Inference is the act or process of deriving a conclusion based solely on what one already knows.
Inference is studied within several different fields.
Inductive inference is the method of science. A theory is proposed based on multiple observations, usually observations carried out with great care, using measurement. The theory is then tested many times, by independent investigators, using their own multiple observations. If the theory proves correct to within the accuracy of those observations, then it is provisionally accepted. Any scientific theory is subject to additional testing, and may be modified or overthrown based on additional evidence. For example, the Germ Theory of Disease required modification when viruses and also deficiency diseases were discovered.
Scientific theories arrived at by inductive inference have proved stable enough over long periods of time to revolutionize the way human beings live. A scientific theory can be overthrown only by carefully recorded repeated observations, carried out independently by a large number of investigators. They cannot be overthrown by revelation, authority, ignorance, or doubt.
The process by which a conclusion is logically inferred from certain premises is called deductive reasoning. Deductive inference is the method of mathematics. Certain definitions and axioms are taken as a starting point, and from these certain theorems are deduced using pure reasoning. The idea for a theorem may have many sources: analogy, pattern recognition, and experiment are examples of where the inspiration for a theorem comes from. However, a conjecture is not granted the status of theorem until it has a deductive proof. This method of inference is even more accurate than the scientific method. Mistakes are usually quickly detected by other mathematicians and corrected. The proofs of Euclid, for example, have mistakes in them that have been caught and corrected, but the theorems of Euclid, all of them without exception, have stood the test of time for more than two thousand years.
From a pragmatic viewpoint, the inferences arrived at by the methods of science and mathematics have proved much more successful than the inferences arrived at by any other method. This has given rise to the popular saying, when a conclusion is challenged, "Do the math."
Inferences are either valid or invalid, but not both. Philosophical logic has attempted to define the rules of proper inference, i.e. the formal rules that, when correctly applied to true premises, lead to true conclusions. Aristotle has given one of the most famous statements of those rules in his Organon. Modern mathematical logic, beginning in the 19th century, has built numerous formal systems that embody Aristotelian logic (or variants thereof).
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore Socrates is mortal.
The reader can check that the premises and conclusion are true. The Latin name for this form was modus ponens.
The validity of an inference depends on the form of the inference. That is, the word "valid" does not refer to the truth of the premises or the conclusion, but rather to the form of the inference. An inference can be valid even if the parts are false, and can be invalid even if the parts are true. But a valid form with true premises will always have a true conclusion.
For example, consider the form of Modus Ponens:
All A are B
C is A
Therefore C is B
The form remains valid even if all three parts are false:
All apples are blue.
A banana is an apple.
Therefore bananas are blue.
For the conclusion to be necessarily true, the premises need to be true.
Now we turn to an invalid form.
All A are B.
C is a B.
Therefore C is an A.
To show that this form is invalid, we demonstrate how it can lead from true premises to a false conclusion.
All apples are fruit. (true)
Bananas are fruit. (true)
Therefore bananas are apples. (false)
A valid argument with false premises may lead to a false conclusion:
All fat people are Greek
John Lennon was fat
Therefore John Lennon was Greek
where a valid argument is used to derive a false conclusion from false premises. The inference is valid because it follows the form of a correct inference.
A valid argument can also be used to derive a true conclusion from false premises:
All fat people are musicians
John Lennon was fat
Therefore John Lennon was a musician
In this case we have two false premises that imply a true conclusion.
An incorrect inference is known as a fallacy. Philosophers who study informal logic have compiled large lists of them, and cognitive psychologists have documented many biases in human reasoning that favor incorrect reasoning.
AI systems first provided automated logical inference and these were once extremely popular research topics, leading to industrial applications under the form of expert systems and later business rule engines.
An inference system's job is to extend a knowledge base automatically. The knowledge base (KB) is a set of propositions that represent what the system knows about the world. Several techniques can be used by that system to extend KB by means of valid inferences. An additional requirement is that the conclusions the system arrives at are relevant to its task.
Prolog (for "Programming in Logic") is a programming language based on a subset of predicate calculus. Its main job is to check whether a certain proposition can be inferred from a KB (knowledge base) using an algorithm called backward chaining.
mortal(X) :- man(X).
man(socrates).(Here :- can be read as if. Generally, if P Q (if P then Q) then in Prolog we would code Q:-P (Q if P).)
?- mortal(socrates).(where ?- signifies a query: Can mortal(socrates). be deduced from the KB using the rules) gives the answer "Yes".
On the other hand, asking the Prolog system the following:
gives the answer "No".
This is because Prolog does not know anything about Plato, and hence defaults to any property about Plato being false (the so-called closed world assumption). Finally
?- mortal(X) (Is anything mortal) would result in "Yes" (and in some implemenations: "Yes": X=socrates)
Prolog can be used for vastly more complicated inference tasks. See the corresponding article for further examples.
The reason most examples of applying deductive logic, such as the one above, seem artificial is because they are rarely encountered outside fields such as mathematics. Most of our everyday reasoning is of a less "pure" nature.
To take an example: suppose you live in a flat. Late at night, you are awakened by creaking sounds in the ceiling. You infer from these sounds that your neighbour upstairs is having another bout of insomnia and is pacing in his room, sleepless.
Although that reasoning seems sound, it does not fit in the logical framework described above. First, the reasoning is based on uncertain facts: what you heard were creaks, not necessarily footsteps. But even if those facts were certain, the inference is of an inductive nature: perhaps you have often heard your neighbour at night, and the best explanation you have found is that he or she is an insomniac. Hence tonight's footsteps.
It is easy to see that this line of reasoning does not necessarily lead to true conclusions: perhaps your neighbour had a very early plane to catch, which would explain the footsteps just as well. Uncertain reasoning can only find the best explanation among many alternatives.
Philosophers and scientists who follow the Bayesian framework for inference use the mathematical rules of probability to find this best explanation. The Bayesian view has a number of desirable features—one of them is that it embeds deductive (certain) logic as a subset (this prompts some writers to call Bayesian probability "probability logic", following E. T. Jaynes).
Bayesianists identify probabilities with degrees of beliefs, with certainly true propositions having probability 1, and certainly false propositions having probability 0. To say that "it's going to rain tomorrow" has a 0.9 probability is to say that you consider the possibility of rain tomorrow as extremely likely.
Through the rules of probability, the probability of a conclusion and of alternatives can be calculated. The best explanation is most often identified with the most probable (see Bayesian decision theory). A central rule of Bayesian inference is Bayes' theorem, which gave its name to the field.
See Bayesian inference for examples.
Source: Article of André Fuhrmann about "Nonmonotonic Logic"
A relation of inference is monotonic if the addition of premisses does not undermine previously reached conclusions; otherwise the relation is nonmonotonic. Deductive inference, at least according to the canons of classical logic, is monotonic: if a conclusion is reached on the basis of a certain set of premisses, then that conclusion still holds if more premisses are added.
By contrast, everyday reasoning is mostly nonmonotonic because it involves risk: we jump to conclusions from deductively insufficient premises. We know when it is worth or even necessary (e.g. in medical diagnosis) to take the risk. Yet we are also aware that such inference is defeasible—that new information may undermine old conclusions. Various kinds of defeasible but remarkably successful inference have traditionally captured the attention of philosophers (theories of induction, Peirce’s theory of abduction, inference to the best explanation, etc.). More recently logicians have begun to approach the phenomenon from a formal point of view. The result is a large body of theories at the interface of philosophy, logic and artificial intelligence.
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