Part 5 - Hume

The philosopher widely regarded as the greatest who has ever written in the English language is David Hume, born in Edinburgh in 1711. He did some of his best work very young. At about eighteen he experienced some sort of intellectual revelation, and over the next eight years he produced a large and revolutionary book called “A Treatise of Human Nature”. It met with little attention and even less understanding: in his own phrase it fell “dead-born from the Press”. So in his thirties he tried to re-write it in what he hoped would be a more popular form. This resulted in two smaller volumes: one called “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, the other “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals”. These were scarcely any better received, and he seemed to give the impression then of turning away from philosophy. In his forties he wrote a history of Great Britain, which for a hundred years was the standard work. In his own lifetime he even made a name as an economist. In his early fifties he was Secretary to the British embassy in Paris, and then, after that, Under Secretary of State in London. He died in 1776, and it was in 1779 that his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, a profound and damaging critique of natural religion, was published. Some people consider it his best work.

Like Locke and Berkeley, Hume held that the foundation of any possible knowledge must be sense experience. If you ask yourself, “I have many ideas in my mind, of all sorts: where do they come from?”, for Hume there would be only one possible answer: “They come from experience”. He rejected the possibility of “innate” ideas, saying that any idea is valid only if it is based on experience. Locke is generally considered the founder of Empiricism, the view that all our ideas come from experience: Hume adopted and strengthened Empiricism and brought it to its logical conclusion, scepticism. Let’s examine more in detail Hume’s empiricism.

Section II: Of the origin of Ideas. 

All perceptions in the mind are of two kinds, Ideas and Impressions. Ideas are more feeble perceptions, are copies or images of impressions, less forcible and lively than impressions. Impressions, on the other hand, are all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate. Impressions are immediate, are what impresses our senses the moment we are using them, the impression of red when I am looking at red, etc.  Notice the empiricist approach: all our ideas come to us through the senses, through impressions. No place for innate ideas. 

What do we have in our minds? Impressions and ideas.
What are Impressions? The immediate perception of objects, colour, taste, smell, etc.
What are ideas? They are copies, images in the mind of impressions.

Hume distinguishes between internal and external impressions/ideas (internal: impressions of love, boredom, hatred, etc; external: impressions of trees, stars, any physical object outside); he distinguishes also simple from complex ideas (simple ideas: the idea which is based on direct impression of any object, internal or external; when you see red you acquire the simple impression/idea of red, when you hear a violin you acquire the simple impression/idea of the sound of the violin, etc.; complex ideas: these are ideas made up by us by conjoining together at will various simple ideas: the complex idea, golden mountain, is the joining together by our imagination of the simple idea “gold” and the simple idea “mountain”; the complex idea “God” is the joining together by our imagination of the simple idea “myself” with the simple idea “infinity” etc.). Complex ideas are mingled together by imagination, are made up of various simple ideas.

Simple ideas resting on single impressions are always authentic, true, valid: simple impression of tree produces simple idea of tree: idea of tree is valid. All simple ideas are formed on the basis of simple impressions: proofs? Two: check all your ideas and you will see that they are always based on impressions; even complex ideas can be broken down into simple ideas and simple impressions; secondly, if you lack a sense organ then you will not have any ideas associated with that sense organ: if you are blind you do not possess ideas of colours, etc. Having stated all this, then Hume progresses by giving himself example of an idea which is not based on a corresponding impression: the missing shade of blue!

Hume argues that if we had been impressed by a variety of shades of blue we have in our mind their copies/images that is their ideas: suppose that we have never been impressed by a particular shade of blue lying between two other shades of blue each side of it; in this case, since we have never had the impression of that particular shade we should not have the corresponding idea, because of his principle that “no impression, no valid idea”. Yet Hume contradicts himself by saying that our mind, unaided by impression, can form of itself the valid idea of the missing shade of blue.

Very surprising attitude, which may well destroy his basic law that all valid ideas must be based on corresponding impression. He dismisses the example as irrelevant, but is it? There are many missing shades, sizes, sounds, etc. hence we may have many ideas which are valid even though they are not based on any corresponding impressions! Anthony Flew, a modern English philosopher, comes to Hume’s help: he claims that in reality Hume’s law on ideas based on impressions is used by Hume only when dealing with ideas which cannot possibly have corresponding impressions, hence false ideas, baseless ideas, ideas which do not mean what they say: take the idea of substance, essence, necessity, power, and other metaphysical ideas. The idea of missing shade of blue is valid because the experience of it is quite possible; what will never be possible is to have the true impression of substance or of necessary connection.  Two conclusions then: all ideas are based on impressions and all valid ideas must be able to produce the corresponding impression. These are firm laws for Hume.  He applies his second law in Section VII, so let us see what he has to say about the way we come to have in our minds the “metaphysical” idea of “necessity”, of “necessary connection”.

Section VII: Of the idea of necessary connection.

Hume says that we have the idea of necessary connection between two events, cause and effect. We think that the cause is necessarily connected to the effect, we think that fire and heat are necessarily connected. When I say, “we think” I mean that we have the idea of a necessary connection between cause and effect: is this idea a valid one? Is the idea of heat following necessarily from fire a valid idea? We always think so but is it a valid, reasonable inference? There is only one way of proving whether our idea of power or necessity or necessary connection is valid or not: let us produce the corresponding impression! If you can say, “Mr. Hume this is the impression on which my idea of power/necessity/necessary connection is based”, then you will amaze Hume because he has used a full chapter looking for that particular impression and has not found it.

He has found an impression which gives birth to the idea of necessity but it is not the true impression, it is not the valid impression, it is only the impression of that sense of urgent expectancy which is in us when we see the cause and expect the effect; it is only caused by our psychological inference; necessity is not really between cause and effect but only between a cause and our expecting the effect; it is a psychological necessity not a real one in the world of nature. There is no necessary connection between fire and heat: we do not see it, we do not experience it, we are not impressed by it: we only see two things, fire, and then heat: two distinct and different things; nothing else, you do not see necessity nor necessary connection.

Hence the idea of necessary connection between a cause and the effect is not based on the truth of things, there is no impression which is true and real. So why do we have the idea? Psychologically, our sense of expectancy is the side impression on which our idea of necessary connection is based. It is like your idea of Father Christmas: it is not a true, a valid idea because you have never been impressed by the real Father Christmas; yet you have an idea of Father Christmas, albeit not a valid one: where does it come from? It is based on seeing your dad dressed up as Father Christmas; it is a side impression not a true one.

Where does Hume look for the impression of necessary connection/power/necessity?

1- External objects, in cases of cause and effect: fire/heat, billiard balls etc. Hume stresses that we are never impressed by any necessity, we only see the objects contiguous in time and space, one following on the other, no necessity is experienced.

2- Internal will that commands my motions: I will my arm to move and my arm moves: is there a chance that we may experience the power/necessary connection here? Hume says no: far from experiencing it we have not got a clue how it does happen, since mind and body interact in such a mysterious way, since we do not know why we can move with our will certain organs of our body and not others, since the operation from the will to my limbs is so extended, so complicated, we do not know what is going on between my will and the actual raising of my two fingers!

3- Internal will again but this time seen as controlling our ideas in the mind: I will to think of Italy, and I do, this is real power of my will. But do we really experience such power? We only will and then the idea comes: we cannot perceive the necessary connection between the two! Again, reasons are given: it is a mystery how our soul, our will can achieve such thing as calling before itself all our ideas: we know we can do it, but how is it done? It is beyond us; also, we cannot command all our ideas so easily, some, like passions, are very difficult to control, but do we know why? No, says Hume, hence we cannot possibly experience the power our will has over our ideas; also our will cannot command with the same force at all times, if we are ill or sleepy our will can hardly command, I wonder how your will is coping at the moment with all this!

4- Some people claim that the impression of necessary connection is based on God: when we will things, then God will intervene, when I will my arm to go up then I know that God will do it, etc. These people will then claim that power/necessity/necessary condition is certain because God binds necessarily causes to effects, so heat will be necessarily attached to fire now and forever! Hume is not too keen on this divine intervention and he ridicules it.  Hence the conclusion of this is that there is no impression which is the basis of a valid and true idea of necessary connection.

Yet we do have the idea – like we do have the idea of father Christmas- where does it come from? It is based on our psychological expectation, it arises in us when we see dry wood be put next to the fire and expect that it will light up: this expectation we wrongly attribute to necessity between fire/wood: there is no necessity there but only in our psyche.  You may say, so what? Well, this is catastrophe of immense degree, because it means that you cannot be certain that anything will follow from any cause; you cannot foresee that your floorboards will support you tomorrow morning, you cannot foresee that you will wake up tomorrow as a human being and find yourself an ape or a slug; think of all scientific planning for the next experiments, trips to Mars, etc. Science relies on certainties, on strict unchanging laws: Hume has discovered instead that we do not have any RATIONAL backing for our expectations about the future, our binding principle of cause and effect being merely a psychological expectation rather than a true fact.

Hume could have spared himself the whole chapter on Necessary Connection if he had accepted the simple fact that we do have at least one “innate” idea, which is capable of generating, by way of pure a priori reasoning, the idea of necessity. Rosmini’s idea of being is such unique innate idea, which generates by way of reasoning, the idea of necessity, of contradiction, of identity, of induction, etc. Empiricism will never be able to account for the origin of such ideas, since experience does not provide us with “necessity” but with simple facts, independent objects: nature shows us how things are, not how things should, must be.

Sections III-IV-V (Part 1)

  • The three principles of association: Resemblance – Contiguity in time and space – Cause and effect. Hume’s ambition was to discover the laws of association that govern all our ideas in our minds. Newton had discovered such law in the heavens, the law of gravity, that regulates all galaxies, stars, and planets. Is there such order in our minds? Are our ideas governed by laws of association? Hume claims that the fact that people can talk sense to one another, that different languages follows the same system for building up arguments, etc. proves that there are mental laws of association. He discovers three: a picture naturally gathers together many ideas before your mind, equally the proximity to the native village recalls to mind many ideas, and again every cause calls to mind the associated effect (Resemblance, Contiguity, Cause and Effect). Hume is not too dogmatic about this topic, is open to further study. He uses the three principles again in Section V, Part II, when he explains what “belief” is. Here he claims that belief is not fiction, is not an added idea called “I believe” (you simply cannot believe a fiction nor can you believe a proposition by simply adding “I believe that…): belief is a “feeling”, something more lively felt by the mind. This “feeling” is similar to the feeling we experience with Resemblance (a picture of your mum makes you feel something), with Contiguity (you experience a feeling of horror near places of murders), and is identical with the feeling we experience with Cause/Effect. You see dry wood and fire going near it and you “feel” or you “believe” that the wood will light up. We shall see discuss later Hume’s views on the way we come to “believe” things, but if we consider his efforts at providing an explanation of the fact that there seem to be some order in all our ideas his views are of interest but necessarily doomed: his three principles are indeed plausible for a number of ideas, but why only three? We could add many more; and not one of these principles will be able to explain this amazing fact that all our ideas are somehow ordered, connected. So far as one can know, of all philosophers only Rosmini has an answer to this interesting problem: to explain the connectedness of all our ideas is sufficient to realize that all our ideas contain something which they all share in common, the idea of being, the mother of all ideas. The idea of being is the formal part of any idea whatsoever therefore it is this common ground that explains the association of apparently immensely different ideas in our minds.
  • Hume’s Fork: all ideas in your mind can be divided into two categories. There are a priori ideas, relations of ideas, analytic, necessarily true, cannot be contradicted, tautological, independent from the world, that do not give you any new knowledge about the world, for ex. Maths and geometry, definitions; and there are a posteriori ideas, matters of fact ideas, that give you knowledge about the world, but that can be contradicted, that are not necessarily true. This distinction for Hume is fundamental: all a priori ideas are analytic, do not give you any knowledge about the real world (against the rationalists that believed that some a priori ideas can actually give you true knowledge about the world); for the empiricist Hume only experience can provide you with real knowledge. Logical Positivists, in the 1920s, adopted Hume’s Fork. This distinction has been saluted as one of the greatest contribution made by Hume to philosophy and is kept as valid by most philosophers today, with great damage to true philosophy.
  • Belief and Imagination: Belief is a feeling that arises spontaneously in us as a result of repeated experience, the more constant the experience the stronger the feeling of belief. Imagination cannot bring about belief, therefore it must be distinguished from belief; however, for Hume imagination helps us in accepting the existence of a material world, since imagination provides the link between the existence of an object at different times. I see a pen now, then I no longer see it, then I see it again: imagination constitutes the link between the experiences and makes the mind pass from one to the other creating the feeling that the same object exists when I am not looking at it.

Sections IV-V: The principle of Cause and Effect

Hume’s claim to philosophical glory rests on his profound examination of the principle of cause and effect. It was his conclusions on cause and effect that woke Kant from his “philosophical slumber”, although he did not ultimately agree with Hume’s arguments. But why did Hume embark on so profound an examination of cause and effect? Simply because he realized, as a good empiricist, that all our knowledge about the world rests ultimately on the principle of cause and effect. Do you want to know how good your knowledge about the world is? Check how good is the principle on which all your knowledge about the world rests, i.e. the principle of cause and effect.

Starting point for Hume is that the principle of cause and effect is not A Priori (contrary to the views of most philosophers before Hume). It is A Posteriori, based entirely on experience. Hume proves this by telling us that our mind cannot fathom the cause or the effect of anything without experience. In unusual cases Hume says it is easy to see how experience alone provides the knowledge that two things are cause/effect: the knowledge that a kind of wide powder explodes near a flame, that a magnet attracts iron, or that smooth slabs of marble or of glass slide easily on each other but they require much greater strength to separate them by pulling them apart, is discovered only through experience, it cannot be known a priori. But, Hume continues, even in the most ordinary of cases, a billiard ball hitting another for example, it is not a priori that one discovers the relation of cause and effect, but only through repeated experience. Hume gives the example of Adam to prove that cause/effect is a posteriori, based entirely on experience: the adult Adam put fresh in this world did not have any idea of connection between things, he did not know that fire caused heat, nor that the apple would nourish him, etc. It was only after repeated experiences that he developed the skill of putting together events that he had found always conjoined, becoming able to infer a cause or an effect. This is the origin of the principle of cause and effect, origin based entirely on repeated experience: you experience fire and heat going always together, and you infer heat when you see fire.

The principle is therefore based on experience, is a posteriori. What’s next? The genius of Hume, some say, is evident from his next discovery. Experience teaches us to link two events as cause and effect but experience does not, cannot, tell us the reasons why the two events are linked. You know that fire and heat are cause and effect on the basis of experience, but do you know the reason why fire and heat always seem to go together? If you do then you will have peace of mind: fire and heat will always be connected in the future, you know the reasons why they are connected; so you will know with certainty that fire and heat will always go together, that bread will always nourish you, that you will not wake up tomorrow morning in the form of a rabbit.

But Hume shatters your assurance by arguing that experience cannot give you any reason for linking up cause and effect. We simply do not know why bread nourishes us, we simply do not know why gravity is holding things together. Experience finds things together but does not give the reason. Hence we got “no reason” to expect the future to be like the past (we always do), rationality nor scientists can provide you with any reason why things are linked up as cause and effect. You cannot use the past as a reason: bread has always nourished me in the past therefore I know that it will nourish me in the future: this is a wrong deduction since the past is gone and the past is not a reason. Hume calls “inference” the principle that we use constantly to expect the future to be like the past; you may call it principle of induction. Induction or inference tell us that the future will be like the past, but Hume’s claim is that this principle is not based on reason, on rationality.

This conclusion opens the way for the most profound form of skepticism: you cannot be sure that anything you hold now as cause and effect will hold as cause and effect in the immediate, intermediate, distant future. Who can assure you that tomorrow morning you will not find yourself in the form of a millipede? How do you know that your next bar of chocolate will not turn into a snake in your mouth? Etc.

Hume, however, claims that he is not a radical sceptic: reason, he says, is not a very good guide for human beings, it must be “de-throned” (contrary to the French Positivists that had erected a throne to the goddess Reason); its place must be taken over by a most useful and powerful guide of human life, “instinct”, “custom”, “habit”. It is custom and habit that allow us to disregard the rational fears about the future, it is on custom and habit that inference and induction are based. Why will you still eat your bread tomorrow? Not because of reason, but because of custom and habit. Clearly, custom and habit come by degrees: if you have experienced two events linked like cause and effect in the past always without exceptions, then the strength of your inference will be 100%; if there were exceptions, then the strength will be proportioned accordingly! Hume claims that this same principle is to be noted in infants, and even in animals, supporting his claim that reason has got nothing to do with it.

Kant was very much shaken by this account of the principle of cause and effect and by its skeptical consequences; he argued instead that the principle is A priori, is one of the tools our mind is endowed with since birth. We humans are forced to link things up, under certain conditions, as cause and effect, we use the principle to make sense of the world around us. It is like wearing a pair of yellow glasses from birth: all things will appear yellow; we are simply forced into seeing things as cause and effect by our own human make up. The principle of cause and effect is imposed by the mind on things, the same way as the mind imposes the categories of time, space, identity, etc. Kant’s view on causality creates more problems than it solves, and it leads ultimately back to skepticism. For Rosmini, the principle of cause and effect is deducted a priori and logically from the idea of being. Against Hume, he claims that repeated experience will never produce the principle in us; it is the principle that makes us recognize the necessary link between a cause and its effect. The necessity recognized by the mind helps us dispel the skeptical doubts about the principle of induction or inference. We shall examine causality in Rosmini later in the course.

Section VIII: Of liberty and Necessity.

There has always been a great conflict between philosophers who claim that we are free individuals, that freedom is a fundamental quality we have, that we are morally responsible precisely on account of our freedom (in our own times, Sartre is the example of a philosopher who claimed that “we are condemned to be free”, that freedom is the essential pre-requisite of our human choices) and other philosophers who claim instead that freedom is an illusion, that we are determined in all we do, that as physical creatures part of a physical world we are simply determined by the chain of cause and effect that rules supreme over all physical things.

Hume claims that the problem is in reality a false problem, he claims that it is a problem caused entirely by a misunderstanding of the meaning of the words freedom and necessity: clarify the meaning of such words and we shall see that there is no problem. Hume’s effort therefore is to clarify the meaning of the words necessity and freedom. Once he has clarified the meaning then he proposes that freedom and necessity are in effect “compatible”, one is both free and necessitated (determined). By the way, Hume claims – with Rosmini – that many problems of philosophy would cease to be problems if we take care to clarify the exact meaning of the words used in the debate.

Hume begins with a clarification of the word “necessity”. What is necessity? For Hume necessity in the physical world is simply “constant conjunction between two events and inference of the one from the other”. To say that fire and heat are necessarily connected is simply to say that fire and heat are constantly conjoined together and that one can infer heat from fire or fire from heat. There is no more to necessity than constant conjunction and inference.

The meaning of necessity in the physical world is identical to the meaning of necessity in the moral world. In the moral world of motives and actions there is an identical necessity and no more: there is constant conjunction and inference. Actions follow necessarily from motives, there is constant conjunction and inference. Proof for “constant conjunction” between motives and actions: “mankind is so much the same”, human actions are predictable, a generous man will produce constantly generous actions, a forgiving man will constantly forgive, etc. This constant conjunction is  at the basis of history writing: we can write history about figures of the past on the basis of constant conjunction (you know what treacherous people will do, what actions can jealousy produce, etc. and you apply the same conjunction to people of the past). There is also inference on the basis of constant conjunction: you can predict the way people you know will react to various situations, you can predict politicians, you can predict newspapers’ comments, etc.

Necessity, therefore, in the physical world is constant conjunction and inference; necessity in the moral world is identical, constant conjunction and inference. Common sense should have been our guide: common people do not distinguish between physical necessity and moral necessity, they treat both in the same manner. Hume gives us the famous example of the prisoner:

“A prisoner who has neither money nor interest, discovers the impossibility of his escape, as well when he considers the obstinacy of the goaler, as the walls and bars with which he is surrounded; and, in all attempts for his freedom, chooses rather to work upon the stone and iron of the one, than upon the inflexible nature of the other. The same prisoner, when conducted to the scaffold, foresees his death as certainly from the constancy and fidelity of his guards, as from the operation of the axe or wheel. His mind runs along a certain train of ideas: The refusal of the soldiers to consent to his escape; the action of the executioner; the separation of the head and body; bleeding, convulsive motions, and death.”

The prisoner does not distinguish between the physical necessity of walls and bars and the cutting of the neck by the axe, and the moral necessity of inflexible guards and stern executioner. It is most important to note that Hume’s clarification of the meaning of the word “necessity” does not contain more than constant conjunction and inference: he rules out completely “compulsion”, “hard necessity” because such things are nowhere in the chain of cause and effect.

What about liberty or freedom? Hume clarifies the meaning of such words by stating that freedom is not chance or total disconnectedness between motives and actions, only madmen can be so disconnected: by freedom or liberty we understand the “power of acting or not acting in accordance with the determination of the will”, we are free to follow our motives or not to follow them, although generally we will follow them in our actions. So there is no compulsion, no hard determinism, but possibility of moving or not moving, of acting or not acting.

We should now be able to understand Hume’s compatibilism: we are both free in the sense that we are not compelled, and determined in the sense that we are predictable in our actions. The freedom of fire and heat is the lack of necessary connection; the freedom of motives and actions is again the lack of necessary connection. Hume claims that his theory alone safeguards human responsibility in the sense that it safeguards freedom. He considers one main objection to his theory: if physical and moral causes and effects operate along the same principles then, since God is responsible for all physical connections between causes and effects, He is also responsible for all moral connections, hence He is responsible for all moral evil. This objection goes against common sense that does attribute moral evil to individuals; however Hume points to a difficulty in the idea of the co-existence of God and of moral evil.

Some critical points: Aristotle distinguished between necessity in the physical world and freedom in the moral world, he seems far more in tune with common sense and ordinary experience. Kant, Sartre think that freedom is a fundamental requirement of morality: is Hume’s freedom really freedom? Hume’s locates freedom between motives and actions; Rosmini would argue that freedom precedes motives, we are free to choose our motives for actions. The mind examines the truth first; we are then free to follow or to reject the truth that our mind contemplates; actions will indeed be determined by the motives we have freely chosen. But it must be said that the scientific outlook of today’s philosophy seems to accept more readily Hume’s account which essentially supports a form of soft determinism.

Section X: Of Miracles.

For the English philosopher A. Flew, Sections X-XI are closely linked. They are part of Hume’s grand plan to discredit religion in general and particularly any religion which claims to be based on “natural reason” and common experience. William Paley’ s “Natural Theology”, for example, provided strong arguments for the existence of God based on “natural reason”, in particular the argument from Design. But Catholic Theology also uses “reason” to support fundamental claims; the First Vatican Council has made two solemn declarations concerning God and Miracles:

1- “If any one shall say that the One true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be certainly known by the natural light of reason through created things, anathema sit”.

2- “If any one shall say that miracles are impossible, and that therefore all the accounts regarding them, even those contained in Holy Scripture, are to be dismissed as fabulous or mythical; or that miracles can never be known with certainty, and that the divine origin of Christianity cannot be proved by them, anathema sit”.

Hume’s efforts, according to Flew, in Sections X-XI are directed at proving that both claims are “irrational”: i.e. “human reason” cannot prove the existence of God and it is always irrational to accept the evidence for any miracle.

Hume’s primary concern is with “evidence”: can we ever accept the evidence that a miracle has taken place? Can we ever come to know with certainty by the use of our rationality that a miracle has occurred? For Hume, it is thoroughly irrational to believe in miracles. He reaches his conclusion by deploying one central philosophical argument backed up by four subsidiary, historical arguments.

Hume begins by questioning the rationality of the catholic belief in transubstantiation; he claims that the evidence of the senses is absolutely compelling. The senses say, “This is bread, this is wine”, the Catholic Church says, “This is the Body, this is the Blood of Christ”: which evidence is the stronger? What should a rational person believe, the senses or the Church?  Hume’s fundamental starting point is: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”: we hear stories, we assess the evidence on the basis of our past experience. We believe what is in conformity with the uniformity of past experience, we reject what is contrary; or we proportion our belief according to the evidence.
For Hume, a “miracle is a violation of the laws of nature” by a particular volition of God: is an event which must run counter to all our past experience. No matter how good the testimony may seem, it will be counterweighed by all our experience. The rational person will weigh one against the other: the evidence for miracles is always at a loss, the evidence for the law of nature will always be 100%.

A law of nature is a law precisely because it has no exceptions; one exception would invalidate the law, we would not call it a law. A law, by definition, cannot have any case against it. A rational person proportions his belief to the evidence: on one side there is always a law of nature, on the other a reported occurrence that a miracle has taken place: which one carries always the strongest evidence for a rational man? There is a law of nature that says that all men are mortal; eleven men 2000 years ago reported that that law was broken, by a man called Jesus: a rational man will weigh the evidence and will find that the evidence for the law is always stronger than the evidence of the eleven men!

Hume drives home this conclusion by deploying four subsidiary arguments, which are mostly historical in nature. Thus when Hume gets down to examine particular claims about miracles, he says that “there never was a miraculous event established”. His reasons are these:

  • First, the number, education, integrity, and reputation of those who report a miracle leave much to be desired. The disciples were ignorant people, belonging to a nation which had no reputation for learning. The miracles reported in Exodus come from nomadic tribes of no culture whatsoever, who lived in primitive conditions and times.
  • Secondly, people generally have a tendency to love stories of surprise and wonder, especially so in the case of religious believers as they are subject to fanaticism, vanity, self-interest and impudence.
  • Thirdly, reports of miracles invariably come to us from primitive and uncivilized societies.
  • Fourthly, when we take seriously the claims to miracles found within the various religious traditions of the world, then they indirectly undermine each other. If certain miracles are the foundation of a particular religion, then they indirectly disconfirm the truth of a rival religion together with its miracles. But if we start with the rival religion and take its miracles seriously, they indirectly disconfirm the claims of the first religion we encountered, together with its miracles. Either way, the testimony to one set of miracles cancels out the testimony to the other.

Is Hume’s definition of miracle acceptable? Does a miracle go “against” a law of nature? Could God operate in nature in special occasions leaving intact the “law” of nature? St. Augustine claims that miracles are not “against” but rather “above” laws of nature: they do not destroy the law, they are willed by God, the Creator of nature and of laws of nature, as interventions for “a purpose”. In the case of many miracles in the gospels, there is a “restoration” of nature: healing of illnesses, raising from the dead, etc. The message of the gospels is that death, sickness, etc., are not part of the final state of human beings.

Hume makes the most of his definition of “evidence”: but his evidence is based entirely on “past” experiences, therefore it can tell us only what things have happened in the past. By his own admission, Hume claims that we do not have any “reason” to believe that the future will be like the past. The future is a “virgin” territory, all kind of things can happen; why is Hume so categorical about “violations of laws of nature”? Hume’s first and third subsidiary arguments make the same general point: does he give any proper reason for his sweeping generalization? At most, they call for caution. Hume’s second argument is also very weak: our very passions can also lead us and Hume to reject miracles uncritically! Hume does not consider cases of miracles which brought about misery and human suffering to believers. The apostles died for their proclamation of miracles.

Hume’s fourth argument is again very weak. God can bring about miracles in any religion; are there miracles in other religions which really go against the beliefs and doctrine of the Church? Hume does not provide any example. 

Section XII: Hume’s Scepticism.

For Hume, the driving force in human life is not reason, but instinct, custom, habit, imagination. The source of all our knowledge about the world, the principle of cause and effect and induction, is not based on reason but on custom and habit. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the last chapter of his book Hume presents a bleak view of the power of reason, proclaiming that skepticism is the natural outcome of the very limited scope of rational enquiry. Hume is therefore a radical sceptic in regard to the ability of our reason to reach the truth on any matter, to obtain certain knowledge. On the other hand, he is a firm believer in the power of our “nature” (instinct, custom, habit, imagination), and it is nature that allow us to overcome in our practical life the devastation of our intellectual skepticism. Nature has been good to us, says Hume: on the rational level we are barred from discovering any profound truth whatsoever, but we have instinctive beliefs which are sufficient to guide us through life.

Hume presents three forms of skepticism:

1- Antecedent skepticism:
This form of skepticism, for Hume, is essential for any one who would like to investigate the validity of the knowledge he thinks he has. This form of skepticism is a sound preparation to any study of philosophy, it is the skepticism used by Descartes at the start of his Meditations, his Methodical Doubt. Both Hume and Russell praise Descartes for starting his quest for the truth by questioning everything. Hume, however, thought that Descartes went too far in his Methodical Doubt: he claims that, by introducing the malin genie, the possibility that our mental faculties cannot reach any truth ever, Descartes has boxed himself in solipsism, “his doubt is incurable”.

2- Consequent or radical skepticism:
This is the skepticism of those who, having searched everywhere for the truth, cannot find it and conclude that there is no truth to be discovered, or, at least, that we human beings do not possess sufficient evidence or powers of the intellect to achieve any truth and discover instead, “either the absolute fallaciousness of the mental faculties, or their unfitness to reach any fixed determination” (knowledge). At this stage one doubts of the knowledge given by the senses, of all abstract knowledge (principles of logic, maths and geometry), and of matter of fact knowledge (knowledge of the world). What are the arguments produced to reach such radical skepticism?

  • Scepticism on knowledge given by the “senses”: skeptics produce various arguments, some rather “trite”: oars appear crooked in water, sun appears to the senses as big as one’s head, etc.: Hume argues that these “trite” doubts can be easily dispelled by putting together other sensations plus our own judgment, you can “touch” the oar, you can judge the size of the sun by taking into account distance, etc. However, answers are not easy to come by when the skeptics produce the more profound doubts concerning the senses. In particular, according to the “representative theory of knowledge” (shared by Hume, Locke, Descartes) when we perceive things through the senses we perceive only “representations” or images of the things, not the things themselves. Our mind does not experience objects “directly”: our senses are the inlets through which “representations” or images are created in the mind, as Hume says, “there is no immediate intercourse between the mind and the object”. Therefore if trees and tables and people are nothing but “perceptions in the mind, and fleeting copies or representations” how do we know that there are “real” trees and tables and people? Why could not these representations arise either “from the energy of the mind itself” or from God or from other unknown sources? Note here: we are certain of the “images” in our mind when we look around: but who can say that these images are copies of real things? One could answer with Descartes that God will guarantee the correspondence between our mental representations of things and the real things; but Hume argues that if God does guarantee the veracity of our senses then “our senses would be entirely infallible”, which is obviously not the case. Even “nature” or our “instincts” appear to deceive us since it is nature that makes us believe that we have a direct knowledge of things, whereas we only perceive the “images” of things. And so we are deceived by our instincts, we cannot know whether the real objects exist: skepticism here “always triumphs”. Moreover, the skeptics also attack the traditional distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities; if “secondary” qualities do not exist in objects but are merely perceptions of the mind, so are the “primary” qualities which are as much “sense dependent” as “secondary” qualities are. If this view is correct then “primary” qualities like extension and solidity do not exist in objects but are merely perceptions of the mind! The Irish Bishop Berkeley took this step and denied the existence of “matter”: there is no substance, no primary qualities, no noumena, no physical object. Only “ideas” exist (or accidents, or secondary qualities, or phenomena, or sense-data), becoming the radical sceptic he was trying to defeat by invoking on God to keep for us the secondary qualities which alone make up any object whatsoever.
  • Scepticism of all abstract reasoning. The main attacks of skeptics on this front are directed at the ideas of Space and Time, since if such fundamental ideas necessary for geometry and maths and physics are destroyed then we cannot hold as valid even the clearest of abstract reasoning. The skeptics tell us that the ideas of Space and Time are simply self-contradictory, hence non-existent. How do they arrive at such conclusion? Take a finite, limited unit of space or of time, 1mm or 1second: both are seen by the mind as “infinitely divisible”, therefore any given point or any given instant can be divided ad infinitum. You got, therefore, a limited, finite 1mm or 1second that contains infinity within its limits, since it can be divided into smaller units ad infinitum. This is contradictory: how can the finite, the limited contain the infinite, the unlimited? “Reason here seems to be thrown into a kind of amazement and suspense” and absurdities and further contradictions soon begin to pile up. Therefore the sceptics’ argument which is conducted on the basis of what appears to be clear and distinct ideas reaches paradoxical and unanswerable conclusions!
  • Scepticism of matter of fact knowledge. This is Hume’s original form of skepticism which he has demonstrated in the various chapters of his book. We have seen that all matter of fact knowledge rests on the principle of cause and effect. Hume has demonstrated that the principle cannot be a priori, it derives from experience (constant conjunction and inference); Hume has made the further point that even when we put two things together as cause and effect we are not really any wiser, since the only certainty our principle of cause and effect gives us is that the two things have been found always together in the past: the principle does not give us any reason why the two things are together. Why is there gravity in the universe holding galaxies, stars, and planets together? Science can only discover what is there; gravity is there, but why is it there? Why has it got that particular power? Why do things need gravity to be kept together? Why does bread nourish you? Why does it not poison you? Etc. There is no answer to this skepticism: the principle is based on past experience, but since it does not reveal to us the reasons of things, it cannot be said to be a rational principle. The associated principle of induction is not based on reason but on psychological expectation: we feel inwardly that the finger next to a flame will burn, we expect it to burn: but we got no reason that can explain what is going on and why. In the past a sharp knife has always cut my apple: will it do so in the future? We simply do not know, we do not know the reason why it has been cutting in the past; but we expect, psychologically speaking, that it will cut the apple again. If reason cannot tell us why, and yet we still believe that it will, then this expectation is not the result of reason but of custom and habit, of instinct. Hume is fully aware that a philosopher who would try to live according to this skeptical conclusion, would soon perish, because he should not rely on anything at all: not on food, which can turn into poisonous creatures, not on the pavement which can disintegrate at the touch of the foot, nor on motion, etc. Life would come, for our skeptical philosopher, to a complete stand-still. The skeptical philosopher may well triumphs in all rational discussions, but real life, outside the schools of philosophy, will totally ignore him as producing a useless philosophy. The sceptic himself, once out of his skeptical thoughts, “will be the first to join in the laugh against himself” and to live according to the dictate of common sense.
  • Hume is a radical sceptic with regard to the ability of the mind of reaching any truth at all. But he is not bothered by his skepticism, since he believes that human rationality is very limited in what it can achieve. He believes that human life, like animal life, is guided by instinct, habit; and we can live a common sense life, a pleasant life by forgetting the triumphs of the sceptic, which are indeed unanswerable.

Brief critical points on Hume:

Hume’s starting point is “empiricism”; “rationalists” would disagree with his views on the origin of ideas.
Ideas are not “copies”, “images” of impressions (think of wide, complex sceneries).
Distinction between ideas and impressions is far too vague: it is one of degree (more lively, more forceful).
Our mind is far too passive in the acquisition of ideas, whereas we hold that ideas are judgments made by the mind.
One can be impressed by wide scenes without registering any idea.
Some people can think without having any image: do you have a continuous series of images when you think?
Hume was foolish to admit the exception of the light shade of blue: it is a valid idea which is not based on impression, therefore, against his own principle, the mind has the ability of creating valid ideas without impressions.
Is Hume right in saying that the principle of cause and effect is a posteriori, based on experience? Rationalists disagree, they claim that it is a principle of logic we are born with (other principles of logic are identity, contradiction, induction, etc.). Kant claims that the principle of cause and effect is innate, it is a tool with which we make sense of the phenomenal world.
We cannot acquire the principle of cause and effect the way Hume suggests: constant conjunction and inference does not add up to the principle of cause and effect: see the example of night and day, constantly conjoined, constantly inferred, yet not considered cause and effect. Custom and habit does not produce the principle of cause and effect: one instance and a thousand instances of the same event do not give us anything extra, are the same: the mind recognizes the link even after one instance, and it is the mind that recognizes necessity in things. Hume failed to accept at least one innate idea: necessity is either innate or deducted a priori, experience tells us how things are not how things “must” be.

Hume’s views on causation opens the door to radical skepticism: there cannot be any rational justification for induction, nor have we any reason to expect the future to be like the past.

Hume’s views on belief are again too mechanical, too psychological. Belief is a “feeling”, based entirely on repeated past experiences. Belief is automatic for Hume, springs forth spontaneously on the basis of past and repeated experiences. Critics would say that there is much more to belief: there is investigation by the mind, balancing, assessing, deciding. People change their beliefs after serious considerations, people convert to different beliefs although their past experiences remain the same. On Liberty and Necessity, Hume’s materialistic position is made clear: there is no difference for him between the physical and the moral world. This goes against Aristotle’s distinction between a deterministic material world and a free intellectual, moral world.  Freedom is too restricted in Hume, is the freedom fire has not to produce heat in normal conditions; common sense does not seem to agree with Hume. Hume in effect is a soft determinist. He rules out compulsion and hard necessity but believes that generally speaking motives and actions are as regular as physical causes and effects.

We shall discuss Hume more fully when we will examine Rosmini’s Nuovo Saggio. But, here are some of the critical views of Rosmini on Hume:

“We have shown how, on the occasion of external and internal sensations, the understanding naturally conceives the ideas of substance and cause. This refuted Hume’s system which affirmed that in the whole universe nothing existed except pure ideas, pure accidents, pure facts, without subject or cause.

Hume, applying all the force of his genius to creating a totally empty doctrine, an idol in which he can worship himself, bequeaths to the world one of the best known sophisms.

His genius and his profound, zealous meditations produced a monster, “a wonder for every well-grounded heart”. Standing at the heights of a culture proudly proclaimed by the century, he reveals his ignorance of what is known even to the most humble, uneducated person, and clearly understood by the most uncivilized people. Ideas, which to the minds of others are extremely simple, elementary and clear, go awry in the mind of Hume; they become blurred and lose all the light which enables them, like most faithful stars, to shine before the human family. Dazzled and blind to these ideas, Hume gropes about for them; unable to find them, he imagines and falsifies them, recreating them without any exemplar. In the end, even someone who had lost all common sense would be a better judge of the matter.

From what has been said, we can conclude:

  • Hume does not know what substance and cause are, nor what accident and effect are. Although he speaks about these things, he makes no attempt to investigate what the world understands by “accidents”, “substance”, “causes” and “effects”. He gives the words an arbitrary meaning. For him they are contemptible – woe to anything that is contemptible for a philosopher! But he is in fact attacking his own creations, not ideas expressed by words.
  • He groups into one idea the three distinct ideas of sensible quality, sensation and intellective conception.
  • With this one idea (a monster with three heads) he has limited the number of things that make up the universe: he has made one species out of three.
  • Nevertheless, sensible qualities, sensations and ideas, reduced to a single thing (a pure idea), left two elements in the universe: ideas and their subject. So, because the world still lacked sufficient philosophical regularity, Hume ingeniously decreed that the world was one, single thing, and that subject and idea were identical, that is, he destroyed the subject, leaving only pure ideas” (632-633).
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