Abductive Reasoning

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Summary
Charles Sanders Pierce

What is Abductive Reasoning? Meaning.

Abductive Reasoning is a reasoning process that starts from observing facts, leading via intuition to a hypothesis, which is considered a viable explanation.


The concept of Abductive Reasoning was initially developed by American philosopher, mathematician and scientist Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) in the early years of the 20th century. Just before 1900 Pierce was studying the Theory of Inquiry, Modes of Inference and Explicative Hypothesis. Following Aristotle's basic modes of reasoning:

  • Deduction: The process of deriving B as a consequence of A. Example: Everything made of copper conducts electricity (premise 1). This wire is made of copper (premise 2). This wire will conduct electricity (conclusion).
  • Induction: The process of inferring A entails B from multiple instantiations of A and B at the same time. Example: the hypothesis that all crows are black (or swans are white). Each time a new crow is observed and found to be black the conjecture is increasingly confirmed. But if a crow is found to be not black (or a Black Swan is discovered) the conjecture is falsified. (Martin Gardner, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan.-Feb., 2002)
  • Abduction: The process of inferring A as an explanation of B. Example: The Atlantic coastlines of Africa and America are similar. Hypothesis: the continental drift theory.

Pierce dedicated his attention to the logical form of abductive inference. Note that unlike deduction and in some sense induction, abduction can produce results that are incorrect. Hence the conclusions of abduction can only be made valid by separately checking them with a different method, either by deduction or exhaustive induction. However, it can still be useful as a heuristic, especially when something is known about the likelihood of different causes for B.


Steps in Abductive Reasoning. Process

An abductive reasoning process

  1. starts from observing or exploring certain (seemingly unrelated) facts, which...
  2. lead (via a hunch, intuition) to infer a statement that serves as a hypothesis, which...
  3. if that hypothesis would result to be plausible, in respect to the observed facts, would then be considered an explanation of those facts.

And, according to Pierce, it would be the best explanation possible: what he calls Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE).


Pierce explained the abductive process as following:

An hypothesis H is reasonably assumed to be an explanation of a surprising phenomenon P If the logic behind that process can be considered mistaken under deduction rules.

Abductive ReasoningThis way of reasoning is particularly attractive and relevant because it is able to create new, breakthrough understanding that cannot be achieved via deduction or induction.


Example of Abductive Reasoning

A typical example of abductive reasoning can be found in the famous stories of Sherlock Holmes from A.C. Doyle. The reasoning behind Holmes’ logic is abductive: when he is called to solve a case, he begins collecting lots of clues and successively tries to formulate an hypothesis that can give the best explanation for the observed facts (deducted from the clues).


Abductive reasoning is a form of Dialogical Reasoning that, in order to come to IBE, needs a high level of dialectical rationality.

In practical terms it is also known as Retroductive Reasoning, since the reasoning process goes from consequence to antecedent.


Applications of Abductive Reasoning

Abduction or abductive reasoning is applied in many different contexts: from scientific research to artificial intelligence, medical diagnosis and juridical trials.

Based on the philosophical concept also certain management approaches have been shaped, such as Design Thinking, Lateral Thinking and Integrative Thinking. The debate on abductive reasoning is still open and, after Pierce’s original input, many philosophers and writers have contributed to its development, ranging from Karl Pooper to Umberto Eco and Noam Chomsky.


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