Induction and Observation in Science Essay

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One of the most persistent views of science is that in which scientists are understood to assemble observations and arrive at generalizations based upon them. Sometimes, wrongly, this simple inductive-empiricist view is laid at the door of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and dubbed ”Baconian inductivism.” In fact, Bacon’s views were considerably more complex than this, but the hare that he set running -inductive inference as the heart of scientific method – has subsequently been pursued by all manner of hounds. David Hume (1711-76) was pre-eminent among the early pursuers, and to this day ”Hume’s Problem” continues to preoccupy philosophy of science. In the mid-twentieth century there was a period when the seemingly more powerful deductive models of scientific inquiry appeared to have run inductivism and Hume’s Problem to exhaustion. However, it rapidly became apparent that the issues surrounding inductive inference had a peculiar capacity to re-emerge from the coverts of deductive certainty, not least where the nature of observation itself was questioned. Into the space thus created have hastened newer, more relativistic epistemologies and, in full cry, the sociology of science.

Although Bacon was by no means a naive inductivist, he did insist on the necessity of ridding the mind of certain kinds of preconceptions when examining the facts. In its period this was a bold formulation, but it immediately raised difficulties for those eager to underwrite scientific method in such inductive terms. For while deductive reasoning had a lengthy logical pedigree, inductive inference was to prove far more slippery. It was Hume who presented the central problem of inductivism in its most influential form: that however many instances we may find of a specific phenomenon this gives us no reason in logic to expect that observed pattern to continue in the future. In other words, we have no justification for making any reliable inference from past evidence. The future will hold surprises.

Faced with this difficulty inductivism gave way to more deductively inclined models of science. Rather than seeing science as founded on generalizations from data, these approaches emphasized the relative autonomy of theory. Their interest lay, rather, with deducing predictive hypotheses from theory which could then be subjected to (experimental) test. However, at the heart of any process of testing lay ”observation” – which apparently relied upon some form of inductive inference from experience to the observation statements describing that experience, thus re-raising a variation of Hume’s problem.

So, even where induction is not the defining element in the so-called Scientific Method it remains an important feature of actual scientific practice. Scientists make inductive inferences, albeit within a context of inquiry which also involves deduction, intuition, and competition. Accordingly, philosophers of science have continued to seek ways of bypassing the Humean difficulties.

Bibliography:

  1. Hume, D. (1999) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Rescher, N. (1980) Induction: An Essay on the Justification of Inductive Reasoning. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

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