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The inductionist’s bluff

Notes on:
Frederick L. Will, “Will the Future Be Like the Past?”

Whose problem is the problem of induction?

Time does pass, and, because it does, the present is a constantly changing one; and the point of reference for the use of words like “future” and “past” is accordingly different. The correct conclusion to be drawn from the fact that time passes is that the future is constantly being revealed and that, in consequence, we have had and shall have the opportunity to learn more and more accurately what the laws of nature’s behaviour are and how therefore the future will be like the past. But this sceptical man has his eyes fixed in fatal fascination upon the movement of time, the constantly changing present. And seeing that, as the present changes, what was once future is not now future, but present, and will shortly be past, he is led to draw the conclusion that after all, for any present whatever, the future is forever hidden behind a veil.

But maybe this isn’t entirely the sceptic’s fault… Perhaps what the believer in induction ought to be saying is not that the future will be like the present or past, but that the future, when it becomes present or past, will be like the present or past. That does sound a little tautologous but if he is willing to live thus humbled he would embarrass himself less in the eyes of our fixated sceptic. We are predicting now what tomorrow will be like when it ceases being tomorrow and becomes today. Thus, induction is never about unknowable futures but about as yet invisible todays or yesterdays. The sceptic, perhaps naively, took the inductionist’s “future talk” at face value: such language is plainly absurd. How can we talk of something we have zero experience of, now and ever? And perhaps the inductionist, too, was a bit taken in by his own words, excitedly thinking all along he was saying more than he could possibly have intended.

There are then, two senses of the word “future “to be carefully discriminated. They may be designated future-1 and future-2. In the sense of future-1, when one speaks about the future he is speaking of events which have not occurred, of things which do not exist, but of events and things which, with the constant movement of the line of the present, may sometime occur or exist. In the sense of future-2 when one speaks about the future he is speaking of the time which is always beyond the line of the moving present, of a time which never comes, which by definition can never come, no matter how far the line of the present moves.

Is the sceptic more to blame than the inductionist for the confusion? Or was he merely calling the latter’s bluff?

And just as a future war which by definition cannot occur is not a future war in any sense which is pertinent to our present international deliberations, so generally a future event which by definition can occur in no present is not a future event in any sense which is pertinent to the validity of our inductive reasoning beyond the present and past, either in science or in everyday life.

What does induction teach us? That the future to come, when it comes about, will be like the one that has already come and gone—if our amassed wisdom serves us well. And if it doesn’t, we will be as filled with wonder as newborns (if we are not projecting too much here, imagining things that never were).

It comes to this: There is at this moment a world. I seem to recall an earlier one. I have invested so much in that earlier one. It is the sum of what I tenuously possess. The value of the current one is that I hope it will enhance my collected store. There is an imagined world that is not mine now. I imagine, on the metaphor of traveling along a path, that I can see ahead where it leads and what I am to expect. A more or less fully populated scenery of expectations I imagine. I invent a “yet” as a marker between the now and that pictured world. I say “not yet” to indicate some event in that scenery I imagine I glimpse. My store of memories is chock full of repetitions and regularities. My imagination works with materials at hand. The path ahead is bound to resemble what I recall of that behind. This is all that can be said for induction.

I am not saying, nor need I say, that the future, “the not yet,” will be like the past or the present in any sense of “will” that implies necessity. I am only bound to picture it using the resources at my disposal. This is not justification. Russell’s chicken was perfectly understandable in its expectations. We can sympathize with it. What the problem of induction ends up showing is that, placed alongside sympathy—sympathy with the familiar, the value of justification is overrated.

Induction, its heart in the right place, is prone to exaggeration.

Posted by luno in epistemology, Hume (Saturday October 15, 2005 at 12:45 pm)

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