The Relationship between Belief and DoubtJune 26, 2021
What does it mean to believe? What does it mean to doubt?
It is obvious that there are differences between the acts of believing and doubting, although they are related. What are these differences? Peirce focused on this issue and identified the following differences. First of all, the feeling experienced during believing and doubting is different. Second, although we often avoid or try to avoid doubt, we do not feel uncomfortable having a belief; until we come across something that shakes our faith. Third, and perhaps most importantly, believing or forming a belief is a habit, while doubting corresponds to the absence or interruption of such a habit.
Now let’s take an example of belief and continue our discussion on this example. For example, let’s say you believe the earth is a planet orbiting the sun. You may have had this belief a long time ago. You may not have the proofs that you can easily put forward on this subject, if you think about it, you will see that it is not that easy to prove it to someone who does not believe. What does it take to have such a belief? According to Peirce, this is not a temporary state of consciousness (“What Pragmatism Is”, p.279). Having such a belief makes you ready or predisposed to exhibit certain behaviors under certain circumstances. For example, if someone says to you, “It is good that the world is at the center of the universe, everything revolves around us?” says, you object to it and say that your opinion is different. If your sibling, nephew or child made a model showing the sun in the center and the planets around it for a school project, you would say that this model is very beautiful and you are happy to see that his knowledge of astronomy is increasing. Therefore, to believe that the earth revolves around the sun means to be inclined to exhibit certain behaviors. This is true for all other faiths as well. You believe that when a fire is lit under water, the water will boil because there is a cause-effect relationship between heat and boiling of water. You believe that boiling water for a certain period of time will completely evaporate. You believe that if the water runs out and the fire continues to burn, the kettle will be damaged. All of these beliefs make you prone to certain actions. You don’t put your hand on boiling water. If the water in the kettle is about to run out, you add water to the kettle or turn off the fire. In this sense, to believe means to have a habit. These habits allow you to act confidently in this world, expecting that certain actions you take will serve certain purposes.
Conversely, doubting indicates a state of uncertainty. Uncertainty means that you don’t know exactly what behavior to display in a given situation. Therefore, we try to get rid of doubt. Peirce calls the process of getting rid of doubt and reaching that satisfying comfort of belief inquiry. As we have emphasized before, the only method we can rely on in the long run to clear us of doubt and stabilize our beliefs is the method of scientific inquiry.
Peirce mentions three essential features of inquiry: a stimulus; a purpose or result; and method. From what we have said so far, it is not difficult to deduce what Peirce understands from these three elements. The stimulus of investigation is doubt; its purpose is to reach a decision of opinions; method is science itself.
First, let’s try to understand Peirce’s thoughts on doubt as a stimulus. Peirce is against the radical method of doubting everything, as Descartes exhibited. According to Peirce, this kind of doubt consists in philosophers pretending to be suspicious. When it comes to scientific inquiry, we are faced with a doubt arising from reality and what is experienced. It is easy to understand why Peirce was opposed to a Cartesian conception of doubt. Let us recall what Peirce meant by believing. To believe is to have certain habits. To what extent can it be sincere for someone (a philosopher) to say, “I begin my inquiries by doubting everything”? Because does this person already give up on eating things that he believes to be edible, making sentences that he believes the other party will understand, holding a pen in a way that he believes will leave clear traces when pressed in a certain way on a piece of paper? According to Peirce, such a situation cannot be the case. So, there is no question of starting an investigation by doubting everything.
On the other hand, we may have real doubts. These real doubts are those that create a state of uncertainty and cause us not to know how to act. What philosophers like Descartes have tried to achieve by applying the method of doubt is to begin scientific inquiry with complete certainty. However, according to Peirce, we do not need such complete certainty anyway. What we have to do is start with the beliefs we have and