David Hume

David Hume

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    "There are more things n heaven and Earth than dreamt of in your philosophy" (Shakespeare, 211).  This quote from William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark presents quite an idea.  It suggests that in our modern philosophy we have not even began to scratch the surface of what causes the nature of things around us.  Our philosophy is centered on the idea of cause and effect.  Whether a person realizes it, every standpoint that they argue from is based on a cause and/or its effect.  There isn't necessarily anything wrong with this, but most people don't bother to analyze what the true connection is between a cause and it's effect.  David Hume does an outstanding job of presenting a point of view that many people do not consider at all.  He asks what is this connection and what makes us impose this connection immediately.  If all of our findings are based on causes and their effects, and yet, we do not completely understand the connection between the latter, then how can we presume to hold our finding absolutely certain?  Maybe this is partly what Shakespeare was hinting at in the aforementioned quote.  Hume's exploration of the matter of cause and effect is an excellent tool for use in understanding the possibilities and limitations of our "matter of fact" knowledge.

 

            Hume begins his paper by pointing out that humans are essentially ignorant to the world around them.  Everything that we understand is based on someone else's findings or research.  Hume points out that on his own, with no input or previous experience, Adam would not have been able to look at the ocean and say "Gee, I could be suffocated by that water."  Though we now know through experience that fire can burn us and water can drown us, Hume suggests that we should try to rid ourselves of the ignorance that pertains to what is the relationship between cause and effect. He accurately points out that anytime that we think we truly understand the nature of an object, we are just describing that object with as much detail and precision as we have accessible to us. This idea is interesting because it leads one to question whether our most valuable truths in science are in fact, viable. 

 

In science classes, instructors stress the importance of determining causation.  The modern scientific method allows for many ways to describe every imaginable characteristic of something.

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  These descriptions lead to more rigorous testing and further detailed descriptions.  When finding these descriptions, a scientist knows that what they are doing is describing an object or event.  Causation is only inferred at one point in the scientific method and then another scientist repeats the method to test the quality of the newfound cause.  This repetition happens many times and if the cause and effect relationships hold true throughout many clever and in depth experiments, then they are considered an accurate description of how something works (Myers 13 - 45).  Now according to Hume, even though we have tested thousands of times on causation, we still do not understand what in the "necessary connexion" between the two.  Though we do not understand the connection, Hume suggests that our findings will probably hold true to our likings because we almost always consider these findings in a similar condition.  What about mathematical proofs and geometric theorems?  Hume addresses these early in his paper as Relations of Ideas that are discoverable through our operations of thought.  These findings do not depend on things that exist in the universe.  This is further support to the reliability of our scientific truths because our execution of science in nature revolves greatly around the principles of the truly infallible mathematics.  Our scientific truths, however infallible they may seem are, even by definition in science, are not considered to be absolutely certain for everything.  Luckily we live in a habitual society and chaos doesn't throw all of our findings out the window.

 

In section five of Hume's paper, he states that we are all creatures of custom.  Therefore we are safe with our scientific truths because our custom allows these truths to exist in customized environments.  Hume goes on later to wonder, what if something disrupts this custom or nature?  Such a disruption is commonly referred to as a miracle says Hume.  Since we are essentially ignorant to that which we have not seen before, then the men who attested to miracles could have been completely wrong about what they saw or its meaning.  Hume goes on and says that if miracles are things that occur out of custom and experience, then the only true miracle is that of the faith in God or whatever that some of us hold to be true no matter what convincing evidence points to something else.  The point Hume is presenting here is wonderfully ironic.  He is saying that spiritual people search for miracles from the heavens when there is a definite miracle present in the form of their overwhelming faith in something that has no concrete proof of existence.

 

It may appear to many who read Hume's work that he was just rambling on in a hard to follow manner about something that we could not entirely fathom or begin to explain.  It also may seem that Hume is attacking organized religion and the respective officials.  Neither of these is true.  Hume knew that he was just like us and was ignorant in all the ways we are.  He was simply trying to demonstrate that causation is not something that is explicitly explainable in our philosophy.  This doesn't mean that we are making mistakes whenever we infer the relationship of cause and effect because whenever we make that connection, we do so in a manner that is never absolute and in all cases never provable.  This may lead to the belief that if something is not truly provable then what is the point of valuing its worth in describing nature.  The answer is that as we are customary creatures who learn from experience we use methods and research to describe something as provable in our most typical situations.  Typical meaning that gravity hasn't just stopped working or the sun stopped shining, etc. 

 

Whatever propelled David Hume to such an undeveloped path of thought in the 18th century is beyond most people.  His breakdown of causation is thorough and he tackles it in a general enough manner that his reasoning can still be at least appreciated.  His goal in all of this was to show something about the human condition.  He tells about how we are ignorant to the world around us and only learn from experiences.  Everything that we understand comes from what we take in with our senses.  There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that but Hume suggests that it may be an invaluable experience to see what we can determine using reasoning as opposed sensual stimuli.  The purpose of opening this thesis with a quote pertaining to what is unknown in our philosophy is that things that are not completely understandable might be that way for a reason.  Perhaps we were created, in whatever sense is most comfortable to believe, to have minds that work the way the do for a reason.  Maybe we aren't supposed to know that "necessary connexion" that relates to all things in nature.  That is not ours to know, it is something that we cannot fathom, but can only recognize as existing in our philosophy.

 

 

Works Cited

Hume, David.  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 5 May 1996.  U of Tennessee at Martin 25 October 2000 <http://www.utm.edu/research/ hume/wri/1eng/1eng.htm>.

Myers, David G. Psychology. 6th ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2000.

Shakespeare, William.  The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark.  New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.

 

 
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