Why Isn’t Induction Circular?

A friend asked a question about my theory of knowledge: “It seems that your epistemology is pretty circular—You know by reasoning. How do you know that you know by reasoning? Well, you reasoned that you do.”

The Problem

He was asking about what has been called “the problem of method.” If it is true that we gain knowledge by a certain method, then we also gain “knowledge of method” by that very same method; so how did we discover the method in the first place? If at first we did not know anything about the method, then how, without such knowledge, were we able to gain it?

How do we know that, “To know is to reason about observations”? Is the method of induction circular?

The Solution (Abstract)

Induction is not circular. We observe something and then we focus on the act of observation itself, rather than only on the object of awareness. We become aware that we are aware. This is self-conscious knowledge.

For a person to observe his own processes of awareness he must already be in that process: He must be aware of something and only then may he become conscious of his consciousness. In order to be self-conscious one must first be conscious.

Self-consciousness depends on consciousness, but the reverse is not true. One may be conscious without being self-conscious. We observe this to be true in both ourselves and others. It is the moment when someone comes to himself and realizes what he is doing.

Knowledge of low-level, observable facts does not depend on knowledge of method. Knowledge of method is useful for expanding the range of abstraction and inference possible to man; but, since knowledge of method is knowledge of knowledge, there can be no knowledge of method until the person has actually gained simple observational knowledge so that his process of gaining knowledge can be used as material upon which to generalize.

Since knowledge of observation is not the same as knowledge of method, and since knowledge of method comes later and applies only to high levels of abstraction, it would be wrong to believe that we must systematize the method of knowledge prior to being able to engage in the collection of knowledge. Systemization is obviously a later development. Low-level knowledge requires no method, other than to look and see the objects in one’s surroundings. It is an on-or-off function. The eyes are open, or they are closed; the mind is active or inactive.


The Solution (Concretized)

Let’s say I am trying to get to a tree at the top of a hill, and there are many splitting trails. I don’t know the trail to follow. But I am able to look out and get a general sense of how high up I am. I follow a trail and it leads up and then down, and I see that I am further from my goal. I turn around and try another way. I do not know the whole trail, but I do know the part of the trail that I am on. At any step of the way, I do have knowledge of that individual part of the trail. I work my way up the hill, following some false directions and some true ones. I finally arrive at the top. I climb the tree, and, looking down, I see the whole network of trails. I see every path I took, and I see which route led me to the peak.

Knowledge works this way. Knowledge consists of observing data points and of noting connections between multiple points. I did not need to see the whole trail in order to have some knowledge of the individual points I walked by. As I walked more, I observed how one point connected to the next. This was real knowledge. Had I not possessed and acted upon this real knowledge, I could not have arrived at the summit. Now, having arrived at the summit, I am in a position to generalize about the path I followed. I can see it all. I can draw a map. I can even name which particular practices were more or less helpful in getting me to my destination. These ideas about method will be very helpful for my future explorations. But I did not need to already have a set of methodological principles in order to climb this hill. I gained knowledge of method by climbing—by attempting, failing, and succeeding.

You may ask, but how do you know when you have succeeded? In your illustration, how do you know you are at the summit? The answer is, you know where you are by looking. Knowledge comes from observation. At any point on the hill I was able to see those things around me. As I moved over more terrain I was able to grasp the connections between the points by perception. Most knowledge is like this; most knowledge is perceptual knowledge. We don’t need a method for perceptual knowledge. The need for method only arises at a certain level of complexity.

When we need to grasp the shape of the whole system of trails or the principles of navigation, then we move from perceptions to concepts and principles. How do we discover principles? By looking back at the knowledge we already have, and generalizing about it. For example, as I followed the trail I took a loop by mistake, and it slowed me down. Generalization: Look out for loops. I didn’t know it until I experienced it. Knowledge comes from experience. The generalization contains nothing that was not already implicit within the experience.


Approach to Knowledge

Among theologians and Christian philosophers there are different approaches to the validity of knowledge. Some say reason and observation are valid, but knowledge also “comes from faith.” I argue against that idea because I think the reverse is true: Faith comes from knowledge. Having faith means believing and acting on one’s knowledge. So I don’t know what it would mean to gain knowledge by faith.

Since I know of no other means by which we may obtain knowledge, I argue that, until someone shows otherwise, all knowledge comes from observation and reason. This is a generalization. Now, let me explain why it is a fair generalization to make; let me state why the claim is not circular:

As in my trail illustration, my generalization about knowledge summarizes the set of individual points of observation I have acquired.

It would be incorrect for a second hiker, lost in the winding trails, to look up at me in my treetop, and shout to me, “You would have needed to know the whole trail at the beginning in order to get up there.” In fact, I did not know the whole trail until I arrived at the peak. But now I do know the whole trail. The knowledge was gained one piece at a time, and then I saw the total, like a jigsaw puzzle completed.

As the second hiker was wrong, so it is also wrong to say, “It seems that your epistemology is pretty circular—You know by reasoning. How do you know that you know by reasoning? Well, you reasoned that you do.”

No. I know by observation. I know first-level facts by observation. Then I reason about these facts. Reasoning means holding more than one fact in mind at the same time, and identifying implications that follow from non-contradiction. After many such reasoning processes we can also learn to ask questions about the process. We can observe ourselves reasoning, and we can reason self-consciously. Only at a high point of development does knowledge of method become necessary; it is at that same point that knowledge of method becomes possible.

The key point: Method only pertains to higher levels of abstraction—not to early-level perceptions and observations. A person is not required to know a method before knowing first-level facts. He only learns about method on the basis of his first level knowledge.



Inductionist: To “know” is to hold conclusions based on reasoning about observations.

Critic: How do you “know” that?

Inductionist: I have obtained knowledge about the process of observation itself.

Critic: How?

Inductionist: By observing my own action of observation. That reason can “turn in” and look upon itself does not invalidate reason; it is an example of reason.

It is not circular to say that all knowledge comes by observation and thought. It is not even circular to say that knowledge of “the method of knowledge” comes by following “the method of knowledge.” Why? Because we are able to experiment with following the method before we systematize the method. It is in working with the method that we collect data about the method. The confirmation of the method’s validity is that each time the method is followed, it leads to actual identifications of observed data. For more details on this point, I recommend the book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

As in the trail illustration, we assemble the right method in the course of exploration. The method doesn’t presuppose its own validity, because the method is only an assembly of already valid observations.



#1 That we know things by observing them is a fact perceptually obvious.

#2 That no other way of knowing is possible is not a fact perceptually obvious. It is an inference based on evidence, or an induction.

It is not necessary to know #2 in order to know #1. In fact, it would be impossible to know #2 before knowing #1, because #2 is based on #1.


To know is to know. The real challenge to Inductionism is simply: Is knowledge possible to man? It is not a question only about knowledge, but about man’s nature. Those who question the validity of knowledge usually do so because they hold a low view of man. But these are not the Bible’s views. Man is crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5). Man’s honor is that he was given rationality–the ability to think. Man is accountable to think, and to think correctly.

In John 10:37-38, Jesus tells men the reason they should believe: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Man is the knowing creature. And indeed, man does know by reasoning. No argument can be given against the validity of argument; no reason against the absolutism of reason.

Reasoning about observations is the single means of discovering truth.