Sunday, October 22, 2006

David Hume "An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding" (1748)

(Note: Post in Progress)

So, why in the bloody hell am I blogging my notes on this philosophical essay by David Hume?! Well, first off, it should be obvious by now that I'm not tremendously tuned in to the audience in this whole blogging thing! Secondly, I'm up reading and learning this essay, and it's pretty impressive actually. Kant said that Hume's work awoke him from his dogmatic slumber. I don't know about that, but it's certainly made me aware of the limitations of my own perception. And when we realize the limitations of our own perceptions, it's easier to forgive others for their differences of opinion.

This is a simplified reworking of Hume's earlier work A Treatise of Human Nature. This work explains Hume's epistemology in a simpler way than the Treatise, and seems to be sufficient in itself.

I. Of the Different Species of Philosophy
There is natural philosophy and moral philosophy. Moral philosophy considers a man as born for action, and the other as a reasonable rather than an active being. The first is easy and obvious, and the second is abstruse and more nuanced- and hence, less popular than the work of sophists. But, superstition is a good reason to look into human understanding.

II. Of the Origin of Ideas
Our thoughts are either IDEAS or IMPRESSIONS. Impressions are sensations, and ideas are memories, imaginings, etc. However, all of our ideas come from previous impressions. If a man is not able to have the sensations (i.e.- if he is blind) he is not able to have the corresponding ideas. Ideas are faint and obscure, while Impressions are more vivid. Imaginings are created from sensations by: compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing.

III. Of the Association of Ideas
Ideas are connected in the mind by: Resemblance, Contiguity, and Cause & Effect.

IV. Skeptical doubts concerning the operations of the understanding
All of the objects of human reason are either Relations of Ideas (i.e.: Geometrical figures), or Matters of Fact. The second are known by experience. For example, a child learns from experience that fire is hot. So, the nature of all out reasonings concerning matter of fact are founded in the relation of cause and effect. And the foundation of our reasonings about cause and effect is Experience. And what is the foundation of our reasonings concerning experience? Why do we expect certain results? It is not reasoning.

V. Skeptical Solutions of These Doubts
In all reasonings from experience, there is a step taken by the mind which is not supported by any argument or process of the understanding. It is induced by some other principle- Custom or Habit. "This is also, presumably, the "principle" that organizes the connections between ideas." "All belief of matter of fact or real existence is derived merely from some object, present to the senses or memory, and a customary connection between that and some other object." Custom is the principle by which a correspondence has been effected between the course of nature and the succession of our ideas. "Custom, then, is the great guide of human life."

VI. Of Probability
Again we have custom taking past expriences and using them to predict the future. In the case of chance, we expect an equal possibility of an outcome, say upon the roll of a die. But, if an outcome occurs often, we expect it to be more probable, with a higher degree of subjective expectation. If belief is nothing but a stronger and firmer conception than what attends the fictions of the imagination, then probability is accounted for by Hume's theory.

VII. Of the Idea of Necessary Connection
"Necessary connection" is the power that ties one idea to another. We know causation through custom- objects and events of one kind have always been followed by objects or events of another kind, in our experience, so we infer this will happen again. But, sensible qualities are not necessarily cojoined. Moreover, volitions of the will cannot be inferred to be necessarily linked to the physical actions they produce since we don't directly know the mysterious sense power that produces the effect. This is why there is a mind/body split. We don't know the mysterious power that links our will to pick up a pen with out body's action of picking up the pen. We feel this connection between cause and effect, but we never percieve it by sensation.

VIII. Of liberty and necessity (in two parts).
Here he gets into the free will question. People have debated for years over the conflict between necessity and liberty. Hume believes this is a confusion of terms.

IX. Of Animals
Animals are able to infer the connection between cause and effect through learned expectations. The animal stores up information about heat, cold, depth, stones, and other obvious characteristics of objects. Therefore, animals and humans share this ability to reason through custom, although it is much simpler in animals. And some of their knowledge, which we call Instinct, is given by nature and not through experience or observation.

X. Of Miracles
Our evidence for the truth of the Christian religion is even less than the evidence of our senses, because we base our belief on the testimony of the Apostles, not on the witness of our senses. Testimony is trustworthy in that people are ashamed to tell lies. However, a miracle goes against the laws of nature, and hence all of our experience. Forged miracles are easily spread, as with gossip, because of our sense of wonder. The miracles of every religion seem to cancel each other out. Moreover, we have no miracles that were attested to by a wide group of spectators. And all the peoples who have attested to miracles have been barbarians. Christains, thus, must be moved by faith, in opposition to all reason. (This seems like a half-hearted retreat from his critique, and I'm fairly certain Hume is not the believer in question.)

"Out of caution, David Hume decided to omit his strictures about miracles from his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), publishing these only some years later, and he continued to exercise a degree of self-censorship down to the 1750s and beyond." -Jonathan I. Israel, "Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750"

XI. Of a particular providence and future state
Hume relates the argument of a skeptical friend: One argument that people make for a Divine existence is the order of the universe: the intelligent creator argument. Allowing that we can infer a cause from an effect, we can tell nothing beyond this. In other words, the gods could have created the universe, but we are unjustified in giving them powers beyond this. We see the universe as the effect of the gods, but cannot infer another effect- such as an afterlife or heaven or hell.
Q: If you can see a half-finished building, and infer its completion, why not look at the universe, and imagine a more-perfect plan?
A: We can infer what the builder will do because we can understand a human, but not the Diety. We cannot understand the mind of a superior Being so different from us.

XII. Of the Academical or Skeptical Philosophy
What is meant by a sceptic? Cartesian scepticism teaches us to be sceptical of our own perceptions and to trace them back to a prime cause; but this leads to total doubt. "The treatment includes the arguments of atheism, Cartesian skepticism, "light" skepticism, and rationalist critiques of empiricism. Hume shows that even light skepticism leads to crushing doubts about the world which - while ultimately are more philosophically justifiable - may only be combated through the non-philosophical adherence to custom or habit. He ends the section with his own reservations towards Cartesian and Lockean epistemologies." In the second section, he asks what good can be produced by excessive scepticism and finds no good. Finally, he says that some scepticism can be worthwhile. It can temper our pride and dogmatism. Knowing the natural powers and limits of the human mind can guide our researches. Basically, we can only use abstract reasoning concerning numbers and quantity, and experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence.

It's a pretty challenging argument. Hume gives the example of when we look out the window and see it is snowing and infer that the snow will be cold and wet, instead of salty or hot. He also suggests our inference that a fire will burn us if we hold our family in it, as an example. These inferences seem fairly self-evident. But, his argument, if I understand it, is that we make these inferences about cause and effect simply out of a habit of mind.


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