The power of inductivism

NOTE In this post, I take it for granted that inductivism is false. For criticisms of inductivism and an explanation of better ideas, see Objective Knowledge, Chapter 1 by Karl Popper, Realism and the Aim of Science Chapter I by Popper, The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, Chapters 3 and 7 and The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, Chapters 1,2 and 4.

On an e-mail list that is now defunct, Elliot Temple asked:

What makes the idea of induction so powerful that people who normally don’t care about abstract philosophy – ones who don’t pay much attention to conjectures and refutations as the method of creativity, and certainly aren’t interested in knowing a lot about evolution – remember induction vividly, like it, bring it up on their own, and insist they do it despite it being ridiculous, extremely vague, proven not to work, and many other problems?

People like to think that science has some definite way of finding ideas and deciding which ideas are good and bad. They think of science as an authority. Science says what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad. This is plausible if you don’t understand much and take seriously what you see on news sites, or in magazines or whatever. Science provides us with great stuff like iPhones and cancer treatments, so it must be always be right.

Inductivism is a vaguely plausible story about why science is an authority. Scientists just look at nature and nature tells them what is true. And nature proves the scientists right when they do experiments.

If science is an authority, then you don’t have to think much. There are some ideas you like. You look around for an authority to prove your ideas true. Then you can say that if somebody disagrees with you, your critic is scientifically illiterate. And you can do that not just on factual issues, but on moral issues too. For example, people for and against transsexualism like to pretend that their preference is scientific.

So inductivism is the backbone of the worldview of a lot of people. If you take it away, you’re attacking their whole understanding of the world, including all of their moral and factual knowledge. They can’t imagine any replacement.

The true theory also makes the strategies inductivists use for getting along in life look a lot worse. Science is created by guessing solutions to problems and criticising the guesses. So you shouldn’t take everything a scientist says as gospel because he’s guessing. And that means you should actually engage in critical argument rather than just insult people and pretend your insults are scientific.

The inductivist also fears that any alternative will cause a lot of conflict. Suppose that controversial moral issues can’t be solved with certainty by saying vague stuff about scientists proving something or other and claiming anyone who disagrees with you is a moron. Then people will actually have to discuss moral issues. And they think that their incompetence at discussion will lead to lots of inconclusive and long winded arguments that result in bitterness and distrust.

Such problems could be solved by trying to understand the world, and understand better moral ideas, but that takes effort most people don’t want to make. And they don’t feel confident about their ability to understand anything.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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