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A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 4)

January 11th, 2009

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By our having thrown out realism, the only case of error that can even be meaningfully considered is where some theory posited based on sense experiences is later falsified by a subsequent sense experience. On our view, this is no longer a problem with induction, of course. It is merely a case in which a particular induction has been identified as “bad” through induction.

Undoubtedly, we can be continually pressed to justify each successive answer we have given. Why shouldn’t we doubt mortality, or anything else foundational to the above discussion? Certainly, there is a point at which we can no longer give any justification, yet it is the very point from which we get our notion of justification. We do superficially agree with the skeptic that such foundational propositions lie beyond any empirical verification, but this is only because our notion of empirical verification is solely derived from these kinds of propositions. At some point, we must reach bedrock: certain beliefs “underlie all questions and thinking. ”[8] Even if we imagined the most hard-core doubter telling us that we have “no reason” to believe the “biological myth” of death, he could not be using anything but human-contextual concepts in, say, appealing to our self-interest through telling us that what we believe is false and that we ought to change it. In that way, doubt is only possible with knowledge, so an all-encompassing, ‘hyperbolic’ doubt is clearly nonsensical; in even thinking of that doubt, much more communicating that doubt, we are invariably asserting things that we know.

In addition to questioning the logical feasibility of Hume’s general argument against induction, we have now also supplemented it with an answer to the fundamental question of how we separate good inductions from bad inductions. Most importantly, we have shown how a careful examination of the terms at play in the argument against induction demonstrates how it relies on a contrived sense of necessity as a criterion for justification and improperly treats this idea of necessity as standing independently of induction. In this, we showed how induction is, in fact, the basis of all criteria in evaluating the justification of our beliefs. Then, in addressing the metaphysical problem, we showed how meaningful criteria are generated against a back-drop of goal-oriented action.

With this answer to the supposed problem of induction in hand, we have a kind of argument which, when generalized, defeats skeptical arguments against empiricism. By reducing our criteria for the truth or falsehood of a proposition to its relation to strictly sensory phenomena, we have removed the possibility of skeptical error, and brought the concept of error within the boundaries of the senses: we can only be mistaken in a sense that is relative to other sense experiences. Hume, imaginably, would have appreciated this, as he did not desire to be a thoroughgoing skeptic; he only wished to fight off philosophical phantoms, much like Wittgenstein did. Again, like Wittgenstein, he sought a rational basis for our norms of speech and action, but found the answers of philosophers to be mystical and woefully deficient. Indeed, he did not see a convincing means of showing how we could justifiably believe in induction, and retreated to a seemingly resigned position of “custom and habit. ” Our goal here, as was Wittgenstein’s goal, was to show how we are justified in believing in our senses, and thus induction—without resignation.


[1] Vickers, John, “The Problem of Induction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. forthcoming URL <http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/win2008/entries/induction-problem/>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. This exposition of Hume’s account of the problem is paraphrased from this source.

[4] Ibid. section 2: “Hume”

[5] Ibid. section 7: “Hume’s Dilemma Revisited”

[6] The Wikipedia entry on Philosophical Investigations explains Wittgenstein’s approach well, at http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Philosophical_Investigations#Method_and_presentation

[7] Tractatus, 3. 031

[8] On Certainty pp. 415.

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