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Hempel’s Ravens Paradox

Hempel’s Ravens Paradox

The philosopher Carl G. Hempel, in his 1965 essay “Studies in the Logic of Confirmation,” brought to light a central paradox in the scientific method as it is commonly understood.

This is called Hempel’s Ravens Paradox, and it deals with inductive reasoning, which is the first step in any scientific method: Observing and forming a hypothesis.


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Inductive Reasoning

Inductive Reasoning

 Suppose you see a raven, and you note that it is black. “Hmm,” you say, “that raven was black.” Sometime later you notice a couple more ravens, and they also are black. “What a coincidence,” you remark, “those ravens are black too.” Time goes by and you see many more ravens. And it happens that all the ravens you see are black. “This is beyond coincidence,” you might reasonably think, and with the instincts of a good and observant scientist you form a hypothesis: All ravens are black.


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The Limitation

The Limitation

There are always limits to an experimental apparatus, even if the apparatus is just a matter of observing as many ravens as possible to check their colour. Nonetheless, we feel justified in saying that each new observation of a black raven tends to confirm the hypothesis, and in time, if no green or blue or otherwise non-black ravens are observed, our hypothesis will eventually come to have the status of natural law.


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The Flaw In Our Logic

The Flaw In Our Logic

Logically put, our hypothesis “all ravens are black” has the form of a conditional, that is, a statement of the form “if A then B.” In short, we are saying that if a given object is a raven, then that object is black. According to the laws of logic, a conditional is equivalent to its contrapositive. That is, a statement of the form “if A then B” is equivalent to the statement “if not B then not A.” This rule of logic is incontrovertible.


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The Illogical Conclusion

Our hypothesis “all ravens are black” therefore has the equivalent form “all non-black things are non-ravens,” or more precisely, “if an object isn't black then it is not a raven.” Consequently, if every sighting of a black raven confirms our hypothesis, then every sighting of a non-black non-raven equally confirms our hypothesis.


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The Bottom Line

Very well, you might say, but maybe every sighting of a non-black non-raven really does confirm, even if only to an infinitesimal degree, the hypothesis that all ravens are black. After all, if we could, somehow, check every non-black object in the universe, and if none of them were ravens, our statement that all ravens are black would be proved.


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