The Problem of Induction

Inductive inference is a type of method that many scientists use to arrive at general claims from premises and observed samples. Historically however, philosophers such as David Hume have argued that inductive reasoning is unjustified and problematic in many ways. Pritchard explores this idea known as “the problem of induction” in Chapter 10.

An example of an observation is: Every observed emu has been flightless. Therefore the inductive inference would be: All Emus are flightless. Before Humes created his argument, this inference would seem justifiable so long as the observation was made in a range of cases that represented it. Humes however brings to question, “… how we could be sure that the regularities that are observed within a representative sample should increase the likelihood that the unrestricted generalization is true” (Pritchard 102). This proves that in order to defend that an inductive inference is justifiable, one must use yet another inductive claim. The epistemic support for inductive inferences is circular. From this, we conclude that there can be no non-circular justification for inductive inferences. This dilemma is known as the problem of induction and leaves us with the issue of whether we can justify inductive reasoning considering the fact Humes has presented us with the problem of induction. Do we conclude that induction needs no justification? Do we side with epistemic internalists who believe one must always have supporting grounds?

Since scientists are prone to use inductive reasoning, is the problem of Induction merely a something we can live with? Popper suggests that, “we don’t in fact make use of inductive inferences all that often” (103). Popper presents us with falsification, an alternative method for proceeding deductively through the problem of induction. Simply put, we must create generalizations then seek to refute them by finding evidence that counters the generalization. Is falsification a useful way to avoid the problem of induction? Philosophers argue that although falsification may temporarily solve the problem of induction, it suggest that in fact we don’t know much about scientific knowledge and we don’t know that many generalizations are indeed false.

Another solution to the problem of induction is Pragmatism. If we assume there is no justification for induction and we don’t employ induction and believe it is rational, we won’t have many true beliefs in this world. Pritchard states, “If we do use induction, at least we have the chance to form lots of true beliefs about the world through our inductive inferences” (107). This is the pragmatic response to the problem of induction. We face a choice between either using induction to gain true beliefs, or believing it is not justifiable and losing all potential true beliefs about the world.

Falsification and Pragmatism leave us with a choice to make in take for defining and justifying induction. Do we side with Humes, Popper, or one of the numerous other philosophers who believe they have arrived at solutions for the problem of induction? Vickers argues, “In recent times inductive methods have fissioned and multiplied, to an extent that attempting to define induction would be more difficult than rewarding… it is safe to say that in the absence of further assumptions this problem is and should be insoluble.” (Vickers). In other words, attempting to justify induction further complicates the problem because it raises even more questions. This leads us to the conclusion that the problem of induction is merely something we must live with in order for us to continue our scientific studies and the search for true beliefs in our world.

Outside source: Vickers, John, “The Problem of Induction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


6 thoughts on “The Problem of Induction

  1. It’s interesting that the idea of falsification so closely aligns itself with that of the scientific method. In science, it was widely understood that instead of trying to prove your hypothesis to be true, you instead want to prove your hypothesis wrong. The idea of it sounds like it could be quite insignificant; however, it does actually make a lot of sense. It is not an easy task to discover something, but progress does come from ruling out possibilities. And the same can be said in philosophy. “The methodology of science was not to slowly and inductively build up a case for a generalization, but rather to formulate bold generalizations and then seek to refute them by finding counterexamples to the generalization” (Pritchard, 102). This methodology can make the steps to discovery more pure by not trying to simply jump to conclusions which can come from inductive reasoning.

  2. I wonder if it is possible to utilize both methods of falsification and pragmatism at the same to combat instances of induction, rather than merely accepting induction’s existence. Your conclusion that “the problem of induction is merely something we must live with in order for us to continue our scientific studies and the search for true beliefs in our world” is something I am not sure I agree with or not. Isn’t it possible to take every belief from a pragmatist point of view (in terms of not having true beliefs until they can be justified) and then look at those beliefs that we believe to be false (as pragmatists) from the view point of falsification? What I mean to say is take anything to be false until it can be proved otherwise? For example – if the observation is that every observed emu has been flightless, then the belief should be (until an emu that can fly is found) that only some emus are flightless? And then if no emus who can fly are ever found, accept the possibility that they may still exist? This is most certainly not a solution but it was interesting to think about.

    1. I think that Hillary’s idea of combining falsification and pragmatism as a way to deal with the problem of induction is very reasonable. I agree that it doesn’t seem true that we have to live with the problem of induction. It actually feels a bit dangerous to do so. In the worst instance, if we make racial, ethnic, or cultural presumptions based on ideas that might be true, based on ‘strong,’ but not definitive evidence, we could get into terrifying moral judgments. In science, as well, we seem to be asking for problems if we don’t deal actively with the problem of induction. I know that a pre-Enlightenment ‘experiment’ was done, using induction, to ‘prove’ that mice were created, by spontaneous generation, in baskets of straw in barns. People had seen nests of mice in baskets that had previously been empty, so an ‘experiment’ was done in which a basket full of fresh straw was left in a barn, and lo and behold, a few weeks later, there was a nest of young mice. This experiment could be replicated, and more often than not, mice would indeed nest in a welcoming basket, and it would seem that there was ‘strong’ evidence for spontaneous generation. It would seem to be far better to assume, as Hilleary suggested, that it was false that mice were created in baskets of straw until another method of ‘mouse creation’ was found. And since other methods would presumably (at that time period) assume that places that were amenable to mouse-nests were ‘generating’ mice, it would be truly safe to make this assumption. This would seem to be the pragmatic way to go. If the actual way that mice emerged was not found for some number of centuries, then it would be best to just live with the possibility that it might one day be found. We do this in the case of seeking cures for diseases – we trust that one day, cures will be found for all diseases, and we have given up the habit of using truly toxic agents like mercury (in the Renaissance, for syphilis and other diseases), preferring to wait until we have justified cures, those that are proven.

  3. Falsification has been working for science so far. Take the atomic model for example. Each model was taken to be true before it was disproven. However, even though the models weren’t correct representations of the atom (and our current one may be incorrect to, though we regard it as true) they helped advance science anyway. With pragmatism, we can almost never be sure of anything, and not much could be researched in that case.

  4. In stating that the problem of induction is merely something we must learn to live with, I was siding with Vickers and his statements, “it is safe to say that in the absence of further assumptions this problem is and should be insoluble” (VIckers). However, after reading your comments, I have come to understand the stance that many of you have taken on the idea of combing falsifications pragmatism as a possible solution to the problem of induction. If we combine the ideas of falsification and pragmatism we are bale to understand the problem of induction in a way not noted in the text. As you mentioned Hilleary, the notion of taking everything to be false until proven otherwise is certainly interesting and promising one. I stand by my conclusion that until other solutions to the problem of induction have been discovered, to deal with it is as Vickers put, “more difficult than rewarding” (Vickers.) We still may have to simply accept the problem of induction.

  5. I also agree that there are various problems to define induction. As I was researching about this topic, I have came across another philosopher who is states the problem of induction. Nelson Goodman gave an example and gave a new problem of induction that it is possible to have two different induction that is true and false at the same condition.
    Another philosopher that I found interesting was David Stove. He stated that a majority of possible subsets of specific size are similar to the larger population to which they belong. He gives an example about drawing a ball out of a box, in which 99% of them are red. That means you have 99% chance of getting the red ball.
    These were another way of looking at the problem, and it was interesting to see the diverse reasons.

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