Belief as Habit

Chapter
Part of the Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics book series (SAPERE, volume 31)

Abstract

In this paper we analyze the thesis according to which belief is a habit of conduct, one purely of thought or leading to action, basing our analysis on the notion of abduction interpreted as an epistemic process for belief revision, all of this within the frame of Charles Peirce’s Pragmatism. The notion of abduction in his work is entangled with many aspects of his philosophy. On the one hand, it is linked to his epistemology, a dynamic view of thought as logical inquiry, and corresponds to a deep philosophical concern, that of studying the nature of synthetic reasoning. On the other hand, abduction is proposed as the underlying logic of pragmatism: “If you carefully consider the question of pragmatism you will see that it is nothing else than the question of the logic of abduction.” (1903) [CP 5.196]. Two natural consequences of this analysis are the following: the interpretation of Peirce’s abductive formulation goes beyond that of a logical argument, especially when viewed as an epistemic process for belief revision and habit acquisition. Moreover, the requirement of experimental verification goes beyond hypotheses verification, for it also requires the calculation of their effects; those that produce new habits of conduct, being these theoretical or practical.

Keywords

Pragmatism Abduction Habit Pragmatic maxim 

Introduction

Here we analyze Peirce’s thesis according to which belief is a habit of conduct, one purely of thought or leading to action. We base our analysis on Peirce’s notion of abduction, interpreted as an epistemic process for belief revision. Our discussion takes place within the framework of pragmatism, which according to Peirce, is a method of reflexion with the ultimate goal of clarifying ideas and for belief fixation. Indeed, in his 1877 essay “The fixation of belief” [CP 5.358–5.387], Peirce takes up the task of reviewing various methods for belief fixation: tenacity, authority, the a priori, and the scientific method, showing that all of them except for the last one, are deemed to fail as methods for belief fixation leading to the settlement of opinion, the object of inquiry. It is only the fourth method that delivers conclusions by which opinions and facts coincide.

Regarding abduction, three aspects determine whether an abductive hypothesis is promising: it must be explanatory, testable, and economic. It is the first of these aspects that accounts for the abductive logical formulation and what is related to the epistemic transition between the states of doubt and belief. The second of these aspects is what relates directly to pragmatism, for this doctrine provides a pragmatic maxim, in this case, serving as a guide to what counts as an explanatory hypothesis based on its being subject to experimental verification.

When abduction is interpreted as an epistemic process for belief revision, the process by which the view that beliefs are habits becomes salient, it runs as follows: when a belief and its associated habit are disrupted by a surprise, a state of doubt and irritation emerges and inquiry begins by triggering abductive reasoning. The aim of this type of reasoning is to soothe the doubt and produce an abductive hypothesis, one leading to a state of belief, which in turn establishes a habit of mind or one of action.

Our analysis suggests that there is more to the testing of an abductive hypothesis. The very end of a belief supporting a hypothesis is to establish a habit, achieved as a result of testing those consequences the belief in question produces. It is in the testing of these consequences where the pragmatic maxim is at work.

This paper is divided into four parts. After this introduction, in the second part, we present Peirce’s epistemic view as well as the development of his notion of abduction, and we close it by a connection between the two, arguing for an interpretation of abduction as a process for belief revision. In the third part, we present Peirce’s notion of pragmatism, the pragmatic maxim and its connection to abduction. We show that the abductive criterion of experimental verification goes beyond hypotheses verification, for it demands as well a calculation of their possible consequences or effects—those that produce new habits of conduct. In the fourth and final part of this chapter, we put forward our conclusions relating all these three aspects of Peirce’s philosophy reviewed in this paper: the epistemological, the abductive, and the pragmatic, all contributing to our understanding of what Peirce meant when he put forward the thesis that beliefs are habits of conduct.

Abduction and Epistemology in Peirce

In Peirce’s epistemology, thought is a dynamic process, essentially an interaction between two states of mind: doubt and belief. While the essence of the latter is the “establishment of a habit which determines our actions” (1878) [CP 5.388], with the quality of being a calm and satisfactory state in which all humans would like to stay, the former “stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed” (1877) [CP 5.373], and it is characterized by being a stormy and unpleasant state from which every human struggles to be freed:

The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. (1877) [CP 5.374]

Thus, the pair “doubt-belief” is a cycle between two opposite states. While belief induces a habit, doubt puts it on hold. Doubt, however, Peirce claims, is not a state generated at will by raising a question, just as a sentence does not become interrogative by putting a special mark on it, there must be a real and genuine doubt:

… genuine doubt always has an external origin, usually from surprise; and that it is as impossible for a man to create in himself a genuine doubt by such an act of the will as would suffice to imagine the condition of a mathematical theorem, as it would be for him to give himself a genuine surprise by a simple act of the will. (1905) [CP 5.443].

Just in the same way as doubt generation cannot be controlled at will, neither the breaking of a belief or the suspension of a habit is caused as a result of self-control. For a belief and its associate habit to be disrupted, an external stimuli is needed; it is surprise that breaks habits:

For belief, while it lasts, is a strong habit, and as such, forces the man to believe until some surprise breaks up the habit. ((1905) [CP 5.524], my emphasis).

And Peirce distinguishes two ways to break a belief:

The breaking of a belief can only be due to some novel experience (1905) [CP 5.524] or …until we find ourselves confronted with some experience contrary to those expectations. ((1881) [CP 7.36], my emphasis).

On the one hand, a belief establishes a habit, one which may be of mind or of action. On the other hand, what breaks up a habit is a surprise, either when a novel or an anomalous situation is encountered, both triggering abductive reasoning. Therefore, in order fully to understand the dynamics of habit formation and suspension, we shall first describe Peirce’s theory of abduction.

Peirce’s Abduction

When it comes to abduction, as conceived by Pierce, the epistemological, the cognitive, and the logical are intertwined. Peirce proposes abduction to be the logic for synthetic reasoning, that is, a method to acquire new ideas. However, he gave not a single characterization of abduction, and varied scholarly interpretations will be found in the literature. We will be reviewing two characterizations, the syllogistic and the inferential, favoring the latter one, when interpreted as an epistemic process for belief revision.

The development of a logic of inquiry occupied Peirce’s thought since the beginning of his work. In the early years he thought of a logic composed of three modes of reasoning: deduction, induction, and hypothesis, each of which corresponds to a syllogistic form, illustrated by the following, often quoted example (1878) [CP 2.623]:

DEDUCTION
  • Rule.—All the beans from this bag are white.

  • Case.—These beans are from this bag.

  • Result.—These beans are white.

INDUCTION
  • Case.—These beans are from this bag.

  • Result.—These beans are white.

  • Rule.—All the beans from this bag are white.

HYPOTHESIS
  • Rule.—All the beans from this bag are white.

  • Result.—These beans are white.

  • Case.—These beans are from this bag.

Of these, deduction is the only reasoning which is completely certain, inferring its “Result” as a necessary conclusion. Induction produces a “Rule” validated only in the “long run” (1903) [CP 5.170], and hypothesis merely suggests that something may be “the Case” (1903) [CP 5.171]. The evolution of Peirce’s theory of abduction is also reflected in the varied terminology he used to refer to abduction; beginning with presumption and hypothesis (1901) [CP 2.776], (1878) [CP 2.623], then using abduction and retroduction interchangeably (1896) [CP 1.68], (1901) [CP 2.776], (1902) [CP 7.97].

Later on, Peirce proposed these types of reasoning as the stages composing a method for logical inquiry, of which abduction is the beginning:

From its [abductive] suggestion deduction can draw a prediction which can be tested by induction. (1903) [CP 5.171]

In addition, his theory of abduction covers a broad spectrum of cognitive tasks. Abduction plays a role in direct perceptual judgments, in which:

The abductive suggestion comes to us like as a flash. (1903) [CP 5.181]

As well as in the general process of invention:

It [abduction] is the only logical operation which introduces any new ideas. (1903) [CP 5.171]

In all this, abduction seems to be both “an act of insight and an inference” as has been suggested (cf. Anderson 1986). These explications do not fix one unique notion. Peirce refined his views on abduction throughout his work. He first identified abduction with the syllogistic form above, to later enrich this idea by the more general conception of “the process of forming an explanatory hypothesis” (1903) [CP 5.171] and also referring to it as “the process of choosing a hypothesis” (1901) [CP 7.219]. In any case, this later view gives place to the logical formulation of abduction. Peirce was indeed the first philosopher to give to abduction a logical form, represented in the following argument-schema (1903) [CP 5.189]:
  • The surprising fact, C, is observed.

  • But if A were true, C would be a matter of course.

  • Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.

In addition to this formulation which makes up the first aspect of abductive inference, the explanatory one, there are two other aspects to consider for an explanatory hypothesis, namely its being testable and economic. While the second one sets up a requirement in order to give an empirical account of the facts, the third one is a response to the practical problem of having innumerable hypotheses to test and points to the need of having a criterion to select the best explanation amongst the testable ones. Therefore, a hypothesis is an explanation if it accounts for the facts and its status is that of a suggestion until it is verified.

Moreover, in his theory of inquiry, Peirce recognized not only different types of reasoning, but also several degrees within each one, and even merges between the types. In the context of perception he writes:

The perceptual judgements are to be regarded as extreme cases of abductive inferences. (1903) [CP 5.181]

Abductory induction, on the other hand, is suggested when some kind of guess work is involved in the reasoning (1901) [CP 6.526]. He further distinguished three kinds of induction (1901) [CP 2.775], (1901) [CP 7.208], and even two kinds of deduction. (1901) [CP 7.224]. Anderson (1987) also recognizes several degrees in Peirce’s notion of creativity. A clear and concise account of the development of abduction in Peirce, which distinguishes three stages in the evolution of his thought, is given by Fann (1970).

Therefore, it comes as no surprise there are several and varied interpretations of Peirce’s abduction. Our own renders abduction as an epistemic process for belief revision, which we proceed to describe.

Abduction as Belief Revision

The connection between abduction and the epistemic transition between the mental states of doubt and belief is clearly seen in the fact that a surprise is both the trigger of abductive reasoning—as indicated by the first premise of the logical formulation of abduction—as well as that of the doubt state when a habit has been broken.

The overall cognitive process showing abductive inference as an epistemic process for belief revision can be depicted as follows: a novel or an anomalous experience gives way to a surprising phenomenon, generating a state of doubt which in turn disrupts a belief and its associated habit, all of which triggers abductive reasoning. The goal of this type of reasoning is to soothe the state of doubt. Note that it is “soothe” rather than “destroy”, for an abductive hypothesis has to be put to test before converting itself into a fixed belief. It must also be economic, attending the further criterion Peirce proposed.

The interpretation of abduction as an epistemic process for belief revision is a familiar one in the area of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Under our own interpretation, Peirce’s epistemic model proposes two varieties of surprise as the triggers for every inquiry, labelled as novelty and anomaly. Although this interpretation is based on the inferential perspective, its representation in an argumentative schema falls short of our interpretation as an epistemic model for belief revision. The changes these two varieties of surprise and its associated habits effect cannot be accounted for in an inferential model of abduction. In order to have a complete picture of the process, the testability criterion should be incorporated and analyzed within the connection between abduction and pragmatism, which we describe in what follows.

Abduction and Pragmatism, Pragmaticism and the Pragmatic Maxim

William James reports it was C.S. Peirce who engendered the philosophical doctrine known as Pragmatism, which Peirce preferred to call Pragmaticism. Pragmaticism is a philosophical method of reflexion with the aim of clarifying ideas and guided at all moments by the ends of the ideas it analyzes, being these practical or purely of thought. It is conceived as a method in logic rather than as a metaphysical principle:

I make pragmatism to be a mere maxim of logic instead of a sublime principle of speculative philosophy. (1901) [CP 7.220]

As we shall see, abduction is the underlying principle of the pragmatic maxim. This maxim, in its original formulation, reads as follows:

Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearing you conceive the object of your conception to have. Then your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object. (Revue philosophique VII (1903) [CP 5.18]

For our purposes, the core of this maxim is that the conception of an object relies on its conceivable practical effects manifested in habits of action. Let us analyze each item in turn. The “conception of the concept” in these pragmatic terms (cf. (1908) [CP 6.481]) means that it is acquired through the following conditions by which a mastery of its use is attained. In the first place, it is required to learn to recognize a concept in whatever of its manifestations, and this is achieved by an extensive familiarization with its instances. In the second place, it is required to carry out an abstract logical analysis of the concept, getting to the bottom of its elemental constitutive parts. These two requirements however, are not yet sufficient to grasp the nature of a concept in its totality. For this, it is in addition necessary to discover and recognize those habits that the belief in the truth of the concept in question naturally generates, that is, those habits which result in a sufficient condition for the truth of a concept in any theme or imaginable circumstance.

Let us now move to illustrate the connection between abduction and pragmatism.

Abduction and Pragmatism

In Peirce’s writings we find notes for a conference “Pragmatism—Lecture VII” (of which there is evidence that it was never delivered). This conference is composed by four sections, of which the third one, “Pragmatism—The Logic of Abduction” (cf. (1903) [CP 5.195–5.206]) is the relevant one for our discussion. In this section of the conference, Peirce states that the question of pragmatism is nothing else than the logic of abduction, as suggested by the following quote:

Admitting, then, that the question of Pragmatism is the question of Abduction, let us consider it under that form. What is good abduction? What should an explanatory hypothesis be to be worthy to rank as a hypothesis? Of course, it must explain the facts. But what other conditions ought it to fulfill to be good? The question of the goodness of anything is whether that thing fulfills its end. What, then, is the end of an explanatory hypothesis? Its end is, through subjection to the test of experiment, to lead to the avoidance of all surprise and to the establishment of a habit of positive expectation that shall not be disappointed. Any hypothesis, therefore, may be admissible, in the absence of any special reasons to the contrary, provided it be capable of experimental verification, and only insofar as it is capable of such verification. This is approximately the doctrine of pragmatism. (1903) [CP 5.198]

What we see here is that Peirce puts forward the pragmatic method for analyzing the admissibility of an abductive hypothesis beyond its being explanatory. What becomes relevant here is the second criterion: every hypothesis should be subject to experimental verification. In view of the fact that the epistemic status of the conclusion of the abductive formulation is only tentative (…there is reason to suspect that A is true), this conclusion should be subject of experimental verification. But this quote shows that there is more to the testing of the abductive hypothesis. The very end of a belief supporting an abductive hypothesis is to establish a habit, and it is in the testing of consequences that habits are manifested. This seems to complete the picture of the second criterion for the admissibility of an abductive hypothesis. Moreover, when a surprise is encountered and its corresponding habit is disrupted for failing to meet positive expectations, then abductive reasoning is triggered and the process starts running all over again.

Belief as a Habit of Conduct

We are now in a position to analyze in full Peirce’s thesis, namely, that belief is a habit, one which may be manifested in the realm of ideas or in the empirical world, and accordingly, induces a habit of mind or one of action. This is what Peirce states on the former kind:

That which determines us, from given premises, to draw one inference rather than another is some habit of mind, whether it be constitutional or acquired. The habit is good or otherwise, according as it produces true conclusions from true premises or not; and an inference is regarded as valid or not, without reference to the truth or falsity of its conclusion specially, but according as the habit which determines it is such as to produce true conclusions in general or not. ((1877) [CP 5.367], my emphasis)

Therefore, in the case of habits of mind, these are associated with actions of mind as well, as when drawing inferences. Indeed “different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise” (1878) [CP 5.397]. In any case, all habits are habits of conduct. Regarding this notion, Peirce states:

It is necessary to understand the word conduct, here, in the broadest sense. If, for example, the predication of a given concept were to lead to our admitting that a given form of reasoning concerning the subject of which it was affirmed was valid, when it would not otherwise be valid, the recognition of that effect in our reasoning would decidedly be a habit of conduct. ((1908) [CP 6.481], my emphasis)

And the recognition of effects links us directly to the pragmatic maxim:

For the maxim of pragmatism is that a conception can have no logical effect or import differing from that of a second conception except so far as, taken in connection with other conceptions and intentions, it might conceivably modify our practical conduct differently from that second conception. (1903) [CP 5.196]

It becomes now clear that beliefs are habits of conduct, under an interpretation of abduction as an epistemic process within the pragmatic framework. But once a belief with its associated habit has been established, what makes them change? And how does a new belief-habit emerge? It is surprise that generates a state of doubt, one which may be of two kinds: either a surprise arises because there is a new phenomenon to account for and new habits are acquired or else, an anomalous experience causes a belief and its associated habits be disrupted, in which case these may be retracted before new beliefs and habits are conformed. The establishment of a habit is achieved as a result of testing those consequences the belief in question produces. It is then in the testing of these consequences where the pragmatic maxim is at work.

Discussion and Conclusions

In this paper we analyzed the thesis according to which belief is a habit. We based our analysis on Peirce’s epistemology in its connection to abduction within the frame of pragmatism. According to Peirce, pragmatism is a method for reflexion with the ultimate goal of clarifying ideas and for belief fixation. Pragmatism is guided by the pragmatic maxim and abduction is its underlying logic.

We have illustrated our thesis within the abductive formulation when interpreted as an epistemic process for belief revision. The overall process may be described as follows: when a belief and its associated habits are disrupted by a surprise, a state of doubt and irritation emerges and inquiry begins by triggering abductive reasoning. The aim is then to soothe the doubt and produce an abductive hypothesis, one leading to a state of belief, which in turn establishes a habit of mind or one of action. The belief state with its associated habits will remain as such until another surprising fact is encountered, thus continuing the epistemic doubt-belief cycle.

Two natural consequences derive from our analysis: the interpretation of Peirce’s abductive formulation goes beyond that of a logical argument, especially when viewed as an epistemic process for belief revision and habit acquisition. Moreover, the requirement of experimental verification goes beyond hypotheses verification, for it also requires the calculation of their effects; those that produce new habits of conduct, being these theoretical or practical.

When Peirce states the pragmatic maxim as a logical gospel—his colleagues then and his critics nowadays—did not understand that Peirce’s notion of logic is much broader than what we conceive even nowadays. For Peirce, every thought is realized in signs and all reasoning consists of a logical inference with the ultimate goal of acquiring beliefs, which in turn endures the creation of habits of mind or of action.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Autonomous UniversityMexicoMexico

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