- Politics and Social Issues
The problem of inductive reasoning
It was David Hume that brought forth the Problem of Induction in the 1700’s. Philosophers have tried to solve it for centuries. The problem of induction is the philosophical question of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge. That is, what is the justification for either:
- generalizing about the properties of a class of objects based on some number of observations of particular instances of that class (for example, the inference that "all swans we have seen are white, and therefore all swans are white," before the discovery of black swans) or
- presupposing that a sequence of events in the future will occur as it always has in the past (for example, that the laws of physics will hold as they have always been observed to hold). Hume called this the Principle of Uniformity of Nature.
If Hume’s conclusion that science is irrationally grounded in custom and habit is correct, then we have to explain how scientific knowledge can be rational given the fact that it cannot be rationally justified.
Karl Popper sought to resolve the problem of induction in the context of the scientific method. He argued that science does not rely on induction, but exclusively on deduction, by making the Modus tollens argument form the centerpiece of his theory. (If X is true then Y is true.Y is false. Therefore X is false. Modus Tollens is the root of falsification, as proposed by Karl Popper and since used as the cornerstone of scientific proof.) He claimed that knowledge is gradually advanced as tests are made and failures are accounted for. This, in a nutshell, was Popper’s problem. In order to solve it, Popper had to first offer an alternative to the view that science is distinguished from non-science by its inductive method, and then an alternative to the view that the rationality of a belief depends upon its justification. He had, in other words, to offer an alternative to the view that science is both science and rational because it justifies its theories through sense experience.
It was Karl Popper who redefined the problem and offered criticism as the rational approach to knowledge. He approached the problem from a completely different angle. Popper “cut the Gordian knot” by arguing that scientific knowledge cannot, and need not, be justified at all—and by saying that it is rational not because we have justified it, but because we can criticize it.
Inductive reasoning will never prove a theory. It can’t because we can never exhaust all the possibilities that may exist in the universe. So we can’t know with certainty if a theory is true or not. We can however prove a theory is false. And that brings us closer to the truth by a process of elimination. We do that through Deduction. Inductive reasoning is used almost exclusively by conservatives as has been shown in examples by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. They use it in order to attempt to prove their theories of rationality can predict outcomes. They cite specific instances in order to make a generalization and then claim that the generalization is a fact.You can trace the lunatic mutterings of Sarah Palin as well. The claim is always, this leads to that, which leads to Death Camps, or whatever horror show they can come up with to deny progress in this country.
Induction is impossible to use for the purposes of criticism. I think that induction actually brings a person to conservatism. It’s the process that leads from the specific to the general in making claims. They will add up specific facts in order to produce a broad sweeping generality that they assume as true. Each fact, they assume, adds weight to their argument and justifies their generalized conclusion. It’s the reasoning used to make the claim that “All Swans are White”. It was also the argument for WMD as a justification for attacking Iraq. That argument reached new heights of irrationality when it was demanded that Saddam Hussein prove that he didn’t have any WMD requiring him to prove a negative. Where do you go to satisfy the demand that you prove that you don’t have something? Granted Saddam was a bad guy, but the argument that we used to justify invading Iraq at a cost of over 4000 American lives was appalling. What may be even more appalling is that the American public never applied any degree of critical thinking to the reasoning used to justify the war, and that very few members of congress objected. More than likely it was out of fear of being branded a sympathizer to Saddam and to terrorists. The authorization for the war resolutions came up shortly before the mid-term elections.
Politics played a heavy hand in the decision to go to war. Reason was manufactured. Clearly there is a danger in abandoning critical thinking. By standing back and allowing inductive reasoning to have its way as a positive methodology for the justification of the sending of our country into a war, we run the enormous risk of inflicting needless death and destruction on our own troops as well as whomever it is that we’re at war with.
You can make a case for anything using induction. If you want to make a point, there is no limit to the bits of anecdotal evidence to support your assertion for what it is you’re attempting to prove. But none of it actually proves your point. In the run up to the war with Iraq, we made a number of claims. The procedure that was employed was that all the intelligence agencies were instructed to give the administration “everything” they had on Saddam. The conflicting evidence that contradicted the claim was dismissed and discarded and only the damning evidence was used to support the case. They literally “cherry picked” what they wanted to make their case for war. This is the positive methodology at work. It’s an additive process which is employed to build a case. They drew from specific incidents to present a generalization and assumed the truth of that generality. It’s basically saying, we have this and this and this and this..and the only possible conclusion can be this. Voila! War. In a matter of this importance, the procedure should have been can we find something that disproves our conclusion. Is there evidence that contradicts what we are saying. Remember, in deduction, it only takes one thing to disprove an argument. We didn’t do that. All such evidence was dismissed. That’s because the decision to go to war had already been made long before the issue was brought to the public attention. Once the decision was made, the selling of the war was necessary to gain public support and to apply pressure on congress to agree with the decision. That of course would take the sole responsibility for any mistakes off of the shoulders of the administration and spread it out into congress. They could spread the blame for their mistake and once again justify themselves by saying, “everyone got it wrong”. It’s a slight variation of the tu quoque fallacy. The tu quoque fallacy is committed when it is assumed that because someone else has done a thing there is nothing wrong with doing it. This fallacy is classically committed by children who, when told off, respond with “So and so did it too”, with the implied conclusion that there is nothing wrong with doing whatever it is that they have done. This is a fallacy because it could be that both children are in the wrong, and because, as we were all taught, two wrongs don’t make a right. So, since “everyone” got it wrong, it’s ok that the administration got it wrong. And therefore everything is ok. And the American public accepted that reasoning. Well, perhaps not entirely. The conservatives certainly did. They were the ones pushing for the war and they didn’t want that albatross hanging from their neck. So, when the reasoning was more closely examined, the conservative media which included Fox News, and the various radio talking heads and some major newpapers put their spin on the subject as loudly and as often as it took to defuse the issue. They took the aggressive posture of attacking those that would dare to question the motives of the administration.
Later as it was revealed that we were engaging in torture of prisoners, the most astonishing thing I have ever seen took place. Something that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. We justified torture. Dick Cheney actually applied a euphamism calling it “enhanced interrogation techniques, and therefore…presto..no torture. See how simple it was. Poof! All gone. But what transpired was something that I’ll never understand. We began to debate the ethics of torture in this country. The torturing of prisoners is something that is forbidden. This goes back to George Washington. It’s probably safe to say that the father of our country may have known something about the values that this new country would adhere to. Torture was distinctly anti-American. In fact he stated in an address to the troops that anyone that engaged in that would be subject to execution. This might be the tactics of our enemies, but it is not part of the American way. It contradicts American values as stated by no less an authority than Washington himself.
When former Assistant Secretary of Defense; Frank Gaffney, said that it's more important to take measures that will save thousands of American lives than holding onto to some abstract value. I was stunned. A conservative willing to compromise his values? Well, maybe they weren’t his values after all. They were American values. Conservatives claim that their values are American values. However, they seem to put the cart before the horse here, and re-write history. The values of this country preceded the conservative movement in this country by about 200 years. Maybe they mean that their values are consistent with American values. (somehow I doubt that. They’ll probably insist that American values are the result of conservative values) If that’s the case then torture is obviously a conservative value. But Washington didn’t see it that way.
“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.” - George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775
Washington is on Mt Rushmore. There is a big monument in the capital city that bears his name. His picture is on our currency. A state is named after him. Towns, counties, and a national park is named after him. I think the jury is in on Washington. His values are literally set in stone. For Frank Gaffney to try and dismiss as some abstract value, this particular value that is a cornerstone of what America is about as addressed by the father of the country, is an example of the hypocrisy of conservatism which never hesitates in making the claim that it’s values are American values and are never compromised. Clearly there are times when the conservative will indeed compromise his values and yet continue to claim that his values are American values. That is, until they are compromised again to further some other self-serving motive.
We are Americans. We don’t torture. To make excuses and call it something else is transparent not only to those of us that still have the capacity for critical thinking, but also to the rest of the world. Gaffney’s argument does however raise questions that we must face. What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of nation are we? Being an American isn’t as easy as some may think. Living in a free and open society actually comes with a cost. Gaffney asks do we torture this one person in order to save the lives of thousands? Most if not all conservatives will enthusiastically say, “hell yeah”. But there are consequences to every action. A ripple effect that they ignore for the momentary satisfaction of inflicting agony on a prisoner in order to hopefully save American lives. Is the prisoner telling you what you want to hear in order to make the torture stop? As Jesse Ventura said; give me Dick Cheney and an hour of waterboarding and I’ll get him to confess to the Sharon Tate murders”. The information you get under that kind of coercive technique is completely unreliable. So, what do we gain, and at what cost? Most likely as was the case with Ibn al Libi, we gain false information that is extracted to justify launching a war. After nearly beating a man to death, waterboarding him, and then stuffing him into a box for 17 hours in a mock burial..he’ll admit to anything. He’ll say whatever you want him to say. He’ll even give you the reasons you need to justify a war. Colin Powell used that confession to make the case for war at the UN. To this day he says it was the lowest moment in his professional career. The cost to us as a nation that the world looks to for justice and reason, two elements that are at the root of our founding, is far too high. It sends our sensibilities back into the dark ages. To a time before critical thinking was the accepted practice. When prisoners were required to prove their innocence rather than the accuser required to prove his case against the accused. When you were required to prove you were not a witch. When you could be accused of anything, and then required to prove that you weren’t what you were being accused of and if you couldn’t you could forfeit your life. When you were required to prove a negative. When prisoners were tortured to get confessions and once they were given, were used as evidence against the prisoner to render a guilty verdict and justify executing them. We are supposed to be better than that. It’s what separates us from the brutal history of other nations around the world. People from around the world came to America to escape that kind of sanctioned brutality. Now they see it infect the soul of America.
We find ourselves in a battle of the mind today. A civil war that is less than civil. On one side we have a reliance on faith, on the other a reliance on reason. One side employs inductive reasoning to attempt to prove a generality. It is logically inpossible to do, and is irrational. The other side employs deduction to prove what is false and thereby reveal truth as the remainder.
Emerson said, “the basic difference was between the party of the past and the party of the future, between the party of memory and the party of hope. If truth is what we seek, then you must decide what is the best way of getting to it. Do you simply accept some theory of rationality which decides what is truth for you? A positive methodology will not bring you there. A negative methodology however just might. We can approach the truth primarily by trying to understand new ideas, letting these new ideas come into conflict with previously held ideas, subject them to criticism, and thereby making adjustments and weeding out the error, which bring us closer to the truth.
When a conservative claims that you don’t stand for anything, tell him you stand for Truth. What can be more important than that?