Book 1. Hume’s Problems with Induction

Chapter 2. The principle of induction

Concerning the uniformity principle, which Hume denies, it is admittedly an idea difficult to uphold, in the sense that we cannot readily define uniformity or make a generality of it. We might speak of repetition, of two or more particular things seeming the same to us; but we are well aware that such regularity does not go on ad infinitum. On the contrary, we well know that sooner or later, something is bound to be different from the preceding things, since the world facing us is one of multiplicity.

Therefore, this “principle” may only be regarded as a heuristic idea, a rule of thumb, a broad but vague practical guideline to reasoning. It makes no specific claims in any given case. It just reminds us that there are (or seem to us to be) ‘similarities’ in this world of matter, mind and spirit. It is not intended to deny that there are also (apparent) ‘dissimilarities’. It is obviously not a claim that all is one and the same, a denial of multiplicity and diversity (in the world of appearances, at least[1]). To speak of uniformity in Nature is not to imply uniformity of Nature.

We might also ask – can there be a world without any ‘uniformities’? A world of universal difference, with no two things the same in any respect whatever is unthinkable. Why? Because to so characterize the world would itself be an appeal to uniformity. A uniformly non-uniform world is a contradiction in terms. Therefore, we must admit some uniformity to exist in the world. The world need not be uniform throughout, for the principle of uniformity to apply. It suffices that some uniformity occurs.

Given this degree of uniformity, however small, we logically can and must talk about generalization and particularization. There happens to be some ‘uniformities’; therefore, we have to take them into consideration in our construction of knowledge. The principle of uniformity is thus not a wacky notion, as Hume seems to imply. It is just a first attempt by philosophers to explain induction; a first try, but certainly not the last. After that comes detailed formal treatment of the topic. This proceeds with reference to specifics, symbolized by X’s and Y’s, and to strict logic.

The uniformity principle is not a generalization of generalization; it is not a statement guilty of circularity, as some critics contend. So what is it? Simply this: when we come upon some uniformity in our experience or thought, we may readily assume that uniformity to continue onward until and unless we find some evidence or reason that sets a limit to it. Why? Because in such case the assumption of uniformity already has a basis, whereas the contrary assumption of difference has not or not yet been found to have any. The generalization has some justification; whereas the particularization has none at all, it is an arbitrary assertion.

It cannot be argued that we may equally assume the contrary assumption (i.e. the proposed particularization) on the basis that in past events of induction other contrary assumptions have turned out to be true (i.e. for which experiences or reasons have indeed been adduced) – for the simple reason that such a generalization from diverse past inductions is formally excluded by the fact that we know of many cases that have not been found worthy of particularization to date.

That is to say, if we have looked for something and not found it, it seems more reasonable to assume that it does not exist than to assume that it does nevertheless exist. Admittedly, in many cases, the facts later belie such assumption of continuity; but these cases are relatively few in comparison. The probability is on the side of caution.

In any event, such caution is not inflexible, since we do say “until and unless” some evidence or argument to the contrary is adduced. This cautious phrase “until and unless” is of course essential to understanding induction. It means: until if ever – i.e. it does not imply that the contrary will necessarily occur, and it does not exclude that it may well eventually occur. It is an expression of open-mindedness, of wholesome receptiveness in the face of reality, of ever readiness to dynamically adapt one’s belief to facts.

In this way, our beliefs may at all times be said to be as close to the facts as we can get them. If we follow such sober inductive logic, devoid of irrational acts, we can be confident to have the best available conclusions in the present context of knowledge. We generalize when the facts allow it, and particularize when the facts necessitate it. We do not particularize out of context, or generalize against the evidence or when this would give rise to contradictions.

Hume doubted the validity of generalization because he thought that we adopt a general proposition like All X are Y, only on the basis of the corresponding particular Some X are Y. But if the latter was sufficient to (inductively) establish the former, then when we were faced with a contingency like Some X are Y and some X are not Y, we would be allowed to generalize both the positive and negative particulars, and we would find ourselves with a contradiction[2] in our knowledge, viz. with both All X are Y and No X are Y.

But since contradiction is error, according to the 2nd law of thought, it follows that a particular is not by itself enough to confirm a generality. To do so, we need also to first adduce that the opposite particular is not currently justified. Note well what we have shown here: this criterion for generalization follows from the law of non-contradiction. Hume and his skeptical successors did not take this additional criterion into account. They noticed the aspect of ‘confirmation’, but ignored that of ‘non-rejection’.

The uniformity principle ought to be viewed as an application of a much larger and important principle, which we may simply call the principle of induction (in opposition to the so-called problem of induction). This all-important principle could be formulated as follows: given any appearance, we may take it to be real, until and unless it is found to be illusory.[3]

This is the fundamental principle of inductive logic, from which all others derive both their form and their content. And indeed, this is the way all human beings function in practice (with the rare exception of some people, like Hume, who want to seem cleverer than their peers). It is, together with Aristotle’s three laws of thought, the supreme principle of methodology, for both ordinary and scientific thought, whatever the domain under investigation[4].

Indeed, we could construe this principle of induction as the fourth law of thought. Just as the three laws proposed by Aristotle are really three facets of one and the same law, so also this fourth law should be viewed as implicit in the other three. Induction being the most pragmatic aspect of logic, this principle is the most practical of the foundations of rational discourse.

The principle of induction is a phenomenological truth, because it does not presume at the outset that the givens of appearance are real or illusory, material or mental, full or empty, or what have you. It is a perfectly neutral principle, without prejudice as to the eventual content of experience and rational knowledge. It is not a particular worldview, not an a priori assumption of content for knowledge.

However, in a second phase, upon reflection, the same principle favors the option of reality over that of illusion as a working hypothesis. This inbuilt bias is not only useful, but moreover (and that is very important for skeptics to realize) logically rock solid, as the following reasoning clearly shows:

This principle is self-evident, because its denial is self-contradictory. If someone says that all appearance is illusory, i.e. not real, which means that all our alleged knowledge is false, and not true, that person is laying claim to some knowledge of reality (viz. the knowledge that all is unreal, unknowable) – and thus contradicting himself. It follows that we can only be consistent by admitting that we are indeed capable of knowing some things (which does not mean everything).

It follows that the initial logical neutrality of appearance must be reinterpreted as in all cases an initial reality that may be demoted to the status of illusion if (and only if) specific reasons justify it. Reality is the default characterization, which is sometimes found illusory. Knowledge is essentially realistic, though in exceptional cases it is found to be unrealistic. Such occasional discoveries of error are also knowledge, note well; they are not over and above it.

If we did not adopt this position, that appearance is biased towards reality rather than illusion, we would be stuck in an inextricable agnosticism. Everything would be “maybe real, maybe illusory” without a way out. But such a problematic posture is itself a claim of knowledge, just like the claim that all is illusory, and so self-inconsistent too. It follows that the interpretation of appearance as reality until and unless otherwise proved is the only plausible alternative.[5]

If appearance were not, ab initio at least, admitted as reality rather than as illusion or as problematic, we would be denying it or putting it in doubt without cause – and yet we would be granting this causeless denial or doubt the status of a primary truth that does not need to be justified. This would be an arbitrary and self-contradictory posture – an imposture posing as logical insight. All discourse must begin with some granted truth – and in that case, the most credible and consistent truth is the assumption of appearance as reality unless or until otherwise proved.

We may well later, ad terminatio (in the last analysis), conclude that our assumption that this appearance was real was erroneous, and reclassify it as illusory. This happens occasionally, when we come across conflicts between appearances (or our interpretations of them). In such cases, we have to review in detail the basis for each of the conflicting theses and then decide which of them is the most credible (in accord with numerous principles of adduction).

It should be stressed that this stage of reconciliation between conflicting appearances is not a consequence of adopting reality as the default value of appearances. It would occur even if we insisted on neutral appearances and refused all working hypotheses. Conflicts would still appear and we would still have to solve the problem they pose. In any case, never forget, the assumption of reality rather than illusion only occurs when and for so long as no contradiction results. Otherwise, contradictions would arise very frequently.

Note well that I do not understand appearance in quite the same way Edmund Husserl does, as something ab initio and intrinsically mental; such a view is closer to Hume or even Berkeley than to me.

The ground floor of Husserl’s phenomenology and mine differ in the primacy accorded to the concepts of consciousness and of the subject of consciousness. My own approach tries to be maximally neutral, in that appearances are initially taken as just ‘what appears’, without immediately judging them as ‘contents of someone’s consciousness’. Whereas, in Husserl’s approach, the wider context of appearance is from the start considered as part and parcel of the appearance.

For me, some content comes first, and only thereafter do we, by a deduction or by an inductive inference, or perhaps more precisely by an intuition (an additional, secondary, reflexive act of consciousness), become aware of the context of consciousness and conscious subject. At this later stage, we go back and label the appearance as a “content of” consciousness, i.e. as something whose apparition (though not whose existence) is made possible by an act of consciousness by some subject. Content is chronologically primary, the context is secondary.

Whereas in Husserl’s philosophy, the fact of consciousness and its subject are present from the start, as soon as the appearance appears. Husserl’s mistake, in my view, is to confuse logical order and chronological order, or ontological and epistemological. Of course, logically and ontologically, appearance implies consciousness and someone being conscious; but chronologically and epistemologically, they occur in succession.

As a result of this difference, his approach has a more subjectivist flavor than mine, and mine has a more objectivist flavor than his. Note, however, that in his later work Husserl tried more and more to shift from implied subjectivism to explicit objectivism.

We have seen the logic of induction in the special case of generalization. Given the positive particular ‘Some X are Y’ (appearance), we may generalize to the corresponding generality ‘All X are Y’ (reality), provided we have no evidence that ‘Some X are not Y’ (no conflicting appearance). Without this caveat, many contradictions would arise (by generalizing contingencies into contrary generalities); that proves the validity of the caveat. If (as sometimes occurs) conflicting evidence is eventually found (i.e. it happens that Some X are not Y), then what was previously classed as real (viz. All X are Y) becomes classed as illusory (this is called particularization).

Induction is a flexible response to changing data, an ongoing effort of intelligent adaptation to apparent facts. Few logicians and philosophers realize, or take into consideration, the fact that one of the main disciplines of inductive logic is harmonization. They discuss observation and experiment, generalization and adduction, and deduction, with varying insight and skill, but the logic of resolving contradictions occasionally arrived at by those other inductive means is virtually unknown to them, or at least very little discussed or studied. This ignorance of, or blindness to, a crucial component of induction has led to many foolish theories[6].

Notice well, to repeat, the conditional form of the principle of induction: it grants credibility to initial appearances “until and unless” contrary appearances arise, which belie such immediate assumption. Thus, in the case of the narrower uniformity principle, the initial appearance is the known few cases of similarity (or confirmation) and the fact of not having to date found cases of dissimilarity (or conflicting data); this allows generalization (or more broadly, theory adoption) until if ever we have reason or evidence to reverse our judgment and particularize (or reject, or at least modify, the theory).

The principle of induction may likewise be used to validate our reliance on intuition and sensory and inner perception, as well as on conception. It may also be applied to causality, if we loosely formulate it as: order may be assumed to exist everywhere, until and unless disorder appears obvious. However, the latter principle is not really necessary to explain causality, because we can better do that by means of regularity, i.e. with reference to the uniformity principle, i.e. to generalization and adduction.

In any case, the principle of induction is clearly a phenomenological principle, before it becomes an epistemological or ontological one. It is a logical procedure applicable to appearance as such, free of or prior to any pretensions to knowledge of reality devoid of all illusion. The claims it makes are as minimal as could be; they are purely procedural. It is for this reason as universal and indubitable as any principle can ever be.

Moreover, the principle of induction (and likewise its corollary the uniformity principle) applies equally to the material, mental and spiritual realms. It is a valid method of dealing with data, independently of the sort of data involved, i.e. irrespective of the ‘substance’ of the data. Many people associate induction exclusively with the physical sciences, but this is misconceived. Inductive logic sets standards of judgment applicable in all fields – including in psychology and in moral and spiritual concerns.

[1] I.e. such recognition of pluralism does not at the outset exclude monism. The former may be true at the superficial phenomenological level, while the latter reigns at the metaphysical level of ultimate reality.

[2] Or more precisely a contrariety.

[3] I have formulated and stressed this principle since I started writing logic, although I here name it “principle of induction” for the first time. See, for instances: Future Logic, chapter 2, etc.; Phenomenology, chapter 1, etc.; Ruminations, chapters 1 and 2.

[4] I stress that here, to forestall any attempt to split ordinary and scientific thought apart. We should always stress their continuity. The difference between them is (theoretically, at least) only one of rigor, i.e. of effort to ensure maximal adherence to logic and fact. This only means, at most, that more ordinary people fail to look carefully and think straight than do most scientists – but both groups are human. Another important thing to stress is that this method is the same for knowledge of matter or mind, of earthly issues or metaphysical ones, and so forth. The principle is the same, whatever the content.

[5] Worth also stressing here is the importance of working hypotheses as engines of active knowledge development. A skeptical or agnostic posture is essentially static and passive; taken seriously, it arrests all further development. Scientists repeatedly report the crucial role played by their working hypothesis, how it helped them to search for new data that would either confirm or refute it, how it told them what to look for and where and how to look (see for instance, Gould, p. 172). This is true not only of grand scientific theories, but of ordinary everyday concepts.

[6] For example, Hempel’s so-called paradox of confirmation.

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