Term Paper: Hume's Problem of Induction David

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[. . .] However, arguing for the inductive rule on the basis of (unproven) induction is a circular argument which cannot be considered valid. If, as Hume suspects, induction does not work, than how can anything be proved inductively -- let alone the theory of induction itself? The conclusion that induction is valid is only true if the premises that proceed it are true, and if one of those premises is that "induction is valid" we are still left unsure of the validity of the conclusion because that statement itself has not been proven.

One might say that many instances of inductive reasoning had proven to be valid -- but these are only instances, and not evidences. There are still infinitely more instances where induction might prove false (and indeed, there have in the past been many instances where it has shown itself false in one way or another, as with the black swans, or the existence of red emeralds and theories of relativity). So through its vicious circularity and through its failure to show conclusive evidence to the contrary, the inductive justification for induction is even less promising than attempts to show deductive justification.

Since there cannot be evidence supporting induction, we cannot logically be justified in believing its conclusions. Of course Hume himself admits that "none but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience." (Hume, IV, II, 7) He is not so much asking whether or not a sane and ordinary person would function as if induction were true as he is asking whether or not they would be logically (rather than practically) justified in doing so. After all, generations of animals have operated according to inductive reasoning, which is why training technique can be used with them. Does the dog learn to expect a reward for doing some trick or other because he has a logical reason to believe that past rewards predict future rewards -- or does he merely have faith in the constancy of his master? One could very well argue that following the practice of inductive reasoning, for a human, should be a similar process. One should not pretend that this induction is logical or even reasonable, but understand that on the contrary it is merely a natural adaptive response to a difficult environment.

If inductive reasoning is understood as faith, rather than as logic, it makes a great deal more sense. Modern man hesitates to say, "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow because I have faith in a solar deity" -- so instead he prefers to say that "I believe the sun will rise tomorrow because I have faith in the law of gravity and rotation of the earth and so forth." However, it is part of Hume's point to say that the later is actually no more logically justifiable than the former. In the responses of his critiques, who frequently argue for a "pragmatic" or even "best bet" sort of approach to induction, one is not infrequently reminded of the idea of Pascal's wager that it is better to believe in God and risk being wrong (in which case nothing happens) than to fail to believe in him and risk being wrong (in which case on is punished eternally). Likewise it is a better bet to believe in the law of gravity because it has always proved true in the past than to risk jumping off a cliff in hopes that one will start flying.

Which brings us around to those who have chimed in with their opposition or possible solution to this problem of induction. One possible response would be to deny that inductive support of induction is inherently viciously circular, and to say instead that it makes a certain kind of sense. Another response would be to suggest that it does not matter whether or not induction can be logically proven, for it is equally valid even if it is illogical common sense.

One such response that denied the vicious circularity of an inductive argument for induction was that of Laurence BonJour. He proposed that while in cases where there is "no convergence on a limiting value" it is appropriate to reject the standard inductive conclusion. However, he also suggests that in many cases there is such a convergence. The only explanations of an apparent convergence between cause and effective is chance or the existence of some value upon which the results can converge.

The more that convergent results persist, the higher the possibility that it is not a mere matter of chance. The likelihood of this limiting value becomes more and more apparent with increasing numbers of results, and the possibility of it all being chance becomes "exponentially lower...so the only explanation that remains for such convergences is that they do in fact approach a real value...some regularity in nature." He argues for embracing a best fit model for the facts, and seems to suggest that since induction is the only possible way to study induction, it is also a viable way. However, there are certain objections to BonJour's claim, including the idea that if inductive reasoning is only sometimes valid then that is hardly better than not being valid at all, and the idea that observation of results may skew the apparent way in which they point to a convergent point.

Other responses have argued that induction does not need to be logically valid to be valid. These arguments may be phrased as "pragmatic" arguments, or the "common language" or "common sense" arguments. While they have different focuses, they are all essentially the same. One such pragmatist solution, offered by Hans Reichenbach, rejects both deductive and inductive attempts to prove induction, and instead claims that one must have a pragmatic justification. Induction is valid because it is, essentially, a good bet. By believing in induction, we are better able to deal with our world, predict the future with a fair degree of accuracy, and function like sane people. In short, he seems to claim that the only thing more foolish than believing in a principle without logic is to fail to believe in a principle which is central to our survival. One might say this is an almost Darwinian approach, which treats induction as a logically indefensible but realistically adaptive mutation of the mind.

The major flaw with Reichenbach's argument is that the pragmatist says nothing Hume did not already admit. Hume regularly agreed that he would have to be mad to say that one should not pragmatically live according to the rules of induction, and simply claimed that there was no epistemological support for those uniquely nonsensical but necessary rules. Whether or not they work, the rules of induction make no logical sense, and Reichenbach's argument doesn't change that.

A similar (and similarly weak) argument draws from the common-speech definitions of "reasonable" and "knowing." Philosophers such as Strawson argue that the cultural definitions of "reasonable" and "justified" and so forth include the idea of conforming to inductive standards. So, for example, a scientific theory will not be seen as reasonable --no matter how neat the math is-- if it does not line up with the way the world has worked up till now and if it does not seem to follow inductively with our general expectations. So to ask, he says, if induction is reasonable is like asking if the law is legal. It is simply confusing. However, what these ordinary language enthusiasts fail to notice is that ordinary language cannot truly dictate logic. Yes, induction may be reasonable, but it is not Reason (ie, logic). There could conceivably be many reasonable things that are not logical, because in the common speech many emotional and biological pressures are considered to be reasonable. For example, believing in God may seem very reasonable, but God cannot necessarily be proved with logic and reason.

The real problem of induction is not that some insane man thought that if he kept dropping apples from a rooftop eventually they would float instead of fall, or lived in constant fear that the sun would someday fail to rise. It seems that the pragmatists and ordinary language philosophers, and even Bonjour who argues for a preponderance-of-the-evidenc-points-to a priori answer, are ignoring the real point of the problem. It is not that induction does not work in general that bothers Hume -- it is the fact that there is no logical reason for it to continue working, and no certainty that it is actually entirely accurate. Even if it is just largely accurate, that leaves a frightening level of ambiguity. In some areas, a little ambiguity might not be a bad thing. But the idea that induction does not lead logically to objective truth means that most of human science and knowledge has been constructed illogically and possibly falsely.

Hume was in many ways a humanist and a religious skeptic. The idea… [END OF PREVIEW]

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