What is abductive reasoning? We know that “abduction” means “ to take away,” so is abduction what we take away through reason? Well, it is and it isn’t. Abductive reasoning is the least referenced type of critical reason, but it plays a huge role in how we understand the world. We’re going to break down abductive reasoning by looking at some examples and real world use. By the end, you’ll know how to apply abductive reasoning in your everyday life.

Definition Abductive Reasoning

First, let’s define abductive reasoning

Abductive reasoning is most similar to inductive reasoning — both are non-guaranteed forms of reasoning — but whereas the latter is most commonly used to predict events, the former is most commonly used to explain them. It's also different from deductive reasoning, which is more of a "top down" approach.


What is abductive reasoning?

Abductive reasoning is a “take-away” approach to critical reasoning that offers the most likely premises to have occurred given a certain conclusion. Abductions are made after an event has taken place, and used to hypothesize what probably happened. For example, let’s say you arrive home and find your TV missing. The front door hinge is broken and there are muddy boot prints leading to where the TV used to be. Given this information, the most likely scenario is that somebody broke into the house and stole the TV.

Characteristics of Abductive Reasoning:

  • Predictive, not Guaranteed
  • “Best Guess” Reasoning
  • Used by Doctors and Detectives

Shoutout to Crash Course for highlighting this Sherlock quote to help explain abductive reasoning: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

It may be helpful to think of this type of reasoning as “best-guess reasoning.” This next video does a great job of exploring abductive arguments in further detail.

What is Abductive Reasoning?  •  Fundamentals of Abductive Arguments by Wireless Philosophy

Abductive reasoning is an essential part of critical thinking. As such, it’s something that we use all the time in our everyday life. Just remember, in simplest terms, this type of reasoning is a best educated guess on why something is the way that it is.

Abductive Reasoning Meaning

What does abductive reasoning mean?

The abductive reasoning meaning is best explained by looking at its linguistic roots. The term abduction is derived from the Latin abduco which means “to take away.” This type of reasoning suggests that we take away an explanation through reason — but how is this done? Well, let’s look to Rian Johnson’s film Knives Out for explanation. 

Spoilers Beware!

What is Abductive Reasoning?  •  Abductive Reasoning Examples Knives Out 

Abductive reasoning is used frequently in detective stories. If you’ve ever read an Agatha Christie novel before, you’ve surely seen it in practice. So it should come as no surprise that it plays a huge role in Knives Out, considering it was largely inspired by Christie’s detective fiction.

Types of Abductive Reasoning

What are the types of abductive reasoning?

First and foremost, let me say this: abductive reasoning isn’t used as cavalierly in computer science and mathematics as it is in storytelling. We’re going to touch on the different types of abductive reasoning, but if you’re looking for a more thorough explanation, consider checking out the lecture below.

What is Abductive Reasoning?  •  How Abductive Reasoning Promotes Research Practices

If you’re looking for a more brief educational lesson on the various types of abductive reasoning, this video might do the trick.

What is Abductive Reasoning?  •  The Seven Horses of Abductive Reasoning by C.A. Corriere

Okay, now that we’ve reviewed how this type of reasoning is applied in science, mathematics and storytelling, let’s quickly go over the different types. There are a few different types.

Logic based abductions

Logic-based abductions are the most straightforward kind of abductions. They take a conclusion, and abduct the most likely explanation given logical premises. Example: Main Street is shut down. Last month, the city council approved funding for the repaving of some streets. Your friend Jason, a construction worker, told you he had to go to work early for a new job on Main Street. Thus, you can abduct that the most likely explanation is that Main Street is being repaved by Jason’s construction crew.

Abductive validation

Abductive validation plays a role in abductive and inductive reasoning. It’s simply the process by which we validate information en route to formalizing a “best-guess explanation.” Example: If a conclusion states that a restaurant closed. Then the abductive validation would be the premises that prove why the restaurant closed. 

Subjective abductive validation

Subjective abductions are when you rely on personal feelings more than you do statistical data to inform a “best guess.” Example: The Los Angeles Rams always lose when I watch their games.

Abductive Reasoning Examples

What is an example of abductive reasoning?

Doctors often use this type of reasoning to hypothesize how an illness is contracted, and how long a patient has to live. We imported the Dallas Buyers Club script into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to look at how writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack communicated abductive reasoning into their dialogue.

As you read, pay special attention to Dr. Sevard’s abductions. And click the script image below to read the entire scene.

Abductive Reasoning Examples  •  Read Dallas Buyers Club Abductive Reasoning Example

Notice how Dr. Sevard uses this type of reasoning? He suggests causal inferences, like “Have you ever used intravenous drugs or had any homosexual--” may have had a role in his infection. He also makes predictive abductions, like when he says “Based on your condition, we estimate that you have about thirty days.” 

All of this is done under the guise of medical expertise. 

But if you’ve seen the film, you know that the doctor was wrong. Remember, abductions aren’t foolproof! This isn’t a perfect type of critical reasoning, but it is incredibly useful for making “quick-sense” of situations.

Up Next

What is Deductive Reasoning?

Deductive reasoning states that if the premises of a statement are true, then the conclusion has to be true as well. Of the three types of critical reasoning, deduction reasoning is the most concrete. In this next article, we break down deductive reasoning vs abductive reasoning, with everything there is to know about deductive reasoning, including examples from Monty Python and Sherlock. By the end, you’ll know what deductive reasoning is and how to apply it in your own life.

Up Next: Deductive Reasoning Explained →
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