A Justification of Empirical Thinking

Philosophy Now 102:22-24 (2014)
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Imagine two urns, each with a thousand beads - in one all the beads are blue while in the other only one of the thousand is blue. If one of these urns is pushed forward (based on the toss of a fair coin) and the single bead then randomly drawn from it is blue, we must infer that it is a thousand times more probable that the urn pushed forward is the purely blue one. The hypothesis that this was instead the urn with only one blue bead would require that the occurrence of the evidence, the blue bead being drawn, was something improbable - and it is improbable that something improbable is what has occurred. Next consider an example of only one urn with no prior description. By the same reasoning as above, if all the first beads randomly drawn are blue, it is becoming more and more probable that the beads in the urn are generally blue. (Otherwise something improbable would be happening in another colour not appearing; and what’s improbable is improbable.) It is therefore probable also that the next bead drawn will be blue. This is induction. As Hume would have said, we could not know a priori, given this evidence, that the next bead will be blue. But, as he overlooked, we can know a priori, given this evidence, that it is probable that the next bead will be blue. In neither urn example has the belief regarding the beads been formed as a Humean habit of expectation after many observations of beads. (In the first case there is only one observation. The second could be modified to have all the beads drawn out at once.) Rather the belief is a product of a priori reasoning about probability. Next imagine that a coin has been tossed a thousand times and landed heads every time. There was a fair and a loaded coin. According to the same reasoning, it is overwhelmingly more probable that the coin used was the loaded one. For that the fair coin had so landed is most improbable. The hypothesis that there is no external world makes the orderliness in my current experience improbable - much like getting all heads with a fair coin. (Uncaused sensation would most probably be chaotic.) The most probable hypothesis is that of things like those we believe in causing this orderliness - as the coin’s being loaded would have caused all heads. The hypothesis that my experience has been made to take this pattern by a Cartesian malicious demon or by scientists controlling my brain in a vat can only falsely seem to make the character of the experience probable by sneaking in an inherently improbable ad hoc specification that this sort of pattern of experience was that which they were aiming at producing - like an ad hoc specification that the fair coin was one that by chance landed heads all thousand times. We may thus reject such hypotheses as improbable. So this is the problem of induction solved and scepticism answered through a priori reasoning.



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Arnold Zuboff
University College London

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References found in this work

The New Riddle of Induction.Nelson Goodman - 2000 - In Sven Bernecker & Fred I. Dretske (eds.), Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology. Oxford University Press.
The New Riddle of Induction.Nelson Goodman - 2011 - In Robert B. Talisse & Scott F. Aikin (eds.), The Pragmatism Reader: From Peirce Through the Present. Princeton University Press. pp. 188-201.

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