Hume on Causation

David Hume was a Scottish historian and philosopher.  He was more famous during his life as the man who wrote a six volume History of England.  It is very readable.  Since that time, he has been more famous as a philosopher – the best known and most respected philosopher that Britain has produced. 

The most famous part of his philosophy relates to causation.  I first studied it at Melbourne University in 1965.  I don’t think I understood it then, and I have not understood what he ‘meant’ – if that phrase is permissible – since.  I can recall saying as much in an essay and getting a curt response from a tutor saying that I should try to meet Hume on his own ground – or something to that effect.  That struck a then first year law student as dangerously heretical.

Hume began his history, which is before me, as follows.

The curiosity, entertained by all civilized nations, of inquiring into the exploits and adventures of their ancestors, commonly excites a regret that the history of remote ages should always be so much involved in obscurity, uncertainty, and contradiction.  Ingenious men, possessed of leisure, are apt to push their researches beyond the period in which literary monuments are framed or preserved; without reflecting that the history of past events is immediately lost or disfigured when intrusted to memory or oral tradition; and that the adventures of barbarous nations, even if they were recorded, could afford little or no entertainment to men born in a more cultivated age.

Two things might occur to the reader.  The writing is so like that of Edward Gibbon.  And any views of the philosopher on causation had no effect on the historian.  It is impossible to write history without referring to causal connection.  There is one in the first sentence.  To ‘excite a regret’ is to ‘cause an emotion.’  Mary Queen of Scots was executed because she was found guilty of treason.  She died because that’s what happens if someone chops your head off.  People who don’t believe that are dangerously mad.

What then did Hume the philosopher have to say about causation?  There is a lot of talk about a billiard cue striking a ball which hits a ball which hits another – and so on.  I will not try to set out what Hume said in summary, but refer to two notions he puts forward.  One is that we cannot see the ‘force’ or ‘causal connection’ at work.  The other is that the mere fact that a series of events has occurred in the past is no guarantee that it will happen again in the future.

In What’s Wrong? you can find the following:

The results of induction – the sun will rise tomorrow – cannot, the philosophers tell us, be stated as absolutely certain propositions because the truth depends on a prediction that the world will continue to behave as it has behaved in the past.  The movement of the sun might be an extreme example, but the case was stated crisply by Bertrand Russell as follows: ‘The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead – showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.’ One way to put this is to say that deductive arguments produce conclusions that are necessary, while inductive arguments produce results that are probable or contingent (upon history repeating itself ).  In a deductive argument, the premises are conclusive evidence of what is said in the conclusion, and we speak of the argument being valid or invalid.  We test an inductive argument by asking if past history suggests that a prediction for the future is probably sound. lack the certainty of deduction, they tell us something about the world that we have not heard before. Deductive arguments do not do this.

The philosophers say that the conclusions of deduction are necessary (or analytic) whereas those of induction are merely contingent (or synthetic).  But if those labels are constructs of ours to describe phases of our thought, are they any more useful than the blue-print for the construction of a Lego space station?  If this is a grading of our thought processes, what use is it – especially if we can only get something new from induction?  What is the effect of this form of scepticism?

Not much for David Hume.  He said he was ‘absolutely and necessarily determin’d to live and talk and act like other people in the common affairs of life.’  The reason for that resolution – the cause – may have been the fear of being locked up in Bedlam if he did not.  He said that some natural beliefs could not be proved, but that nature is such that we have to accept them.  He spoke of ‘the obvious appearance of things.’  You simply cannot ignore the brute fact that the axe fell on the neck of Mary Queen of Scots – as it would for Charles I – because that is the result that the executioner brought about.

Hume was seriously sceptical about religion.  ‘Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy merely ridiculous.’  That too is pure Gibbon, but I do not understand why Bertrand Russell said that Hume ‘has no right to say this’ because ‘Dangerous is a causal word, and a sceptic as to causation cannot know that anything is dangerous.’ 

When it came to what we might call the ‘real world’, Hume had no such inhibition.  I =1 = 3 might offend the laws of logic.  But if the sun does not rise tomorrow, more than the laws of physics will be violated.  The world and we will have ceased to exist.  By and large, I may prefer a C+ in Logic to getting blown to Kingdom Come.

What then is the point?  I still do not know.  But over time, three propositions of or about philosophy have comforted me.  One was the lecturer in Philosophy I (Honours) – Bishop Berkely – who said that it would be like blind men in a dark room looking for a black cat – that did not exist.  Wittgenstein referred to signs carried by trains during the war: ‘Is this journey really necessary.’  And the lecturer in Plato’s Republic – Andrew Boyce Gibson – was a Christian apologist who told an uppity ABC interviewer that the problem was that the whole thing had begun in a carpenter’s shop – and had just got a bit of hand since.

And I cannot leave Hume without mentioning my favourite anecdote about him.  I had occasion to remark elsewhere.

He was, like Gibbon after him, fluent in French.  One of his women admirers was the Comtesse de Boufflers.  She was younger than Hume, le bon David – and the mistress of a Prince of the Blood, the Prince de Conti.  Although she wanted to marry the Prince after presumably outliving her husband, she appears to have fallen for the corpulent Scot.  The relationship was not consummated and le bon David may have been well out of it.  It is difficult to avoid the impression that he was punching well above his weight with these French women.  In one petulant letter to Hume, the Comtesse asked, ‘Do you want to confirm me in the idea which I hold, that your sex like to be handled roughly … to confess to you my opinion, the majority seem to have by nature servile souls?’ 

On one occasion the Comtesse upbraided the Maréchale de Mirepoix, her intimate friend, for associating with Madame de Pompadour, saying, ‘She is, after all, merely the first prostitute of the Kingdom’.  It is said that Madame de Mirepoix quietly returned, ‘Don’t ask me to count up to number three’.  That is cattiness of a very big hitting calibre, the stuff of European championships.

And not much philosophy there either.

Philosophy – Hume – Causation – logic – induction – probability.

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