Rand’s Problem with the Problem of Induction

In induction, rand on 21/06/2011 at 3:16 am


By careful observation – free from preconception – we are able to discover the identities of the entities we observe. Thereafter, we are fully entitled to assume that like entities will cause like events, the form of inference we call induction. And, because it rests on the axiom of the Law of Identity, correct induction – free from contradiction – is a valid route to knowledge. (¶ 11)

I must address this paragraph, line by line: “By careful observation – free from preconception – we are able to discover the identities of the entities we observe.” (¶ 11) The assumption that we may have unmediated observation, ‘free from preconception’, is just that: an assumption that such an observation may take place. From what we know in neuroscience and basic biology, it appears that all sensory qualities we have are not in any way immediate. It is dubious, to say the least, that it is possible to observe ‘free from preconception’, for it would require a mind wiped clean even of its structure, and perhaps eliminating all its previous content. Simply put, the mind is not in any way a blank slate. To counter the fact that it is impossible to know if one is observing ‘free from preconception’ by declaring that we have observation ‘free from preconception’ is absurd.

Thus, Dykes must first argue that observation is ‘free from preconception,’ and that we may come to know which observations are ‘free from preconception’ and which observations are not.

The wonderful thing about preconceptions is that we are blind to them: They are not readily apparent to us, no matter how we try. When we are wrong, there is no internal cue to know that we are wrong about something; we just feel like we’re right. And yet, even when acting in good faith in our attempts to know what can be known, we may suffer from agnosognosia, or Korsakoff’s syndrome, or any number of impairments we are not aware of, and some of the most basic beliefs we hold about identities may in fact be wrong.

Dykes continues: “Thereafter, we are fully entitled to assume that like entities will cause like events, the form of inference we call induction.” (¶ 11) This does little but beg the question: it assumes that similar causes will produce similar effects. What if causes we initially take to be similar produce dissimilar effects?

Well, Dykes might respond, they must not have been similar in the first place. Assuming Dykes is correct, when encountering what we take to be similar effects, we expect that their causes will be similar; however, if they should not be similar in their effects or causes, we can only learn this after the fact, if we should learn about their status at all. In other words, the only way we can learn is by learning that we have made mistakes.

To express this in a more rigorous fashion: the only way science progresses is by going about falsifying our theories. The predictive power that Dykes assumes occurs after adopting the Law of Identity then becomes null, for the Law of Identity is supposed to indicate beforehand that there is some similarity between causes and effects. It looks now that this assumption that ‘like entities will cause like events’ has no predictive power at all; it is just a label we apply to conjectures about causes and effects that may in due time be falsified, rather than a known–or even in principle knowable–property.

At ¶ 12, Dykes concludes, “Nonetheless, armed with the Law of Identity, there is no reason to allow the unforeseeable to turn us into sceptics. The universe is not a series of ‘loose and separate events’ any more than time is a series of discrete, unrelated segments of duration.” Even if we were to assume it were the case that the universe is not a series of ‘loose and separate events,’ how would we come to know that this were true?

As Hume demonstrated, if we were to take sensory qualities as the foundation for knowledge, we could not, under any circumstances, know anything about the past or future, about other minds, memories, the existence of objects outside the range of our senses, &c. Therefore, either Hume’s conclusion does not follow from its premises (a possibility), or sensory qualities are not in fact the foundation for knowledge. Dykes then waves away the problem of induction with the certainty of someone that practices ‘indoor ornithology’: even if we were to assume that the Law of Identity proves, with certainty, that 1=1 and a rose is a rose, a rose may be red during the summer, pink once cut, or gone after a haphazard mowing incident. In short, empirical facts do not logically follow from mathematical or logical axioms (such as the Law of Identity).

Dykes then says “It should also be noted that, in fact, all knowledge of entities, and all knowledge of language, is acquired inductively,” (¶ 13) which, if it were the case that we did not in fact learn inductively, would indeed be a shocking thing for Dykes.

Language does not appear to be learned inductively, as argued persuasively in Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner. While Chomsky may be wrong about a great number of particulars in his theory of language learning, his major criticism of inductive learning stands: there’s just not enough available data to the baby, or the child that invents creole; there must be some sort of generative grammar in place that picks up on the structure. Some powerful criticisms of Chomsky’s theory do exist in the literature, but so far, no criticisms of his attack on theories of inductive learning are readily available for analysis. So far, it is proper to provisionally conclude that all of our knowledge does not indicate that we learn language inductively. Humans are not in any way induction machines.


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