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BONJOUR’S A PRIORI JUSTIFICATION OF INDUCTION 1

BONJOUR’S A PRIORI
JUSTIFICATION OF
INDUCTION


ANTHONY BRUECKNER

Abstract: Laurence BonJour has recently attempted to formulate an a priori


justification of induction (in In Defense of Pure Reason). He maintains that
we can know a priori that the truth of an inductive inference’s conclusion
constitutes the best explanation of the inference’s inductive premise. Though
BonJour’s discussion raises a host of interesting issues, I think that his defense
of induction rests upon a number of controversial assumptions.

Laurence BonJour has recently attempted to formulate an ambitious a


priori justification of induction.1 Though his discussion raises a host of
interesting issues, I think that his defense of induction rests upon a number
of controversial assumptions which have not been adequately defended.

1. Preliminaries

BonJour conceives inductive inference as proceeding from a premise of


the form

m/n observed A’s are B’s (where m may be equal to n).

to a conclusion of the form

m/n A’s are B’s.

BonJour considers the problem of induction to be one of metajustifica-


tion: in general, is there any reason to suppose that the conclusion of an
inductive inference is likely to be true given the truth of its premise?
Alternatively: does inductive reasoning confer any justification upon

Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82 (2001) 1–10 0279–0750/00/0100–0000


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2 PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

its conclusion? These BonJourian formulations are connected in virtue of


the assumption that justification is truth-conducive in the following way: if
a belief is justified, then it is likely to be true, and if a form of inference is
justified, then the truth of the premise of an instance of such inference
makes it likely that the conclusion is true. One way of thinking about the
metajustificatory nature of the problem of induction, as conceived by
BonJour, is as follows.2 If you give me a particular inductive inference
and ask me for a reason why the conclusion is likely to be true, an
appropriate response would be to cite the truth of the particular premise
involved and to note its relation to the conclusion. However, if you ask
me for a quite general reason why any inductive premise renders the
appropriate conclusion likely to be true, then I will need to give an argu-
ment whose conclusion is

(JI) Inductive inference is justified, in the sense that the truth of an inductive premise
renders the appropriate conclusion likely to be true.

Let us now turn to BonJour’s account of the classical Humean concep-


tion of the problem of induction. BonJour asks, on behalf of Hume,
“What sort of reasoning moves from the observation of particular cases
in which A has been followed by B to the general conclusion that A will
always be followed by B?”. [190] Hume’s dilemma is this: the reasoning in
question has to be either “a priori demonstrative” reasoning or “experi-
mental” reasoning. [190] The first horn is ruled out because “the course
of nature may change”. [190] The second horn is ruled out because “the
justifiability of experimental reasoning is precisely what is at issue and
cannot be assumed without begging the question”. [190] So no reasoning
takes us from an inductive premise to the desired conclusion, according
to BonJour’s reconstruction of Hume.
To clarify this skeptical argument, let us consider what BonJour calls
the Principle of Induction:

(PI) Unobserved cases will resemble observed cases. [190]

BonJour agrees with Hume that PI is not knowable a priori. Thus, one
cannot add, with a priori justification, PI as a premise to some particular
inductive argument, thereby turning it into a deduction. BonJour also
agrees with Hume that no inductive justification of induction will work.
So how can BonJour claim to avoid Hume’s skeptical dilemma?
BonJour is not entirely clear on this question. Let us first note that one
can fairly grasp the demonstrative reasoning horn of the dilemma without
claiming a prioricity for PI and thereby attempting to turn induction into
deduction. The main idea here is that the problem of induction, as we are
now conceiving it, is metajustificatory in character. Thus one might well

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BONJOUR’S A PRIORI JUSTIFICATION OF INDUCTION 3
attempt to construct a deductive argument from a priori justified premises
not containing PI, whose conclusion is JI. This argument would not in-
volve any effort to somehow turn individual inductive inferences into
deductions. It seems to me that this is precisely what BonJour in the end
sees himself as doing. Further, this must be his position if (i) he sees
Hume’s dilemma as exhausting the possibilities, (ii) he rejects all induct-
ive justifications of induction, and (iii) he does not seek to turn induc-
tions into deductions.

2. BonJour’s way of justifying induction


BonJour’s basic strategy is to focus upon the idea that the truth of an
inductive inference’s conclusion provides the best explanation for the
truth of its premise. Using that focus, BonJour wishes to establish JI
purely on the basis of a priori justified considerations.
The first stage of BonJour’s project is to maintain that the following
principle has a priori justification:

(I-1) It is highly likely that there exists some explanation (other than chance) for the truth
of a standard inductive premise.

Such a premise has the canonical form given above and meets the follow-
ing requirement on its evidential basis: “. . . the observed proportion of
As and Bs, rather than varying irregularly over the range of possible
values, converges over time to the fraction m/n and thereafter remains at
least approximately constant as significant numbers of new observations
come in”. [207] According to BonJour, “once general prejudices about a
priori knowledge have been defused, the a priori status of I-1 seems
sufficiently obvious to require little discussion”. [208] Even granting that
BonJour’s book has served to defend a robust notion of genuine a priori
knowledge, the alleged a prioricity of I-1, as we shall see later, will re-
quire some further discussion.
Now suppose that we have some particular standard inductive premise

(P) m/n observed a’s are b’s.

The desired inductive conclusion is

(C) m/n a’s are b’s.

A straight inductive explanation for the truth of P would be:

(I) It is an objective, lawful fact that m/n a’s are b’s.


(II) The observations upon which P is based reflect this fact.

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The truth of (I) and (II) implies the truth of C.


However, there are competing normal, non-inductive explanations for
the truth of P that we can consider.3 The normality requirement is that
the explanation must posit some lawful relation between a’s and b’s that
depends upon the presence or absence of some further property of being
a c; the explanation is non-inductive in that the relations between a’s, b’s,
and c’s are such as to falsify the inductive conclusion. For example, the
presence of c’s might constitute a distorting factor in the following way.
Where m differs significantly from q and r:

(1) m/n things that are both a’s and c’s are b’s.
(2) q/n things that are both a’s and non-c’s are b’s.
(3) r/n a’s are b’s.

On such an explanation, we have arrived at a misleading inductive premise


in virtue of having observed the a’s which are c’s, while remaining ignor-
ant of the properties of the a’s which are non-c’s.
The second stage of BonJour’s justification of induction is the mar-
shalling of a priori reasons for thinking that in inductive inferences
such as the one at hand involving a’s and b’s, a normal, non-inductive
explanation for the truth of our premise P is “substantially less likely to
be true . . . than is the straight inductive explanation”. [209] BonJour’s
argument for this is simple. Either the possibility described in a non-
inductive explanation such as the foregoing embodied in (1)–(3) is
“realized through sheer coincidence or chance”, or the correlations be-
tween observed a’s and c’s “reflect a lawful connection” between c’s and
observation of a’s (e.g., a connection of a quantum-mechanical nature).
Since each of these alternatives is, according to BonJour, highly un-
likely, “. . . the best explanation, that is, the most likely to be true, for the
truth of a standard inductive premise [such as P] is the straight inductive
explanation”. [212]

3. Problems

BonJour’s way of ruling out non-inductive explanations in an a priori


manner seems too easy. Suppose that the property of being a c is just the
property of being observed before now. Let us plausibly suppose that no
law precludes observation of a’s in the future (after now). Then BonJour’s
resolution of the classical Humean worry whether the future will re-
semble the past reduces to the bald assertion that it is highly unlikely that
the course of nature will change in respect of the portion of a’s that are
b’s. This is because such a change would occur by “sheer coincidence or
chance”. We will return to this objection later.

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BONJOUR’S A PRIORI JUSTIFICATION OF INDUCTION 5
Let us step back and look at BonJour’s strategy. Let ‘Pr( )’ stand for
‘It is highly likely that( )’, and let ‘A( )’ stand for ‘We know a priori
that( )’. BonJour’s chief claim in the first stage of his defense of induc-
tion can be represented as

(*) A[Pr(There is some correct explanation for the truth of a standard inductive premise) ].

BonJour’s chief claim in the second stage of his defense can be repres-
ented as

(**) A[Pr(If e is the correct explanation for the truth of a standard inductive premise, then
e is a straight inductive explanation) ].

We reason, then, that

(***) A[Pr(There is some correct, straight inductive explanation for the truth of a stand-
ard inductive premise) ].

BonJour’s goal was to provide a metajustificatory argument for the


conclusion

(JI) Inductive inference is justified, in the sense that the truth of an inductive premise
renders the appropriate conclusion likely to be true.

But now it appears that we have something like a recipe for turning
individual inductive inferences into deductions, contrary to BonJour’s
intention as described above. For any such inference, there will be an a
priori argument involving *, **, and *** for the thesis that it is likely that
the inductive inference’s conclusion is true. This is not quite the same
thing as turning induction into deduction, however, since the BonJour-
style a priori argument does not yield the unvarnished thesis that the
given inference’s conclusion is true simpliciter.
A related point concerns the question whether BonJour is committed
to the possibility of a priori knowledge of

(PI) Unobserved cases will resemble observed cases.

He agrees with philosophers like Reichenbach, who deny that we can


know a priori that “the world is orderly rather than chaotic”. [213]
BonJour believes that there are thoroughly chaotic possible worlds, as
well as possible worlds in which an inductive premise like P is true and
yet the corresponding inductive conclusion is false. Call these Humean
worlds. BonJour’s general view about a priori knowledge is that it is
knowledge of necessary truth. Therefore, we do not know a priori that
the world is orderly in such a way that the future will resemble the past:

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6 PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

on BonJour’s view, such knowledge is incompatible with the possibility


of Humean worlds. However, BonJour also maintains that we can know
a priori that if an inductive premise is true, then it is highly likely that the
corresponding inductive conclusion is true. [213] Given the view that
propositions known a priori are necessary, it follows that every possible
world which is like ours in respect of the truth of some inductive premise
is a world in which that truth makes it highly likely that the correspond-
ing conclusion is true.
As noted, this is not to say that in every possible world in which an
inductive premise is true, so is the corresponding conclusion. On such
a view, chaos of the sort that worried Hume – in which the course
of nature changes – is not possible. This is denied by BonJour and
Reichenbach. Instead, what is knowable a priori – and hence necessary
on BonJour’s view – is that the sort of chaos in question is highly unlikely
given the truth of our various inductive premises. Clearly, this piece of
probabilistic knowledge is not based on knowledge of frequencies. That
basis would render the knowledge a posteriori. In fact, inspection of their
form reveals that each of the theses *, **, and *** implies, on BonJour’s
view, that one can have a priori knowledge of a necessary probabilistic
truth that is not based on knowledge of frequencies.
The special status of such alleged truths bears some reflection. Con-
sider again BonJour’s view that in every possible world in which an
inductive premise such as P is true, the truth of that proposition makes it
highly likely that the corresponding inductive conclusion is true. Since this
alleged necessity is not grounded in frequencies, one might well wonder
about its source.4 According to BonJour, the necessity is not concep-
tual in nature. He rejects, for example, Strawson’s defense of induction,
according to which it is an analytic truth that inductive inference is
reasonable.5 BonJour’s view on these matters requires a conception of
probability according to which the inductive premise makes the conclu-
sion highly likely even in the counter-inductive worlds in which the cor-
responding conclusion is false. On such a conception, we cannot interpret
P makes C highly likely as meaning that the conditional probability of C
given P is high. That probability is zero, since

Prob(C/P) = Prob(C & P)/Prob(P)

and

Prob(C & P) = O.

Perhaps we should understand BonJour’s claims about a priori know-


ledge concerning probability on the following model.6 We know a priori,
and it is a necessary truth, that the truth of the premise

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BONJOUR’S A PRIORI JUSTIFICATION OF INDUCTION 7
Bill tossed a dime ten times

makes this conclusion highly likely:

Bill did not toss ten heads.

The premise makes the conclusion highly likely, it might be said, even if
the conclusion turns out to be false. The trouble here is that it is plausible
to suppose that the premise makes the conclusion highly likely only if we
build in the idealizing assumption that the coin is fair, so that heads and
tails are equiprobable outcomes. But then it is not clear that the coin
tossing inference is analogous to real world inductive inferences, in which
no parallel idealizing assumptions, inducing a space of probabilities, can
figure.
Let us return to I-1. As noted earlier, BonJour thinks that I-1 is
unproblematic, so long as one is open to the possibility of substantive a
priori knowledge. But surely some further discussion is desirable. Why
suppose that we can know a priori that it is likely that there is some
correct explanation for every true inductive premise? The only apparent
basis for such a claim would be some probabilistically qualified principle
of sufficient reason, according to which we know a priori that

For each contingent truth t, it is highly likely that there is some correct explanation for t.

But Bonjour offers no defense of such an a priori principle.


Let us return to the problem of ruling out normal, non-inductive
explanations that compete with straight inductive ones when it comes to
accounting for the truth of a particular inductive premise. According to
BonJour, the latter sort of explanation is a better explanation of the
premise’s truth than is the former. Granting that, we might still wonder
whether this entitles us to justifiably believe the straight inductive explana-
tion. It would seem that in order to have an a priori reason for holding
such a belief, it is required that we have an a priori justification for
inference to the best explanation. We need to know a priori that the best
explanation for some truth is itself likely to be true.
Even granting the a prioricity of inference to the best explanation, we
can still raise the question: Is a straight inductive explanation in fact a
better explanation for the truth of the pertinent inductive premise than a
normal, non-inductive explanation? BonJour, we saw, reasoned as follows.
A normal, non-inductive explanation hypothesizes the presence of a dis-
torting factor – the occurrence of c’s, for example, during the period of
observation of a’s and b’s. BonJour asks why the hypothesized distorting
factor obtains. Is it because of a connection between c’s and the observa-
tion of a’s, or is the hypothesized state of affairs “realized through sheer

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8 PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

coincidence or chance”? [212] BonJour dismisses both answers as being


highly unlikely to be true. The pertinent straight inductive explanation
then emerges as the best explanation for the truth of the inductive premise.
The problem with this reasoning lies in its demand for an explanation
for the non-inductive explanatory hypothesis itself. When the two pro-
posed explanations for the non-inductive hypothesis – chance and the
effects of observation – are found wanting, the desired winner, the induct-
ive hypothesis, is anointed. But why should we accept BonJour’s demand
for an explanation of the non-inductive explanation? Further, what is
BonJour’s explanation for the alleged truth of the straight inductive
explanation? He offers none, and so, even granting the demand just chal-
lenged, he has presented no ground for preferring the inductive explana-
tion to the competing non-inductive explanation.
Let us conclude by considering Bonjour’s treatment of an objection
that is similar to one raised above. Why not explain the truth of an
inductive premise such as our P by supposing that the following is true:

(#) m/n a’s are b’s during the period of time in which the observations supporting P
occurred.

This explanation clearly falls far short of the desired inductive conclusion
C, since it allows that substantially less than m/n a’s are b’s during the
time after the observations are made.
BonJour responds as follows:

The central point is that the objective regularity that is invoked by the straight inductive
explanation must be conceived as something significantly stronger than a mere Humean
constant conjunction, and in particular as involving by its very nature a substantial propen-
sity to persist into the future. This propensity need not, I think, be so strong as to rule out
any possibility that “the course of nature might change”, but it must be sufficient to make
such a change seriously unlikely. [214]

BonJour’s point is presumably not just that anything counting as a straight


inductive explanation must imply the unlikelihood of a change in nature’s
course (in respect of the entities described by the explanation). That would
only constrain the definition of “straight inductive explanation”. The point
is rather that a straight inductive explanation conceived as hypothesizing
a “substantial propensity to persist into the future” is the best explanation
of the pertinent inductive premise’s truth. But why accept this view?
BonJour’s answer is as follows:

The justification for conceiving the regularity in this way is that anything less than this will
not really explain why the inductive evidence occurred in the first place: the assertion of a
Humean constant conjunction amounts to just a restatement and generalization of the

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BONJOUR’S A PRIORI JUSTIFICATION OF INDUCTION 9
standard inductive evidence, but has no real capacity to explain the occurrence of that
evidence. [214]

This is unconvincing in one respect: # is clearly more than just a restate-


ment of the inductive evidence recorded in P. # says that m/n of all the a’s
that exist during the time in question are b’s, whereas P concerns only the
a’s observed during that time. It is true, as BonJour goes on to say, that #
is a generalization of the inductive evidence, but it is far from clear why
this should destroy its explanatory character. BonJour continues:

Thus, not surprisingly, a solution to the problem of induction depends on the tenability of
a non-Humean, metaphysically robust conception of objective regularity (or objective
necessary connection). Of course, the proper explication of such a conception is notoriously
problematic, but the difficulties involved do not seem to me to be insurmountable. Here I
can only insist that such a conception is intuitively quite plausible and also seems to provide
the only alternative to skepticism. [214–5]

But here BonJour has introduced a new player: necessary connection.


It turns out that in order to justify induction (in order to provide a ra-
tionale for straight inductive explanations that generalize over all times),
we need to know a priori that genuine explanation always involves the
uncovering of necessary connections that go beyond (even actually
exceptionless) constant conjunctions. Here BonJour helps himself to an-
other huge serving of a priori knowledge without further argument. The
only reason offered is that appeal to necessary connections is “the only
alternative to skepticism”. However, an a priori justification of induction
is presumably supposed to provide an answer to skepticism about the
justified status of induction.

4. Conclusion

I have tried to exhibit the substantive, controversial assumptions upon


which BonJour’s a priori case for induction rests. Perhaps no satisfying a
priori argument for

(JI) Inductive inference is justified, in the sense that the truth of an inductive premise
renders the appropriate conclusion likely to be true

is forthcoming. Suppose we then say that the only possible inferential


source of justification for inductive inference is inductive inference itself.
That is, the only form of inference that is available for the purpose of
justifying inductive inference is itself inductive. Induction has been so suc-
cessful, and all that. Does this mean that inductive inference is unjustified?

© 2001 University of Southern California and Blackwell Publishers Ltd.


10 PACIFIC PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

Compare the situation to that faced by the thoroughgoing coherentist


about justification. He holds that

(C) The only source of justification for a belief is its coherence with the other members of
the pertinent belief system.

Suppose a skeptic asks for a justification of C itself. The coherentist has


no choice but to say that his belief of C is justified in virtue of its coher-
ence with the rest of his belief system. Does this mean that the coherentist’s
belief of C is unjustified? Not if C is true and the coherentist’s belief does
properly cohere. Of course, the skeptic about C will not be persuaded by
following argument, which relies upon C:

My belief of C properly coheres.


So, my belief of C is justified.

However, the coherentist’s belief of C may in fact be justified (if C is true)


even if the skeptic reasonably rejects the foregoing argument as being an
unpersuasive answer to his skeptical worries.7
Similarly, the inductive skeptic can reasonably reject an inductive argum-
ent for JI. However, suppose that inductive inference is in fact a source of
justification. Then JI is in fact justified, in virtue of its relation to the
appropriate inductive premise. In this case, JI is in fact justified, even
though the inductive skeptic will reasonably claim that he has not been
presented with a persuasive answer to his skeptical worries about induction.

University of California
Santa Barbara

NOTES
1
See chapter 7 of his In Defense of Pure Reason: A Rationalist Account of A Priori
Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). All page references in the text
are to this book.
2 This is not found in BonJour.

3
On BonJour’s usage of “explanation”, then, e can constitute an explanation for P even
if e is false. I will follow this usage. When it is appropriate, I will speak of a correct explana-
tion, in order to stress that the explanatory proposition in question is true.
4 See chapter 7 of Richard Fumerton’s Metaepistemology and Skepticism (Lanham, Mary-

land: Rowman and Littleton Publishers, Inc., 1995) for an excellent discussion of some
related issues concerning the allegedly a priori status of probabilistic principles linking
propositions about sense-experience with propositions about the external world.
5 See P. F. Strawson’s Introduction to Logical Theory (London: Methuen, 1952).

6 This was suggested by J. William Forgie.

7 See my critical study of BonJour’s book in Nous (September, 2000) for further discussion

of this point.

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