“The Doctrine of Necessity Examined”[1] [1892]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introduction:


In this essay he will “...examine the common belief that every single fact in the universe is precisely determined by law” (p. 100).  In its place he will view nature as having both chance and regularity, and will trace out what he believes this implies.  He also makes clear that the quest for certainty has no place in science. 


I will divide the selection into four sections:


Scientific Reasoning Is Probabilistic,

Arguments Against the Reality of Chance,

The Reality of Chance,

Growth and Increasing Complexity. 


2. Scientific Reasoning Is Probabilistic:


100 Democritus advocated an atomism which allowed only for mechanical relationships amongst things. 


Epicurus supposed, on the other hand, that the atoms could change their course due to spontaneous chance. 


100-101 Aristotle held that “…events come to pass in three ways…(1) by external compulsion, or the action of efficient causes, (2) by virtue of an inward nature, or the influence of final causes, and (3) irregularly without definite cause, but just by absolute chance….The freedom of the will…was admitted both by Aristotle and by Epicurus.  But the Stoa [Stoics], which in every department seized upon the most tangible, hard, and lifeless element, and blindly denied the existence of every other, which, for example, impugned the validity of the inductive method and wished to fill its place with the reduction ad absurdum, very naturally became the one school of ancient philosophy to stand by a strict necessitarianism.” 


101 Advances in mechanics were so great that many took all notions of association to be mechanical in nature, and this led to the conflict between the Doctrine of Necessity and the idea of the Freedom of the Will. 


101-102 Many take the doctrine of necessity to be a “fundamental presupposition” of science, but Peirce maintains that [p. 102] “considering…that the conclusions of science make no pretense to being more than probable, and considering that a probable inference can only at most suppose something to be most frequently, or otherwise, approximately, true, but never that anything is precisely true without exception throughout the universe, we see how far this proposition in truth is from being so postulated.”  He goes on to note that a “postulate” need not be “true.” 


102 He contends that there are three forms of “ampliative [non-deductive] inference: induction, hypothesis, and analogy—all are essentially inferences from sampling.


-103 example: the sampling the contents of a wheat barge,


-A postulate “...is the formulation of a material fact which we are not entitled to assume as a premise, but the truth of which is requisite to the validity of an inference.  Any fact, then, which might be supposed postulated, must be such that it would ultimately present itself in experience, or not.  If it will present itself, we need not postulate it now in our provisional inference, since we shall ultimately be entitled to use it as a premise.  But if it never would present itself in experience, our conclusion is valid but for the possibility of this fact being otherwise than assumed, that is, it is valid as far as possible experience goes, and that is all we claim.” 


105 “...the essence of the necessitarian position is that certain continuous quantities have certain exact values.  Now, how can observation determine the value of such a quantity with a probable error absolutely nil?” 


106 “Those observations which are generally adduced in favour of mechanical causation simply prove that there is an element of regularity in nature, and have no bearing whatever upon the question of whether such regularity is exact and universal or not.  Nay in regard to this exactitude, all observation is directly opposed to it; and the most that can be said is that a good deal of this observation can be explained away.  Try to verify any law of nature, and you will find that the more precise your observations, the more certain they will be to show irregular departures from the law.” 


-Here it might be helpful to pause and consider the difference between using physics and biology as one’s model science. 


-Peirce notes that even in physics we talk of particles of gasses moving irregularly, and talk statistically about heat. 


3. Arguments Against the Reality of Chance:


107 If neither the observation of science in practice, nor the theorizing about the nature of science require the exactitude held to be essential by the mechanists, then how do they argue for the unreality of chance?


-A priori arguments against chance are successfully trashed by J.S. Mill in his discussion of “the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature.”  Peirce suggests that the a prior appeals indicate “…a high degree of imperviousness to reason” and he passes over this in silence. 


-107-108 Closely related to these arguments are the claims that the belief in the uniformity of nature is a “natural belief” and thus is true.  This is no better according to him.  He holds such beliefs to be “matters of fashion. 


108 -Some contend that chance is inconceivable, but Peirce holds that what is inconceivable is not necessarily untrue! 


-Finally some hold that chance is unintelligible—that it can’t explain anything.  Effectively, the next section of the text is intended to utterly undercut this claim. 


4. The Reality of Chance:


108 “...every throw of sixes with a pair of dice is a manifest instance of chance.” 


-The other side replies that the movements of the dice are precisely and mechanically determined. 


 Peirce’s counter-reply is that there is approximate regularity, but [109] “...it is not these laws which made the die turn up sixes; for these laws act just the same when other throws come up.  The chance lies in the diversity of throws; and this diversity cannot be due to laws which are immutable.” 


109 While the mechanists may believe that all the diversity was introduced into the universe at the beginning, and occurs according to mechanical laws, “…I…think that the diversification, the specification, has been continually taking place.  Should you condescend to ask me why I so think, I should give my reason as follows:


1) In every science what we see over time is growth and increasing complexity….

2) [110] by accepting the reality of chance, I account for the diversity and spontaneity sui generis unlike the mechanists

3) the mechanists can’t provide an explanation for diversity and irregularity, but Peirce’s theory does” “…by loosening the bond of necessity, it gives room for the influence of another kind of causation….”

4) [110-111] the necessitarians have trouble accounting for mind, [111] whereas “…we gain room to insert mind into our scheme, and to put it into the place where it is needed, into a position which, as the sole self-intelligible thing, it is entitled to occupy, that of the fountain of existence; and in so doing we resolve the problem of the connection of soul and body.”

5) I have done calculations…. 


5. Growth and Increasing Complexity:


112 “I make use of chance chiefly to make room for a principle of generalization, or tendency to form habits, which I hold has produced all regularities.  The mechanical philosopher leaves the whole specification of the world utterly unaccounted for, which is pretty nearly as bad as to baldly attribute it to chance.  I attribute it altogether to chance, it is true, but to chance in the form of a spontaneity which is to some degree regular.”  


“…I point to the phenomenon of growth and developing complexity, which attempts to be universal and which though it may possibly be an affair of mechanism perhaps, certainly presents all the appearance of increasing diversification….there is the very fact the necessitarian most insists upon, the regularity of the universe, which for him serves only to block the road of inquiry.”  


While I have tried to read his discussion on pp. 111-113 as a set of reasons for the third stage of his metaphysics, I ultimately have to concur with Arthur Burk’s footnote on p. 113. 



Note: [click on note number to return to the passage the note refers to]

[1] C.S. Peirce, “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined,” The Monist v. 2 (1892), pp. 321-337.  This supplement refers to pages in the reprint in Classic American Philosophers [1951] (second edition), ed. Max Fisch (N.Y.: Fordham U.P., 1996), pp. 100-114, and emphasis has been added to passages at many points! 

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File revised on 09/18/2014