Inductive reasoning is based upon the axiom: “_What is true of the many is true of the whole._” This axiom is based upon man’s belief in the uniformity of nature. Inductive reasoning is a mental ladder by which we climb from particular facts to general laws, but the ladder rests upon the belief that the universe is governed by law.
The steps in inductive reasoning are as follows:–
I. Observation, investigation, and examination of particular facts or things. If we wish to know the general characteristics of the bird family, we must first examine a sufficient number of birds of many kinds so as to discover the comparatively few general characteristics possessed by _all_ of the bird family, as distinct from the particular characteristics possessed by only _some_ of that family. The greater the number of individuals examined, the narrower becomes our list of the general qualities common to _all_. In the same way we must examine many kinds of flowers before we come to the few general qualities common to all flowers, which we combine in the general concept of “flower.” The same, of course, is true regarding the discovery of general laws from particular facts. We examine the facts and then work toward a general law which will explain them. For instance, the Law of Gravitation was discovered by the observation and investigation of the fact that all objects are attracted to the earth; further investigation revealed the fact that all material objects are attracted to each other; then the general law was discovered, or, rather, the hypothesis was advanced, was found to explain the facts, and was verified by further experiments and observation.
II. The second step in inductive reasoning is the making of an hypothesis. An hypothesis is a proposition or principle assumed as a _possible_ explanation for a set or class of facts. It is regarded as a “working theory,” which must be examined and tested in connection with the facts before it is finally accepted. For instance, after the observation that a number of magnets attracted steel, it was found reasonable to advance the hypothesis that “all magnets attract steel.” In the same way was advanced the hypothesis that “all birds are warm-blooded, winged, feathered, oviparous vertebrates.” Subsequent observation and experiment established the hypothesis regarding the magnet, and regarding the general qualities of the bird family. If a single magnet had been found which did not attract steel, then the hypothesis would have fallen. If a single bird had been discovered which was not warm-blooded, then that quality would have been stricken from the list of the necessary characteristics of all birds.
A theory is merely an hypothesis which has been verified or established by continued and repeated observation, investigation, and experiment.
Hypotheses and theories arise very frequently from the subconscious assimilation of a number of particular facts and the consequent flashing of a “great guess,” or “sacred suspicion of the truth,” into the conscious field of attention. The scientific imagination plays an important part in this process. There is, of course, a world of difference between a “blind guess” based upon insufficient data and a “scientific guess” resulting from the accumulation of a vast store of careful and accurate information. As Brooks says: “The forming of an hypothesis requires a suggestive mind, a lively fancy, a philosophic imagination that catches a glimpse of the idea through the form or sees the law standing behind the fact.” But accepted theories, in the majority of cases, arise only by testing out and rejecting many promising hypotheses and finally settling upon the one which best answers all the requirements and best explains the facts. As an authority says: “To try wrong guesses is with most persons the only way to hit upon right ones.”
III. Testing the hypothesis by deductive reasoning is the third step in inductive reasoning. This test is made by applying the hypothetical principle to particular facts or things; that is, to follow out mentally the hypothetical principle to its logical conclusion. This may be done in this way: “If _so and so_ is correct, then it follows that _thus and so_ is true,” etc. If the conclusion agrees with reason, then the test is deemed satisfactory so far as it has gone. But if the result proves to be a logical absurdity or inconsistent with natural facts, then the hypothesis is discredited.
IV. Practical verification of the hypothesis is the fourth step in inductive reasoning. This step consists of the actual comparison of observed facts with the “logical conclusions” arising from applying deductive reasoning to the general principle assumed as a premise. The greater number of facts agreeing with the conclusions arising from the premise of the hypothesis, the greater is deemed the “probability” of the latter. The authorities generally assume an hypothesis to be _verified_ when it accounts for _all_ the facts which properly are related to it. Some extremists contend, however, that before an hypothesis may be considered as absolutely verified, it must not only account for all the associated facts but that also there must be no other possible hypothesis to account for the same facts. The “facts” referred to in this connection may be either (1) observed phenomena, or (2) the conclusions of deductive reasoning arising from the assumption of the hypothesis, or (3) the agreement between the observed facts and the logical conclusions. The last combination is generally regarded as the most logical. The verification of an hypothesis must be “an all-around one,” and there must be an agreement between the observed facts and the logical conclusions in the case–the hypothesis must “fit” the facts, and the facts must “fit” the hypothesis. The “facts” are the glass slipper of the Cinderella legend–the several sisters of Cinderella were discarded hypotheses, the slipper and the sisters not “fitting.” When Cinderella’s foot was found to be the one foot upon which the glass slipper fitted, then the Cinderella hypothesis was considered to have been proved–the glass slipper was hers and the prince claimed his bride.