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Abduction — beyond deduction and induction

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From Lars Syll Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them. There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. Contrary to positivism, yours truly would as a critical realist argue that the main task of science is not to detect event-regularities between observed facts, but rather to identify and explain the underlying structures/forces/powers/ mechanisms that produce the observed events. Given that what we are looking for is to be able to explain what is going on in the world we live in, it would — instead of building models based on logic-axiomatic, topic-neutral, context-insensitive, and non-ampliative deductive reasoning, as in mainstream economic theory — be so much more fruitful

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from Lars Syll

Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them. There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. Contrary to positivism, yours truly would as a critical realist argue that the main task of science is not to detect event-regularities between observed facts, but rather to identify and explain the underlying structures/forces/powers/ mechanisms that produce the observed events.

Given that what we are looking for is to be able to explain what is going on in the world we live in, it would — instead of building models based on logic-axiomatic, topic-neutral, context-insensitive, and non-ampliative deductive reasoning, as in mainstream economic theory — be so much more fruitful and relevant to apply inference to the best explanation.

In science we standardly use a logically non-valid inference — the fallacy of affirming the consequent — of the following form:

(1) p => q
(2) q
————-
p

or, in instantiated form

(1) ∀x (Gx => Px)

(2) Pa
————
Ga

Although logically invalid, it is nonetheless a kind of inference — abduction — that may be factually strongly warranted and truth-producing.

Following the general pattern ‘Evidence  =>  Explanation  =>  Inference’ we infer something based on what would be the best explanation given the law-like rule (premise 1) and an observation (premise 2). The truth of the conclusion (explanation) is nothing that is logically given, but something we have to justify, argue for, and test in different ways to possibly establish with any certainty or degree. And as always when we deal with explanations, what is considered best is relative to what we know of the world. In the real world, all evidence is relational (e only counts as evidence in relation to a specific hypothesis H) and has an irreducible holistic aspect. We never conclude that evidence follows from a hypothesis simpliciter, but always given some more or less explicitly stated contextual background assumptions. All non-deductive inferences and explanations are necessarily context-dependent.

If we extend the abductive scheme to incorporate the demand that the explanation has to be the best among a set of plausible competing potential and satisfactory explanations, we have what is nowadays usually referred to as inference to the best explanation.

In inference to the best explanation, we start with a body of (purported) data/facts/evidence and search for explanations that can account for these data/facts/evidence. Having the best explanation means that you, given the context-dependent background assumptions, have a satisfactory explanation that can explain the evidence better than any other competing explanation — and so it is reasonable to consider the hypothesis to be true. Even if we (inevitably) do not have deductive certainty, our reasoning gives us a license to consider our belief in the hypothesis as reasonable.

Accepting a hypothesis means that you believe it does explain the available evidence better than any other competing hypothesis. Knowing that we — after having earnestly considered and analyzed the other available potential explanations — have been able to eliminate the competing potential explanations, warrants and enhances the confidence we have that our preferred explanation is the best explanation, i. e., the explanation that provides us (given it is true) with the greatest understanding.

Abduction — beyond deduction and inductionThis, of course, does not in any way mean that we cannot be wrong. Of course, we can. Inferences to the best explanation are fallible inferences — since the premises do not logically entail the conclusion — so from a logical point of view, inference to the best explanation is a weak mode of inference. But if the arguments put forward are strong enough, they can be warranted and give us justified true belief, and hence, knowledge, even though they are fallible inferences. As scientists we sometimes — much like Sherlock Holmes and other detectives that use inference to the best explanation reasoning — experience disillusion. We thought that we had reached a strong conclusion by ruling out the alternatives in the set of contrasting explanations. But — what we thought was true turned out to be false.

That does not necessarily mean that we had no good reasons for believing what we believed. If we cannot live with that contingency and uncertainty, well, then we are in the wrong business. If it is deductive certainty you are after — rather than the ampliative and defeasible reasoning in inference to the best explanation — well, then get into math or logic, not science.

Abduction — beyond deduction and inductionWhat I do not believe — and this has been suggested — is that we can usefully lay down some hard-and-fast rules of evidence that must be obeyed before we accept cause and effect. None of my viewpoints can bring indisputable evidence for or against the cause-and-effect hypothesis and none can be required as a sine qua non. What they can do, with greater or less strength, is to help us to make up our minds on the fundamental question — is there any other way of explaining the set of facts before us, is there any other answer equally, or more, likely than cause and effect?

Austin Bradford Hil

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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