Abductive argumentation

7 September, 2015 at 21:21 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments


And if you want to know more on science and inference, the one book you should read is Peter Lipton‘s Inference to the Best Explanation (2nd ed, Routledge, 2004). A truly great book.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive bibliography on Inference to the Best Explanation, “Lord Keynes” has a good one here. [And for those who read Swedish, I self-indulgently recommend this.]




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  1. Pynn calls the observation to be explained, “premises”. I don’t know if that’s conventional, but it does seem confusing to me. The term, “premise” has a particular meaning in deductive argument. And, Induction to the Best Explanation typically embeds a theory, which is to say, a deductive argument. Shouldn’t the term, “premises” be reserved to refer to elements of the embedded theory?
    In the first example in the video, the guess is that Charlie’s cheeks turn red, because Charlie is feeling embarrassed by information he just received. The embedded theory is that people may be embarrassed by information concerning sexual attraction and blush when embarrassed, with an implicit chain of deductive logic linking concepts of sexual behavior to embarrassment and embarrassment to the phenomenon of blushing, observable in red cheeks. So, we have this theory that links embarrassment to blushing to red cheeks, and guess that this theory explains the phenomenon.
    Now what? How do we “justify” the guess as “the best explanation”?
    There are several strategies of justification, and Pynn makes a great deal of competition between alternative explanations. In competition between two arguments, it is commonly said that the simpler argument is somehow better (Occam’s razor?). This is an economical argument, but he doesn’t make the obvious concession that efficiency is involved: how much investment are we willing to make in either imagining alternative explanations or gathering more evidence?
    Because there is a deductive argument embedded in the guess, we can extend the interpretation: if the Charlie feels embarrassed, he would blush contains the deductive premise, using the term, premise, properly. What else observable follows logically from the premise of the guess? What else other than blushing would have to be factually true and observable, if the guess (and premise) is true? If other aspects of Charlie’s behavior — a stammer, tone of voice, posture, gestures, the content of what he subsequently says — were consistent with embarrassment, then the the guess would seem to be confirmed.
    Disconfirming evidence would be observables that would not follow from the premise of embarrassment, or observables that would only follow from the premises of some alternative explanation. If Charlie is immediately observed to spit out a red pepper and exclaims, “hot!” that would be evidence for an alternative explanation. If a murder suspect (an example from later in the video) has an alibi that contradicts the accusation that he committed the crime: presumably, both the alibi and the accusation cannot be true — if they can both be shown to possible, that is consistent with the premises of the theory of the accusation, then the alibi is no longer an alibi.
    The power of Inference to the Best Explanation rests, in part, on qualities of the theory embedded in the guess. A theory that cannot be wrong or doesn’t stimulate curiosity is pretty much useless, for purposes of Inference to the Best Explanation. The power of Darwin’s theory of natural selection is that it encourages curiosity and analytic imagination. An alternative theory of divine creation, by contrast, is useless as a stimulus to inquiry.
    The importance of curiosity and the practice of extending interpretation in Inference to the Best Explanation are inexplicably neglected in my experience in popular explanations. Pragmatic inference ought to be a philosophy of engagement and (playful?) poking at reality, to see if what we guess is there, really is what is there.

  2. And then we have abduction logic, which goes like this:

    Look at that other branch of science, they have an equation that can take on virtually any form, lets see if we can fit some of our data to it and kidnap the other branch of science credibility!

    Abduction logic, if you don’t have it, take it!

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