In search of the Holy Grail: Probability and Inductive Logic Texts

It’s that time of year again. The forms for fall 2005 textbooks are sitting in my mailbox. And I am genuinely stuck.

I’m slated to teach a graduate course in the Philosophical Uses of Probability. I can expect the students to have genuine interest but uneven background in mathematics, ranging from folks who did undergraduate science and math majors down to people who dimly recall that once, in the senior year of highschool, or perhaps it was the junior year, they might have done some math.

I want to introduce them to probabilistic confirmation theory, discuss the varieties of Bayesianism, look at some philosophical problems that have been tackled using this apparatus (lots of good stuff here; one thing that comes to mind is John Earman’s assessment of the value of testimony in Hume’s Abject Failure), talk about some of the challenges (esp. the problems of old evidence) that have been raised against a broadly Bayesian approach, examine the classical statistical tradition, compare the classical and Bayesian approaches to some problems of inference, discuss the plausibility of direct inference as an answer to the problem of induction, and explore the possibility of giving a broadly Bayesian analysis of explanatory inference (vide the Lipton/Salmon exchange in the Hon and Rakover volume). Many of these issues are things I’ve published on, but they all require some stage setting before students can enter into the current debates. My job in this course is to do that stage setting in an accessible way.

So what shall I use for a text?

If Paul Horwich’s 1982 book Probability and Evidence were still in print, it would make a great starting point. Horwich leads the reader gently into some of the applications of probability theory without presupposing much. Amazon lists the Horwich book as shipping in 1 to 2 business days, but it also fails to give a price except for one used copy selling for $78. Looks like it’s out of print.

Davis Baird’s 1991 book Inductive Logic: Probability and Statistics covers some fascinating material that goes beyond the ordinary run of Bayesian probability, including classical statistics and factor analysis, though it spends less time than I would like on some of the philosophically interesting issues that I’m most concerned with. But this, too, is out of print.

Howson and Urbach’s Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach would be an obvious choice. It covers a lot of what I want, and I may end up requiring it. But I’m a little worried about the difficulty of the book (I don’t find it difficult, but I am mindful that some people will be starting from the ground) and the relentless propagandizing for a purely subjective Bayesianism.

Dick Jeffrey’s book The Logic of Decision would be terrific for a decision theory course, but here I want to focus on probability as such rather than rolling it together with decision theory.

Robyn Dawes has a spunky and occasionally strange little book entitled Rational Choice in an Uncertain World. I considered using it, but it just doesn’t do enough of the philosophically interesting material, and occasionally Dawes says some very odd things. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the new edition co-authored with Reid Hastie.)

Schlesinger’s book The Sweep of Probability gets high marks for applying confirmation theory to a wide range of problems. But the book is out of print, it is in some respects idiosyncratic, and it is riddled with typos.

Skyrms has a tidy little introductory book, Choice and Chance, now in the fourth edition. But this is a little too basic for the course I have in mind, and his treatment of the problem of induction turns me off.

Resnick’s book Choices has a lot of fascinating material, and it would doubtless make a great text for a somewhat different course. But in this class I want to put the emphasis on probability theory, and for that Resnick’s book is not so well tailored.

Keynes’s classic A Treatise on Probability makes wonderful reading, but my hope in this course was to bring students up to speed with recent work.

I am seriously considering Hacking’s recent book An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic. A look at the table of contents indicates that this sets out a lot of the elementary material in a leisurely fashion. The problem is that I used Hacking’s text a few years ago in an upper-level undergraduate course and, for reasons I still haven’t untangled, they found it very difficult. (Could the fact that many of these students were calculus refugees — trying to fulfill a general education requirement without taking math — be the key?) And some of the more interesting philosophical issues like old evidence and explanatory reasoning don’t get much time here.

So I’m stuck. And I’m open to suggestions. If you’ve used something that I haven’t mentioned successfully with the sort of audience I’m describing, by all means let me know. And if you have suggestions for using some of the titles listed above with other, supplementary material, I’m all ears.


In search of the Holy Grail: Probability and Inductive Logic Texts — 5 Comments

  1. Dear Tim,

    How about D H Mellor’s Probability: A Philosophical Introduction (Routledge 2005) or Donald Gillies’ Philosophical Theories of Probability (Routledge 2000) or both?

    For Mellor see the link:

    For Gillies see the link:

    Best wishes,

    Joseph Jedwab

  2. Why not be daring and innovative, and use nothing but free web resources? I’m sure there is more than enough information on wikipedia et al to present such a course. Give people the full list should they wish to purchase a book, but tell them to rely on the lecture notes and free resources.


  3. Joseph,

    Thanks — I had seen the Gillies, but I had set it aside without any serious examination because his much earlier book An Objective Theory of Probability (1973) was such a radical and (I thought and still think) unsuccessful attempt to carry falsificationism into statistical reasoning. But on reconsideration I see that Gilles has become a rather tolerant pluralist. I will reconsider the book. I haven’t yet seen the Mellor, perhaps because it’s so new. Maybe it’s time to ask Routledge for an exam copy!?

    Tennessee, I have actually considered this possibility, but the articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — while absolutely wonderful pieces of work — are too stiff for the mixed group of grad students (all bright, just not all equally up on their math) I anticipate teaching, and I’m not very confident of the quality of the material on Wikipedia. Still, I admit the attraction of this approach. It might be a good idea for those of us with an interest in this topic to start compiling a list of high-quality online resources on this topic at varying levels of difficulty. I know Branden Fitelson has some material on his web page (just for your students, Branden, or are we free to lift it for our own use?) and there must be a lot of other things out there, distributed across the net.

    Thanks, both of you, for the feedback!

  4. Tim,

    Feller’s classic Intro with Apps is widely available for not much money in its penultimate edition on Hacking really praises this volume. [The Hacking book is by far my favorite into though, and all those interesting cases make discussion easy.]


  5. Yes, by all means, please feel free to use the materials on my “Probability and Induction” website! I’m writing a book on this stuff (I’ve been saying that for several years now…). The website will is pretty useful (for the topics I cover), and the lecture notes at the beginning are good for people to learn the basics about probability calclulus. all the notes will be up by nexty month (when the term ends). I also have other notes which will not show-up there, if anyone is interested. The course website is:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *