Home > Analytic Tradition, Epistemology, Language, Metaphysics, Wittgenstein > A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 3)

A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 3)

January 11th, 2009


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So, given that, we have actually gone ahead and strengthened Hume’s justificatory dilemma by turning it into just a lemma: the option of justifying induction deductively is nonsensical for reasons that prevent us from even admitting it into our discussion. To justify using deduction, we must first justify induction.

Hence, the conclusion of the argument that constitutes the problem of induction, that we are not “justified” in believing the conclusion of inductive arguments, is itself dependent on an inductive argument. Here, we have reached the skeptical error of externalizing logic, which creates arguments more paradoxical than unimportant on this account. If the logical possibility that things could be some other way than we believe them is used to undermine all of our beliefs, then no beliefs undermined in this way can be believed while constructing logical possibilities. But the construction of logical possibilities is only possible given the inductive process that creates our idea of necessity. Further, we cannot sensibly falsify (or take any other action standing outside of) logic, since we can not describe what a non-logical world would look like. [7] Yet this is precisely what, by implication, skepticism requires by questioning our foundations for logic, which are the very experiences and thus inferences from experience that they challenge.

Because Hume does not want to make extra-sensory assertions at all, he is then also committed to holding to this account for the very logical principles he uses to criticize inductive statements. Thus, we have established that the argument attempting to establish that induction is problematic implicitly must assert what it intends to disprove. By showing how we can not use deductive necessity as a criteria for justification (at the epistemic level), we have eliminated the standard by which induction is considered to be problematic. More generally, we have implied that some coordination of repeat sense impressions is the only means we have of generating any criteria of justification. And we can properly call such coordination “induction,” as it is indeed in what “the problem of induction” purports to show defect. By this, we have shown how the general argument against induction fails.

More clarification of the unproblematic nature of induction is still worthwhile, nonetheless. For one, we are still pressed with the question of importance of skeptical arguments such as the argument against induction, as suggested earlier. If the lack of necessity of inductive conclusions prevents us from attaining omniscience—an immunity of our theories to subsequent falsifying events—and can validly offer no prescriptive changes in our behavior, there seems to be no value in pointing it out. It is part of the unavoidable limits of our world. We can label this state as our being “unjustified” in believing inductive conclusions, but what have we changed by doing so? We could easily say a belief is unjustifiable when it does not reduce its conclusions to the properties of cheese. We must ask, “Unjustified relative to what? ” The word must be put in some context to have any implications. Saying that we are “unjustified” because we can not look beyond the limits of our world—a precise lack of context—can not have any condemning epistemic implications, for the simple reason that there is no prescription that could ever conceivably change it! To speak meaningfully about “justification,” then, we must affix it to some sensory phenomena to which we can appeal to differentiate among the justified and the unjustified. In this regard, there is still a sense in which we have “justification”; in Humean terms, that sense is predicated on the notion that some inductions are more reliable than others.

Finding out how to distinguish the reliability of different inductive methods is the epistemological component of the problem of induction. More or less, Hume’s response to this part of the problem works quite well: Hume’s intuition that induction about induction begins to yield how we separate good inductive habits from bad ones is straightforward enough. We look at different inductive methods applied over time, and see how often each method produced a good induction. From this, we discern the reliability of different methods.

It is in reference to the so-called metaphysical problem of induction that we can offer more clarity regarding the validity of induction. Certainly, the metaphysical problem, if unanswered, leaves the epistemological problem insoluble as well: after all, we do need some account for what is a “good” versus “bad” induction in order to determine which inductive methods are more reliable than others. Yet, having tossed out criteria for “good” and “bad” such as “corresponding with the external world,” the answer is quite simple: there is no metaphysical problem because there is no metaphysics (at least in the relevant sense).

One posing the metaphysical problem might ask: if we only have sense experiences, what is there that could possibly provide objectivity? Indeed, what reason do we have to sort and organize different experiences to form theories? Without constraints, our sense experiences are simply floating variables from which we could construct an infinite amount of different theories with no difference in consequence. Thus, just as a 2-variable equation has infinite solutions until another equation constrains it, so too does what is “true” have infinite solutions until we affix some constraint to our interpretations. In short, our interpretation of sensory phenomena only has implications when those phenomena arise to some degree outside of our will, and we have particular goals for those phenomena. We have particular desires to bring about certain things in our sense experiences, but we can not simply will these things to come about. We wish to taste something sweet, but no amount of willing a taste of sweetness into our mouths gets us that. Ultimately, this lies against a background of what we understand to be necessary for accomplishing our goals (life) and what we understand to be the end of all accomplishment (death). Simply put, our “metaphysics” is one of life versus death.

That we can not merely will certain things to occur is a basis for objectivity in interpreting our sense experiences; our acceptance of mortality is what gives us the motive to take one interpretation over all and call it “truth,” even if only by the actions we take. 14th-century explorers had two competing views of the earth, one saying it was flat, one saying it was round. Without fear of death or fear of a voyage done for nothing (both objective constraints), this debate would have been meaningless. After all, there are infinite logical possibilities as to why a flat-earth theory might still prevail over a round-earth. But that explorers found new lands and, after sailing in one direction long enough, wound up in the same place, and have acted on the principle of “circumnavigation” successfully up until the present, has compelled people to accept a round-earth theory over a flat one. People who have acted on this principle, other things equal, have achieved the goals they set out, and they and others will continue to act on that principle. In this sense, people have accepted the round-earth theory as truth; it was a “good” induction.

Thus, good inductions are separated from bad ones on the basis of how successfully they inform our goal-directed actions, where success is measured by the presence of a desired sense experience.

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