Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Difficulty of Induction

"Curiosity, the desire to understand and know – lies at the root of all science and philosophy."[1] The question that confronts humanity is by what means can man know anything? To be sure, there is an intense innate desire for knowledge and understanding. Man wants to know about himself and his environment. What is this existence in which we find ourselves and how do we know?
The promise of inductive reasoning is that by it human beings are able to establish "matters of fact" from which we may be able to discover additional matters of fact. Indeed, the promise of knowledge and understanding is a very attractive promise. Can induction deliver on its promise? Is induction the key to understanding? What does it mean to understand and how can I know that I actually do understand something about the nature of reality? The empiricist claim is that induction is the way to arrive at a strictly strong understanding of the world.

 In the realm of induction, as we seek new knowledge of facts about the world, nothing is beyond all doubt.[2] With induction then, validity or invalidity is not the aim. The language we use with induction is best thought of in terms of probability. Inductive arguments are more probable or less probable depending on the evidence supporting the argument. The strength of inductive reasoning is dependent upon the strength of the evidence supporting the claim. If the evidence is strong, the inductive argument is said to range from probable to highly probable. Conversely, if there is little, weak, or no evidence, the argument is said to be weak, or even improbable or unlikely.

Inductive reasoning attempts to understand the relationship between the particular and the general. How can we infer, from particular past events, that the future will resemble the past? After all, how can we know what will happen in the future if all knowledge comes through observation and of course the future remains unobserved? What is the connection that holds the particular and the general together? How can we make inferences about the general concept of uniformity from the particulars of human experience? If induction is the key, then how can we know that it is the key? Surely the knowledge that induction is the key to understanding is not itself the product of induction. How can we make statements about uniformity if such knowledge does not come to us through inductive reasoning? In other words, the validity of induction seems to be drawn from truths that are known a priori. But a priori knowledge is not gained by observation, which of course, contradicts inductive reasoning, which claims that it is.

The admission from the empiricist that induction assumes the uniformity of nature creates an ostensibly insurmountable obstacle for its claim to remain valid. The principle of cause and effect is not a principle that can be known solely by inductive reasoning. As Bahnsen says, "What rational basis is there for the assumption of natural uniformity, which is taken for granted in all inductive reasoning?"[3] This assumption deals a fatal blow to a process that is long on promises and short on delivery.

Since induction, by definition cannot assume anything, in particular the uniformity of nature, it must provide a valid argument for itself apart from such assumptions. Induction must be able to show that there is a valid inductive argument for the uniformity of nature. But the principle of the uniformity of nature, that is that there are impersonal laws operating in reality, is not one that can be shown by inductive reasoning. Induction moves from the particular to the general.

Anyone who will solve the difficulty of induction must do so by showing that induction does not presuppose the uniformity of nature or that the principle of the uniformity of nature is not a product of inductive reasoning. If the uniformity of nature is the product of induction, then it can only speak about passive events, events already observed. From past events, we can not infer future events unless there is something else at work to insure the operation of reality remains the same. This is merely begging the question. The argument is not just circular, it is viciously circular. 

In a world of chance, there is no clear way for the philosopher to defend the basic presuppositions necessary for science, logic, or the intelligibility of human experience. The assumption of the uniformity of nature, does nothing more than beg the question. We know that nature gives the appearance of uniformity. We can see that much. What we want to know is why it does so. Since induction can only tell us about what happened in this, or that particular instance, it has really precluded itself from providing the answer to this very basic question. The difficulty of induction is that it cannot defend it's own basic assertions. Upon an internal critique, induction fails to demonstrate it's own validity.

One answer is to hold that the universe is not the product of random chaos, but is ordered. But that too is an assumption that the non-Christian philosopher must solve on his own without the help of the Christian. Christian theism has no difficulty with the principle of induction. God has so ordered the universe that it is uniform and not only can we infer future events based on past ones, we do every day. In fact, I am going to Church this morning and I can guarantee you that I will arrive at its location the same way I did last Sunday. It is in the very same location. 

[1] William Halverson, A Concise Introduction To Philosophy, 4th ed (New York, NY: Random House, 1981), 3.
[2] Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen, and Kenneth McMahon, Introduction to Logic, 14th ed (Boston, MA: Prentice Hall, 2011), 445.
[3] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&​r Publishing, 1998), 642-643.


  1. great post! I wish current presuppositional apologetics professors would spend time popularizing it by delivering many lectures like Bahnsen did.

  2. Thanks Patrick. I have plans for short learning podcasts or "brainsharks" later in the year. The idea is to spend no more than 5-8 minutes hitting the most important components of a topic within a topic. For instance, you would see 25 5 minutes discussions around the topic of epistemology with 25 different subjects underneath it. This way a person could listen to the one they need to obtain a better understanding around. More to come!