Hume, Father of Postmodernism and Anti-rationalism—Part 2
Perversion of "Empiricism"
Hume's reduction of ideas to nothing more than fuzzy remembered images of actual perceptions is wrongly called empiricism. John Locke is the father of true empiricism, which is nothing more than a denial of innate (or a priori) knowledge and philosophical rationalism (the belief that knowledge can be derived by reason alone without reference to the perceived world) and insistence that all knowledge is derived and based on conscious experience of the world. For Locke, the world we are conscious of is objectively real, and it is our conscious perception of that objectively real world and our reasoning about it which is the only source of true knowledge.
[Note: Locke's empiricism began and ended with Locke. Bishop Berkley and Hume immediately destroyed it, and "empiricism" after Locke devolved into extreme Skepticism and subjective Idealism.]
The danger of Hume is that what he writes sounds like empiricism, even in the context of his absurd epistemology: "All ideas, especially abstract ones [?], are naturally faint and obscure ...," he writes. "On the contrary, all impressions, that is, all sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid ... When we entertain, therefore, any suspicion that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning or idea (as is but too frequent), we need but enquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived?"
Carefully notice, however, that Hume does not say every concept must be grounded in the nature of the real world we are conscious of by means of our perceptions ("impressions"), but to the "impressions" themselves.
This is not empiricism, because Hume denies the possibility of knowing any connection between perceptions and the objects being perceived, or even if there is any connection, or even any objects. In his final section, "Section XII—Of the Academical Or Sceptical Philosophy, Part I," he writes: "It is a question of fact, whether the perceptions of the senses be produced by external objects, resembling them: how shall this question be determined? By experience surely; as all other questions of a like nature. But here experience is, and must be entirely silent. The mind has never anything present to it but the perceptions, and cannot possibly reach any experience of their connexion with objects. The supposition of such a connexion is, therefore, without any foundation in reasoning."
What objects? If there is no "connexion" between any such objects and our perception of them, and all we know is our perceptions, how does Hume come to know about them? As Ayn Rand would say, "blank out!"
The right name for this conclusion is not empiricism, it is idealism and after Hume it infected all of philosophy to varying degrees, particularly in Germany.
An acquaintance criticized my comment in the previous article that reading Hume implied a bit of mental masochism. The implication was not, as he misunderstood, that Hume is particularly difficult to read in a technical sense; except that some of his language is a bit archaic, his sentences and words are easy enough to read; but his twisted logic, baseless assumptions, self-contradictions, and absurd conclusions are akin to eavesdropping on a conversation between lunatics. That this man could have had such influence on the future of philosophy has always seemed incredible to me—Kant said it was Hume who awoke him from his slumbers—quite frankly, Hume puts me to sleep.
In "Section III, Of the Association of Ideas," he makes the absurd confession, "Though it be too obvious to escape observation, that different ideas are connected together; I do not find that any philosopher has attempted to enumerate or class all the principles of association," which implies he never read Aristotle and was unfamiliar with classical logic, which is largely a study of the relationships between concepts. Though he flatly denies abstract ideas, and considers all ideas nothing more than fuzzy pictures of percepts, he glibly ignores this in his own pronouncement, "To me, there appear to be only three principles of connexion among ideas, namely, Resemblance, Contiguity in time or place, and Cause or Effect," which, he apparently did not notice, are profoundly abstract ideas. It is a wonder he could write English at all, since most grammar and all of syntax is about the relationships between ideas which are "connections" like number, person, and tense.
Hume makes similar unsubstantiated assertions like his "only three principles of connection among ideas," throughout his work. For example: "All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact." He does not explain how he knows this or why he thinks it is true, but he does explain the kinds of things he includes in each category, which immediately makes it impossible. Under the category, "Relations of Ideas," he includes, "the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic; and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. That the square of the hypothenuse is equal to the square of the two sides, is a proposition which expresses a relation between these figures. That three times five is equal to the half of thirty, expresses a relation between these numbers. Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would for ever retain their certainty and evidence."
What evidence? Remember, Hume insists, "all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions [perceptions]," but if there, "never were a circle or triangle in nature," to perceive, from whence commeth Euclid's ideas? All of which ideas, by the way, are totally abstract, which Hume denies exist. If he were a true empiricist this whole paragraph could never have been written because it asserts the very thing Locke's empiricism was meant to deny, a priori knowledge.
Under the category, "Matters of fact," Hume states they, "are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood. Were it demonstratively false, it would imply a contradiction, and could never be distinctly conceived by the mind."
His previous paragraph on, "Relations of Ideas," proves minds, at least his mind, has no trouble conceiving contradictions demonstrated by the two bald-faced ones it contains. It is apparent he does not know what a contradiction is, or what "truths" (the word he used to describe the principles of Euclid) are either. To say the "truths" of "Euclid would for ever retain their certainty," is correct, but not because there is something unique about Euclid's principles or that they are a unique kind of truth. There is only truth, and all things that are true "forever retain their certainty."
[Note: There is a common mistake about this, however, because it assumes truth is always stated in its complete context. Statements about the state of things that are true must include, at least implicitly, "at this time, such'n'such is the state." Dropping the context leads to statements, like, "it was true in those days, but it is no longer true today." Even though we know what people mean when they say things like that, it is incorrect. If something were the case last Thursday, on Thursday it was true it was the case, and today it is still true it was the case last Thursday, even if it isn't the case today. It is easier to see this with events than with states: "the accident happened Thursday, April 16," is true if that is when the accident actually happened, and it is true whether stated on Thursday, April 16, or stated today, or stated any time in the future, and will forever retain its certainty.]
Partly because he did not understand the nature of physics, but mostly because he was a very shallow thinker and did not understand the nature of truth could he make this absurd statement, "That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise." Simply changing the tense of that sentence would have convinced any intelligent nine-year-old of it's absurdity: "That the sun did not rise yesterday is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation that it did rise." The truth is, it did rise yesterday, and any statement to the contrary is a contradiction of the truth. This section was supposed to be about "fact." "Facts" are what is, as opposed to what is conjectured, or believed, or imagined. The true empiricist bases all truth on fact (first physical facts, then abstract principles, or intellectual facts derived from physical facts).
Hume's ridiculous argument that "the contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction," is actually quite famous, and future philosophers wasted their meager intellectual abilities trying to refute it. Hume was no doubt anticipating his next mistake (about cause and effect) when giving his example, but it also contains a logic error which would come to plague the logical positivists, and does to this day. Truth is determined by reality. Though used broadly, truth technically only pertains to statements that assert something, and such statements are true if what they assert is actually the case, that is, a fact, and are untrue if what they assert is not the case, that is, the fact is actually different or does not exist.
The logical mistake that Hume makes and the logical positivists continue to make is forgetting (or never knowing) facts are either historical or present. There are no future facts. Statements about past or present entities, events, or relationships may or may not be factual (true or false), but statements about future entities, events, or relationships are never factual because they are always conjecture. To be a factual statement, it has to be about something that at least hypothetically one can examine or test. While actual past entities, events, and relationship cannot be examined directly, it is at least possible there is present evidence for them. It is not possible there is any kind of evidence for any future entities, events, or relationships.
This does not mean that accurate predictions about the future cannot be made, it means no prediction, no matter how certain, can be said to be true, (or false), because there is nothing to examine until the time of the prediction has been reached. Hume's mistaken use of a statement about the future, as though it could be true or false, made it plausible. If he had used a statement about a present or past fact, it is doubtful he could have put this particular bit of sophistry over.
I have to return, now, to my earlier statement, that though Hume does not explain how he knows, "all the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact," his explanation of the kinds of things he includes in each category make it impossible. At first blush, it seems plausible that Hume's two categories might cover the ground of all human thought, for, after all, all we can know and think about is the world of facts (that is, objective reality however one conceives of it, whether only the natural physical world, or that world as well as a supernatural one), which would fit Hume's "Matters of Fact," and our knowledge about the world of facts, which would fit Hume's "Relations of Ideas." But Hume makes it clear that all he includes in the category of, "Relations of Ideas," is knowledge of mathematics and geometry, which are not about the world of facts, and do not, according to Hume, even require the world of facts to be true. That scheme limits all abstract knowledge (which we know Hume rejects anyway) to geometry and mathematics, and excludes all other abstract knowledge, from economics to medicine, and divorces, even what it includes, from any connection with reality.
I do not believe Hume set out to destroy philosophy, but he could not possibly have done a more thorough job of it, if he had. Philosophy is the ground of all our other knowledge--hume's philosophy essentially denies that any knowledge related to reality is possible.
[Note: If you wondered what the basis of Kant's a priori and a posteriori dichotomy of knowledge was, it is Hume's two categories of reason. This terribly destructive and false dichotomy has done untold damage to the entire field of philosophy.]
The Cause of Humpty Dumpty's Fall
If you want to destroy a legitimate concept, especially if it is not well understood, just describe and explain that concept in a plausible but incorrect way and proceed to demonstrate the concept, as described, is logically impossible. The concept in this case is causality which throughout the history of philosophy has never been well understood and is debated to this day.
The importance of the concept is not so much in the details, but the basic premise on which it is based, namely; that the events of this world are not random and disconnected but that things happen for a reason which lies squarely in the nature of things and their relationships. Causality is a very broad concept and subsumes more than mere "physical" causality, which is the only aspect of it Hume addressed. The implied (and correct) assumption behind causality is that the world is objectively real, and that the principles that describe its nature can be discovered, and that description, to the extent it is complete and correct, explains why things behave as they do and have the relationships they have. All knowledge, from science to philosophy is dependent on this premise. If doubt is cast on that premise, doubt is cast on all knowledge.
In Locke, the notion of, "cause and effect," was not all of, "causality," only one species of it. It was Hume who made "cause and effect" all of causality, a vulnerable and easily dismissed concept, which Hume did as though smashing a conceptual egg with a logical sledge-hammer--but it was Hume who divorced causality from its premise, and dealt only with the abstract shell of the concept.
"All reasonings concerning matter of fact seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect. By means of that relation alone we can go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses," Hume pronounces, but it is not "Cause and Effect" as Hume describes, that enables us to reason about facts or anything else, but the premise that reality is rationally comprehendable."
Hume's view is that all of causality can be reduced to, the same cause always produces the same effect. He then proceeds to demonstrate this cannot be known by reason, and, in fact, there is no "reason" to believe it to be true. "From causes which appear similar we expect similar effects. This is the sum of all our experimental conclusions. Now it seems evident that, if this conclusion were formed by reason, it would be as perfect at first, and upon one instance, as after ever so long a course of experience."
"When we look about us towards external objects," he says, "and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connexion; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and renders the one an infallible consequence of the other." His example: "We only find, that the one does actually, in fact, follow the other. The impulse of one billiard-ball is attended with motion in the second."
This is what is wrong with the whole notion of "cause and effect" as Hume presents it. His own illustration easily demonstrates it. If the "cause" is the impulse of the first billiard ball and the "effect", the motion of the second, replace the second ball with an egg and the case will be, "same cause, different effect." This simple minded view of cause presented by Hume is absurd, but has been swallowed whole by generations of so-called philosophers who followed him.
[Note: This is not a philosophical treatise, but a correct view of cause, called the "entity" view versus the "event" view, such as Hume's, easily dismisses all the false problems of causation, at least in the physical realm. The entity view of causation simply says the behavior of all things is determined by their nature. A thing does what it does because it is what it is. But nothing exists in isolation and everything always has a context which includes its relationships to other things and its own state. The entity view of causation may therefore be stated thus: the same kind of entity will always behave in the same way in the same context.]
Assault On The Mind
It is not necessary to dissect all of Hume's errors with regard to cause, but some of them have had important unfortunate influences on the future of philosophy. It is not so much the particular philosophical errors in Hume that are of primary importance, but the aspects of those errors that amount to an assault on the human mind and man's capacity to rationally comprehend reality. Remembering Hume stated, "all reasonings concerning matter of fact seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect; by means of that relation alone we can go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses," he proceeds to use his absurd view of causation to prove cause can never be discovered: "The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it. Motion in the second Billiard-ball is a quite distinct event from motion in the first; nor is there anything in the one to suggest the smallest hint of the other."
His explanation of why we then "believe" in cause and effect may seem like nothing more than a silly innocent mistake, but it is far from innocent. According to Hume, our belief in cause and effect is nothing more than a habit. "It appears, then, that this idea of a necessary connexion among events arises from a number of similar instances which occur of the constant conjunction of these events; nor can that idea ever be suggested by any one of these instances, surveyed in all possible lights and positions. But there is nothing in a number of instances, different from every single instance, which is supposed to be exactly similar; except only, that after a repetition of similar instances, the mind is carried by habit, upon the appearance of one event, to expect its usual attendant, and to believe that it will exist." [Emphasis mine.]
Based on this seemingly innocuous mistaken conclusion, Hume introduces two of the worst concepts ever to infect philosophy, concepts which are having a profound destructive effect on all of Western society and culture today. Those two concepts will be introduced in the third part of this article.
[Note: The previous is sometimes described as Hume's problem of induction. There really isn't such a thing as inductive reasoning, as though it were a different kind of reasoning, there is only deductive reasoning or logic. There is an inductive method, which is really nothing more than observation, a kind of research which looks for things that repeat or are similar, but nothing can be established by that method except the observation and data gathered, and possibly the development of a hypothesis about why there is a similarity or why there is repeated phenomena. If observation gets that far, the hypothesis can be tested, at which point it is deductive reason which is being used.
Our reason for believing the sun will rise tomorrow is not because it always has, but because we understand what the sun is, and that it's rising is due to the earth's rotation, both of which will continue barring some celestial cataclysm. Pre-scientific man may have believed many things based on nothing more than the observation a thing always happened, but that "knowledge" was very uncertain and the reason for famines (the rain that always came, didn't) and natural catastrophes (the volcano has only ever smoked in the past).]