Thursday, 9 January 2014

Postscript on disjunctivism and induction

A conversation with Gloria and actually teaching a session on Hugh Mellor on induction has prompted a couple of further thoughts on what a disjunctivist account of induction would look like.

1) What does a disjunctivist spin on McDowell’s remarks add to their intended use as a deconstruction of Hume’s starting point for the problem of induction?

As we would expect of a therapeutic McDowell, he himself does not aim to solve Hume’s problem but dissolve it. Hume assumes a contrast between unproblematic observation and problematic induction. But, McDowell argues, such a distinction cannot be drawn because the reports of observation are always (I want to say: always already) induction presupposing.

Consider a characteristic Humean formulation of the predicament that is supposed to invite inductive skepticism:
It may, therefore, be a subject worthy of curiosity, to enquire what is the nature of that evidence, which assures us of any.. .matter of fact, beyond the present testimony of our senses....
Taking it seriously that what is in question is testimony of our senses, we must think in terms of something content-involving-something in which, say, colors figure as apparent properties of objects. A mere wash of chromatic sensation, not referred to a supposedly perceived environment, could not count as testimony of our senses. Now my fourth Sellarsian idea can be put like this: there cannot be a predicament in which one is receiving testimony from one's senses but has not yet taken any inductive steps.
[McDowell 1995: 890-1]

This looks like the bare bones of a transcendental argument. Observation is possible; observation presupposes induction; so induction is possible.

But whilst that might serve to undermine the legitimacy of a scepticism which is differentially directed against induction but not observation it does not shed light on how induction is possible. One might respond to the transcendental argument that whilst one accepts that observation stands and falls with induction, nevertheless, one is still baffled by how the latter is possible or, to put it another way, how the inductive element of observation – that which transforms it from a mere wash of chromatic sensation – is possible.

Sketching a disjunctivist picture of induction helps start to address that remaining worry. Induction is possible because one can take in, experientailly, a future-implicating pattern of events. Observation is not just of temporally unrelated time-slices. (That’s what Hume seems to rule out at the start.)

2) But doesn’t the question of what we do, experientially, take in underdetermine possible future patterns? That is, are we not in the end any better off than the Humean inductive sceptic?

To make this worry vivid requires, I think, slipping back into the assumption that all that is really taken in experientially is a set of time-slices with no implications for the future. But there is a related worry which seems legitimate: Goodman’s New Riddle of Induction. On this picture, observation reports are taken to be conceptually structured in a way which has future implications. But there remains the challenge of justifying which concepts are instantiated in past observations in the face of merely future differences.

3) What kind of future-directed structure needs to be implicit in past observations for such observations to form the basis for future predictions?

My motivation for this question stems from the contrast I have in mind between Mellor’s blankly external factors and what I take to be internal in a disjunctivist approach. On Mellor’s account, past observations warrant predictions for the future in virtue of there actually being laws which link the worldly events observed in the past and the predicted future events whether or not the subject knows this. So the question as to the nature of this link is left to the world: the link is whatever it is.

By contrast, on my sketch of a disjunctivist account, the nature of the good disjunct should be ‘internal’ to the subject’s epistemic standing and provide her with reasons for her belief. If so, it can hardly be that the subject is only justified if she has a correct account of the natural laws by the standards of a future physics. But what conception would be sufficient to justify the future-directed inference? More seems to have to be loaded onto the subject in the case of induction than in the case of object-directed perceptual thought.

4) Isn’t there a difference between the role that enduring objects play in securing the future implications of past observations and that played by recurring events?

I just want to flag this worry (suggested by G.). It might seem that the very idea of the default status of an object’s continued existence over time  is more basic than that of the continuation of a merely repeated pattern of events. I am not sure that I see this as an important distinction of kind but I may just be missing something.