Induction is a problem. I’m sure you often find this to be the case as you try to conduct your day-to-day life but are thwarted by the pesky induction problem at every turn.
But what is the induction problem?
No, it’s not an unproven mathematical theorem regarding the social rejection of a variable number of aquatic fowl – that’s the “n-duck-shun problem”.
No, it’s not an anagram for “End to bulimic porn!” Well… it is, but that’s not really relevant.
The induction problem is, in fact, one of those fiddly questions about how we can ever really know anything, of the sort that only seems to bother philosophers.
As far as I’m aware, it’s not of grave concern to, for instance, many of the scientists who are out there learning new stuff and not worrying too much about whether it’s metaphysically possible for them to be doing it.
It’s possible I’m letting my personal sarcastic biases sneak in before I’ve even finished the set-up for the discussion.
There is actually an interesting question at the base of this all, though, if you’re as interested as I am by things like systems of formalised logic.
Induction is a very useful thing. It lets us draw conclusions about how the world works, without needing to rely on absolute and inviolate syllogisms. It’s all very well knowing that all triangles have three sides, knowing that Jeff is a triangle, and deducing that Jeff has three sides. But not everything we learn is arranged in such a way.
A triangle having three sides is something that’s true by definition, but what about other truths that aren’t tautological? “Cats miaow” is a widely recognised truth, and doesn’t rely on deductive reasoning as above. It’s based on observation of the world. We’ve seen lots of cats miaowing, and decided that it’s something that happens as a general rule.
But how do we justify assuming that, just because cats have miaowed in the past, all cats will continue to miaow in the future? It’s a fairly pedestrian idea that cat #92387563 might turn out to miaow just like all the others, but it’s not certain. A cat could be mute, or dead, or asleep, or ADORABLE, or otherwise not in a state to miaow. We know many cats do miaow, but we don’t conclude that all of them must.
(You could start being more specific – narrow it down to “live cats miaow”, then “live, awake cats miaow”, and so on – but you’d have to account for so many technical possibilities you’d end up with something that says nothing more than “cats miaow, except the ones that don’t”.)
There are some things, though, which we really do expect to hold true always – but without any more solid a basis for this except that they’ve always held true in the past. The laws of physics are one example. Our understanding of the universe on a scientific level depends on the idea that gravity, say, will keep on working exactly how it always has, indefinitely, even if the cat’s asleep. How do we justify this?
…It’s taken this much waffle to get around to asking the question, and I’m having to pause while I try and figure out what my answer is.
And I think I’m going to have to side with those scientists I mentioned up there. I’m just not convinced it’s worth worrying about.
I don’t mean there shouldn’t be anybody worrying about such things. There can certainly be value to thinking up new ways of thinking about how we think. There are some eventual logical conclusions lurking behind our everyday assumptions, which can only be teased out by this kind of careful and pedantic philosophical thinking, and which can provide a valuable new perspective on some things we take for granted. And at the very least, a lot of the associated thought experiments are entertainingly head-bendy. (I’ll let you look into the ideas behind “grue” and “bleen” or the Gettier problem on your own time.)
I’m just not going to worry about it, or let it undermine my continued assumptions that the world functions in certain consistent ways unless directly evidenced otherwise. So far, assuming the validity of inductive reasoning has seemed to work pretty well – and yes, I know that would be an example of inductive reasoning itself, to conclude that it’s likely to continue working just because it has in the past, and so it would be circular to claim that I’ve proved anything this way.
So I haven’t proved anything to the satisfaction of some philosophers. Somehow I think I’m going to be okay with that. You keep worrying about how there’s no guarantee that any of our established laws on which the Universe runs will have any meaning tomorrow. We’ll be over here sending rockets to fucking Mars.
(Sorry, philosophers. Love your work, really. Just not when people think I should drop everything and start panicking because I could just be a brain in a vat and existential angst is the only truly rational response.)