The problem of induction

Tersely speaking, the philosophical problem of induction arises out of skepticism of the supposed ability of inductive reasoning to generate knowledge.  It is a very serious problem, which if true will ultimately cause empirical claims (including those made by science) to be cast into doubt.

Sextus Empiricus (a Pyrrhonist) writes:

When they propose to establish the universal from the particulars by means of induction, they will effect this by a review of either all or some of the particulars. But if they review some, the induction will be insecure, since some of the particulars omitted in the induction may contravene the universal; while if they are to review all, they will be toiling at the impossible, since the particulars are infinite and indefinite.

Outlines of Pyrrhonism

A summation of the problem in simple terms is that because we cannot possibly observe every instance of a universal, we can never be sure our knowledge of that universal is complete or accurate.

There are a number of objections an Aristotelian scholar could make:

1) Because of the way the intellect works (it becomes the universal it is contemplating) the mind grasps both the particular and the universal simultaneously, thus an exhaustive observation of every particular is unnecessary.

2) If substances have essences and natures, then our generalisations are justified by final causality.

The problem has undergone a resurgence in modern times (by the likes of David Hume and Karl Popper) due to the rejection of formal and final causality and a return to the mechanistic view of nature. As moderns cannot avoid the problem of induction by reference to teleology, their approach (made popular by Popper) is to say that scientific knowledge is purely guesswork (i.e. abductive reasoning), and therefore tentative and to be rejected upon falsification.


8 responses to this post.

  1. […] Bacon’s scientific writings are novel in two ways. Firstly, there was his insistence on a thorough and planned procedure for the scientific investigation of the natural world. Bacon’s method was an inductive one, detailed in his work the New Organon (possibly a hat-tip to Aristotle’s work called the Organon). Bacon’s criticism of Aristotle’s inductive method was that it proceeded to quickly from individual observations to general axioms – in other words the classical problem of induction. […]


  2. […] edifice of his work stands. Hume denies that there any objective causal connections in the world (see this post on the problem of induction for more detail). There are two popular interpretations of Humean causation: the verificationist (or positivist) […]


  3. […] of fact”. Because of Hume’s skepticism in regards to causality and the resulting problem of induction, generalising to relations of ideas from matters of fact also goes out the […]


  4. […] the Aristotelian tradition turns to final causality to solve this problem, Whitehead instead jettisons the relevance of static things such as […]


  5. > […] their approach (made popular by Popper) is to say that scientific knowledge is purely guesswork (i.e. abductive reasoning) […]

    That’s a goddamn strawman & you know it. Abductive reasoning is no such thing. You ignore the prior & the requirement for demonstrability.


    • s/”strawman”/”false equivalence”/g


    • Hi Andrew,

      Thanks very much for your comment.

      Abductive reasoning:
      C may explain B because if C were true then B would follow as a matter of course (where C is sufficient but not necessary). Peirce calls this “guessing”.

      I think he’s right. Of course, if you discard the forms you can’t really expect any better. In the end Popper’s attempts to save science from Hume were pretty lame.

      Also, it’s poor form to assume the motivations of someone you know nothing about.


  6. […] method was that human beings do not directly perceive the causal connections between events (a.k.a problem of induction). This is a problem for Baconian science in that while one may see certain things and certain […]


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