Induction and Buddhism: No problem!


I have suggested elsewhere that Hume ‘the sceptic‘ did eventually find an escape from his scepticism. He accomplished this not by giving up and accepting that ‘anything goes’ in questions of who or what to trust, but by concluding that the search for rational grounds for trusting our senses is unnecessary for creatures like us. This was doubtless a sensible conclusion, to which the stories of the Pyrrhonian sceptics who, absurdly, fail to live by their own radical scepticism readily attest. But was this a fair way out of the problems posed by induction? Hume wrote:

Shou‘d it here be ask‘d […] whether I be really one of those sceptics, who hold that all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing possest of any measures of truth and falshood; I shou‘d reply, that this question is entirely superfluous, and that neither I, nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determin‘d us to judge as well as to breathe and feel. (1)

And a recent and comprehensive encyclopedia article concludes its evaluation of the problem of induction in a like manner:

[I]nduction is not all that easy to avoid; […] founded [as it is] on the expectation that characteristics of our experience will persist in experience to come, and that is a basic trait of human nature. […] “We are all convinced by inductive arguments”, says Ramsey, “and our conviction is reasonable because the world is so constituted that inductive arguments lead on the whole to true opinions. We are not, therefore, able to help trusting induction, nor, if we could help it do we see any reason why we should”. We can, however, trust selectively and reflectively; we can winnow out the ephemera of experience to find what is fundamental and enduring. (2)

By Hume’s own account, and the account of various commentators, we are asked to believe that since we just are judging creatures, and our inductive inferences seem on the whole to lead to correct views, our inductive judgments must be reliable, whether or not they yield any ultimate rational grounds. Notice the appeal to nature, both human and otherwise (i.e. the human condition and nature with a capital ‘N’). Leaving aside the fact that many people are demonstrably not judging creatures, and the sheer and incommensurable variety of judgments at which people from different walks of life arrive, the question is surely whether inductive inferences lead to truth and not merely to ‘correct views‘ – opinions which are pragmatically useful for navigating the natural and social worlds, and yet reflect no abiding fundamental truths. Hume’s answer sidesteps this issue, since something can be true and yet not be the correct view. How ‘correct‘, for example, is the evolutionary view that the basic unit of life is the gene and not the individual? Despite our reality being populated with distinct persons who matter to us as individuals, the selfish gene theory more closely approximates ‘the truth‘. Must the person-centred view be incorrect? And what would that mean? Appeals to our metaphysical constitution likewise beg the question which the problem of induction poses, for if all we perceive in Nature is nothing more than an anticipation of necessity, why should we think our own experience (upon which we hurry to base our estimations of our own natures) is somehow exempt from this analysis? The view that creatures like us can be re-described into quarks, boson, and various other quantum process and still preserve what is distinctly human is a phantom of modern neuroscience. Individuals cannot be saved and put safely aside in some form of existence. Such are the conclusions we are really beginning to draw from modern neuroscience. Interestingly, this is the view that the anti-foundationalist Mādhyamaka school of Buddhism arrived at more than a millennia ago.

Thus, a more considered response to Hume’s problem of induction neatly converges upon the views of earlier Buddhist philosophers. Although they were not addressing the problem of induction directly, their views are nonetheless helpful in finding a more satisfactory answer to the problem. Their view was that whenever we think we are observing or discovering mind independent causal and ontological relationships we are actually imputing crystalline laws of nature onto the world that are not strictly part of the world. The crystalline order that we expect to discover in Nature is merely a product of a cognitive bias particular to minded creatures like ourselves. It is the anthropocentric fallacy of thinking that the world must conform to the unruly and arbitrary conventions of our distinctly human world. Although such conventions can be trusted to make it easier for us to navigate this world, there are no good reasons for thinking our peculiarly human cognitive biases will be reliable guides to the underlying structure of reality.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. I.VI.1 of A Treatise of Human Nature, L.A. Selby-Bigge (ed) (1960, Clarendon Press: Oxford), pp.183
  2. Vickers, John, “The Problem of Induction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),