Friday, July 9, 2021

Naturalness and induction

David Lewis’s notion of the naturalness of predicates may seem at first sight like just the thing to solve Goodman’s new puzzle of induction: unlike green, grue is too unnatural for induction with respect to grue to be secure.

But this fails.

Roughly speaking, an object is green provided its emissivity or reflectivity as restricted to the visible range has a sufficiently pronounced peak around 540 nm. But in reality, it’s more complicated than that. An object’s emissivity and reflectivity might well have significantly different spectral profiles (think of a red LED that is reflectively white, as can be seen by turning it off), and one needs to define some sort of “normal conditions” combination of the two features. Describing these normal conditions will be quite complex, thereby making the concept of green be quite far from natural.

Now, it is much easier to define the concepts of emissively black (eblack) and emissively white (ewhite) than of green (or black or white, for that matter) in terms of the fundamental concepts of physics. And emeralds, we think, are eblack (since they don’t emit visible light). Then, just as Goodman defined grue as being observed before a certain date and being green and or being observed after that date and being blue, we can define eblite as existing wholly before 2100 and being eblack or existing wholly after 2100 and being ewhite. And here is the crucial thing: the concept of eblite is actually way more natural, in the Lewis sense of “natural”, than the concept of green. For the definition of eblite does not require the complexities of the normal conditions combination of emissivity and reflectivity.

Thus, if what makes induction with green work better than induction with grue is that greenness is more natural than grueness, then induction with eblite (over short-lived entities like snowflakes, say) should work even better than induction with green, since ebliteness is much more natural than grueness. But we know that we shouldn’t do induction with eblite: even though all the snowflakes we have observed are eblite, we shouldn’t assume that in the next century the snowflaskes will still be eblite (i.e., that they will start to have a white glow). Or, contrapositively, if eblite is insufficiently natural for induction, green is much too unnatural for induction.

Moreover, this points to a better story. Lewisian unnaturalness measures the complexity of a property relative to the properties that are in themselves perfectly natural. But this is unsatisfactory for epistemological purposes, since the perfectly natural properties are ones that we are far from having discovered as yet. Rather, for epistemological purposes, what we want to do is measure the complexity of a property relative to the properties that are for us perfectly natural. (This, of course, is meant to recall Aristotle’s distinction between what is more understandable in itself and what is more understandable for us.) The properties that are for us perfectly natural are the directly observable ones. And now the in itself messy property of greenness beats not only grue and eblite, but even the much more in itself natural property of eblack.

This can’t be the whole story. In more scientifically developed cases, we will have an interplay of induction with respect to for us natural properties (including ones involved in reading data off lab equipment) and in themselves natural properties.

And there is the deep puzzle of why we should trust induction with respect to what is merely for us natural. My short answer is it that it is our nature to do so, and our nature sets our epistemic norms.


Ibrahim Dagher said...

Hi Alex,
Could you expand on your "short answer" at the end? Is your solution a teleological story––and if so do you think the reliability of induction provides one reason to think the foundation of reality will ultimately have to be personal, as opposed to mind-less?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is a teleological story, and it ignores reliability. The idea is that our epistemic norms are set by our human nature, rather than by reliability or anything like that. (I think there is a connection with reliability, but it is indirect.)

Ibrahim Dagher said...

I see. Thank you!