Science and Religion in the Era of William James

By Paul Jerome Croce | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Charles Sanders Peirce and the Elusive Certainty of Science

Science must have universal laws in order to be useful. At the same time, a universal law would imply a perfection of knowledge to which we cannot attain.

CHARLES SANDERS PEIRCE, 1861

Charles Sanders Peirce was born into the society that adopted Chauncey Wright. In 1864, at the age of twenty-five, he wrote a brief family history, which included descriptions of his ancestor Thomas Peirce, who was "the man who brought our family to these shores," his wife Elizabeth, and their admission to the church in 1634. Typical of Peirce's systematic intellectual style, he proceeded to list their descendants, numbered 1 through 207. 1 The New England pride and precise logical methods of his intellectual circle had already become integral parts of his identity. He was the second son of Harvard professor Benjamin Peirce, who was one of America's foremost mathematicians and a pillar of Boston intellectual society. Young Peirce's background was only a first step toward his becoming an enthusiastic member of the scientific community. He earned his scientific standing because he was superbly gifted in science, mathematics, and logical thinking, and his childhood talent bloomed into pioneering work in these fields and into a genuine enthusiasm for their capacity to gather truth. Yet his eagerness always carried a shadow of doubt: from his early years he maintained, sometimes reluctantly, but always with great logical sophistication, that the certainty of scientific and logical truths would remain ever elusive.

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