Sunday, February 22, 2015

David Hume

"All our reasons derived from cause and effect are derived from nothing but custom."

 David Hume (1711 - 1776) was a Scottish philosopher and historian who argued for extreme forms of skepticism and empiricism.

 In his Treatise on Human Understanding (1737), published at the remarkably young age of 27, Hume argued that the study of consciousness must precede all other subjects. Following Locke, he argued that whatever is in the mind has its origins in the senses. He went further than Locke, however, and argued that the mind was nothing but the senses. Reason, memory, and every other kind of thought is, according to Hume, merely an arrangement of sense impressions. This theory has several important consequences.

 The more powerful impressions dominate the less powerful - which is to say, those that we call passion dominate those that we call reason. "Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions." Rationalism is nonsense, and so is the idea that we really reason at all. We simply have feelings which we dignify with the lofty title "reason."

 Unless we have personally observed God, we have no warrant for believing he exists. The accounts of others are always inadmissible (as a result of a famous argument about miracles, to the effect that it is always more likely that the person who tells you the story is lying or mistaken than it is that the miserable actually happened.)

 Causation is nothing but the habitual association of things or events in certain sequences. When one billiard ball strikes another, we do not observe the first causing the second to move. We observe the first striking the second, coming to rest, and then the second moving. As we observe the same sequence of events each time, we infer that one has caused the other. A dog accustomed to Pavlov's experiment might similarly reason that ringing bells cause good to appear.

 Past experience, then, reveals nothing about the future. A chicken that has learned, from a lifetime of experience, that the farmer brings food, will be taken completely by surprise when he brings the axe instead. We stand in this same relation to all expectation of future events, no matter how regular they have been, for the future is not under any obligation to conform to the past. The sun literally could rise in the west tomorrow.

 This argument has been called "a scandal to philosophy," because it is simultaneously devastating to almost every other philosophy and because it is, strictly speaking, unanswerable. Like solipsism, it is simply passed over in silence because it leads to absurd conclusions, though, again like solipsism, occasional attempts to refute it appear.

 In An Enquiry into Morals (1751) Hume argued that the purpose of life was the pursuit of pleasure and the flight from pain, that moral principles were maxims designed to predict the kind of behaviors likely to lead to either of these results, and that they had to be evaluated on that basis. (i.e. whether they make accurate predictions.) This argument would be taken over by Jeremy Bentham in the early 19th century and form the basis for Utilitarianism, one of the earliest attempts to construct a scientific plan of society.

 Hume has had an immense influence on later European philosophy, chiefly through Immanuel Kant (who said the Inquiry "woke him from his dogmatic slumbers) and Adam Smith.


Part of a series on the Enlightenment. (VI of XVII)

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