Inference to the Best Explanation

By Peter Lipton | Go to book overview

Introduction

We are forever inferring and explaining, forming new beliefs about the way things are and explaining why things are as we have found them to be. These two activities are central to our cognitive lives, and we usually perform them remarkably well. But it is one thing to be good at doing something, quite another to understand how it is done or why it is done so well. It is easy to ride a bicycle, but hard to describe how it is done; it is easy to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical strings of words in one's native tongue, but hard to describe the principles that underlie those judgments. In the cases of inference and explanation, the contrast between what we can do and what we can describe is stark, for we are remarkably bad at principled description. We seem to have been designed to perform the activities, but not to analyze or to defend them. Still, epistemologists do the best they can with their limited cognitive endowment, trying to describe and justify our inferential and explanatory practices.

This book is an essay on one popular attempt to understand how we go about weighing evidence and making inferences. According to the model of Inference to the Best Explanation, our explanatory considerations guide our inferences. Beginning with the evidence available to us, we infer what would, if true, provide the best explanation of that evidence. This cannot be the whole story about inference: any sensible version of Inference to the Best Explanation should acknowledge that there are aspects of inference that cannot be captured in these terms. But many of our inferences, both in science and in ordinary life, appear to follow this explanationist pattern. Faced with tracks in the snow of a certain peculiar shape, I infer that a person on snowshoes has recently passed this way. There are other possibilities, but I make this inference because it provides the best explanation of what I see. Watching me pull my hand away from the stove, you infer that I am in pain, because this is the best explanation of my excited behavior. Having observed the motion of Uranus, the scientist infers that there is another hitherto unobserved planet with a particular mass and orbit, since that is the best explanation of Uranus's path.

Inference to the Best Explanation is a popular account, though it also has notable critics. It is widely supposed to provide an accurate description of a

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Inference to the Best Explanation
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface to the Second Edition ix
  • Preface to the First Edition xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - Induction 5
  • Chapter 2 - Explanation 21
  • Chapter 3 - The Causal Model 30
  • Chapter 4 - Inference to the Best Explanation 55
  • Chapter 5 - Contrastive Inference 71
  • Chapter 6 - The Raven Paradox 91
  • Chapter 7 - Bayesian Abduction 103
  • Chapter 8 - Explanation as a Guide to Inference 121
  • Chapter 9 - Loveliness and Truth 142
  • Chapter 10 - Prediction and Prejudice 164
  • Chapter 11 - Truth and Explanation 184
  • Conclusion 207
  • Bibliography 211
  • Index 217
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