On the Importance of Induction for Good Leadership

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

A student recently asked me: "Sir, where do you think the world is headed?" It was a very interesting question, but I had to respond by telling him that I have no idea. There is just too much to know to be able to answer a question like that, and all I know at this point is what has been made available to me within the past 52 years, which is really not that much. All of us are subject to an availability heuristic, but few of us seem to be aware of it. And what has been available to us is fragmented and profoundly incomplete. Moreover, I only notice a small portion of what has been made available to me, and my interpretation of the little that I have noticed rests not on completely solid ground, because "as a person is, so does he see"--character and the disposition of the emotions play a significant role in how we interpret the relatively tiny amount of data available to us.

In short, the amount of knowledge required to be able to answer a question like "Where is the world headed?" is so enormous that it exceeds the limited capacity of one person, just as the knowledge required to coordinate the allocation of scarce resources that have alternative uses is beyond the capacity of an individual or a bureaucracy (as communist countries eventually discover) and is instead coordinated by prices.

And yet some people would attempt to answer that question, and many would do so with a high confidence level. We place a great deal of trust in the sufficiency of what we see, and much of what we see is filtered through others, which means that we place a great deal of trust in what others tell us, far too much trust, in fact. The other day I was very proud of my daughter who had spent the entire weekend working on a discussion paper for Marketing. She was told three days after handing it in that the teacher had no time to mark them, so the results of that assignment would not be going into the final grade. My wife and I were almost ready to make a phone call to the principal when my daughter suddenly perked up and advised that we wait until she hears it from the teacher's own mouth. It turns out that the rumor was a lie. I rarely witness such caution and healthy skepticism in adults, let alone teenagers.

Seminary training in philosophy typically allots a great deal of time and emphasis to the study of intentional logic, and much less time, if any, to the logic of induction. Part of the reason is a reaction against modernism and the relativism that follows upon it, and so the emphasis is understandable. But the decision is a trade-off. Intentional logic is deductive, and the conclusions of a valid deduction are contained in the premises and need only be 'educed' from them. Thus, the conclusions are necessary and certain. But so much of our day to day reasoning is inductive, and induction is probabilistic. The conclusion of an inductive argument is 'underdetermined', that is, it is only probable to a degree that is not easy to determine. The scientific method is inductive, which is why good scientists - and those who stick to science and avoid drawing philosophical conclusions from scientific premises - speak with greater caution and less confidence. In short, they tend to be less dogmatic in their pronouncements.

The same, however, cannot be said for those who lack sufficient exposure to the logic of induction, and that, unfortunately, includes a great many clergy, trained as they have been in an almost exclusively deductive approach to reasoning. The Catholic rumor mill among many clergy is quite large and active with inferences that have only a probability of being true - either a low, moderate, or high degree. The situation is terribly ironic because a life of faith is a life suspended within a cloudy region of uncertainty. That is why the requirement to change and become as little children is coherent - because children lack so much information that they readily trust, and the trust demanded of us has divine providence as its object. Those who lack trust in providence worry more, and worry spawns a tendency to control, which in turn gives rise to a need to always be "in the loop".

The life of supernatural faith parallels our natural life and our everyday decisions; for the vast majority of what we do every day is based on natural faith, in the sense of trusting what someone tells you because you have evidence that the speaker is informed and honest. To come to an awareness of the limitations of our own knowledge requires that we appreciate the limits that sense perception imposes upon human intelligence. That's not easy to do in an atmosphere that is the product of 450 years of epistemological idealism. But it is necessary to begin the effort, because when a person is given a position of power, the tendency is to imagine that one's grasp of reality is far more comprehensive than it actually is, and when one is subject to such a bias, the result is a person who takes it upon himself to make decisions for the rest of us, without any consultation - except from those who are too inexperienced to offer contrary advice and who are too eager to please. That, I believe, is part of the reason there has been and probably still is a leadership crisis in Church (on all levels, from the parish on up) - not to mention the country as a whole and its institutions.