Monday, January 2, 2012

My problem of induction

I wrote this essay for an application to a special university program. Because I had to keep within a tight word limit, I omitted lengthy explanations of concepts. For that matter, I'll probably write another post. But anyways, here's the essay:

Back in August 2011, I was taking an evening walk and started thinking about Newton’s Law of Gravitation. The law relates the gravitational force between two point masses to their individual masses and their separating distance. This law is said to hold for all masses at all separating distances.

I began wondering how Newton derived his law. I deduced that he must have carried out experiments on masses which were separated by certain distances. But then something occurred to me. Newton could only have tested a finite number of masses at a finite number of separating distances to verify his formula. This is because it is physically impossible to test all combinations of mass and distance, them being infinite.

But how then can Newton’s observation be called a universal law? Couldn’t there be untested masses and distances over which Newton’s Law doesn’t hold? I was perplexed by this thought.

I read extensively and chanced upon the problem of induction by David Hume. According to the problem of induction, inductive statements, which are generalizations of past experiences, are unjustified because past experiences used for their justification may not be similar to present or future experiences. This principle implies that Newton’s Law is flawed because of its inductive nature.

I used to believe that laws of science were absolute and unquestionable. But the problem of induction made me realize the fragility of scientific theories. This destroyed my love for science.

The problem of induction also convinced me that my everyday actions were unjustified. I’ll explain... Let’s say as a child I touched a pot of boiling water and discovered it was hot. If I were to see another pot of boiling water today, I will remember my past experience and will not touch the pot I see, assuming it to be hot. But philosophically, this decision is unjustified. The pot today may be of a different nature than it was back then. It might just be cold. By extending this idea, I began to realize my everyday actions were unjustified. I became nihilistic. I even began to doubt my own existence, because according to the problem, it is perfectly possible for me to stop existing in the next moment.  

I was devastated. But then, I began reading up on solutions to this problem. Regarding the validity of science, I found Karl Popper’s philosophy particularly relevant. According to him, science is not a perfect way to probe the Universe, but it is the best way we have. Understanding that science was the best way to explore the Universe brought back my love for it, and I accepted its inherent imperfection. I began to find the imperfection beautiful, because it creates mystery and fuels curiosity.

Regarding the philosophical validity of our everyday actions, I read and realized that though our everyday actions may be imperfect, they are the most rational options available to us. If we don’t follow these rational approaches, we will be reduced to a state of perpetual contemplation and will become unproductive in the process. 

Ultimately, pragmatism is the solution to this problem of induction, or at least it provides the greatest consolation for us imperfect human beings. I learnt the importance of being pragmatic through this experience. I also understood the provisional nature of our existence and of science. I now perceive the world as a huge puzzle, one that I may or may not be able to solve. But I’m going to act morally and rationally, to solve this puzzle in the way I feel is right!

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  1. wow, that was a really interesting essay man! Very true indeed, science is not the perfect way but rather the best way. All the best for your application! :D Which programme you applied to?

  2. Hey Harish!

    Thanks bro. I applied for NUS USP man. They asked us to describe an idea that changed our understanding of things, so I wrote this.

    You applying overseas?

  3. Oh cool. All the best. No bro, I guess I will not be applying overseas now, will apply later on.

  4. Hey bro, doesnt application period open on 1st feb for USP?

  5. Hey! I got some early application opportunity man.