What Is Abductive Reasoning?

Daniel Liden

Abductive reasoning is a form of reasoning based on the formation and evaluation of hypotheses using the best available information. In many cases, it is synonymous with "educated guessing," the process of guessing based on a reasoned analysis of available information. Abductive reasoning starts with the observation of a phenomenon for which one does not have an immediate, clear explanation. One can then use this form of reasoning to develop an explanation that is sufficient to describe the observed phenomenon, though it must be noted that, without further testing, this explanation is only sufficient, not necessarily accurate. Abductive reasoning is useful in developing hypotheses to be tested, but it is also used for various purposes in artificial intelligence, philosophy, and a variety of other fields.

Jurors use abductive reasoning when deciding on a verdict in a court case.
Jurors use abductive reasoning when deciding on a verdict in a court case.

Deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning are the three most widely used and most useful forms of reasoning. Deductive reasoning involves reasoning from a general rule to a specific conclusion. Inductive reasoning involves developing the most likely general rule from a set of specific observations. Scientific experimentation, which tends to involve observing controlled phenomena to determine rules of physical behavior, is based on inductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is similar to inductive reasoning, but only involves developing a guess based on what limited data is available at a given time, before detailed testing and rigorous observation.

A doctor may use abductive reasoning when treating a patient.
A doctor may use abductive reasoning when treating a patient.

Many of the most important applications of abductive reasoning are in the day-to-day decisions that almost all people need to make. Most people do not have the time or energy to embark on a detailed scientific investigation before making a given decision, so they use their available knowledge to choose the best course based on educated guesses. Jurors, for example, use such reasoning when making decisions in court, as they must rely on the best available evidence, which is usually not enough to be considered scientifically sufficient for conclusive judgment. Even medical professionals use this form of educated guesswork when making decisions based on diagnostic testing results.

Scientists commonly use abductive reasoning to develop hypotheses to test. A cell biologist who witnesses an interesting change in an organism's eye color after widespread genetic mutation may, for instance, use his available knowledge to develop a guess about which gene is responsible for the color change. Instead of random genetic experiments, he can then focus his work on the gene he suspects is the most relevant. Without abductive reasoning, on the other hand, he would likely not even have this limited guidance.

Applications of abductive reasoning may be found in the day-to-day decisions that almost all people need to make.
Applications of abductive reasoning may be found in the day-to-day decisions that almost all people need to make.

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Discussion Comments


I can't quite see where the line is between abductive and inductive reasoning. Surely, we can never be entirely sure that inductive reasoning is sound. Isn't all inductive reasoning actually abductive?


@allenJo - It’s interesting that the article mentions juries. I worked on jury duty once, and we had limited evidence for the case before us.

It was a murder case, but there was no DNA, no smoking gun, nothing that could seal and shut the case without leaving some reasonable doubt. It took place in the middle of the night, and the suspect was dressed in a coat and wore sunglasses.

That’s not much evidence to go on. There was no way we could put that guy away. Everyone had reasonable doubt, which is the legal standard. We came up with another explanation about who might have killed the victim. We really weren’t required to do that, of course. In either case, we let the suspect go free.


@everetra - I use adbuctive reasoning a lot in my job. I do technical support for software that we sell.

It would be an understatement to say that many times, I get calls about errors for which I have no clear explanation. I step through the application and see where it bombs.

I then have to guess at what I think is causing the problem. With my guess I then try to fix what I think is the root of the problem. If it fixes it, all well and good.

If not, it’s back to the drawing board. It’s an iterative cycle. Actually in the process I think I use both a mix of inductive reasoning, abductive reasoning and deductive reasoning, given what I know about how the software works.


I am reminded of Occam’s razor. This theorem basically states that in any given pursuit of an explanation for something, the simplest explanation is the best. Therefore, UFOs are probably atmospheric phenomena, military aircraft or misidentified airplanes, satellites or meteors – but not little green men from Mars.

I think abducting reasoning is similar to Occam’s razor but it strives for an educated guess, which is the simplest explanation given the observed facts.

The more eccentric explanations tend to stretch credulity and require that we make a set of assumptions that we can’t prove. In addition, they provide no working frame of reference upon which to continue additional research. In case you can’t tell, I don’t believe in UFOs.


I'm not convinced about abductive reasoning yet. I know it's widely used, but it really doesn't have a high probably of being true. That's a little worrisome when this logic is used to decide things like court decisions.

I had to look up the three reasonings for class and make an example about it. For deductive reasoning, I said that "when I eat a chili pepper, my mouth burns, so I can assume that eating a chili pepper burns the mouth." For inductive reasoning, I said "when I eat a chili pepper, my mouth burns, so I can assume that the next time I eat a chili pepper, my mouth will burn." For abductive reasoning, I said "my mouth burns, so I must have eaten a chili pepper."

Do you see what I mean? Deductive and inductive reasoning make a lot of sense, but abductive reasoning is not very clear. Your mouth could burn for reasons other than eating a chili pepper.


I remember this topic from my level evaluation tests in school. In between grades, we would take tests to determine which level we were at and how each one of us was doing compared to the rest of our age group.

One of the important sections of the English test was on abductive reasoning where we had to make an inference based on the information that was given to us. There was a paragraph of information on a topic and then multiple choice answers. We had to read the paragraph and then make an intelligent guess about which statement was true or false.

The abductive reasoning section was not hard, but was kind of tricky to do at times. I think I benefited a lot from these tests though.


We studied abductive reasoning in science class so that we can learn to make logical and plausible hypotheses for why something is the way it is.

I think of abductive reasoning as the first step to solving a problem (or answering a question). All famous scientists were able to find the various laws in nature by reasoning hypothetically about them. When we are trying to learn something new, the best we can do is to make judgment about it based on what we already know. And hopefully after abductive reasoning, we can find evidence to prove that it is true.

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