C.S. Peirce wrote: "[...] if the universe conforms, with any approach to accuracy, to certain highly pervasive laws, and if man's mind has been developed under the influence of those laws, it is to be expected that he should have a natural light, or light of nature, or instinctive insight, or genius, tending to make him guess those laws aright, or nearly aright."

What about this tendency to guess right? Is this something that e.g. evolutionary epistemologists have discussed in more detail (where?), and how would they account for it?

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    One might argue that our natural capacity for understanding basic environmental, physical phenomena, such as our 3D visual perception, is an example of an instinctive insight. Basic interaction of common physical objects is indeed reliable, and we indeed have a natural ability to understand these interactions. Image schemas are an example of some of the simpler interactions and how we may intuit them. Many of these neural processes, however, are low-level, inaccessible to the conscious mind.
    – Michael
    Jan 19, 2022 at 10:27
  • For references, see Evolutionary Epistemology Jan 19, 2022 at 11:02
  • C. S. Peirce explains things very well. 👍
    – Geremia
    Jan 26, 2022 at 23:58

2 Answers 2


Alas, this is something that modern cognitive scientists concluded Peirce was overly optimistic about, there is no unified faculty of "guessing right" that he supposed. Heuristic guessing in different areas is handled by multiple different subsystems in the brain instead, and while in some areas it is effective in others it is notoriously wrong. Probability is a stark example. The instinctive conviction of many people that getting multiple tails in a row makes it more and more likely that heads will come up next would attest to that, as would the pervasive base rate fallacy. Kahneman and Tversky won a Nobel prize for discovering many other cognitive biases that contradict Peirce's belief in "instinctive insight".

Peirce's general argument that "if man's mind has been developed under the influence of those laws, it is to be expected that he should have a natural light" has also been picked apart and turned around into its opposite. This is an allusion to Descartes's natural light, by the way, except Descartes's was supposed to come from "God is not a deceiver", not from evolution. Plantinga's Evolutionary argument against naturalism (which arguably goes back to Darwin himself) suggests instead that if our minds evolved under evolutionary pressures then what is inculcated into them should be not "guessing right", but surviving. And what is useful (for survival) need not have a particularly strong relation to what is right.

Ironically, Peirce himself was a strong critic of James's idea that "truth is what works". Modern biologists generally describe evolution as a game of "good enough", not even optimal, and that does not bode well for the supposed ability of "guessing right". Ironically again, the pervasive intuitive misconceptions about how natural selection works is an even more direct evidence against the Peirce's argument. After all, that is the law under the influence of which we developed, see Gregory, Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions.


Pierce appears to harking back to and widening Plato's theory of Naturalism in language. According to this theory, language grew organically from the sounds we could hear around us. This should be contrasted with Conventionalism which states there is no neccesary such link and the reference between sound and meaning arevpurely conventional. On the face of it, Conventionalism appears to be obviously correct. What link is there between the word 'cat' and a cat itself? Or the word 'chair' and a chair itself. We might as well call a cat a brilly and a chair a witke. This would be strongly affirmed by a logical view of language. But language is not logic, nor grew out of logic, it is natural to us and we live in nature. Even our own artifice - cities and the like - which we set apart from nature, calling it artificial, is actually natural in the same way a birds nest is natural.

But what evidence do we have for naturalism? One clue is onomatopaic words, words that sound like what they refer to. The 'woof' of a dogs bark. The 'whoosh' of a plane going by. But of course the discovery of human speech is lost to time. Sound leaves no traces that we can investigate. But we do have traces of another form of human speech - writing. And there we see writing began naturalistically. Look at Egyptian heiroglyphics and how our alphabet developed from there. It began naturalistically and this is strong circumstslantial evidence that speech began in the same way.

The root of science and the first science to be discovered was number and geometry. Although we are taught our multiplication tables and our Euclidean geometry, number and geometry is instinctive with us. We see the difference between one apple and two apples and we can see that one apple plus two apples make three apples. We distinguish the straight line and the circle from all other curves. And likewise the notion of parallel and perpendicular. To understand this is not to actually learn, but as Plato pointed out, to recollect, as we already know them.

This is the basics of science today: the geometry of physics today is based upon the notion of a connection on a manifold and this is geometrically a splitting of the tangent bundle on a manifold into a horizontal and vertical bundle - and these two are - imaginatively speaking - perpendicular.

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