The Reading Selection from The Logic of Chance

[The Application of Logic to Human Conduct]

It is now time to enter into a short enquiry as to how far it is right thus to put these various human actions, especially those of the more exclusively voluntary description, upon the same footing as the results of the seasons or the turning up of the faces of a die, and to subject them all alike to the same rules.…whether the general principles of what we have termed Phenomenalist or Material Logic are as applicable to the facts of society as they are generally admitted to be to those of inanimate nature.…

It has been already repeatedly stated that the standing-point occupied by the observer who is supposed to make the inferences we have been considering, is that in which he looks out on to things which are happening about him. He is supposed to observe coexistences and sequences of things around him, which he then proceeds to analyse and classify, and from which he draws what inferences he can. To retain such a standing-point consistently two conditions, amongst others, seem to be presupposed. These are (1) That the observer should leave the things which he is engaged in observing to work out their courses undisturbed by any interference on his own part. (2) That he should adhere consistently to the position of an observer, and not in imagination step down and take a place amongst the things which he observes. In the attempt to construct the Logic of Society, or Sociology as it is often termed, both of the above conditions seem to be often neglected. The neglect of the former is, I think, an inherent imperfection in any such science of human conduct; that of the latter is rather a fallacy into which loose thinkers are apt to fall. We will examine these conditions in turn.

To say that the objects of any kind whose behaviour we are considering are to be left free from any interference on our own part, is to make a claim which is so obviously demanded, that the caution may seem unnecessary. An it certainly is not needed in the case of most inferences about inanimate objects. Any person can see that to draw inferences about a thing, and then to introduce a disturbance into its conduct which was not contemplated when the inference was drawn, is to invalidate the results we have obtained. But when the inference is about the conduct of human beings it is often forgotten that in the inference itself, if published, we may have produced an unsuspected source of disturbance. In other words, if the results of our investigations be given in the form of statements as to what people are doing and what they will do, the moment these statements come before their notice the agents will be subject to a new motive which will produce a disturbance in the conduct which had been inferred. We may make what statements and criticisms we please about the past conduct of men, but directly we commit ourselves to any statements about the future, or, in other words, begin to make predictions, we lay ourselves open to the difficulty just mentioned. That predictions can be made seems to be held by most of those who have adopted the application of logic now under consideration. They do not, of course, claim to be able to foretell the particular actions of individuals, but they constantly assert that it is quite possible that we may some day be able to foretell general tendencies, and the results of the conduct of large masses of men.

[Critique of Mill's Science of Human Nature]

The following extracts from Mill's Logic, Bk. VI. ch. iii 2, will contain the best compendious description of these claims of Sociology. After referring to the condition in which astronomy once was, and in which the science of the tides now is, he descries in the following words the practical aims of sociology, and the ideal perfection of the science from which we are precluded only by the imperfection of our faculties:—"The science of human nature is of this description. It falls far short of the standard of exactness now realized in Astronomy; but there is no reason that if should not be as much a science as Tidology is, or as Astronomy was when its calculations had only mastered the main phenomena, but not the perturbations."

"The phenomena with which this science is conversant being the thoughts, feelings, and actions of human beings, it would have attained the ideal perfection of a science if it enabled us to foretell how an individual would think, feel, or act, throughout life, with the same certainty with which astronomy enables us to predict the places and the occultations of the heavenly bodies."

It will hardly be denied that there is the following distinct theoretical objection to the above illustration. The publication of the Nautical Almanack is not supposed to have the slightest effect upon the path of the planets, whereas the publication of any prediction about the conduct of human beings (unless it were kept out of their sight, or expressed in unintelligible language) almost certainly would have some effect. The existence of this distinction renders all such physical illustrations entirely inapplicable when we thus attempt to explain the way in which it is supposed that human conduct can be studied and foretold.…

[Exact Prediction Is Compatible with Free Will]

It should be clearly understood that we need not be under any apprehension of getting involved in any Fate and Free-will controversy here; the difficulty before us does not arise out of the foreknowledge, but out of the foretelling, of what the agents are going to do. Assuming that the abstract possibility of foreseeing human conduct, alluded to in the extract above quoted, is quite compatible with our practical consciousness of freedom, it must be maintained that a difficulty of an entirely distinct character introduced the moment we suppose that this conduct is foretold, or rather, if one may use the term, forepublished. After all the causes have been estimated which can affect the agent, with the single exception of the sociological publication which describes his conduct, we shall very possibly find that the result is subsequently falsified by the disturbing agency of this publication itself.

This disturbance, observe, is not of the nature of a mere complication of the result; it takes the form of introducing a distinct contradiction. Some particular action was gong to be done, and was therefore announced; in consequence of the announcement that the action is not done, but something else is done instead. but had this further consequence been foreseen (as we must, on our present assumption, suppose might have been the case) and allowed for, we still shall not find any escape from the difficulty. Were this all we had to take into account we should have nothing further to apprehend than a complication; but beyond all this there is the conflict between the final announcement and the conduct announced, which cannot be avoided. It must be repeated again, that it is not foreknowledge, but foretelling, that creates the difficulty; the observer, after he has made his announcement, or whilst he is making it, may be perfectly aware of the effect it will produce, and may even privately communicate the result to others, but once let him make it so public that it reaches the ears of those to whom it refers, and his work is undone. His position, in fact is somewhat like that attributed to Jonah at Nineveh. Giving the prophet the fullest recognition of his power of foreseeing things as they would actually happen, we must yet admit that he labours under an inherent incapacity of publicly announcing them in that form. The city was going to be destroyed; Jonah announces this; in consequence the people repent and are spared. But had he foretold their repentance and escape, the repentance might never have taken place. He might, of course, make a hypothetical statement, so as to provide for either alternative, but a categorical statement is always in danger of causing its own falsification.…

[An Independent Observer Can Be Practically Impossible]

The remarks in the last few sections are intended to point out that that purely speculative and isolated position of the observer, which alone is tenable when we are laying down rules for a science of inference, is one which it is in certain cases practically impossible to maintain. With every wish to be nothing more than simple observers, we cannot always secure our isolation when we are describing the conduct of intelligent human beings, for we cannot always prevent them from being influenced by what we say.…

The statistics with which we are concerned in Probability are composed, as already stated, in great part of the voluntary actions of men.…

We are the observers, or any one else whom we suppose to occupy the position of observer, are ourselves beings like those whose conduct we tabulate and reason about, and the actions in question are such as we are or may be in the habit or performing ourselves. hence it results that we are conceivably, if one may so say, a portion of our own statistics; we may suppose our own case to be included in the statistics under discussion.…[1]

To retain the correct view with rigid consistency it would indeed be necessary to exclude ourselves entirely from the statistics, in other words, to confine ourselves consistently to the observer's point of view, as we unavoidably do in the case of games of chance. We might help to compose the statistics of others, just as others compose the statistics for us, but we must not attempt to occupy both positions, those of observer and observed, simultaneously.

[General Laws Are Not Deterministic]

A quotation from Buckle's[2] History of Civilization (Vol. I. p. 25) will form a convenient introduction to the discussion now to be entered upon. After pointing out that among public and registered crimes there is none which seems so completely dependent on the individual, and so little liable to interruption as suicide, he proceeds as follows:—"These being the peculiarities of this singular crime, it is surely an astonishing fact, that all the evidence we possess respecting it points to one great conclusion, and can leave no doubt on our minds that suicide is merely the product of the general condition of society, and that the individual felon only carries into effect what is a necessary consequence of preceding circumstances. In a given state of society a certain number of persons must put an end to their own life.[3] This is the general law, and the special question as to who shall commit the crime depends of course upon special laws; which however, in their total action, must obey the large social law to which they are all subordinate. And the power of the larger law is so irresistible, that neither the love of life nor the fear of another world can avail anything towards even checking its operation."

The above passage as it stands seems very absurd, and would I think, taken by itself, convey an extremely unfair opinion of its author's ability. But the views which it expresses are very prevalent, and are probably increasing with the spread of statistical information and study. They have moreover a still wider extension in the form a a vague sentiment than in that of a distinct doctrine.…

One portion of the quotation is plain enough. It simply asserts a statistical fact of the kind already familiar to us, namely, that about 250 persons annually commit suicide in London. This is all that the statistics themselves establish. But, secondly this datum of experience is extended by Induction. The inference is drawn that about the same number of persons will continue for the future to commit suicide. Now this, though not lying within the strict ground of the science of Probability, is nevertheless a perfectly legitimate employment of Induction. The conclusion may or may not be correct as a matter of fact, but there can be no question that we are at liberty to extend our inferences beyond the strict ground of experience, and that the rules of inductive philosophy will furnish us with many directions for that purpose. We mad admit therefore that, for some time to come, the annual number of suicides will in all likelihood continue to be about 250.

[The Fatalistic Fallacy]

But it will not take much trouble to show that there is a serious fallacy involved in most cases in the expression of such sentiments as those quoted. I am anxious that it should be clearly understood that this fallacy finds no countenance in either of the two assumptions which are necessary for the establishment respectively of the rules of Probability and Induction, in those, namely, of statistical uniformity, and invariability of antecedence and sequence. In other words, the inference in the quotation would remain either unmeaning or false, in spite of our admitting that the number of persons who perform any assigned kind of action remains year by year about the same, and that the actions of each person are links in an invariable sequence.[4]

When the efforts of a few persons are contemplated, the hypothesis of their acting otherwise is admitted, but the consequent effect is pronounced to be insignificant, as might very like be the case. When however the efforts of many are contemplated, the hypothesis of their acting otherwise and the consequent effect, which would then be great, are nor admitted, on the plea that they are inconsistent with fact.

Such a confusion as that discussed above may seem absurd, but I cannot help thinking that in this way considerable support is often given to that practical fatalism which expresses itself in the common complaints about the utter impotence of the individual, and the irresistible power of great social laws, and which shows itself in our conduct by a somewhat indolent and selfish disposition to let everything good or evil take its own course without troubling ourselves about it.…

Such fatalistic views are often expressed in the form of disparaging comments upon the insignificance of individual efforts. In the sense in which this complaint is often made, I cannot but think that it is nothing more than an expression of our own indolence or selfishness, and really means, not that the results we could effect are small, but that we care little about them.…

We will assume that there is a long-continued uniformity in the frequency of the performance of some action, against which,it may be, large classes of persons are struggling with their whole strength. What we are now concerned with is the vital importance of the distinction between what may be called the speculative and the practical views which we may take in reference to any such uniformity.

What we have to adhere to, in making inferences, is the speculative view. On this view we have no right, when talking about the future to use any other expressions than those which denote simple futurity. To say that the agents "must" perform certain actions, or "cannot" perform others, is inadmissible. To say this is to fall into a fatalistic[5] fallacy, for it generally involves a confusion between certainty of inference on our own part and compulsion on the part of the agents.…

I cannot help thinking that much support is thus given to the doctrine which one hears uttered in so many different forms, and in every shade of dogmatism, by a certain school of writers, that the sorrows and the crimes of our fellow-men are only the necessary product of the existing state of society, and that the efforts of the individual are insignificant. There are many perhaps who would indolently tell some hard-working philanthropist that he could do nothing, who would yet be very much astonished if asked whether the trouble of their own doctor in coming to see them when they are suffering from any ailment produced insignificant results.

But the confusion between the speculative and the practical points of view produces, I think, still further consequences, quite as deplorable as those already described.…

[T]he complaint is often made, and I think not altogether unjustly, that the advocates of Sociology are too much in the habit of regarding crimes as being not only certain to happen, but as being morally indifferent. In so far as this complaint is true, I should think that such an apparent moral obtuseness of judgment (I shall not be misunderstood as hinting that this is accompanied by moral laxity in practice) is connected with that confusion between two distinct views which has occupied out attention during this chapter. The connection would be as follows. The speculative view is in one sense wider than the practical, for the former includes not only voluntary actions (the province of the practical view), but also actions which are not voluntary, as well as results which are not strictly speaking actions at all, such as the facts turned up by dice. In the great majority of subjects to which this view introduces us, moral praise and blame have no applicability. When therefore the two views are confused together, we are sometimes apt, not merely to hamper our practice by fatalism, but even to run the risk of debasing our moral judgment by regarding the actions of men with the indifference with which we regard the happening of things. It might thus result, for example, that we should not merely believe that the number of murders or suicides are so fixed that efforts are unavailing to counteract them, but even that we should feel little more affected at the commission of crimes than at the successions of the throws of a die.

Against every such confusion between the two views there is no safeguard comparable with that afforded by the habit of familiarizing ourselves with each of them. In other words, it might be advisable to temper one's speculations with a reasonable infusion of practice. Fatalism cannot easily exit in the fresh air of practical life. The hardest workers are generally the most hopeful men, and in unselfish efforts will be found the best corrective to that depression which is apt to be produced by a too exclusive devotion to the speculative view. We should thus avoid the danger of always discussing the joys and the sorrows of our fellow-men in way which, though legitimate when we are avowedly taking a partial view of the subject, too easily lapses in to indifference or cynicism if we suffer ourselves to forget how partial that view is.



Note the infinite regress resulting from including our own actions as observer as part of the data-set. Our own reaction to the inclusion must itself be included and so on ad infinitum. Ed.


Buckle's History of Civilization in England (1857-61) was an attempt to found history as a science based on general laws presumably inferred from statistical determination in accordance with by Auguste Comte's philosophie positive. In spite of some questionable assumptions, his attempt to place history on a historical basis is undervalued. Ed.


About 250 annually in London.


It may prevent confusion if I remark here that my own opinion is in favour of Necessity, provided that nothing more is assumed in the meaning of that term than that where the antecedents are the same so will be the consequents.…such a doctrine is necessary for the establishment of strict rules of Induction, though not for securing those of Probability.


By Fatalism I understand the doctrine that events really dependent in part upon human agency, will yet be equally brought to pass whether men try to oppose or to forward them. It is essentially distinct from Necessity, and is indeed rather entertained as a vague sentiment than as a definite doctrine. It is indeed difficult to state it with brevity without making it obviously involve a contradiction.