Thursday, January 28, 2021

Presuppositionalism and Induction: Thoughts on the Uniformity of Nature

It is very common for presuppositionalists, when making the problem of induction a debating point, to center the issue on the uniformity of nature and demand that non-Christians explain their assumption that nature is uniform in a way that does not imply theism. Induction, it is said, presupposes the uniformity of nature, and if one cannot justify his presupposition that nature is in fact uniform, then he has no justification for his inductive inferences. 

In this way, the use of the problem of induction in debate gets stuck in a short-sighted rut, focusing all energy on a discussion of the uniformity of nature and how we can justify the uniformity that is observed in nature, an observation which in itself owes much to our powers of inductive reasoning. In essence, this is a set-up, and once one accepts this approach, his fallacies line up for the picking. 

Steve Hays expressed this viewpoint succinctly when he wrote:
As a matter of fact, naturalism is unable to justify the problem of induction. The appeal is circular. You can only justify the uniformity and stability of natural laws if, in fact, the future resembles the past. But the past can hardly count as evidence for the future unless natural laws are uniform and stable. Conversely, evidence that natural laws are uniform and stable depends on whether you can project the past into the future. Not to mention that our knowledge of the past is quite piecemeal. Indeed, we reconstruct the past based on interpolations that take for granted the uniformity of nature! That's how we plug the gaps. So there seems to be no way to justify his extrapolation from inside the circle of empirical observation itself. (Unjustifiable naturalism)
Now, this analysis will never do, for it aims its focus in the wrong direction entirely. Thus I’m sympathetic to what Jason mc commented in my previous post earlier this month when he wrote:
I am somewhat suspicious of the UoNP as a justifier for induction. Is nature really uniform? What does that really mean? I say some parts of nature are uniform, and some aren't. The egg-production process for any given species operates uniformly enough. But what about the occasional freak of nature? Sometimes you get bad eggs. Or no eggs. Biological processes are generally 'uniform', because lifeforms reproduce after their own kind. There are natural processes that are chaotic (ultimately unpredictable) too, some involving life, some involving only nonliving interactions, like weather.
It is critical to make clear what is meant by the expression “nature is uniform.” In my view, I’ve come to understand this as the recognition that identity is wholly concurrent with existence: to exist is to be something specific, to have a nature, regardless of what it is that exists. If A exists, it must be A. This applies to action as well, which is where we get our concept of causality. In this sense, our grasp of uniformity in nature is implicit in the axioms. 

There are a few important observations to make at this point. One is that this uniformity, or concurrence of identity with existence, is something we discover as a feature inherent in reality. It is not something we impose on reality, as by a force of will or hapless imagining. Taking our example of an egg, I discover the egg as it exists independent of my conscious activity – including my act of discovering it – and continue to discover attributes of its nature as I interact with it. It remains what it is across the span of time I examine it regardless of what I think, wish, prefer, imagine, etc. 

Moreover, it misses the point to suppose that the uniformity we find in nature is itself a product of some prior cause, for causality itself is just another type of relation between identity and existence: causality is the identity of action. Many philosophers wince at this formulation, supposing that action entails change, and change is consider to be in opposition to or incompatible with identity in some way. But even these same thinkers acknowledge that sitting is distinct from walking, that swimming is distinct from digging, that speaking is distinct from firing a semi-automatic pistol. How can they acknowledge such distinctions if actions themselves do not have identity? Blank out. 

If, then, the uniformity we discover and observe in nature is not a product of some prior cause, then – as I argue in a previous paper on the topic - the uniformity of nature cannot be a product of conscious activity. This does not bode well for the presuppositionalist’s theistic aims. 

But here’s the point I want to make here on this matter. If nature is uniform, it is uniform not only in my experience, but also in my cat’s experience. However, my cat will never be able to draw the generalization that dropping eggs will result in them breaking and spilling their contents. But I can! So this takes us back to the observation Rand makes about the three stages, or levels, of consciousness: the level of sensations, the level of perceptions, and the level of conceptions. Rand observes that “Man’s consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third state, conceptions, that makes him man” (For the New Intellectual, p. 11). 

So while my cat can perceive any egg I put before him, I can form the concept ‘egg’ and integrate into that mental unit every egg which exists now, every egg which has existed in the past, and every egg which will exist in the future, regardless of where any eggs may be found, all of which implies that time and place are omitted measurements, which in turn means: temporal categories like past and future are not the primaries that Hays’ conception of the problem make them out to be! 

Is nature uniform? Sure. That’s well and good. But does this fact explain induction? No, certainly not by itself. Induction is a conceptual operation, and our understanding – and justification - of induction must focus on this fact that is distinct to human consciousness. Meanwhile, my cat yawns and rolls over to go back to sleep, utterly indifferent to the mess he’s made in my kitchen. 

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson!

Jason mc said...

I'm famous! I appreciate the post.

Hays' succinct summary of the argument is interesting.

"You can only justify the uniformity and stability of natural laws if, in fact, the future resembles the past."

We are apparently not warranted in taking for granted that "the future" will resemble "the past". Our knowledge, informed as it is only from empirical observation from "the past", is merely knowledge "of the past". But are we bound to accept this time-boundedness of knowledge? That would seem to assume a non-uniformity of nature principle. We'd be assuming any part of nature could totally change at any moment without any known cause.

Robert Kidd said...

Apparently, the future is going to be like the past as we humans seem to keep trying the same things that fail again and again.


Dawson have you ever worked with ARI or did you attend classes there? The depth of your knowledge of Rand is so vast I find myself wondering how you became such a yokozuna of Objectivism.