The Problem of Induction

An excerpt from a discussion between three people on a discussion board regarding the problem of induction.

A: you say “I only assume that they (laws of physics) will remain as they are in the short term and use empiricism based on that premise”. The question is … why? Why assume they will remain the same in the short term?

B: I know I’m answering for Matt, but let me try:

Because they have, as far as we can tell, stayed the same.

Because every interaction we as individuals have had tells us they’re still working, in addition to all the carefully-generated experiments to test them.

That’s what you call a well-founded, or reasonable assumption. It’s not a certainty; but moving your finger to type a letter on a keyboard doesn’t require philosophical certainty. It requires the assumption that it’ll work the same way it did the last several thousand times you did that.

A: “I know I’m answering for Matt, but let me try:”

Thats’ fine – we allow that here 🙂

“Because they have, as far as we can tell, stayed the same.”

OK, so (like Matt) you seem to be saying that the past has some bearing on the future; that is, because they have stayed the same in the past, it is safe to assume they will be the same in the future. Is that essentially your answer here?

“Because every interaction we as individuals have had tells us they’re still working, in addition to all the carefully-generated experiments to test them.”

Well, we can really only speak about what has happened … past tense, right? In other words, any analysis that leads us to conclude “they’re still working” is an analysis on past experience, even if that “past” is only a second or so. This includes the carefully-generated experiments to test them – all analysis of the results of said experiments rely on *past* experience.

“That’s what you call a well-founded, or reasonable assumption.”

That “well-founded assumption” is assuming something much more basic – that things which happened in the past will continue to happen in the (not-yet-experienced) future.

“It’s not a certainty”

Agreed.

“but moving your finger to type a letter on a keyboard doesn’t require philosophical certainty.”

Agreed as well.

“It requires the assumption that it’ll work the same way it did the last several thousand times you did that.”

Realize that none of us here are claiming that kind of certainty is required; that’s not the basis for the line of questions being asked. We do realize that it does require the assumption that it will work the same way it did in the past – the question is, why assume this? Most (well many) people will say “because it has worked that way in the past”, but past experience is only relevant to the future if … wait for it … the future is like that past. But of course that’s the very thing we are asking you to offer a reason for assuming.

B: I answered this in part below, but since you put it so succinctly:

Most (well many) people will say “because it has worked that way in the past”, but past experience is only relevant to the future if … wait for it … the future is like that past. But of course that’s the very thing we are asking you to offer a reason for assuming.

Because every time I’ve assumed that in the past, it’s been true, as far as I can tell. I make a series of predictions about the future every time I act; and so far, save for situations where I can see which factor invalidated my reasoning, those predictions have come true. So it’s not just the past I’m talking about — it’s a set of repeated assertions of what *will be* that have come true.

To quote the great Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant, who was accused of “not winning the big ones”: “Tell me what the big one is before the game, and we’ll see how I do.” I constantly, essentially unconsciously make predictions — and they keep being right. That’s the reason for the assumption.

A: you said “So it’s not just the past I’m talking about — it’s a set of repeated assertions of what *will be* that have come true.”

Yes, it most definitely *is* only the past you are talking about. Even though you may have example after example of successfully predicting that the future will be like the past … in the past … none of this has any bearing on the future *at all* if you don’t appeal to induction.

B: The questions that we are asking pertain to future events not the past or as they stand as of now which both of your replies do not deal with.

I believe, and have reason to believe, that the future has some relation to the present and the past. 😉 I’ll explain below.

If thats true then you don’t know how they will stand in the future because you have not experienced it yet and when assume that it will you must abandon empiricism.

No. Because I have experienced many futures; they’re just all now in my past. 😉

To be slightly less flip, every moment of my life I’ve been running an experiment; “What will happen next, based on what I know and what I’m about to do?” I don’t think of it that way all the time, because it includes things like “What will happen next when I flip this lightswitch?” — it’s just part of how life works. It’s how kids learn.

And every moment of my life, so far, I’ve either got the result I expected, or I could understand why I didn’t — the bright flash of the dying lightbulb, say; or my inability to run fast enough to catch an opposing soccer player.

So, when I talk about the present and the past, I’m talking about them as previous futures, all of which have justified my belief.

Is that sufficiently clear?

C: Thank you for the response.

Is that sufficiently clear?

You are being clear, but ostensibly I’m not. You said:

“I have experienced many futures; they’re just all now in my past.”

At this point all I need to do is rephrase the same question. I understand that you have experienced futures that are now in the past and that you have even made predections about the future and that they have come true, with that being said how do you know that future futures will be like the past futures?

Every answer you give to the question like the one quoted above is viciously circular. We are asking how do you know that the future will be like the past. And the answer you just gave is tantamount to answering; because it has always been that way in the past or because all the futures that I’ve experienced that are now in my past have always been that way.

So to qualify the question for clairity when we are asking the question we are not asking about something that was once future but is now past, we are asking about something that is a future future if you will.

How do you know that future futures will be like the past futures? This is the unexperienced territory for the empiricist.

B: How do you know that future futures will be like the past futures? This is the unexperienced territory for the empiricist.

Well, we can go around again and say “Because the future futures of my past were always the same as the future future predictions” 😉 Really, I can’t explain it any more clearly. I’m using an inductive principle. If you don’t accept it, you won’t accept my reasoning. If you do, I fail to see how you’re confused.

This isn’t circular reasoning; if you wish to employ a geometric model, it’s *spiral* — each iteration of the process increases the level of certainty; so instead of A->B->A->B, as you seem to think, it’s A->B->A’->B’->A”->B”…

Does that make sense?

I’d like to ask, then, how you think you know what the future will be like? And by “the future” I mean, for example, “how do you know that when you move your finger towards the “I” key, you’re going to hit it, and then get an “I” on the screen.” That level of future is what I’m talking about here.

C: “I’m using an inductive principle.”

Are you familiar with the “problem of induction?”

“This isn’t circular reasoning”

When you are asked how do you know that the future will be like the past, you say “I have experienced many futures; they’re just all now in my *past*”! All those futures that you experienced are no longer futures but are now *past*. I don’t see a spiral here, but what I have seen is you say “we can go around again ” which I see as the completion of the circle and then going around it again. I am happy to leave it at this point because we’ve been around the circle a number of times now, and let the readers come to there own conclusion.

“I’d like to ask, then, how you think you know what the future will be like”

As a Christian I believe the inductive principle works in relation to the future because God is the creator and *sustainer* of this creation:

“For by Him all things were created, {both} in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him *ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER*” Col 1:16-17

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,
in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and *UPHOLDS ALL THINGS* by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” Heb 1:1-3

He created it with a general uniformity or a regular course if you will. He has assured us that it will continue to be that way at least until the return of Jesus:

“Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name:
Jer 31:36 “If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the LORD, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease From being a nation before Me forever.” Jer 31:35-36

This is what makes science and the inductive principle possible.

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