The Problem with Inductive Reasoning

Come on, how can there be a problem with any kind of reasoning? This is the first thought many people may have at reading the heading of this article. However, if you are in with the theme of this blog, you will know that everything is questioned; even reasoning and logic. To first understand this breed of reasoning, let us understand what inductive reasoning is.

What is Inductive Reasoning?

Inductive reasoning is a process in which we observe various events and then decide that specific events occur together, or one causes another. It is a process in which we take specific instances (of observation) and make a generalization. Do note that we are not talking strictly mathematically or looking at probabilities of incidents occurring together and are merely looking at how the human mind works.

To give you an example of inductive reasoning, if your throat starts to itch every time you eat peanut butter, you may assume that you are allergic to peanut butter. Another often quoted example is that of swans. All the swans you have seen in your life are white and so you assume that swans are white.

For some people, the definition of inductive reasoning itself may be enough to show how this can lead to assumptions that can create acquired (and often dubious) core beliefs over time.

What’s Turkey Got to Do With it?

A classic example used by Talib in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (he also borrowed it from someplace) refers to the turkey. It was Hume who initially propounded this idea.

To avoid any complication, let us use another animal – the goat! The goat is bought from the market and fed from day 1. It is fed regularly and diligently and is also kept clean and hygienic. Over a period of a few days (the goat takes time to come to inductive reasoning conclusions), the goat starts to feel that it is in a safe environment and shall be looked after well.

Then Eid (a festival in which goats are butchered to provide meat for the entire family or community) comes along and the goat is slaughtered. The graph of ‘well-being’ that was steadily on the rise, drops to zero in a matter of seconds.

The (non-suspecting) goat believed that its environment was safe and would continue to be safe. It created this belief and predicted a future for itself based on past events. It assumed that since it is being fed every day, it will continue to be fed. Well, as we all know that was not the case! But in the goat’s experience, there was no error in judgement. It had never seen a goat being slaughtered before!

Can you fault the goat?

Inductive Reasoning is Based on Knowledge

While the goat was peacefully unaware, ‘you’ may have expected the above story to end the way it did. That’s because, in your experience, slaughtering goats for meat is commonplace – goats are fed and then slaughtered for their meat. Essentially, what this really means is that inductive reasoning depends on ‘your’ particular flavor of experience, ‘your’ reality and ‘your’ knowledge. For the family that bought the goat, it was always inevitable that the goat would be slaughtered.

So, is knowledge the secret to understanding and predicting the future?!

Beware the Knowledge!

Knowledge does add to a better prediction of possible scenarios. The more you know about past behavior, history, experiments, human nature and every other possible faculty, the better you will be at working out possible future scenarios; assuming of course that your brain has the power to process all these factors and arrive at the conclusion!

However, irrespective of the amount of knowledge you acquire, you will never be able to gather ‘all’ the information required to ‘know all’. Neither are you likely to be able to process thousands of factors and events occurring across the universe to arrive at probabilities for possible future events.

In fact, the more knowledge we gain, the more we are lulled into believing that we have the information and capability required to arrive at future possibilities.

Those who do not have that knowledge or information do not predict the future. They just ‘let things happen’. They may assume anything can happen or may not think about the future at all. These people are often referred to as ‘shallow’ by the self-appointed ‘deep thinkers’.

While, in fact, the thing to guard against is the belief that you know what the future holds because you have the knowledge. Think about some of your own beliefs and then put them to the test. Let’s say – hard work leads to success! Or does it? Think about the people who toil hard all day because they are on daily wages only to make enough for a day’s meal.

Let us take another example – Success comes to those who have the courage to take risks and chase their dreams. Think about the numbers of strugglers in Hollywood / Bollywood who are chasing their dream. A number much larger than the stars that will continue to chase their dream till the end of their days!

As human being, we observe events, people and instances and we draw our own conclusions using inductive reasoning (our own special and unique variety of inductive reasoning at that). We do this all the time without even realizing that we are collecting data points.

And then our neurons sizzle and snap and create pathways that lead us to make conclusions. When these conclusions are thought through consciously, they become beliefs! As you gather more information with regards to this belief (and here the bias works where you see more of what you already believe), the stronger the belief becomes. And what you end up with is a falsehood! Or something that comes and bites you in the back, one day!

Solution to Your Inductive Reasoning Problems

If inductive reasoning happens all the time in your head without even realizing it, how can you guard against it? A couple of things need to be mentioned here.

  1. Live your life being aware that your mind is creating core beliefs all the time and guard against any of them becoming so deep-set that you cannot question it. Question everything…everything!
  2. Gather as much knowledge as you want to. Read, watch movies, interact with people, internalize as many experiences as you want; but always be aware that your sample is not representative of the world.

The experiences we have are miniscule and insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe.

Irrespective of how much knowledge you can gain in this lifetime, you will still not know everything.

Stock market crashes can still happen, a close friend can still stab you in the back, anyone can die at any time and world war III can also start. At the same time, paupers can become entrepreneurs, a beggar on the road can become a great YouTube sensation and earn millions, a small-town boy can become a huge Bollywood / Hollywood star.

Negative and Positive black swans (as these totally unexpected things are often called) can and do exist simultaneously. Your guard against them is to never be lulled into believing that you know what the future holds.

What has been your Black Swan experience?


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