The Constraint of Custom:

I have written a lot about the problem of induction before. This was explained very well by the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume looked at the basis of beliefs that we hold such as:

  1. The sun will rise tomorrow; or
  2. If I drop this ball, it will fall to the ground

Hume noted that there is no uniformity in nature. In other words, it is not rational to believe that what has happened in the past will happen again in the future. Just because, we have seen the sun rise every single day of our lives, it does not guarantee that it will rise again tomorrow. We are using our experience of the sun rising to believe that it will rise again tomorrow. Even though, this might be irrational, Hume does not deny that we may see the belief of the sun rising as a sensible proposition. He notes:

None but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience, or to reject that great guide of human life.

It’s just that we cannot use logic to back this proposition up. We cannot conclude that the future is going to resemble the past, no matter how many examples of the past we have. We cannot simply use experience of the past because the only experience we have is of the past, and not of the future. Hume noted that to propose that the next future event will resemble the past because our most recent “future event” (the last experience event) resembled the past is circular:

All our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavor, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.

Hume concluded that we fall prey to the problem of induction because we are creatures of habits:

For wherever the repetition of any act or operation produces a propensity to renew the same act or operation, without being impelled by any reasoning or process of the understanding, we always say, that this propensity is the effect of Custom. By employing this word, we pretend not to have given the ultimate reason of such a propensity. We only point out a principle of human nature, which is universally acknowledged, and which is well known by its effects.

In other words, it is our human nature to identify and seek patterns, use them to make predictions of the future. This is just how we are wired. We do this unconsciously. Our brains are prediction engines. We cannot help but do this. I will go further with this idea by utilizing a brilliant example from the wonderful American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce in 1868 wrote about an experiment to reveal the blind spot in the retina:

Does the reader know of the blind spot on the retina? Take a number of this journal, turn over the cover so as to expose the white paper, lay it sideways upon the table before which you must sit, and put two cents upon it, one near the left-hand edge, and the other to the right. Put your left hand over your left eye, and with the right eye look steadily at the left-hand cent. Then, with your right hand, move the right-hand cent (which is now plainly seen) towards the left hand. When it comes to a place near the middle of the page it will disappear—you cannot see it without turning your eye. Bring it nearer to the other cent, or carry it further away, and it will reappear; but at that particular spot it cannot be seen. Thus, it appears that there is a blind spot nearly in the middle of the retina; and this is confirmed by anatomy. It follows that the space we immediately see (when one eye is closed) is not, as we had imagined, a continuous oval, but is a ring, the filling up of which must be the work of the intellect. What more striking example could be desired of the impossibility of distinguishing intellectual results from intuitional data, by mere contemplation?

I highly encourage the reader to check this out, if they have not heard of this experiment. In fact, I welcome the reader to draw a line and then place the coin on the line. Doing so, the reader will see that the coin vanishes, however the line still remains visible in the periphery. This means that even though, our eye “sees” a ring, the brain actually fills it out and makes us see a “whole” picture. To add to this wonderful capability of our interpretative framework, the image that falls on our retina is actually upside-down. Yet, our brain makes it the “right-side” up. This would mean that newborn babies may actually see the world upside down and with voids, but at some point, the interpretative framework changes to correct it so that we see the world “correctly”.

How does our brain know to do this? The answer to this is that it was evolutionarily beneficial for our ancestors to do this, just like our custom to look for patterns. This is what Lila Gatlin would refer to as a D1 constraint. This is a context-free constraint that was evolutionarily passed down from generation to generation. This is a constraint that acts in any situation. In other words, to quote Alicia Juarrero, it is context free.

To go past this constraint, we have to use second order thinking. In other words, we have to think about thinking; we have to learn about learning; we have to look at understanding understanding. I welcome the reader to look at the posts I have written on this matter. I will finish with two quotes to further meditate on this:

Only when you realize you are blind, can you see. (Paraphrasing Heinz von Foerster)

The quieter you become, the more you can hear. – Ram Dass

Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of “Here & Now” and “There & Then”