The Incompetent Watchmaker

Written 1 December 1998

It started as a joke, really. How can you figure out if the principle of scientific induction actually works? The whole edifice of science rests upon it, yet it itself has never been (can never be?) conclusively proved.

Well, obviously, we reasoned, if you want to find out if something is true or not, then, scientifically, you have to design an experiment to test it. If the test turns out one way, then you know that the proposition is false (or true, depending on how the experiment is designed); if the other way, then it may not prove anything conclusively, but at least it's another piece of information to add to your store. ("There! You're using induction there!" one of us crowed. "OK, then, a positive result is meaningless. The principle stands," the other grumbled.)

An intellectual game, then, and if not one seriously taken then one at least taken to absurd lengths for the sheer fun of it. What experiment could you make? Would it be possible to design a control?

We came up with this:

Create a device which is designed to create output with a given pattern. Flip the switch, turn the crank, pull the lever, whatever is required to start it up. Observe. If it doesn't follow the given pattern, then the hypothesis that induction holds--that past pattern is a predictor of future performance--is weakened. Otherwise, the inductive hypothesis is left, if not strengthened, then standing at least.

The circular nature of this amused us, and we could have left it at that. But the idea stuck with me, and I decided (as a lark) that I would create a device, designed solely to fit the requirements of the experiment. Ultimately I decided that a small device with a digital display that counted from 1 to 10 and back down again would be just the thing; small enough to carry around, and a nice little conversation piece when I was in a certain type of crowd. I thought it would be amusing. (Amusing!)

The problem was that after the first couple of weeks the thing stopped working properly. One day I took it out of my pocket and caught it counting down from fifteen. It acted normally for a while, then started to display prime numbers only. Finally I couldn't even predict if it was going to act predictably or not. I examined the workings minutely, made sure everything was in working order. But finally I had to admit the truth.

You know those times when you swear you left something in one place but find it in another? You remember someone having blue eyes but the next time you look they're green? The person you met the other day who seemed so nice is now clearly a total twit?

Oh, induction may have worked fine once upon a time. But the universe is running down, and the ordered rules that used to serve us all so well are starting to wear thin. For all I know. you could wake up tomorrow and find everything gone.

I have the experimental data to prove it.

This was something random written by Jacob Haller. To see another random thing, click here. To get a permanent link to this particular random thing, click here.



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