We all make choices in an uncertain ever-changing world by taking what we know and guessing that most of the time we’ll be right. Sometimes we’re wrong and, if we survive, we’re usually smart enough to learn from our mistakes and make adjusted guesses in the future.
But what if everything we think we know is based on shaky ground?
If the reader will permit me, I’m going to take you on a little journey through history and hopefully show you that crusty old philosophers can truly help you to make better choices.
THE OLD SCHOOL
Thousands of years ago philosophers sat around in their togas with jugs of wine and speculated about high-minded ideas like ‘truth’ and ‘virtue’, much like blokes in the corner of the pub putting the world to rights. Someone would throw out their own pet theory and the others would disagree and chip in with theirs. And if you read any of the works of Plato then you’ll know that that’s pretty much what happens. Then Socrates will turn up and he’ll carefully and politely smash their assumptions to pieces with a crafty set of questions until they’re forced to admit to themselves how little they all really know.
Now deduction (narrowing down what must be false) is great for criticising a theory but, ultimately, we need to make choices based on what IS true. Ancient philosophers were famously bad at testing out their theories in real life. If something made sense to them then they just assumed that it was true. Plato’s ingenious attempt to stop this was to use the power of deduction to prove to people how dodgy this was.
But you and I need something else to go on. What we need is EVIDENCE.
Back in the 18th Century, empiricism was all the rage. Instead of pulling a theory out of your bottom and using logic to attempt to make it sound clever, people actually tested out their ideas in the real world. The scientific method was born and the great thing was that when you’d come up with an experiment that tested out your theory, anyone else on the planet could do the same experiment to see if you were right.
Now on the surface, all of that sounds like great news for you and me. All we have to do is to keep doing the things that worked for us in the past and copy the things that seem to work for other people.
But there’s a problem. And that’s where our old friend Dave comes in.
David Hume said that we don’t acquire knowledge based on reason and deductive logic. Instead, we acquire it by induction: we observe a pattern and the more consistently that pattern repeats itself the more confidently we assume that it will continue to repeat itself in the future. If you’ve seen your neighbour walking their dog every morning at 8am for the last three years then you can be pretty sure that he’ll be up at 8am tomorrow again doing the same.
Famously he said:
“No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.”
(Remember those swans, we’ll be coming back for them).
In other words, unless you can be sure that you’ve seen all the swans in the world, then you can’t be sure that all of them are white. Just because something has always happened in the past does not prove that it will always happen in the future. Empires eventually fall, the stock exchange goes down as well as up and things we take for granted can be taken from us in an instant.
In other words, the past does not necessarily equal the future. And that’s why no matter how confident we are that we have life sussed, we can always be bitten on the bum by the uncertainty.
Now to be fair, David Hume gets all the credit from history, but although he became famous for pointing the problem out (despite other people getting there first), he didn’t actually say that induction was a bad way to make choices. To him, sensibly done, much of the induction we do is a useful rule of thumb for how to live our lives. After all, what else do we have to go on?