Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Gradations of Guessing: Preliminary Sketches and Suggestions

Academic journal article Contemporary Pragmatism

Gradations of Guessing: Preliminary Sketches and Suggestions

Article excerpt

"But we must conquer the truth by guessing, or not at all."

- C.S. Peirce

There is little doubt that guessing plays an important role in the sciences. What that role is and how it plays that role in the sciences is unclear. Often guessing has been indicated as an important part of scientific processes, especially with regard to hypothesis-generation, but the term is largely undefined and unexplored. Most philosophers who have stated that guessing plays a role in scientific processes have stated little more on the subject. Quite simply, they have stated that it plays a role, that the role is important to the discovery or creation of hypotheses, and beyond that they have had little to say. This might not seem such a strange case of neglect if guessing was not considered so fundamental to generating scientific hypotheses.

There are at least a few reasons for this neglect. The first and most general is that the meaning of guessing is assumed as implicitly understood. The assumption is that no definition must be given; we all know what we mean when we use the word, and this includes philosophers of science and readers of philosophy of science. Part of this assumption entails the further notion that guessing is monosemic - there is only one meaning of guessing and each instance of guessing is the same and without ambiguity. The second reason is more specific to the philosophy of science in the 20th Century. Given Hans Reichenbach's distinction between the context of justification, which may be rationally reconstructed, and the context of discovery, which cannot be rationally reconstructed, guessing is considered a matter of history, psychology, and sociology, but not a matter of philosophy and surely not one of logic.1 The third reason is that guessing has been absorbed by some thinkers into induction, thus collapsing guessing and inductive logic as one. This is most similar to the ideas expressed by Francis Bacon in the New Organon, for instance, and more recently by Peter Lipton (Bacon 1999; Lipton 2004). There are likely further reasons that neglect of guessing has persisted within philosophy of science, but these are what I take to be the three primary reasons.

The following is an initial remedy to this neglect that provides a general definition of guessing that applies to scientific inquiry. In addition, I combat the assumption that the meaning of guessing is monosemic by providing examples of various types, or gradations, of guessing. The variation of these types indicates that guessing is not merely a simplistic process at which philosophers of science can merely hand-wave before moving on to deduction and induction. Rather, accounting for the gradations of guessing contributes to the argument that guessing is a logical process that is an appropriate object of philosophical analysis instead of a process that necessarily falls outside of rational reconstruction. As a logical process, guessing is clearly distinguished from induction and deduction. This distinction provides an important domain of philosophical inquiry that merits further investigation, especially within philosophy of science.

1. A Brief History of Neglect

Before engaging in an analysis of guessing, I must note how little work there has been devoted specifically to the subject, not only in the philosophy of science, but also more generally. Apart from the work by C.S. Peirce and Michael Polanyi, which I expound upon below, in my survey of work pertaining specifically to guessing there are only two essays that overtly attempt to clarify what guessing is, neither of which pertain specifically to the philosophy of science. The first is L. Jonathan Cohen's essay (1974), which is an ordinary language analysis of guessing and how it is sometimes used. Cohen provides an analysis of how he finds guessing to be distinct from other similar actions, such as conjecture. Although Cohen's work on this subject is interesting and insightful, I do not especially agree with his distinctions, especially if applied to philosophy of science, which he does not address. …

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