Inductive Idiocy

Inductive reasoning, so the books tell us, is reasoning from the particular to the general.  Hence the phrase, “The once burnt child fears the fire.”

Well, personally I think that deserves a bit of a rewrite.

Anyone who has had a child or even spent much time trying to deal with a child knows that this is not how it works.  Your average child sees something it wants to do, tries it, and has a bad experience.  The next time it sees something similar the child will, with a sort of fatal optimism, try it again in the hope that this time it will be different.  And, far too often for the parents sanity, the child will do the same thing again.  And again.

Not to say, of course, that any of us are markedly better.  I have commented before about the wonderful sensation of having done something well-reasoned but terminally stupid and finding oneself metaphorically (or actually) lying flat on the ground with all four feet in the air.  The experience is incomparably richened by a rush of recognition: “Oh, God.  I’ve done it again.”

The truth is that we are a stubborn species.  That definition of inductive reasoning should have at least a codicil that says, “Note that several instances of the particular may be required before the general is reached.”

Which is, after all, a bit odd.  Our ability to group random things and experiences into coherent sets is one of humanity’s prime survival skills.  “Hmmm.  That thing looks a lot like the big animal that ate Fred last week.  Maybe I’d better take another trail.”  Or, “Hmmm, the last time I said that to her, I was handed my head.  Maybe a change of subject is in order.”

Man is a generalizing animal.  It is one of the primary tools we use to understand our sometimes chaotic world.  We compulsively build mental structures and hierarchies into which we fit the events of our world.  As reasoning beings who want to live in a predictable world, we are wedded to two basic ideas: 1)  Cause and effect governs events, and 2) That which happened before is likely to happen again.

I would argue that both of those are based on our normal human drive to understand the “why” of things.  A truly random universe where we were helplessly buffeted by causeless events would be truly horrifying.  I suspect it would end up also being truly maddening – a world of total chaos would breed nothing but madmen.

But the drive to know the “why” of things can lead to some pretty sloppy reasoning.  In the medieval mind, that which was inexplicable, like disease, was clearly God’s will, just as a sudden cure was clearly a miracle.  Having a mysterious and all-powerful entity in charge undoubtedly satisfied the Cause and Effect side of our mental world, but it left our desire for predictability pretty much out in the cold.

Later, science came along to separate the world into two parts: the predictable (i.e. not God-driven) and the not (i.e. God did it).  They claimed dominion over the predictable, material world and left the rest to religion.  One could make a rather neat argument that the history of civilization ever since has been largely a matter of science fighting to expand its knowledge and hence its turf while religion fought a tenacious rear guard action to keep its own domain as large as possible.  Galileo being one of the more prominent casualties of the war.

But back to that sloppy reasoning.

The problem, it seems to me, is that we human beings have a persistent delusion that once we understand the cause and effect of something we have satisfied the “why” of it.  Science, being the ordained explicator of the causes and effects of our world, also likes to pretend to be the purveyor of the reason for those causes and effects.

Which is complete nonsense.

Our western science is purely descriptive.  If you let go of a ball, science can tell you it will fall.  It can even describe the rate at which it will fall, the terminal velocity it will reach, and the effects of humidity and wind upon the fall of the ball.  But as to the “why” of it, science can only offer a bait-and-switch: Gravity.

Gravity, they say, is what makes the ball fall.  Gravity, you see, is a force between objects that acts thus and so.  The ball is attracted to the earth and therefore falls.  But that is really just a description, not an explanation.  Science can answer the question of how gravity exists, but it can tell us nothing of why gravity exists.  That sort of “why” lies outside the realm of science (and inside the shrunken domain of religion) and probably always will.

As we human beings are really driven to know the true “whys” of things, we are forced to substitute our own.  Which leads me back to that whole problem of sloppy reasoning.

Our minds notice similarities between things and events, place them together in a category, and then demand an explanation for them.  For many categories, religion is still the most common answer.  Dropped balls fall because God made the universe to follow certain natural laws.  Period.  Any further questioning will be useless until you can quiz Him personally.

Okay, fine.  That takes care of a wide range of phenomena of the natural world.  Science describes it.  God explains it.  But what about all those other phenomena?  There are the material ones that somehow fall outside of scientific explanation and then there are those that are clearly human in nature.

The second kind, I think, is what fuels the conspiracy theorists.  With minds that collect evil events and catalog them, their need for an explanation forces them to imagine dark forces secretly orchestrating things behind the scenes.  The nice thing about that sort of solution is that it is circularly self-confirming and each new bit of evidence is guaranteed to fit.

The first kind are those other patterns in the universe that seem beyond science, beyond human conspiracies, and beyond the explanation of a balanced and just deity.  We all recognize them, but we can only wonder what they imply about the real nature of our world.

What makes bizarrely improbable events happen?  And why do apparently random events seem to happen to the same people all the time?  I suspect that all of us have known people who just seem to be unlucky.  They seem to inhabit a special world of their own quirky probabilities.  If something bad can happen to them, it will.  And how about the fortunate few who have the opposite gift and just seem to have randomly good things happening to them all the time?

Or let’s look at another.  Just why does the bread fall buttered side down?  Why do bad things, which should logically follow the impersonal laws of chance, like to occur just when they can do the most harm or when irony will be maximized?

We call it Murphy’s Law, but that, too, is just a name for a set of recognized phenomena, not an explanation.  I suspect the truth is that, having split the universe into two (and only two) parts, the realm of impersonal probabilities we call Science and the realm of a benevolent deity we call Religion, we have no room left for unfair phenomena that defy probabilities.

It has been said that the hardest question in all religion is that of why bad things happen to good people.  It seems to me that the question of why good things happen to bad people is equally daunting.

We are cursed.  Damned by our natures to notice phenomena that don’t fit our world view, and cursed with a need for explanations of the patterns we notice.  We can make up systems with causes outside our purview, like the karma of previous lives.  We can imagine that these things really stem from a benevolent deity and will eventually redound to the good.  We can even resort to the ghastly rationale that we bring such phenomena upon ourselves and the real question is what we are supposed to learn from them.

But still we are left with the question.  After all our science and religion have to offer, what is the real reason, pray, for what Sir Henry Merrivale (a fictional detective) used to refer to as, “the blinkin’ awful cussedness of things in general?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *