The problem of induction: Don’t be a chicken

“Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who usually feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.

But in spite of the misleadingness of such expectations, they nevertheless exist. The mere fact that something has happened a certain number of times causes animals and men to expect that it will happen again. Thus our instincts certainly cause us to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, but we may be in no better a position than the chicken which unexpectedly has its neck wrung.”

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

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14 thoughts on “The problem of induction: Don’t be a chicken

  1. thinks says:

    Considering the expectations that politicians have educated us to adopt, may we be as surprised, by a sudden change of behavior, as the chicken! A good morrow, tomorrow, dear epanechnikov!

    • epanechnikov says:

      Anything (or any theory) could be compatible with the observations as long as uniformity persists. At the end of the day, our farmer may just be a benevolent vegetarian!

      The question is: Uniformity could be very misleading and hence very dangerous. But why do we humans love it? Most people would risk to have their neck wrung for a steady corn inflow! But could the farmer be held responsible for our unwillingness to alter our habits?

  2. thinks says:

    “Most people would risk to have their neck wrung for a steady corn inflow!” Now, this is an incredibly good question: Why? And, to a parallel point: “Most people (before supermarkets) would risk being killed by their prey in their hunt for food.” Each case is different, in that one is passive and the other aggressive, but both reveal the acceptance of the risk involved in securing sustenance. Perhaps a built-in natural drive or instinct?

    • epanechnikov says:

      You are right to say that we appreciate uniformity due to a natural drive. However this appreciation exposes us to the risk of grand exploitation. The continuous supply of rich corn meals could be considered (surely from a wise chicken) as a possible indication that slaughter is imminent. Hence the best strategy would then be to reduce this risk at the cost of a reduced corn intake (who likes skinny chickens!??). Despite that, we know that most chickens blindly follow their instincts (as opposed to their grey matter) and eventually fall into the farmer’s trap.

      This instinct fool us continuously whether we talk about science, metaphysical beliefs or relationships. We tend to forget that repeated experience cannot justify our theories. And the more we forget it the more we expose ourselves to disappointment.

      • thinks says:

        Absolutely agreed, and I find the ramifications very interesting: how all this can apply or be translated in socioeconomic terms for our civilization if not the species. To my earlier point, a hunter takes the risk of death through proactive, aggressive actions. The chicken in us, the 9-to-5er, accepts the corn, and, if the gray cells (or revolutionaries) were to warn him of imminent misfortune, he would probably continue to take the risk, only this time through a perverted sense of stoicism, or optimism… or denial, that strangely stem, I think, from the same instinct as that of the hunter but with some other elements of the character missing.

      • epanechnikov says:

        thinks that is also related to our recent discussion (in your place 😉 ) with one of your guests. The discussion was related to the non-absolute nature of our beliefs and the necessity of challenging them. What I essentially meant back then is that an honest attitude implies the continuous effort to break any “uniformities”.

        But you are right. people do not feel comfortable (and can not handle well) with revolutions (in science, society etc. ) as well as with other discontinuities (or non-linearities).

  3. manblogg says:

    Hello both. A post that deals with really interesting questions. Dear epanechnikov I suspect in your last comment, you are probably referring to our discussion at thinks’ blog. One of the most accurate statements of what science is all about for me is the one that was put forth by Laurence Krauss at a scientific conference among theoretical physicists in Europe somewhere (will try to find it if you’re interested) discussing the most recent developments in cosmology. It can be summed up to something like “science thrives in proving scientific theories wrong”! I think in that context it is true that an extraordinary claim put forth by a hypothetical “wise chicken” as you mention in your example would require “extraordinary evidence” if no evidence whatsoever was available to the chickens that would indicate the not so noble intentions of their feeder. Which it does indeed make it very hard for extraordinary leaps of progress in the case where a claim about the perceived reality was deemed to be far fetched. But at the same time it is the only reasonable deductive mechanism (i.e. of all the possible explanations of the cosmos we have to choose the one that better describes it, backed by empirical evidence ideally 😉 ) we as rational, evolved primates are equipped with in order to make pragmatic progress.
    Challenging commonplace scientific beliefs is the only way of making progress and I do not think any “scientific thinker” would deny the need for that. At the same time we do have to recognize that what we do every time is just approximating “reality”. Surely we will always be thrown off when our established beliefs about how things ought to work are suddenly shattered by new observation or other contradictions.
    The solution to that is making even better approximations 🙂

    • epanechnikov says:

      Dear Manblogg I have to say that I enjoyed very much reading your opinion on this matter. I agree with most of it but I just want to mention a thing. Human knowledge does not only involve basic unfalsified empirical sentences (which, in my opinion, consist the most valuable part of science) but also non-empirical explanations. When we lack empirical evidence -or when we deal with difficult-to-detect/inexistent observations* and/or metaphysical statements- we are left to use our rationale and purpose possible answers. Philosophy can be an exceptionally valuable guide on that.

      * Such as Everett shadow photons, Bohr waves or the farmer’s intentions

      • manblogg says:

        Sure thing dear epanechnikov. It is just that if we were to classify the “quality of human knowledge” if one can say so , based on its ability to withstand future challenges we will most likely put the type of knowledge that is empirically testable and provable at the top and the rest would probably follow below. More so if its “correctness” is tested on a frequent basis like the fact that the sun rises on a daily basis as Bertrand Russel suggests in your post. Unfortunately for the chickens though (and equally for us if the analogy was for example that everything we experience and our existence itself is such because we are really part of the cast of some sort of a cosmic “Truman Show”), the above rational convention will not do much to help them avoid their ultimate fate unless maybe if it happens by “accident” exactly as it did in “The Truman show”.

      • epanechnikov says:

        manblogg I would definitely agree with the view that the value of a falsifiable scientific statement is proportional to the stringency of the tests to which it has been exposed. The acceptance of an untested (falsifiable) hypothesis is synonymous to dogmatism. However I feel (and correct me if I am wrong) that you underestimate the importance philosophical/non-empirical propositions have in science and in human knowledge in general.

        Let me now attempt to be a bit more explicit. A scientist constantly strives to find new theories which do not have the deficiencies of their predecessors but do retain their merits. The initial stage of this endeavour -the invention of a theory- involves conjecture. But the way the latter (birth of ideas) occurs is not subject to empirical justification!! It is a “quid facti?” (question of fact). The theory is also not exclusively empirical. It is to a great degree composed of a body of explanations. Most scientific criticism is directed not at a theory’s predictions but indirectly at the underlying (philosophical/non-empirical) explanations. A further stage involves the scientific testing of the conjectures. Note here that the falsification procedures are only indirectly testable. Furthermore, the methodology (and any possible refutation criteria) is untestable and it involves decision. It is driven by the logic of science to which we chose to surrender. Hence, as you can see, philosophy and explanation are inseparable (and highly valuable) parts of science.

        “the type of knowledge that is empirically testable and provable at the top”

        There is no such thing as a provable type of empirical knowledge my friend. That is the essence of the problem of induction.

  4. thinks says:

    Excellent points, Epanechnikov and ManBlogg! And I will start my comment with the last phrase above, in ManBlogg’s last comment, referring to the “accident”, and ask, is the word, and meaning of, “accident” not a way we have devised to describe something which we could not have predicted through contemplation of existing knowledge or empirical data? Emphasis on our ability to predict falling short of accuracy because of our limitations, or, better: our nature.

    In our discussions in the past I have put forth the concept that whether in the desert of 4000 years ago, or the science labs of today, our ability to create concepts was defined (or doomed) by our three-dimensional, biological nature. Hence, I supported the view that both religion and science carry essentially the same iconography.

    Although we have discussed, so far, three different subjects on different posts, we now find a common thread in the background of the human qualities of thought which we describe.

    Back to the chickens, I proposed above that the Hunter and the Chicken both take the same risk in different guises, with different outlook and character but the same motive. The chicken/religious man trusts in the higher power that provides for him. The hunter/scientist trusts in his own abilities and skills. But, although the hunter takes a calculated conscious risk, the religious man sweetens the risk by taking the responsibility for the eventual outcome away from one’s self, placing it firmly in the hands of the feeder.

    Neither can escape the basic concept of food-involves-risk, not because they do not have enough knowledge, but because their nature requires food.

    The true Universe is (I am saying “is”, not “may be”) something that humans will never be able to comprehend because our biology will not allow its comprehension. We have no choice but to think in terms of three dimensions and linear one-directional time, therefore will never understand the Universe beyond the genesis-like (albeit with a different kind of creator) Big Bang.

    I believe therefore that science can work on two levels: the local level where it can provide technology for life on the surface of the planet, and the universe level where all that science is able to do is to gradually point to what concepts are wrong or limited.

    Consequently, it is in my opinion absolutely right to accept that imagination, intuition and philosophy are necessary elements that power, as guides, the train of science.

  5. manblogg says:

    Dimitri, of course I agree with your statements about the nature of prediction and the concept of the “accident”.

    I cannot help but point out a very strong contradiction in your last comment though. The claim “The true Universe is (I am saying “is”, not “may be”) something that humans will never be able to comprehend because our biology will not allow its comprehension.” is a very strong statement with two children statements where one contradicts the other.
    This statement directly implies two things.
    1. You know what the “true Universe is”.
    2. You know the limits of the human comprehension and you know that it is not good enough to comprehend statement 1.
    Would love to see how both of the above can be true. If 2 is true how can you claim 1? Also if 2 is true how do you know it?
    You could carry my questioning on your following statement. “Never understand the Universe beyond the genesis-like Big Bang”. One might wonder … how do you know dear Dimitris? 😉

    Nothing wrong with imagination, intuition and philosophy as being the instigators for making leaps towards better knowledge. That’s happening all the time in science as this is possibly the only way to make progress. If these are not supported soon enough by some sort of empirical evidence, (by that I do not only imply direct observation but indirect as well) in some consistent manner or cross testing against other already accepted theories and attract a large consensus of the scientific community they will remain (and rightly so) just “gut feeling” guesses, some among many perhaps, and until then they should be viewed with the strongest skepticism.
    Best regards to both

  6. thinks says:

    ManBlogg, thank you for responding to my little challenge! You zeroed-in bullseye on the target which was, of course, my obviously intended emphasis on “is” as opposed to “may be”.

    I have always been fascinated by the inadequacy of language in transmitting, or even describing, human thought. For example:

    Take two photographs: One of a general of the army posing in full uniform with all his medals, and the photograph of a peacock displaying his feathers in a cage at the zoo.

    Each photograph is a very strong statement without room for doubt as to what it is we are looking at. But, if we look at the two photographs one next to the other, or better, if we are watching a film and we see the general first and the peacock second, another “image” is emerging. Only this emerging :image” is not a photograph or a strong statement, but, a thought, impression, or feeling. And it will be quite a different thought, impression, or feeling, if we see the peacock first and the general second.

    This is my feeble attempt to transcend the limitations of speech and create a thought without eluding to it.

    In this case, the same person suggests two contradicting, or mutually nullifying, statements.

    The reader’s reaction to that is: 1) “How can they both be true, and, 2) “How do you know”.

    This was easy because the two mutually nullifying statements were made by the same person.

    It becomes more complicated when the two statements are made by two different persons, because there is no apparent immediate contradiction. Yet although in that case the statements came from two different persons, they still came from one species with identical brains.

    And that brings the question around, from the other side of the looking glass.

    For example: You seem always very sure that science is on the correct path, discovering more and more of the truth, and you seem to expect that one day human science can discover the absolute truth. Also, you seem very sure that science, philosophy and religion are different and separate things with science being the only one of the three that is valid.

    How do you know?

    • manblogg says:

      Dear Dimitri not sure I understand the analogy between your statement and the pictures example you are proposing. Maybe I am missing information available to you, no need to put it in words though if difficult to describe. Generally I don’t know how else the above statement could be phrased by two separate speakers, and thus make it more complicated to notice the contradiction as you suggest. Don’t see how you can phrase it without falling into a contradiction specially in the “is” form that you chose to put it in.

      As to your question. I hope I did not explicitly state or even imply vaguely anywhere that I am very sure that science is on the correct path in discovering the “truth”, let alone “absolute truth” as you keep referring to it. I may have mentioned it at your blog under you post but I will as well state it here just to be clear. I have no clue what “absolute truth” is or what you suggest it to be. As you will probably notice even when I speak of “reality” I put it in double quotes as I feel that because human language as you have remarked here is very “loosely typed and fluid” (compared to mathematics for example or programming languages) it requires prior agreement between speakers on its exact definition in order to make a statement that could have some chances to sustain a true or false test. So in my texts whenever I speak of “reality” I understand it as the set of knowledge that is available for us humans to discover and no more. Please do not take it that I imply also that this might be a set of finite elements.
      I also do not think that I said that “science and philosophy are separate things”. The last paragraph in my previous comment directly implied that philosophy is really part of the scientific process in making progress (hope this also clears any confusion related to whether I underestimate or not philosophy dear epanechnikov).

      Now as far religion and the scientific process are concerned (will keep it science in short), I know, for once, that they are different for many reasons. One of the most basic ones is what has already been a problem in our discussions. The language problem. The scientific language once learned leaves almost zero room for misinterpretation (e.g mathematics) . The language of religions (written or spoken), like in poetry, requires interpretation and you rarely find two people agreeing on what it suggests and even then you are not really sure if both parties understand exactly the same. So that tells me they are different. How do I know that science in discovering “reality” is more successful than religion? This could be tested in areas where scientific propositions and religious texts offer contradicting explanations about the same thing (Genesis and creation of the Earth for example). But as I said before that requires prior agreement between the two of us and everybody else on what the religious text suggests. So in as much as there is no unique and consistent way by two or more individuals in deriving clear and consistent propositions about “reality” from religious texts (or spoken language) that could withstand falsifiability tests in some degree, predict future events that could be independently tested etc. , then I think it is clear that the scientific method is a better (well between the two based on the above it is really the only), explanation of reality.

      (Very interesting views on bad,good and better explanations offers also David Deutsch’s talk on the subject that epanechnikov posted a few days ago.)

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