HSW – Against induction

by Neil Rickert

In this post, I shall argue against induction.  Specifically, I shall argue against what I referred to as “philosophic induction” in a recent post.  My earlier post — “All emeralds are green” — was intended to illustrate the view that I shall be presenting here.  I suggest you read that now, if you have not already done so.  Throughout this post, I shall assume familiarity with that story.

That emeralds are green has sometimes been used to illustrate the idea of induction.  Presumably, the argument would be:

  • All the many emeralds that I have seen were green;
  • Therefore all emeralds are green.

Interestingly, emeralds were also used by Nelson Goodman in his skeptical “grue” argument.

According to the story told in my previous post, greenness is part of what characterizes emeralds, part of how a mineral is recognized as an emerald.  While the story is made up, I believe that part of it to be true, namely that greenness is part of what characterizes emeralds.  And if that assessment is correct, then “all emeralds are green” is a necessary truth, an analytic assertion, a statement that is true by virtue of the meanings of its terms.

If “all emeralds are green” is analytic, then philosophic induction has nothing do with why we take that statement to be true.  Similarly, I believe some (but not all) of our scientific laws are analytic.  That I believe Newton’s laws of motion to be analytic was intended to be implicit in my earlier post about those laws.

Social construction

When it is suggested that scientific laws are analytic, some folk claim that this is evidence for social constructionism.  And social constructionism is itself seen as controversial.  So let’s examine what might have been socially constructed in the village of D’La Mere.

It seems to me that what is socially constructed, is the use of emeralds as jewelry, rather than just using them as a component of paving gravel.  I am inclined to think that it should not be at all controversial to recognize that use of emeralds as socially constructed.

On analyticity

Whether or not there are analytic statements is apparently somewhat controversial, particularly since Quine argued against the idea in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”  I take it that Quine was mainly concerned with the use of analyticity in the philosophy of language.

For the workers in the village of D’La Mere, greenness was something that characterized emeralds.  However, for somebody whose acquainance with emeralds comes via seeing them in the jewelry store, perhaps it is a tag saying “emerald” that characterizes them.  So “all emeralds are green” might be analytic for the workers, but not for those who learn about emeralds at the jewelry store.  That analyticity of a statement is complex, and might depend on how a person learned parts of that language, is part of what I take Quine to have been arguing.  If so, then I will have to agree with Quine on that point.

That “all emeralds are green” appears to be analytic to the workers, and that some scientific laws appear to be analytic to scientists, is what I see as important.  And I don’t see Quine’s argument as challenging that.

Another criticism made of analytic statements, is that they have no descriptive content.  I don’t see that as a problem either.  The greenness of emeralds was important to the workers, not as a description of the world, but as an account of the methodology that they should follow in finding emeralds.  If knowledge of methodology counts as part of our knowledge, then analyticity of “all emeralds are green” does not rule it out as a component of knowledge.

Inductionist thinking

Why do people think we are using induction?  This is a bit of a puzzle for me.  When I question that induction is used, many people disagree with  me.  Yet they have been unable to make a persuasive case the induction is used.

As best I can tell, and as applied to emeralds, the thinking is something like:

  1. Emeralds are part of our ontology, and as such, are metaphysical.  That is to say, they exist independently of humans.
  2. We perceive emeralds, and perceive that they are green.
  3. Somehow, our knowledge that all emeralds are green must result from the above.

I agree with the first step there, though I suspect that is the step that leads to wrong conclusions.  I’ll say more about my view of ontology and metaphysics in a future post.

The second step of the above seems to assume that perception is magical.  That is, it seems to assume that we can perceive things as emeralds, without their greenness playing any role in how that perception works.  If that is how people are really thinking, then that seems to be the mistake.

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