Wednesday, October 8, 2014

David Hume: In Media Res

I finally got to attend my class at the University of Washington on The Philosophy of Hume on Monday. Right in the middle of the whole question of Cause and Effect.

In media res. Just like an mythical epic, which always starts in the middle.

Cause and Effect. That's the Big Idea in Hume. You think there is such a thing as Cause and Effect, that when you see your friend throw a stone into the lake that there will be a splash. You are just assuming that because it happened last time it will happen this time. But you don't know that there will be a splash.  You just assume it, based on previous experience.

As Hume writes in A Treatise of Human Nature:
An object may be contiguous and prior to another without being consider'd as its cause. (1.3.2.11)
But that means nothing unless there is a NECESSARY CONNECTION. And Hume goes on to argue by reason that you can never prove a necessary connection.

The prof. in the class points out that there's a little problem here. If it's legitimate to argue about external "cause and effect" by the internal "cause and effect" of rational argument why isn't the same true of observation? What is the proper extent of the rule of reason?

Hume thinks he can confirm his doctrine by reference to animals. He does this to discredit the idea that we humans make a rational act when we declare that a certain Cause has a following Effect. The point is, he argues in 1.1.16, is that animals do the same thing we do with cause and effect, but they do it by instinct rather than self-conscious reasoning.
From the tone of voice the dog infers his master's anger, and foresees his own punishment. From a certain sensation affecting his smell, he judges his game not to be far distant from him.(1.3.16.6)
Hume is arguing what for the operation of what would be called a century later the "unconscious." We and the animals unconsciously link events together and experience it as cause and effect.
Beasts certainly never perceive any real connection between objects. 'Tis therefore by experience they infer one from another. They can never by any arguments from a general conclusion, that those object, of which they have no experience, resemble those of which they have. 'Tis therefore by means of custom alone, that experience operates upon them.(1.3.16.8)
 But when we make a rational decision to infer one event from another, using the "conscious" mind, do we have any additional warrant for that decision? Or are we just dressing up our experience with the name of reason?

Will anyone believe Hume, he wonders? At the beginning of 1.3.10 On the influence of belief he channels the 20th century Thomas Kuhn, he of "normal science" and the "paradigm shift." Writes Hume:
[A]ll systems... are apt to be rejected at first as new and unusual. This will perhaps be the fate of what I have here advanc'd concerning belief, and our reasonings from cause to effects... I expect not to make many proselytes to my opinion.
Yeah, well. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't believe that. If nothing else, Dave, you woke dear old Immanuel Kant out of his dogmatic slumber.  And the consequences of that, at least, are immeasurable as the cause and effect of stone-throwing.

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