Tag Archive: probability

The untenability of induction

My own view is that the various difficulties of inductive logic here sketched are insurmountable. So also, I fear, are those inherent in the doctrine, so widely current today, that inductive inference, although not ‘strictly valid’, can attain some degree of ‘reliability’ or of ‘probability’. According to this doctrine, inductive inferences are ‘probable inferences’. ‘We have described’, says Reichenbach, ‘the principle of induction as the means whereby science decides upon truth. To be more exact, we should say that it serves to decide upon probability. For it is not given to science to reach either truth or falsity … but scientific statements can only attain continuous degrees of probability whose unattainable upper and lower limits are truth and falsity’.

At this stage I can disregard the fact that the believers in inductive logic entertain an idea of probability that I shall later reject as highly unsuitable for their own purposes (see section 80, below). I can do so because the difficulties men­tioned are not even touched by an appeal to probability. For if a certain degree of probability is to be assigned to statements based on inductive inference, then this will have to be justified by invoking a new principle of induction, appropriately modified. And this new principle in its turn will have to be justified, and so on. Nothing is gained, more­over, if the principle of induction, in its turn, is taken not as ‘true’ but only as ‘probable’. In short, like every other form of inductive logic, the logic of probable inference, or ‘probability logic’, leads either to an infinite regress, or to the doctrine of apriorism. [6]

Falsifiability and probability statements

How is it possible that probability statements—which are not falsifiable—can be used as falsifiable statements? (The fact that they can be so used is not in doubt: the physicist knows well enough when to regard a probability assumption as falsified.) This question, we find, has two aspects. On the one hand, we must make the possibility of using probability statements understandable in terms of their logical form. On the other hand, we must analyse the rules governing their use as falsifiable statements.

According to section 66, accepted basic statements may agree more or less well with some proposed probability esti­mate; they may represent better, or less well, a typical segment of a probability sequence. This provides the opportunity for the application of some kind of methodological rule; a rule, for instance, which might demand that the agreement between basic statements and the probability estimate should conform to some minimum standard. Thus the rule might draw some arbitrary line and decree that only reasonably representative segments (or reasonably ‘fair samples’) are ‘permitted’, while atypical or non-representative segments are ‘forbidden’. [197]

Probability and justificationism

Since explanationless prediction is actually impossible, the methodology of excluding explanation from a science is just a way of holding one’s explanations immune from criticism. [316]

Science: more or less likely

It is not unscientific to make a guess, although many people who are not in science think it is. Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers—because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said “I don’t think there are flying saucers”. So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?” “No”, I said, “I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely”. At that he said, “You are very un­scientific. If you can’t prove it impossible then how can you say that it’s unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and im­possible. [165-6]

Pinker on Intelligence

Intelligence, then, is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules. The computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert Simon fleshed this idea out further by noting that intelligence consists of specifying a goal, assessing the current situation to see how it differs from the goal, and applying a set of operations that reduce the difference. Perhaps reassuringly, by this definition human beings, not just aliens, are intelligent. We have desires, and we pursue them using beliefs, which, when all goes well, are at least approximately or probabilistically true. [62]