The Sun Also Rises

In induction on 08/08/2011 at 5:57 am

As simply as possible …

Do we know that the Sun will rise tomorrow because it has risen in the past? No. Hume’s psychological account of inductive inferences is mistaken, for it misstated the problem. Somehow empiricists have taken Hume as the final word that the justification for the belief that the Sun will rise tomorrow is that the Sun has risen in the past.  It is easy to undermine that argument, for there is no logical inference made. We know the Sun will rise tomorrow because we know why it rises. We have an explanation: the Earth rotates on its axis roughly every 24 hours, and we have an explanation for why that happens, and so on. The rising Sun has led us to seek an explanation, and that explanation is our ‘justification,’ for if the Earth rotates on its axis roughly every 24 hours, then the Sun will rise tomorrow.

The logical content is transmitted from the conditional “if” to the “then,” for while the phrase ‘the Sun will rise tomorrow’ is clearly not true when understood in its broadest sense (the Sun does not ‘rise’, solar eclipses are infrequent events, and people in the far North experience no sunlight for months at a time), when understood colloquially, it is but an observation report of the Sun rising in the East when viewed from a particular vantage point at a particular time. In other words, it would be like saying “If all dogs are brown, then all other things being equal, an individual will, upon seeing a dog, report that it is brown.”

Conditional knowledge, however, is in no way justified by appealing to the explanation. Another explanation about laws of gravitation is necessary. This new explanation requires another explanation, and so on, creating an infinite regress of explanations. This conditional knowledge is in no way justified, for our explanations have in the past been false, and there is no way to know if our explanations are true, for explanations always have a logical content that extends far into the future and past, discussing events that we will never have a chance to observe.


  1. Have you been reading the same book as me?

  2. I am reading Deutsch’s new book, The Beginning of Infinity. What you write here is remarkably similar to something I just read in that book.

    • Ah, I haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy. That’s quite odd, though. His first book gave one of the most novel solutions to Goodman predicates I’ve seen yet. Sad it hasn’t been picked up in the literature more.

      • So far it is very good. Better than his last (though it covers much of the same ground). I recommend.

        • Good to hear. I don’t know about his work in physics, so I’ll refrain from commenting on them.

          I added a bit of clarification at one point in the post, since it might have been unclear.

  3. Here’s a review of The Beginning of Infinity in The New York Times:

    “Explaining it All: How We Became the Center of the Universe” By DAVID ALBERT. Published: August 12, 2011


  4. I’ve been reading Elliot Sober and Malcolm Forster’s paper on model selection and the Akaike’s Information Criterion as a mathematical solution to understanding goodness of fit and parsimony in induction. Under their suggestion, it seems that we do have a mathematical understanding of nearness to the truth that dodges explanations and instead provides a mathematical backing to it. So we could, under this framework, maybe get around appeals to the best explanation for models or at the very least understand what it means to be the best explanation.

    It might be an interesting read since it doesn’t rely on explanation at all in terms of selecting theories, rather it’s a rigorous mathematical backing to parsimonious fits of models to data. Although, in my opinion, I think that mathematical models are a type of explanation. But that’s my opinion.

    Here’s the link for the paper: http://philosophy.wisc.edu/sober/forster%20and%20sober%20pub%20version%20bjps%201994%20.pdf

    • I’ll have to read the paper, even though I have a stack I’m slowly going through.

      Before I read it, I’m quite skeptical if they providing anything but a model for the most parsimonious fit of the data. If they are, Popper and van Fraassen would throw a fit — it’s not solving the problem of induction at all!

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