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This is a 31-minute preview a vintage 2 hr, 5-minute episode.
On David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).
David Hume thinks that all we can know are our own impressions, i.e. what our moment-to-moment experiences tell us. Funny thing, though: he thinks that no experience shows us one event causing another event. We only experience one thing happening, then another, and these sequences tend to display a lot of uniformity. So, if we have any legitimate idea of causality at all, it must just be that: regular patterns of conjoined events.
We discuss what Hume thinks this view implies for the free will question, belief in miracles, whether external objects are actually there, Seth's experience of Towlie, and more. Read the book with us.
End song: "Twitch" by by The MayTricks, from the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down. Get the whole thing free.
I can’t believe no one commented on this particular podcast. I’m listening to them in chronological order and I think what you three are doing here is awesome!
This discussion, however, was the first time that I have been exposed to a seemingly relatively concrete problem of existence to which I have not already been exposed in some manner as a non-philosophically trained but well-educated, culturally-attuned Westerner of the 21st Century. Namely, the fact that there is no way to rationally get at our understanding of causation; that causation necessitates the assumption (I saw some source liken it to a belief) that future events will conform to the past.
I was repeatedly reminded of the “arrow of time” in physics. My apologies to physicists for what follows. Most equations in physics are time neutral, and operate perfectly well even if you make time negative in every instance where it is a variable. However, our experience in the macro world indicates that time flows in one direction. Entropy is either like this or relates to it somehow. I’m sure I’m butchering the concepts, but an interested party can look it up quite easily.
To my brain, the likeness comes in in that Hume’s causation is something we read into the world because of our observations taken over the continuum of progressing time; because of the way we are able to observe the present, remember it as past, and apply such remembering to imaginings of the future. Causation is not, however, something we can boil down to a combination of empirical experiences and rational manipulations of those experiences. Similarly, the arrow of time is something we experience through our taking in of the present, which we store as memory and use to consider the future, yet it is something we have, thus far, been unable to come to an understanding of via our usual scientific process of making observations and rationally manipulating those observations in our imaginations to create equations representing theorems and laws and such. Both of these paradoxes seem to be related to the fact that we remember the past and imagine the future but seem to only “exist” in the present, for whatever that’s worth. Would an animal with no memory or power of imagination have any idea of causation or even of time? What does this mean about our relationship to time or the nature of time? Maybe Hume was actually alighting on some kind of form of the realization that time is at least partially a construct of human (and even animal) consciousness as opposed to some phenomenon which occurs in nature outside of consciousness.
Obviously, you (and Hume) spurred me to thought which is the highest compliment I can bestow. Keep up the good work!
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Thomas. We’ve got a bunch more on causality in the Schopenhauer episode (to be posted very soon).
Just finished this–about 4 dog walks worth of chat! I hate being so late to the game.
This seems, so far, the only very crucial idea: determinism. It’s somehow hard for me to conceive of determinism as not making “causation” meaningful. Psychology seeks to determine behavioral causation. This seems to say (with Aristotle, right) that habituation starts and day one and determines your “outcome”. Perhaps this cannot be an “ultimate” causation but aren’t we thinking that habituation needs a cause (a repeated act or event or emotion, etc.) to engender it? Of course, I suppose the question then is that we can’t know the cause of the cause…and this may be where Hume says that search is fruitless to your living.
If we start to mix some thoughts that we determine are scientific…the amount of molecules are fixed and with dissipation in a current state they are released and re-used…with this kind of thinking (and blend in some Leibniz) does a molecule have an habitual “memory” (is memory only habit then)? This is a kind of Jungian thought re: collective unconscious.
Re: Belief in the unseen/unexperienced–doesn’t this idea give us the true power of communication? Words are also experience in this regard (2nd order/level). And if I experience these same words again and again then the words become believed and then they are hard to dislodge from my “customary” thinking.
John Moriarty says
I’ve been considering Hume on induction and came across your podcast, thanks.
I don’t think it is even possible to be other than inductive in all your thinking, that is there is no worthwhile distinction to be made between inductive thought by humans, and other types.
Thought experiment: all communication assumes induction, so nothing can be properly deduced. Because, as you proceed in your speech or writing, you have no choice but to be inductive towards your state of mind and being at the finish of your utterance. Why you even are obliged to assume your brain will be as regularly functioning while you think or write the end of your sentence as it was at the start? I think it a complete waste of time to seriously question the regularity of the natural laws for the reason stated. We are locked in with no way out.
Jim Mooney says
I was listening to a podcast asking a large number of professional philosophers, “Who is your favorite philosopher,” and Hume came up again and again and again. So I think I’ll download this one to mull over ;’)
I have decided to read Hume’s treatise this summer. Some of his arguments are questionable, but there is only one that I have come across that seems clearly fallacious. It puzzles me and I was wondering if anyone had anything helpful to add.
Hume asks if the inference from the cause to the effect is done through reason or through some association of our ideas (later revealed to be custom). If ’tis done through reason, then it must be through the claim that instances, of which we have not had experience, resemble those of which we have had experience. He requests a proof that nature will behave in the future as it has in the past, that it will be uniform across time. He went through a series of such ‘proofs’ to show they are all fallacious. But then he tries to go farther than this and argues that it is impossible to form such a proof. This argument is interesting for its simplicity and terseness, but also suspicious.
His argument begins with the principle that anything that is conceivable is possible. This principle arises periodically throughout his treatise. I don’t recall him justifying it. I think he introduces it as a maxim commonly accepted by philosophers, and so he accepts it himself. Here is the argument in Hume’s words:
“We can at least conceive a change in the course of nature; which sufficiently proves,that such a change is not absolutely impossible. To form a clear idea of anything, is an undeniable argument for its possibility, and is alone a refutation of any pretended demonstration against it.” (pg 89)
His reasoning seems to be that since it is possible that nature does not continue uniformly into the future, this possibility can never be refuted by any demonstration since it will always be conceivable. But possibilities of this kind often seem to be refuted. An identical reasoning would be that it is conceivable that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth, and therefore this possibility can never be refuted. But with the advent of astronomy and satellites in space that can provide images of the earth, this possibility seems to be refuted. I can conceive of many things that are outrightly false and therefore impossible. Perhaps I am misunderstanding his maxim, for he did not elaborate on it much.
To address Seth’s point about relations of ideas, Seth said that the idea of a bachelor is dependent upon what is, which makes it suspicious whether the thought that ‘a bachelor is an unmarried man’ is a relation of ideas. For Hume, all ideas are derived from impressions (except for Hume’s example of the color swatches, which he considers to be an isolated incident and therefore no challenge to his copy principle), and so in some sense dependent upon what is. Hume’s example is that of a triangle, where he says that he need only consult his idea of a triangle to determine that its angles add up to 180 degrees, but his idea of a triangle itself is derived from impressions. Once in possession of the ideas, we can consult the relations between them that are not dependent upon what is. We can merely investigate the ideas to determine their relations without requiring any further impressions to do so.
I also wanted to add something that I thought was important, to state precisely from what impressions the idea of cause and effect is derived. In discussions of Hume I find this to be often overlooked, perhaps because there is so much else to say about him. The three elements comprising the ideas of cause and effect are succession in time, contiguity, and necessary connection. The impressions that give us succession and contiguity are obvious. Necessary connection is more interesting. Hume says that we copy the idea of necessary connection from an impression of reflection. We have an impression of our custom from passing from the idea of a cause to its usual attendant, and from this custom we derive the idea. Hume says that we then project this idea of necessary connection onto the objects of the world, and come to see necessary connection between them. “People have a tendency to spread themselves onto the external world,’ Hume says, ‘and thereby conjoin internal impressions to external objects.’ I believe Mark or Wes said that the idea of a necessary connection was not a real idea but a word that doesn’t mean anything. According to Hume that is not true, it is an idea, but its source is in the mind, and not in the external world. That is why it is misleading.