Selection from C.S. Peirce, “Hume On Miracles” (1901), CP 6.522–547
530. Now the testing of a hypothesis is usually more or less costly. Not infrequently the whole life’s labor of a number of able men is required to disprove a single hypothesis and get rid of it. Meantime the number of possible hypotheses concerning the truth or falsity of which we really know nothing, or next to nothing, may be very great. In questions of physics there is sometimes an infinite multitude of such possible hypotheses. The question of economy is clearly a very grave one.
In very many questions, the situation before us is this: We shall do better to abandon the whole attempt to learn the truth, however urgent may be our need of ascertaining it, unless we can trust to the human mind’s having such a power of guessing right that before very many hypotheses shall have been tried, intelligent guessing may be expected to lead us to the one which will support all tests, leaving the vast majority of possible hypotheses unexamined. Of course, it will be understood that in the testing process itself there need be no such assumption of mysterious guessing-powers. It is only in selecting the hypothesis to be tested that we are to be guided by that assumption.
531. If we subject the hypothesis, that the human mind has such a power in some degree, to inductive tests, we find that there are two classes of subjects in regard to which such an instinctive scent for the truth seems to be proved. One of these is in regard to the general modes of action of mechanical forces, including the doctrine of geometry; the other is in regard to the ways in which human beings and some quadrupeds think and feel. In fact, the two great branches of human science, physics and psychics, are but developments of that guessing-instinct under the corrective action of induction.
532. In those subjects, we may, with great confidence, follow the rule that that one of all admissible hypotheses which seems the simplest to the human mind ought to be taken up for examination first. Perhaps we cannot do better than to extend this rule to all subjects where a very simple hypothesis is at all admissible.
This rule has another advantage, which is that the simplest hypotheses are those of which the consequences are most readily deduced and compared with observation; so that, if they are wrong, they can be eliminated at less expense than any others.
Wiener, Selected Writings
- Chapter 18. Letters to Samuel P. Langley, and “Hume on Miracles and Laws of Nature” (pp. 275–321).
- MS 869, untitled, marked “H[ume] on M[iracles]”. Probably composed toward the end of April 1901 as a working document toward the next one. Published in CP 6.522–547.
- MS 692, “The Proper Treatment of Hypotheses : a Preliminary Chapter, toward an Examination of Hume’s Argument against Miracles, in its Logic and in its History”. This was the second paper Peirce sent to Langley, who received it on May 13, 1901. Peirce wanted it to be the first of three chapters. Langley rejected the paper and the plan on May 18. Published in Carolyn Eisele’s Historical Perspectives 2:890–904.
- Peirce, C.S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1–6, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (eds.), vols. 7–8, Arthur W. Burks (ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1931–1935, 1958. Volume 6 : Scientific Metaphysics, 1935.
- Wiener, Philip P. (ed.), Charles S. Peirce : Selected Writings, Dover Publications, New York, NY, 1966. Originally published as Values in a Universe of Chance, Doubleday, 1958.