causation? There are broadly three possible answers: (1) that it is itself known a priori; (2) that it is a postulate; (3) that it is an empirical generalisation from past instances in which it has been found to hold. The theory that causation is known a priori cannot be definitely refuted, but it can be rendered very unplausible by the mere process of formulating the law exactly, and thereby showing that it is immensely more complicated and less obvious than is generally supposed. The theory that causation is a postulate, i.e. that it is something which we choose to assert although we know that it is very likely false, is also incapable of refutation; but it is plainly also incapable of justifying any use of the law in inference. We are thus brought to the theory that the law is an empirical generalisation, which is the view held by Mill.
But if so, how are empirical generalisations to be justified? The evidence in their favour cannot be empirical, since we wish to argue from what has been observed to what has not been observed, which can only be done by means of some known relation of the observed and the unobserved; but the unobserved, by definition, is not known empirically, and therefore its relation to the observed, if known at all, must be known independently of empirical evidence. Let us see what Mill says on this subject.
According to Mill, the law of causation is proved by an admittedly fallible process called “induction by simple enumeration.” This process, he says, “consists in ascribing the nature of general truths to all propositions which are true in every instance that we happen to know of.” As regards its fallibility, he asserts that “the precariousness of the method of simple enumeration is in
- Logic, book iii., chapter iii., § 2.