iSoul In the beginning is reality

Induction with uniformity

John P. McCaskey has done a lot of research (including a PhD dissertation) on the meaning of induction since ancient times. He keeps some of his material online at http://www.johnmccaskey.com/. A good summary is Induction Without the Uniformity Principle.

McCaskey traced the origin of the principle of the uniformity of nature (PUN) to Richard Whately in the early 19th century. In his 1826 “Elements of Logic” he wrote that induction is “a Syllogism in Barbara with the major Premiss suppressed.” This made induction an inference for the first time.

There are two approaches to inferential induction. The first is enumeration in the minor premise, which was known to the Scholastics:

(major) This magnet, that magnet, and the other magnet attract iron.
(minor) [Every magnet is this magnet, that magnet, and the other magnet.]
(conclusion) Therefore, every magnet attracts iron.

The second is via uniformity in the major premise, which was new:

(major) [A property of the observed magnets is a property of all magnets.]
(minor) The property of attracting iron is a property of the observed magnets.
(conclusion) Therefore, the property of attracting iron is a property of all magnets.
(conclusion) Therefore, all magnets attract iron.

The influential J.S. Mill picked this up and made it central to science. Mill wrote in 1843:

“Every induction is a syllogism with the major premise suppressed; or (as I prefer expressing it) every induction may be thrown into the form of a syllogism, by supplying a major premise. If this be actually done, the principle which we are now considering, that of the uniformity of the course of nature, will appear as the ultimate major premise of all inductions.”

Mill held that there is one “assumption involved in every case of induction . . . . This universal fact, which is our warrant for all inferences from experience, has been described by different philosophers in different forms of language: that the course of nature is uniform; that the universe is governed by general laws; and the like . . . [or] that the future will resemble the past.”

So Mill generalized Whately’s major premise into a principle of the uniformity of nature. McCaskey writes:

“This proposal is the introduction into induction theory of a uniformity principle: What is true of the observed is true of all. Once induction is conceived to be a propositional inference made good by supplying an implicit major premise, some sort of uniformity principle becomes necessary. When induction was not so conceived there was no need for a uniformity principle. There was not one in the induction theories of Aristotle, Cicero, Boethius, Averroës, Aquinas, Buridan, Bacon, Whewell, or anyone else before Copleston and Whately.”

McCaskey goes on: “De Morgan put all this together with developing theories of statistics and probability. He saw that, when induction is understood as Whately and Mill were developing it, an inductive inference amounts to a problem in ‘inverse probability’: Given the observation of effects, what is the chance that a particular uniformity principle is being observed at work? That is, given Whately’s minor premise that observed instances of some kind share some property (membership in the kind being taken for granted), what are the chances that all instances of the kind do? De Morgan’s attempt to answer this failed, but he made the crucial step of connecting probabilistic inference to induction. The connection survives today, and it would have made little sense (as De Morgan himself saw) were induction to be understood in the Baconian rather than Whatelian sense of the term.”

That’s how the problem of induction was born, which is essentially the problem of justifying the principle of the uniformity of nature. But this depends on an inferential understanding of induction instead of the older conceptual understanding.

Post Navigation