hume

Hume D (1748) An Enquiry Into Human Understanding

[Quick notes from bedtime reading. Gutenberg ebook]

Philosophy has to break with common sense, even at the risk of ridicule. What’s wrong with being a specialist?

There are two kinds of components of thinking – ideas and (sense) impressions. The latter are far more vivid and immediate. We like to treat them as facts, and to understand things by suggesting a relation between them. There are only three relations though – resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect.

There are logical problems with these relations. Connections in the past do not guarantee connections will remain in the future. There is no logical necessity that the sun will rise tomorrow just because it rose yesterday, because something else might change. This something else might be called the ‘secret powers’, unknown in any detail. That includes the secret powers of bread to nourish us – even if a substance looks exactly like the bread that nourished us yesterday, we cannot guarantee that the secret powers have not changed today [but modern science that has pinned down and isolated so many of these secret powers can be a LOT more confident? Probability has now advanced too, so we can be more sure of our confidence intervals etc. The logical problems remain but for all practical purposes they can now be ignored?]

Hume says as much himself – as an agent he is quite happy with assumptions about relationships because they work well enough in our experience (so this is the anti-rationalist bit). In this sense, induction, inference from a number of cases is perfectly acceptable – if our experience notes a number of cases of contiguity of X and Y, it is fair to assume for practical purposes that that will continue and if we see X we are likely to see Y. But he wants to be a philosopher as well - -and has to defend that against populist critics even then, it seems. He goes on to say that everyday agentic reasoning must involve belief – a particularly strong idea about how things work – but that philosophers are entitled to be more sceptical and when they are they find that no amount of experience can guarantee the future occurrence of anything. [Hence Popper’s famed alternative - -falsiification,where a future event can logically falsify an accepted hypothesis].

Influenced by Popper, I failed to see how Hume developed the notion of induction (inference) into a whole positive argument. We are stuck with induction, he says. It gets cemented into a belief, in the mind, by constant experience. It extends into a belief about necessity, almost universal mechanism. Even when things do not follow as we expected, we can always invoke an additional cause complicating things [what Popper  would call an ad hoc hypothesis]. Hume believed we could never know the real specific causes, the secret powers. This stubborn belief in causality and necessity is what critics of Popper have also latched on to – scientists carry on believing in their theories despite counterexamples, unless they are muscular heroic lone theorists [was that Hume or Ranciere – I forget].

After a brief discussion of probability [not bad considering the date – hints at problems of spurious correlation and secret powers],Hume gets on to the human and moral sciences. They are no different from the natural sciences in essence – they rely on inference too, based on our experience. There is an amazing bit where it looks like Hume is talking about functional imperatives – necessary patterns of life without which human society could not exist and which get noticed by the veteran observer. Some of them are a bit dodgy like the differences in temperament between the sexes, and the primitive nature of some peoples. Inference is also based on the need for social interaction, which is universal, he says – if we did not believe we could predict what other people were doing, no social interaction would be possible, yet patterns of action show that it is [Which made me think of the missing social dimension in Deleuze again – how on earth could all those haecceities actually interact? How is social order possible except as fleeting, contingent – the way his life went as a famous French professor with the ability to turn down interaction with critics etc].

Hume’s solution to the philosophical dilemma of necessity versus free will is to say the whole thing depends on poor definitions. We all believe in general necessity, admitting we can never explain variations [except as deviance?] otherwise we could not interact. We also all agree that liberty means making choices where we can and we all agree that is a good thing. But free will does not act as a privileged power to effect action – we can’t see this happening even in our own internal acts of conscious movement : we don’t know how powers work.

In the middle are several arguments against the idea of God as a final cause etc – we can’t know this, it must be a belief, there are familiar paradoxes like whether God must  be responsible for immorality and suffering etc. This is carried on in the highly sceptical section on miracles. Experience suggests we should doubt their existence very strongly, and do things like ask hard questions about the motives of witnesses, the circumstances in which the miracle took place and so on. Hume teases the Christian readers by discussing miracles reported in pagan Rome, which they must obviously doubt, even though they seem pretty similar to accounts of Christian miracles!

The section on animals is interesting too. Animals do learn, Hume argues, yet their consciousness is pretty undeveloped ( so is that of children he says!).So it shows the power of raw experience in making inferences – even conscious beliefs might not be that crucial for humans. It’s a kind of early behaviourist psychology!

The accompanying Inquiry into Morals (which I have skimmed even more lightly) is a kind of early functionalism (Durkheim not Parsons), saying that the need for orderly social exchanges explains morality and ideas like justice. There must be a balance of power too -- so people without it (American Indians and women are his examples) are not seen as subject to justice. This imbalance, and examples of the variability in concepts of justice,  is enough to mock the idea that people are implementing some divine principle when they argue for justice. This also hints at the pessimistic view of human nature as above -- Hume says he agrees with Hobbes although he insists Hobbes was not the first to see society in this way -- Plato was.

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