Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Foray Into The Logic of Abduction

When you see the word "abduction" in print these days, it's usually a crime story: some larger person is holding a smaller, probably younger person. Probably unlawfully, we're not sure. Do we really want to delve deeper into that story? (Maybe so, but maybe no.)

The other less-common but still seen by all of us are the claims of being "abducted" by aliens, who are probably not of the Earth. I confess I tend to continue reading these stories, because they're so ubiquitous and baffling. There is no shortage of experts who want to make fun of people who believe the aliens are here and need our fluids, or a little kinky action. I agree, it is funny, but what bores me is these self-congratulatory "experts" who "know" it's all impossible, and pat themselves on the back for being so much smarter than most people, and these fundamentalist materialists are here to help us be more rational, but we just won't listen. But they're here for us. Boring clods. (See just about any issue of The Skeptical Enquirer for these types.) 

What bugs me: when I continue to follow these stories and read books about them, I find:

1.) There are no end to these stories. They seemingly happen to all sorts of people; farmers living in Possum Crotch and white-collar professionals are victimized as well. It could be anyone...except myself?

2.) I have come to strongly suspect that almost all of the people greatly troubled by their exceedingly weird experience truly believe it happened to them. Most are not playing games in order to ripoff the public. I don't believe these poor souls are simply "starving for attention." (Or maybe they are in need of attention, but both we and they don't know quite know why yet?)

3.) As a reader of books on the theory of relativity, cosmology and astronomy, given our current understanding of physics, I just can't buy that They are here. There has to be some other explanation.

And that's where I part with the Know-It-Alls. If, as some of the fundamentalist materialists want us to believe - that mass sightings of a ball of light landing and doing physically impossible things are really "only" "mass hallucinations," then...isn't that something we ought to study? How do we account for sudden "mass hallucinations"? That seems like a marvelous field, open for research. 

Oh, I have 17 models of what I think might "really" be going on with these people abducted by aliens, but that's for some future blog maunder. (Number 17 is "They really are here, toying with us." I have 16 more plausible ideas.)
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What I have come to talk to you all about today is another meaning of the term "abduction." In logic, we have deduction, in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises:

All bachelors are unmarried males.
This guy right here is a bachelor.
Therefore, he's not married.

We have induction, in which the conclusion seems to follow with a generally high degree of probability:

Most Swedes are blonde.
My brother's girlfriend is from Sweden.
She must be blonde.

These two - deduction and induction - get all the logic press, it seems. But far, far, far more intriguing to me, and maybe to you too, is abduction.

Imagine our earliest homo sapiens ancestors. They're in a group of about 50, making their trek through the forest, looking for food or a place to make camp and sing. And suddenly it's raining. And then: thunder and lightning! What did they think about it? Given if I throw the rock at the rabbit and the rabbit dies and we eat meat an hour later, I'm thinking someone caused that loud sound that rumbled the ground, and possibly threw those bolts of lightning at us! What did we do to deserve that? Did someone say something that pissed off that...Big Man? What can we do to make Him not angry at us anymore?

Abduction happens when there is some phenomena, and we really don't know how to explain it; we make something that seems like a plausible hypothesis. And then someone else comes up with something just as plausible. Abduction, in fact, is thought of as that part of logic almost synonymous with hypothesis. It's played a big part of any scientific method.

Another word for abduction might be "guessing." But there ought to be some appeal to intuitive probability at least. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), one of those odd geniuses the public really should know more about, was trained as a chemist, but made contributions to math, logic, philosophy, and semiotics. He had a very colorful life. He was brilliant beyond words but not the most exemplary character. Go read about him soon!

Anyway, Peirce (pronounced "purse") ended up enchanting William James, and James, being an Adept at the role of public intellectual, championed Peirce's ideas, and American pragmatism was born. And it has been, for around 100 years now, "the" reigning philosophy in Unistat. 

Lots of serious philosophers detest pragmatism because it seems to be an "anti-philosophy." William James tackled the "free-will" vs. "determinism" problem by reasoning that they both have their merits, and so a sort of free-willed determinism must rule the day...Hey, whatever works!
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But back to C.S. Peirce. He seemed fascinated by this idea of abduction, and it's difficult to pin him down on it; in his collected papers he seems to define it differently every few years, adds a wrinkle, expands it here, talks about it in a completely new context there, changes the name of it a few times. He gets very technical with it, massages the idea, combines it with other ideas. But what strikes me is that his many years of meditating and cogitating about the idea of "abduction" in logical reasoning led him to a fallibilism that engenders an affection from a lover of speculative thought such as myself, the OG.

Because I know you have important things to do, people to see, video games to play, and sexual positions to try out, I will just get in this one last thing before I let you all out of class and into the sunshine...

In a paper titled "The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism," dating from 1896 or 1898, even the curators of his papers are not sure - he wrote stuff willy-nilly and let it pile up - he says there are four types of bullshit arguments that other philosophers or Authority figures or self-appointed "experts" will try to pull on us to get us to stop thinking about one phenomena or idea or another, and they are:

  • There are ancient and eternal truths that have been discovered; we must never question them.
  • There are just some things that can never be known.
  • (Here's where it gets muy interesante for the OG, and I will quote Peirce so you get a feel for his rhythms:) "The third philosophical stratagem for cutting off inquiry consists in maintaining that this, that, of the other element of science is basic, ultimate, independent of aught else, and utterly inexplicable - not so much from any defect in our knowing as because there is nothing beneath it to know. The only type of reasoning by which such a conclusion could possibly reached is retroduction. (This was one of Peirce's other words for "abduction." - OG) Now nothing justifies a retroductive inference except its affording an explanation for the facts. It is, however, no explanation at all of a fact to pronounce it inexplicable. That, therefore, is a conclusion which no reasoning can ever justify or excuse."
  • We have finally found the "last and perfect formulation" so don't bug us with anything that attempts to contradict it. Peirce: "'Stones do not fall from heaven,' said Laplace, although they had been falling upon inhabited ground every day from the earliest of times. But there is no kind of inference which can lend the slightest probability to any such absolute denial of an unusual phenomenon."- pp.55-56 Philosophical Writings of Peirce
In a discussion of Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, Mark Fenster brings in the idea of abduction, which was ultimately derived from Peirce : "Abduction is the process of interpreting unexplained events or results by figuring out a law that can explain them, a process of 'figuring out' that often, in the case of great scientific discoveries, requires imaginative or analogical steps. In the process of abduction, the text to be interpreted contains a 'secret code' of the law but requires an inventive or at least quite dynamic and productive interpretive act to identify and decipher the explanatory law." - pp.99-100 of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power In America, 1999 edition; I have seen a newer expanded edition. It seems most conspiracy theorists are far better at using abductive logic than they probably ever knew! (But it doesn't mean all conspiracy theories "are wrong.")

...Which brings us back to the aliens abducting humans thingamabob? Passing strange, eh? Or is it only word-play?

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