Thursday, March 3, 2011

Attacking the Problem of Induction with camels and hammers

Daniel Fincke of Camels with Hammers responds to some noise I had been making in the comments of an old post of his. In a nutshell, I was contending that Hume's Problem of Induction could only be resolved via an epistemological leap of faith, and so thus an iota of actual "faith" was necessary for even an atheistic worldview -- though of course all beliefs beyond that can remain properly tentative.

Daniel quite accurately points out that my argument, which seeks to characterize as circular any and all attempts at reasoning one's way out of the Problem of Induction, is itself circular reasoning. Well I'll be damned, indeed it is.

I still maintain that the Problem of Induction is fundamentally intractable, and thus needs to be hand-waved rather than attacked with reason. Frankly, I think Daniel's point actually reinforces this position rather than diminishing it, at least from a pragmatic standpoint. To wit: I had attempted to show that no epistemology can claim to be rooted entirely on reason without first taking the validity of inductive reasoning on faith. Daniel points out that my attempt to do so fails without somehow presupposing the validity of inductive reasoning. This undermines my attempts to assert that inductive reasoning must be accepted on faith, but it accomplishes this by (IMO) effectively demolishing any attempt to say something about the epistemology of inductive reasoning and still maintain firm philosophical footing.

Daniel has not (yet) shown that faith is not required in order to accept inductive reasoning, he has so far only shown that I can't prove that it is required. I look forward to his promised follow-up post where he intends to describe "a way that inductive reasoning might be understood to be...virtuously circular" (emph. in original). Good stuff!


  1. Here's a philosophical fable/joke I heard somewhere, which seems apposite. So, eventually explorers from earth find their way to another planet inhabited by intelligent living beings. But, unfortunately for them, these intelligent beings have somehow settled on a *reversed* induction principle: when they see some regularity in past events, they expect it to be reversed in the future. And so, of course, their existence is pretty miserable.

    "Whyever do you keep doing this?" ask the human astronauts, and back comes the answer: "Well, it's never worked for us before."

  2. Heh, nice. That pretty much sums up my point!

    I believe Daniel would like to avoid that thought experiment by arguing that beings who behaved in such a way would be rapidly eliminated by natural selection. While I whole-heartedly agree with him, I don't think we can make that argument without a priori solving the Problem of Induction!

    I should be clear about what I am saying here. I do believe that inductive reasoning is valid, and that while we have no philosophically good reason for believing so, I am quite confident that if we stopped believing it, the universe would go on quite unaware of our change of opinion -- much to our detriment.

    By the same token, say someone were to assert that a) since everything they experience is dictated by their own perceptions; and b) since the only reasons one can give for positing that one's perceptions have any connection to reality all presuppose that at least some of one's perceptions have some connection to reality (otherwise how would you know you weren't just imagining the evidence for the connection?), that therefore that person's reality was in fact dictated be her perceptions, and that merely changing her perceptions would change her reality. I do not think I could give sound logical or philosophical reasons why this person must be mistaken -- but at the same time I am quite confident that if she were to be hit by a bus, whether or not she perceived the bus would be quite irrelevant!

    We must bootstrap ourselves up somehow, and it seems to me that handwaving the Problem of Induction (whether you want to call that "faith" or whatever) is the most parsimonious way of doing so.