Tuesday, May 18, 2010


In philosophy class today, I had students explore a widely-anthologized essay called “An Encounter with David Hume,” by the contemporary philosopher of science, Wesley Salmon, in which he examines the British Empiricist’s observation—which Salmon refers to as “Hume’s Bombshell”—that because inductive reasoning is based on a logical fallacy (essentially affirming the consequent), we really have no better reason to believe the claims of science than we do the claims of pseudoscience or even random divination. Salmon, following Hume, points out that since predictions about the future based on past events depend on claims about the regularity of nature whose justification depends on that regularity, that the whole project of scientific reasoning turns on an argument that is question-begging, and so therefore, strictly speaking, it is irrational for us to conclude that what happened yesterday is going to happen tomorrow.

I get it (and I think students mostly did, too, especially after we did an exercise that had them designing and creating devices intended to protect an egg from breaking when dropped from about 8 feet), but unfortunately, it does seem to me that the future ends up not only behaving much like the past, but pretty much mirroring it, one day after another, year after year, with little hope of change in sight.

Examples abound:

• The oil spill in the Gulf, just the latest version of our hunger for petroleum getting the better of our care for the environment.

• The Mariners tanking to start the season, this year’s model of the team that can just never get it together.

• The stock market vacillating wildly, eerily reminiscent of the last financial meltdown.

• Yet another 327 word essay, covering some sort of turf that’s been excavated and tilled numerous times before.

So, in short, even though, strictly speaking, it’s irrational of us to expect the future to behave like the past, it sure seems like déjà vu all over again.

Again and again.


Post a Comment

<< Home