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LOGICAL AND SPIRITUAL REFLECTIONS

© Avi Sion, 1996-2009 All rights reserved.

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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 1. Hume’s Problems with Induction

Chapter 10. The induction of induction

The above two recent attempts to emulate Hume were both by renowned writers and professors in prestigious universities. Looking at their messy treatment of induction, one may well wonder why[1]. In truth, they were just following a modern trend. After David Hume in the 18th Century, on the basis of a very fragmentary appreciation of induction, put in doubt various aspects of human knowledge, many have tried to expand and intensify that skeptical assault. He was immensely influential on subsequent philosophy, starting with Kant’s[2].

The myth that Hume’s reasoning against induction, causation and many other basic human beliefs was unassailable persists to this day, perpetuated by many philosophers and teachers who do not make enough effort to reflect, or maybe lack the requisite intelligence. In this manner, philosophy is held back generation after generation, weighed down by people who unthinkingly cling to what they were taught and in turn mutter the same mantras in pursuit of dubious cleverness and reflected glory.

a. My first reaction (perhaps somewhat emotional) to this modern trend is the following sermon on professional ethics for philosophers.

The role of the responsible philosopher or logician would, one would think, be to give methodological support to the enterprise of human knowledge, and justify, increase and improve available means. But such a constructive role requires a lot of careful thought, a lot of tiring work, and most people find it easier to tear down than build up. Skepticism is thought by many to be modern-minded, but I rather detect a resistance to progress in it.

That is not to say that the writings of skeptics like Hume have been without value to the development of logic and philosophy. To the contrary, they have often stirred up more thought and discovery than more apologetic writers could have done. By creating epistemological insecurity, however fallaciously, the skeptics have stimulated more imaginative and profound counter-arguments than were hitherto needed. Thus, many of them deserve their prominent place in history, even if not for their own effort.

Of course, too, it would be unfair to characterize them as only skeptical. Many of them have made considerable or even great positive contributions to human understanding in general and philosophy in particular. They had great intelligence, deserving of our admiration, respect and gratitude. Credit must be given where it is due.

I am not, needless to say, advocating that their works be thrown away. Every philosopher – even one with many errors, even one who deliberately misleads – is philosophically interesting as one possible expression of the human mind, and historically important to keep and study as such. The history of philosophy is, and has always been, an integral part of the philosophical enterprise[3]. That is because the history of philosophy provides us with raw data on actual philosophizing.

Nevertheless, they are guilty of having sown considerable confusion in many ordinary people’s minds. To be sure, an uncritical mind is epistemologically undesirable; discursive knowledge cannot progress in a trusting simpleton, questions must be asked before answers are proposed. But equally undesirable, is a mind prone to excessive doubt; this is a sort of mental illness, a neurosis. A healthy mind finds a middle ground between these extremes: it looks for intelligent questions to ask, but it also seeks to find intelligent answers to them.

An important component of the scientific method of thinking is to look for holes or difficulties in any proposed theory about anything. Criticism is a cognitive virtue, and is what makes thought progress[4]. So the point here being made is not that the skeptics are viciously destabilizing us all, but only that their spirit in doing so is not scientific. For if it were so, they would make a lot more effort to check the formal validity and empirical ground of their own thinking. They are quick to criticize others, but do not readily turn the same sharp sword on their own ideas.

As I have again and again demonstrated, when one looks closely at the ideas and criticisms of prominent skeptics, one finds rather obvious faults in their reasoning and observations. The impression one gets is that they were so eager to find fault with common reasoning, that they made no effort to double-check the validity of their own discourse. They asked questions, but did not sufficiently try to answer them. Their curiosity did not stretch far enough; they quickly got proud or lazy, and missed out on valuable new insights.

This raises the suspicion that some of them had some destructive motives in mind: they wanted to invalidate human knowledge. Some people feel resentment towards people or society or life or the world or God, and want to hit back. Some people yearn for nonsense and nihilism, ultimately because they wanted to justify their freedom from moral restraint or compulsion; if reason is shown to be baseless, they reason, then anything goes, we can do as we like!

In other cases, the motive was perhaps less sickly, a mere desire for fame or even notoriety. For in view of Hume’s success, skepticism has become fashionable in many intellectual circles. Many people think it is proof of intelligence, whereas it is in fact evidence of intellectual weakness. Many people are conformists, and allow a person’s praise in the media and so on to affect their judgment of him.[5]

Many philosophers and logicians have, of course, more healthy motives and goals. My own writings, by the way, constitute a constant attempt to inaugurate a new, constructive attitude.

Human knowledge can indeed be understood, validated in principle, and further developed, if philosophers and logicians adopt a more healthy-minded, positive attitude. Just as doctors or engineers are not rewarded merely for diagnosing problems, but for proposing solutions, so should it be for philosophers and logicians. The real test of intelligence and respectability ought to be constructive rather than destructive abilities.

b. Upon further reflection, my reaction to the anti-inductive trend set by Hume is more muted, as follows.

Deductive logic was largely the discovery and production of one man, Aristotle (who, of course, had a great teacher, Plato). It has grown considerably since then, thanks to the contribution of many, but its founder’s work is still very present at its foundation. Of course, people engaged in deduction before him, but he brought an enormous amount of self-consciousness and precision to such logical thought. Under his direct influence, many people made fewer errors of deduction.

On the other hand, what the history of the logic of induction makes clear is that this basic discipline was not born long ago and in one go. Retrospectively, we can of course say that induction has always been used by humans, and even in a sense by their animal forbears and cousins. We have always practiced induction, with more or less effectiveness, without need of logicians and philosophers to describe and explain it.

Aristotle and his successors were of course conscious of induction to some extent, but not sufficiently to develop a systematic theory of it. The theory of induction dawned in more modern times, with (I would say) Francis Bacon. The latter’s work was more important than many realize. After him, whether under his influence or independently, physical scientists like Galileo, Newton, and many more till this day, both used and understood induction with increasing clarity.

On the other hand, the direct philosophical successors of Bacon, like Locke, Hume, and many others till today, never quite succeeded in bringing the logic of induction he had started up to date[6]. In some respects they even regressed, rather than progressed. It is really surprising just how widespread skepticism about induction remains. Hume seems to have permanently impressed his disbelief to a great many later thinkers.

To give you one modern example, two hundred years after Hume – A. J. Ayer reports that Bertrand Russell thought that the assumptions of scientific thought had to be taken on faith, and that (in Ayer’s words):

… there is no necessity other than logical necessity, so that there is no such thing as causal necessity. Causality is just a matter of what Hume originally said it was, namely constant conjunction, and is something purely contingent.[7]

Ayer agrees with him. Many other philosophers and logicians similarly assume induction to be without any solid logical basis, and express surprise that it works at all. It is not that they have some bias against inductive reasoning; they would dearly love to prove it, because they are empiricists at heart and supporters of modern science. What the example of Russell makes evident is that they are sincerely baffled.

All this teaches us an important lesson. It is that the induction of a theory of induction has taken time, a lot more time than anyone would have thought it would take. And this is quite normal and okay – the question is not simple, so we should not be too surprised that many have failed to answer it satisfactorily. After all, induction is a trial and error process. It allows for error, and for long spells of blindness and incomprehension.

The history of science is replete with similar situations[8]. Certain facts were (it seems to us, retrospectively) glaringly obvious, yet scientists went through great pains till they saw them. Many facts were for long periods devoid of explanation. Similarly, in the history of logic, although Bacon had well specified and stressed the importance of the negative instance in induction, Hume just ignored the advice in his formulations on induction and causation.[9]

Thus, after due consideration, we should look upon Hume and similar skeptics without bad feelings, with compassion. The modern discovery of induction and the attempts to formulate a theoretical description and justification of it – were all part of a learning process. If many found it difficult, and drew hasty defeatist conclusions, they ought not be blamed. They did their best, albeit without too much success. We are all fallible and none of us all-knowing.

Letting bygones be bygones, now the task is to educate people, to teach the principle of induction and all the methods that derive from it. Enough of negativity, skepticism and pessimism; let us not perpetuate these historical faults. Instead, let us inaugurate a new era of general mental health and good intentions.



[1] I am being a bit sarcastic here, for the sake of argument. These men did of course make significant contributions. For instance, Carl Hempel was at one time a member of the Vienna Circle; later on, he wrote an essay refuting the “verifiability” theory of meaning (a pet theory of that group) by pointing out the theory itself could not be “verified” empirically as it demanded, and so had to be considered as meaningless (see Yourgrau, p. 166). Regarding Nelson Goodman, see for instance his valuable comments on Hempel’s paradox.

[2] Although Kant is not ordinarily regarded as a skeptic, because he tried to build an elaborate system of philosophy, the unbridgeable gulf between things in themselves and things as they appear that he set up is in fact a sort of skepticism, for it denies us access to reality and limits us to mere appearances. Kant effectively took Hume’s skeptical analysis of knowledge for granted.

[3] Much more than, say, the history of biology is a part of the science of biology.

[4] See for instance: Feynman’s comments to the same effect, p. 27.

[5] What perhaps is most astonishing and annoying is that once a philosopher has acquired sufficient fame, then no matter how thoroughly and often his work is discredited, people continue to admire him. He is taught in universities, made the subject of laudatory documentaries, and so forth. Unfortunately, it is so that people’s credulity too often relates more to appearances than to substance. This is especially true in philosophy.

[6] While scientists were showing enormous ingenuity in the design of experiments and more broadly in the formulation and selection of theories in their respective fields, the general understanding and justification of induction by philosophers and logic specialists have often lagged far behind. In modern times, the likes of Karl Popper have of course brought greater balance between the theory and the practice of induction.

[7] See Magee, pp. 313 and 315.

[8] Stephen Jay Gould documents many such stories and gives us illuminating methodological comments on them, in a set of essays I strongly recommend. See for instance his comments on pp. 96 and 97, on the “long struggles to think and see in new ways” and on “shining a light of logic into the most twisted corners of old conceptual prisons, into the most tangled masses of confusing observations”.

[9] It is a bit shocking to discover, upon close scrutiny, just how often errors of reasoning and plain ignorance occur in Hume’s work – and indeed in the work of many other great and lesser princes of Western (and for that matter, Eastern) philosophy. I remember my similar surprise and disappointment when, after completing The Logic of Causation, I revised my analysis of J. S. Mill’s “methods of experimental inquiry”, and discovered how many mistakes a very educated and intelligent man like him could make.

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