Arbitrary Milestones

Happy 300th post! It has been fun, and also rocky. The past is filled with a mixed bag of neat ideas and terrible ones, ones that never went anywhere, and the intermittent updates. It has podcasts, and hexups, and comic books, and logic and art stuff. But here we are, at a completely arbitrary milestone whereupon I decided to write this post instead of posting the one I’d planned to. I dig a good milestone.

I started writing here four years ago, with vaguely philosophical thoughts and the notion that it’d help me deal with some anxiety about criticism, and it has. I’ve put together some bad posts and some good ones, become more disciplined in writing, and had some really good conversations with people about everything from why my views on gender are bullshit (seriously, the gender post is super naive) to why it is or isn’t okay to lie to kids about Santa Claus. It is cool, and I like it.

Anyway, milestones and philosophy.

David Hume introduced the world to the Problem of Induction, a famous problem that would confound stoners and first year philosophy students for decades to come. The problem, simply put, is┬áthis: that something has always happened before is no good reason to think it will happen again. The basis of inductive reasoning is piling on evidence until we can’t deny the conclusion, but Hume’s point is that no amount of evidence is ever enough for us to abandon doubt. We talk instead about reasonable certainty, or margins of error, to hedge our bets just in case. The sun rises every day until the day it doesn’t.

Toaster with googly eyes

I’m on to you.

Hume’s problem, taken to extremes, results in absurdity. Forget the notion of dropping a ball and having it fall up, the problem, as stated, means that we don’t have a good reason to think it won’t transform into a sentient toaster and kidnap your iguana. “It’s never happened before” is all we can offer. We have no reason to think it would now, but that isn’t enough to say for sure that it won’t. Be wary around balls is all I’m saying.

This problem can be crushing. Imagine living in a world where sidewalks could be butterflies, and you could suddenly breathe water instead of air. Imagine a world where people act like that because they’re preoccupied with the notion that cause isn’t meaningfully or justifiably connected with effect, no matter how reliable previous experience makes it. This is the point where you go “Daaaamn.” It would be a mess. Everything is flamingo croquet. Have I mentioned yet that this is technically the world that you live in? Because it is. Not to worry, Hume has a solution.

Fucking deal.

Yep. Hume says,

This principle is Custom or Habit. For wherever the repetition of any particular 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 that 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.

We have to establish cause and effect because it’s part of us. It’s the only way we know how to make sense of the world, so we might as well just get on with it. He doesn’t use that as a stopping point in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, but it’s his go to. We have to live our lives and get through the day even if that means being sort of bad at perfect induction and not thinking that our words will suddenly become sprinkles.

Milestones are the same way. They’re arbitrary. Everyone marks them differently, but we all have a habit and custom of marking them. The fact that they don’t have intrinsic meaning causes worry for some people and consternation for others, as they’re alternately seen as a way of tooting one’s horn or celebrating something unremarkable. But there they are. Birthdays are arbitrary milestones. We celebrate them because they make us happy. When they stop doing that, we stop marking them. This is post 300, our arbitrary milestone.


Other people have said smart things about the Problem of Induction, including Popper and Carnap. It’s actually not such a huge deal if you relax the restrictions on his perfect induction, arguing that instead of “One million A’s are B, so all A’s are B” we go with “All observed A’s are B, so all A’s are B” which allows us to make room for continued observation while operating with reasonable certainty. Check out the Problem of Induction at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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