The Evolutionary Design of Charles Sanders Peirce

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 14 Comments

On January 17, 1884 Charles Sanders Peirce presented a paper called “Design and Chance,” to the members of the Metaphysical Club, an organization that he had founded during the brief time that he taught at Johns Hopkins University.  The brief essay is strikingly original and deeply compelling because it gives us a snapshot of the method of inquiry that Peirce was using as attempted to understand the evolutionary principle of everything. In the essay Peirce questions the fundamental categories of reality and in particular some of those imagined by Immanuel Kant. And he did so in light of the new understanding of evolution that Darwin’s recent publication of “On the Origin of Species” had brought to the world. The Kantian categories included space, time and causality, and together, so Kant proposed, they create an ontological framework or container for our interpretation of reality. Holding this view of the world would imply that this container pre-existed the universe and the universe, therefore, would have evolved within it. In this way of thinking the universe would be seen to grow in time and space the way a baby grows in the womb. Peirce took exception to this notion. Certainly time, space and causality are part of the universe, he reasoned, and since it is the entire universe that is evolving not just things in it, then time, space and causality must also have evolved. The same, he reasoned, would be true of all of the so called universal laws of science. An evolutionary theory of reality must account for not only the development of species, but the development of time, space, causality and all of the physical laws of the universe as well.

As an example of Peirce’s thinking we can take the notion of time. Why must moments in time be ordered sequentially? Maybe the first moments appeared in random order – one appears now in the year 2010 – the next ten days in the past – then one four months in the future – then one a thousand years in the past and on and on. Perhaps those moments that happened by chance to appear in sequential order had a “survival advantage” and so through the process of natural selection all of the non-sequential moments eventually died out of existence. Maybe that is why we only find sequential moments in the universe today. Finding the universe in that state we imagine that it must always have been that way. Peirce was comfortable with the fact that things were in the past, and would be again in the future, more different than we could necessarily imagine.

To account for the evolution of everything Peirce believed that the universe had to have started with a minimum of two absolutely essential and required characteristics. The first of these characteristics is the ability for spontaneous creation, pure chance or absolute novelty. In order for evolution to occur, Peirce realized, there must be at a bare minimum the possibility that something can appear from nowhere and out of nothing. If this were not the case nothing could possibly have ever arisen in the first place and the universe would never have come into existence. The possibility of the purely novel is not enough to account for evolution because any universe that contained only the ability for novelty and nothing else would erupt into total chaos as ever new and unrelated events would continually explode into existence in a never ending cascade of confusion. So Peirce evokes a second characteristic that completes the minimum requirements for evolution to occur. This characteristic is the ability to form habits. It is the tendency for something that has already happened once to be more likely to happen again. This tendency toward habit assures that some amount of order will result in the universe. An evolving universe, Peirce surmised, requires only two elements: the ability to change and the tendency to stick. An evolving universe is created from change that sticks and nothing else. Out of pure possibility some things bursts into being. These occurrences once in existence become more likely to happen again. Thus the universe begins its evolutionary flow consisting of events that happen initially spontaneously and then tending to happen again and again and again.

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Jason Tsukahara
10 years ago

The only book I have read on quantum mechanics was ‘Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer’ by Henry Stapp, where he discusses the philosophical importance of quantum mechanics, which to my mind is quite congruous with Pierce’s evolutionary design as you discussed it here. I do not know exactly how to expound on that, perhaps give it more time, but it has to do with basically everything stated in your last paragraph especially, “Out of pure possibility some things bursts into being. These occurrences once in existence become more likely to happen again. Thus the universe begins its… Read more »

Ruthie
10 years ago

SPONTANEOUS CREATION= ‘I AM’ in the beginning there we were in the beginning was the word in the beginning was I AND I was AM***** are we our own creators? are we going to be the new and improved ADAMS AND EVES OF THE FIRST EARTH???….> <? that awaits to be seen . so where did the last chapter end on.in these modern times on what chapter of old times are we on.what was before the beginning of us?how did it end with those who were before. what is the history of creation. imagine in the next maybe 2000 years… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

When reading this blog I thought ‘hé, where is the evolutionary (conscious) impulse? I always thought Darwin was very materialist, which means that consciousness came out of matter. That which ‘sticks’ or ‘patterns’ always wants to go back to what it was, so from the start an evolutionary impulse must have been there, either before creation or at the same time evolving. If it is just ‘survival’ how come that we, as products of evolution, experience it as ‘we do not know but we want to know’. The only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that we do… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
10 years ago

I really enjoyed some of Jeff’s posts on nonduality. But my opinion here is that these other threads are just going round and round taking people out of presence and just filling peoples minds up with confusing concepts. People talking about evolution and how stuff was the (past) or how things will be the (future). How is reading about Charles Sanders Peirce or Darwin going to help you in everyday life? The ideas what they wrote Are they really going to help you wake up? Or do they just bog your mind down with more ideas, beliefs and concepts and… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
10 years ago

Liesbeth there is no empirical evidence of evolution, no scientific evidence to support this theory, it just remains an idea, a belief, a faith, a concept. All these illusions take you away from experiencing the world, they take you out of the beautiful present moment.

You should read the book called Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton. Completey shatters the myth of Darwin and evolution.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I just saw on Facebook via Nisha via Ruth an amazing videoclip about Love and the evolutionary impulse:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVBk8tiQoC0

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Darryl, re: “there is no empirical evidence of evolution”

Wouldn’t all the evidence of the progression of adaptations from simple to more complex organisms and creatures, of creation in all its manifestations, be empirical evidence of evolution?

Would adaptations of species for more probable and effective survival be acceptable as a definition of evolution for you?

Jason Tsukahara
10 years ago

Darryl, I don’t really understand you comment that “All these illusions take you away from experiencing the world, they take you out of the beautiful present moment.” Based on your comments, your beliefs seem to be just as unsupported by scientific empirical evidence. They are just as much a theory, beliefs, concepts. Isn’t an understanding of reality central to waking up? Yes certainly our mind can get bogged down with ideas, beliefs and concepts but it doesn’t mean those ideas, beliefs or concepts are false. But this simply means we must investigate reality with an open mind and discern between… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
10 years ago

“Hi Darryl, re: “there is no empirical evidence of evolution” Wouldn’t all the evidence of the progression of adaptations from simple to more complex organisms and creatures, of creation in all its manifestations, be empirical evidence of evolution? Would adaptations of species for more probable and effective survival be acceptable as a definition of evolution for you?” Frank their is no scientific empirical evidence to support evolution. Nothing has ever evolved. Nothing. Nobody has ever seen a tree evolve into something else, nobody has ever seen a human evolve into anything new. Nobody has ever seen an animal evolve into… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
10 years ago

Only the present moment, NOW exists.. do u really want to waste it thinking about “evolution” a belief.. which can never be experienced or observed?

or do u want to go out the house and experience truly what IS. look at it, see it as it is, use your senses. enjoy. become one with what you are experiencing. “evolution” is all about how things evolved or how they are going to evolve, evolution never deals with the present moment.

Do you see what i am saying. Simple isn’t it? So simple it makes you laugh. All the best.

Jason Tsukahara
10 years ago

Ok I now understand your perspective a lot more than I originally did. I actually agree with a lot of what you say. I am only going to say one thing. Just because our ideas, beliefs and concepts are not real does not mean they do not have any use. They should be used for purely conventional reasons. How can we talk about anything, if we do not use our concepts and ideas. However we must be careful to always remember that they are for merely conventional use and not to confuse them with reality. Any time that we converse… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
10 years ago

Jason Tsukahara i went through a 4 year period of obessivly thinking. i could not switch off, i was never present in my life, i had million thoughts a day, i suffered from fears and thoughts.. things that have nothing to do with reality. i lived off my “beliefs”, i thought i knew everything, i lived in an illusionary world of ideas. I did not realise what the problem was at first becuase i was living in my head too much, i was so clinged to the beliefs, ideas and concepts i was never experiencing reality directly, where ever i… Read more »

Jason Tsukahara
10 years ago

Darryl, I want to first thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry for all the suffering you have experienced but am also uplifted that you have had such a realization. I am also young, 22, and am going through similar realizations except much more slowly. I have actually been using my intellect to help with understanding my realizations but who knows maybe this is not the best way to do it. My earlier comments were my academic/intellectual side, and was not meant to devalue anything you have said or experienced so I apologize if they have. While we… Read more »

cool
cool
10 years ago

i really like some of the comments left on this thread. Great stuff indeed.