111-2.

18. Ibid., p. 112.

19. In "The Fixation of Belief" he provides a similar definition of Belief: "the feeling of believing is a more or less indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions". [CP 5.371].

20. CP [5.371].

21. Charles S. Peirce, Reason and the Logic of Things, p. 112.

22. Ibid., p. 112.

23. Ibid., p. 112.

24. Ibid., p. 110.

25. Ibid., p. 111.

26. This would explain why Peirce did not write extensively on philosophy of religion compared to other areas of investigation, such as logic.

27. Peirce Manuscripts in Houghton Library at Harvard University, followed by a number identified in Richard R. Robin, Annotated Catalogue of the Papers of Charles S. Peirce (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1967), or in Richard R. Robin, "The Pierce Papers: A supplementary Catalogue", Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 7 (1971): 37-57. L338: 112-113. I want to thank the Peirce Edition Project, especially Cornelis de Waal for helping decipher Peirce’s handwriting.

28. The view expressed here has great affinity to the view that William James expresses in his essay The Will to Believe.

29. See Kelly Parker, "C.S. Peirce and the Philosophy of Religion", p. 195.

30. This view is consistent with William James’ notion of the will to belief, since James argues that religious belief is more a practical decision than a theoretical one.

31. Charles S. Peirce, Reason and the Logic of Things, p. 112.

32. See Kelly Parker, "C.S. Peirce and the Philosophy of Religion", p. 195.

33. J.L. Schellenberg, in a recent article, comes close to Peirce’s view when he defends the idea that "Many nonbelievers consider themselves to be, and some are, loyal to truth, and (…) some lack theistic belief at least in part for this very reason". J.L. Schellenberg, "Breaking Down The Walls That Divide: Vitue and Warrant, Belief and Nonbelief", Faith and Philosophy 21 (2004), p. 201.

34. Cf. fn. 4.

35. For a clear explanation of Peirce’s three arguments see Andrea Croce Birch, "Peirce’s Three Arguments for the Reality of God", Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 64 (1990): 203-210.

36. CP [6.469]

37. CP [6.458]

38. CP [6.465]

39. Bernardo Cantens, "Overcoming The Evidentialist’s Challenge: Peirce’s Conjectures of Instinctive Reason and the Reality of God", p. 782.

40. CP [6.488]

41. CP [6.470]

42. CP [6.430]

43. A version of this paper was originally presented at the Society for Philosophers of Religion. I would like to thank Paul Draper, William Hasker, Douglas Anderson, Kelly Paker, and everyone at the Peirce Edition Project, especially Cornelius de Waal, and Nathan Houser.

44. CP 6.432

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