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Why should we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow?
Given that we have known the sun to rise every morning without fail, we habitually consider it a certainty that it will occur again tomorrow. It is clear, however, that the sun's rising tomorrow is not a certainty in the same way that two plus two is certain to equal four, or that it is certain that I am younger than my father. There is a distinction between these two 'objects of human thought 1': the latter is based upon logical relations of meaning, whilst the former derives from experience, and is an example of the inferential process by which observation, within suitable parameters, is regarded as conferring reliability upon what in a strict logical sense extends beyond it. This process has traditionally been called induction, and it is this experiential form of knowledge-acquisition that the title question prompts us to examine. The debate over the nature and admissibility of inductive reasoning is considered to have begun with David Hume, so we should begin our discussion with his critique, before going on to consider some attempts to bypass firstly the 'inductive scepticism2' of Hume, and later the 'new riddle of induction' as propounded by Nelson Goodman. I will conclude that since we cannot successfully or entirely detach our understanding of the world or our scientific method from inductive inference, we are forced to admit that no reasoning can fully justify our believing that the sun will rise tomorrow, although this is not to say that such a belief is not rational. Hume suggests that our reasoning concerning a posteriori knowledge is based upon the principles of cause and effect. For example: there is nothing about the straight-line motion of one billiard ball that can a priori suggest to the observer that upon contact with a second billiard ball, that second ball will move. As such, Hume suggests that matters of fact surrounding instances such as this are only understood through the 'constant conjunction' of cause and effect, and never through a priori means - only previously having seen the interrelation of billiard balls on a table, or something appropriately similar, can lead us to suggest that the second ball will move when struck by the first. This assumes, however, that the past is a reliable guide by which to make such predictions, relying upon inference to move from observed past phenomena to the as yet unobserved. There can be no a priori argument for the past being a reliable guide for the future, since there is no logical contradiction entailed in suggesting that the course of nature may change. However, any argument from experience also fails to help us, since it inevitably falls into an infamous circularity: namely, that since we base all our future predictions upon the 'uniformity principle' that the future will resemble the past, and this principle is itself founded upon experience, we cannot assert that the principle will remain true without presupposing its truth at the outset. Thus Hume suggests that the 'sum total' of our conclusions with regard to a posteriori knowledge is simply this: 'from causes which appear similar, we expect similar effects'. Hume thus accepts the conclusion that the threat of circularity forces us into: that not only is there no deductive link between statements about the past and the future, but that we have no means at all of justifying inductive reasoning. This is not to say that there is in fact no uniformity principle, or that the sun will in fact not rise tomorrow, but simply that it is not within our powers of reason to detect this principle, or show that the sun will rise tomorrow. Our past experience of events leads us to consistently assume the outcome of future or present events, but we have no process of reason to justify these assumptions. 1 D Hume, An enquiry concerning Human Understanding, IV 2 J Dancy, Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, Oxford (1985)
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