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Nick Fletcher PF303

Can the Paradox of the Ravens be solved?

The ‘Paradox of the Ravens’ was first posed by Carl Hempel in order to
illustrate a problem in which inductive logic violates intuition. He formulated in
response to Nicod’s criterion of conformation, an intuitively strong idea which
states that a formula or law of the form A entails B is ‘confirmed’ if an
observation of B coincides with an observation of A and is ‘invalidated’ if an
observation of A does not coincide with an observation of B. In short, a
hypothesis is confirmed by its instances and invalidated where it is observed to
be incorrect. However, this criterion has several problems, the most infamous of
which is the paradox of the ravens. Hempel (1945) introduces the paradox
through two logically equivalent hypotheses:
S1: ‘(x)(Raven(x) Black(x))’
S2: ‘(x)(~Black(x) ~Raven(x))’

In words, S1 states that ‘all ravens are black’, and S2 states that ‘all non-black
things are non-ravens’. These two statements are logically equivalent as they are
different formulations of the same hypothesis and as such have the same
content. According to Nicod’s criterion, observation of a black raven would
confirm S1 but be neutral with respect to S2; similarly, observation of a non-black
non-raven would confirm S2 but be neutral with respect to S1. However, this
violates the ‘equivalence condition’, stated by Hempel as ‘whatever confirms
(disconfirms) one of two equivalent sentences also confirms (disconfirms) the
other’ (1945; pp.12). Thus it appears we have an intuitive paradox where an
observation that supports one hypothesis cannot be used to support another
hypothesis that is logically equivalent to the first. There are several ways that
philosophers have attempted to solve this paradox, but it would seem that
Hempel’s satisfaction criterion, combined with Bayesian confirmational theory,
provides the most successful method.
Quine and Foster’s solution to the paradox starts with the idea of the
‘projectability’ of a hypothesis (Schwartz, 1972), a concept first developed by
Goodman in ‘Fact Fiction and Forecast’ in 1954. Projectible hypotheses are
generalisations that are confirmed by their instances according to Nicod’s
criterion of confirmation, essentially hypotheses made up of predicates that are
often used in projections. The Foster-Quine argument claims that whilst ‘all
ravens are black’ is projectible, ‘all non-black things are non-ravens’ is not

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Nick Fletcher PF303

because ‘non-black’ is not a projectible predicate. Another way of looking at it is


that the predicate ‘black’ is much better ‘entrenched’ than the predicate ‘non-
black’, this is an especially good example of differences in entrenchment as ‘non-
black’ is a projection of ‘black’ (Lejewski, 1959). As S2 is not projectible, even
observations of non-black non-ravens do not confirm it, and so it is unsurprising
that the observation of a non-black non-raven does not confirm S1 either
(Schwartz, 1972). Conversely, an observation of a black raven serves to confirm
both S1 and its logical equivalent S2 on account of the projectability of S1, that ‘all
ravens are black’ (Schwartz, 1972). According to the Foster-Quine argument the
equivalency condition need not be denied after this difference in projectability is
taken into account.
However, this account is not conclusive. The paradox itself comes out of
the assumption that that non-black non-ravens cannot confirm S1, but this
solution to the paradox claims that observations of black ravens can be used to
support S2. To Schwartz, this ‘asymmetry’ (1972; pp.245) in the Foster-Quine
argument detracts from its persuasiveness, but this concern can surely be
explained away through the concept of projectability. Much more damaging to
Fosters argument is that it creates another intuitive paradox, that a black raven
can confirm that ‘all non-black things are non-ravens’, but non-black non-raven
cannot. Also, as Goodman and Scheffler (1972) point out, the Foster-Quine
argument misinterprets Goodman’s concept of projectability; it is not the ‘ill-
entrenched’ (Goodman et al, 1972; pp. 83) nature of the predicate that
determines whether a hypothesis is projectible or not, it is still projectible as long
as ‘no conflicting hypotheses are better entrenched’ (1972; pp. 83). Thus, the
Foster-Quine argument does not show S2 to be unprojectible and his argument
loses its foundations.
Goodman and Schleffer (1972) argue that S1, does in fact logically differ
from S2, as S1 has an ‘excluded contrary’ (Goodman et al, 1972; pp79) that ‘All
ravens are not black,’ whilst S2 has the excluded contrary that ‘All non-black
things are ravens.’ Because these two contraries conflict, it is not surprising that
observations of non-black non-ravens do not support S1, that all ravens are black;
according to Goodman and Schleffer this shows that the two hypotheses are not
logically equivalent. The observation of a non-black non-raven does support S2 as
it also negates its excluded contrary. Similarly, an observation of a black raven
supports S1 but does not support S2 as it also satisfies its contrary, that ‘all non-
black things are ravens,’ at least in the sense that it does not negate it. This idea

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Nick Fletcher PF303

of ‘selective confirmation’ (Goodman et al, 1972; pp.79) is founded upon the idea
that for an observation to support a conditional hypothesis it must also negate its
contrary. It is possible for an observation to appear to support a hypothesis yet
not negate its contrary because an observation need not to be active relative to a
hypothesis; in the example above, the observation of a black raven does not
actively support the contrary that ‘all non-black things are ravens’, but it satisfies
it, and so cannot support S2. Essentially, the observation of a non-black non-
raven does not confirm S1, that ‘all ravens are black,’ any more than it confirms
that ‘all ravens are not black’; thus, selective confirmation can potentially be
used as a method of solving the paradox of the ravens.
However, this does not actually solve the problem. The paradox comes
from the logical inconsistency that an observation can support a hypothesis, but
not support a logically equivalent hypothesis. Goodman and Schleffer’s solution
serves to explain why this paradox might exist by appeal to selective
confirmation, but the paradox itself remains unsolved; it remains the case that an
observation, specifically a black raven in this case, can confirm a hypothesis, S1,
but not its logical equivalent, S2.
Hempel himself attempted to solve the paradox by arguing that it was not
a paradox at all, and it was perfectly logical for an observation of a non-black
non-raven to confirm, in some way, that all ravens are black. His argument was
that S1 suggests that everything in the universe either is not a raven or is black
(Pollock, 1973), so observing anything that satisfies these two conditions should
count as a confirming instance. Thus, observing a non-black non-raven confirms
S1 as it satisfies these conditions, just as observation of a black raven or a white
shoe does. This is Hempel’s Satisfaction Criterion of confirmation (Pollock, 1973).
This criterion is implicit within Bayesian confirmation theory.
Bayesian confirmation theory is based upon mathematical probabilities,
and starts from the intuitive assumption that a person can have varying degrees
of certainty about a belief. These degrees of certainty can be described using any
number between 0 and 1, with values close to 1 denoting near certainty in a
belief, and values close to 0 denoting high scepticism in a belief. If a piece of
evidence, e, supports a hypothesis, h, then it will cause a persons to increase
their subjective probability that h (Papineau, 2005).
The conditional probability of A given B is, in mathematical notation,
P(A/B), and is equal to P(A and B)/P(B), i.e. the probability that both A and B occur
given that B has occurred. Thus, if E confirms H and a person were to learn that

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Nick Fletcher PF303

E, it would cause them to increase their subjective probability prediction


(henceforth simply referred to as ‘probability’ rather than the rather long winded
‘subjective probability prediction’) that H is true to equal the probability that E;
the probability that H given E is written as P(H/E), and this equates to the
probability that P(H and E)/P(E) (Papineau, 2005). Thus:

P(H/E) = P(H and E)/P(E); similarly: P(E/H) = P(E and H)/P(H)

From which, we can deduce that: P(H/E) = [P(H) x P(E/H)]/P(E)

This is Bayesian theory in its pure mathematical form, and it shows that E will
confirm H iff P(E/H) is greater than P(E), in other words that E will confirm H iff the
probability that both H and E occur, given that E has occurred, is greater than the
probability that E occurs (Papineau, 2005). This is because if E is more likely to
occur given H, H is likely to have in some way caused, or been a cause of E. The
theory also supports the intuitive observation that if a particular E is very
surprising, has a very low P, but occurs according to how H would predict, its
occurrence will cause a large increase in P(H) (Papineau, 2005). Conversely, if
P(E/H) is very similar to P(E) then observation of E will not cause much change in
P(H), as E is not much more likely given H as it would be on another theory.
Thus, Bayesian confirmation theory attempts to solve the paradox of the
ravens by arguing that the observation of a non-black non-raven does indeed
support the hypothesis that all ravens are black, but to a negligible extent. To
take a numerical example from Papineau (2005; 4.8.1), assuming that:

P(object is black) = P(B) =1/5


P(object is a raven) = P(R) =1/10

Thus: P(object is a black raven) = P(B and R) =1/50


P(object is non-black non raven) = P(notB and not R) =36/50
P(object is a black non-raven) = P(B and notR) =10/50
P(object is a non-black raven) = P(notB and R) = 4/50

However, our assumption that all ravens are black will mean that our subjective
probabilities will be more like:

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P(B and R) = 2/50


P(notB and notR) = 38/50
P(B and notR) = 10/50
P(notB and R) =0

Thus, according to Bayesian theory, observing a black raven will double our belief
in H, our subjective P(H), as the conditional probability given to H is double that
of the initial probability. Similarly, observing a non-black non-raven will increase
our belief in H by 2/36ths of P(H). This is where the implicit assumption of
Hempel’s satisfaction criterion can be seen, for Bayesian theory to work it must
be possible for a single observation to have an effect on each of the subjective
probabilities. Under the Foster-Quine theory of confirmation or the selective
confirmation model the Bayesian theorem would not hold.
To conclude, it is plausible to assert that observing every single non-black
thing in the world and discovering that none of them are ravens would provide
quite strong support for the hypothesis that all ravens are black, were such
observation possible. By supporting this idea the Bayesian theorem, along with
Hempel’s satisfaction criterion, is able to solve the paradox. It accounts well for
many other intuitions concerning confirmation, for example that each successive
confirming observation will cause P(H) to increase by a lesser amount than the
previous observation. This in turn supports the idea that such probabilities can be
attributed to hypotheses between 0 and 1 as they will never reach these values,
only increase or decrease to asymptote, which is itself highly intuitive. Whilst it is
clear that under this view observation of a white shoe confirms that ‘all ravens
are green’ as much as ‘all ravens are black’, it is also clear that both claims are
essentially insignificant, and so not paradoxical. Bayesian theory does not
suggest that it would be logical to base a hypothesis such as ‘all ravens are
green’ on an observation of a non-green non-raven as such an observation will
cause P(H) to increase by such a tiny amount as makes no difference. Only the
observation of an actual green raven can increase P(H) by enough for such a
hypothesis to be sensibly entertained.

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Nick Fletcher PF303

Bibliography:
Goodman, N. & Scheffler, I. (1972) ‘Selective Confirmation and the Ravens: A
Reply to Foster,’ The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 69, No. 3; pp. 78-83. Journal of
Philosophy Inc.
Hempel, C. (1945) ‘Studies in the Logic of Confirmation,’ Mind, Vol. 54, No. 213;
pp. 1-26. Oxford University Press.
Lejewski, C. (1959). ‘Fact, Fiction and Forecast, a Review,’ The British Journal for
the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 9, No. 36. pp 331-333. Oxford University Press.
Papineau, D. (2005). ‘Methodology: The Elements of the Philosophy of Science’, In
Grayling, A (ed.) Philosophy 1, A Guide Through the Subject, pp.123-180. Oxford
University Press.
Pollock, J. (1973). ‘Laying the Raven to Rest: A Discussion of Hempel and the
Paradoxes of Confirmation,’ The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 70, No. 20; pp. 747-
754. Journal of Philosophy Inc.
Schwartz, R. (1972). ‘Paradox and Projection’, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 39, No.
2; pp. 245-248. University of Chicago Press.

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