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Hume: Skepticism

1. David Hume (1711-1776)

Hume is our Politics, Hume is our Trade, Hume is our
Philosophy, Hume is our Religion. This statement by nineteenth century philosopher James Hutchison
Stirling reflects the unique position in intellectual thought held by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Part
of Humes fame and importance owes to his boldly skeptical approach to a range of philosophical
subjects. In epistemology, he questioned common notions of personal identity, and argued that there is
no permanent self that continues over time. He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued
that our conceptions of cause-effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the
perception of causal forces in the external world itself. He defended the skeptical position that human
reason is inherently contradictory, and it is only through naturally-instilled beliefs that we can navigate
our way through common life. In the philosophy of religion, he argued that it is unreasonable to believe
testimonies of alleged miraculous events, and he hints, accordingly, that we should reject religions that
are founded on miracle testimonies. Against the common belief of the time that Gods existence could
be proven through a design or causal argument, Hume offered compelling criticisms of standard theistic
proofs. He also advanced theories on the origin of popular religious beliefs, grounding such notions in
human psychology rather than in rational argument or divine revelation. The larger aim of his critique
was to disentangle philosophy from religion and thus allow philosophy to pursue its own ends without
rational over-extension or psychological corruption. In moral theory, against the common view that
God plays an important role in the creation and reinforcement of moral values, he offered one of the
first purely secular moral theories, which grounded morality in the pleasing and useful consequences
that result from our actions. He introduced the term utility into our moral vocabulary, and his theory
is the immediate forerunner to the classic utilitarian views of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. He
is famous for the position that we cannot derive ought from is, the view that statements of moral
obligation cannot simply be deduced from statements of fact. Some see Hume as an early proponent of
the emotivist metaethical view that moral judgments principally express our feelings. He also made
important contributions to aesthetic theory with his view that there is a uniform standard of taste
within human nature, in political theory with his critique of social contractarianism, and economic
theory with his anti-mercantilist views. As a philosophical historian, he defended the conservative view
that British governments are best run through a strong monarchy.
In all of the above discussions on epistemological topics, Hume performs a balancing act between
making skeptical attacks (step 1) and offering positive theories based on natural beliefs (step 2). In the
conclusion to Book 1, though, he appears to elevate his skepticism to a higher level and exposes the
inherent contradictions in even his best philosophical theories. He notes three such contradictions. One
centers on what we call induction. Our judgments based on past experience all contain elements of
doubt; we are then impelled to make a judgment about that doubt, and since this judgment is also
based on past experience it will in turn produce a new doubt. Once again, though, we are impelled to
make a judgment about this second doubt, and the cycle continues. He concludes that no finite object
can subsist under a decrease repeated in infinitum. A second contradiction involves a conflict between
two theories of external perception, each of which our natural reasoning process leads us to. One is our
natural inclination to believe that we are directly seeing objects as they really are, and the other is the
more philosophical view that we only ever see mental images or copies of external objects. The third
contradiction involves a conflict between causal reasoning and belief in the continued existence of
matter. After listing these contradictions, Hume despairs over the failure of his metaphysical reasoning:
The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought
upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no
opinion even as more probable or likely than another [Treatise,].
He then pacifies his despair by recognizing that nature forces him to set aside his philosophical
speculations and return to the normal activities of common life. He sees, though, that in time he will be
drawn back into philosophical speculation in order to attack superstition and educate the world.
Humes emphasis on these conceptual contradictions is a unique aspect of his skepticism, and if any part
of his philosophy can be designated Humean skepticism it is this. However, during the course of his
writing the Treatise his view of the nature of these contradictions changed. At first he felt that these
contradictions were restricted to theories about the external world, but theories about the mind itself
would be free from them, as he explains here:
The essence and composition of external bodies are so obscure, that we must necessarily, in our
reasonings, or rather conjectures concerning them, involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities.
But as the perceptions of the mind are perfectly known, and I have usd all imaginable caution in
forming conclusions concerning them, I have always hopd to keep clear of those contradictions, which
have attended every other system [Treatise,].
When composing the Appendix to the Treatise a year later, he changed his mind and felt that theories
about the mind would also have contradictions:
I had entertained some hopes, that however deficient our theory of the intellectual world might be, it
woud be free from those contradictions, and absurdities, which seem to attend every explication, that
human reason can give of the material world. But upon a more strict review of the section concerning I
find myself involvd in such a labyrinth, that, I must confess, I neither know how to correct my former
opinions, nor how to render them consistent. If this be not a good general reason for scepticism, tis at
least a sufficient one (if I were not already abundantly supplied) for me to entertain a diffidence and
modesty in all my decisions [Treatise, Appendix].
Thus, in the Treatise, the skeptical bottom line is that even our best theories about both physical and
mental phenomena will be plagued with contradictions. In the concluding section of hisEnquiry, Hume
again addresses the topic of skepticism, but treats the matter somewhat differently: he rejects extreme
skepticism but accepts skepticism in a more moderate form. He associates
extreme Pyrrhonian skepticism with blanket attacks on all reasoning about the external world, abstract
reasoning about space and time, or causal reasoning about matters of fact. He argues, though, that we
must reject such skepticism since no durable good can ever result from it. Instead, he recommends a
more moderate or Academic skepticism that tones down Pyrrhonism by, first, exercising caution and
modesty in our judgments, and, second, by restricting our speculations to abstract reasoning and
matters of fact.
As an empiricist, Hume starts with an epistemological foundation which is essentially
the same as Berkeley's, but he carries out the empiricist program without Berkeley's
rationalist retention of what amounts to the innate concept (or "notion" as Berkeley
called it)) of "mind" or "spirit." Thus we can say Hume's empiricism is a "pure"
uncompromising empiricism.But Hume pays a high price for this purity, a price
Locke and Berkeley would never have been willing to pay, for Hume's analysis of
knowledge on the empiricist foundationalism he inherited from his empiricist
predecessors leads him inexorably to the conclusion that knowledge of the nature of
reality (i.e., any metaphysical theory at all, whether it be dualist, materialist or
idealist) is impossible. This is the conclusion known as skepticism, a bitter pill for the
metaphysician to swallow, but Hume was prepared to "take his medicine."

Hume's Empiricistic Analysis of the Faculty of Understanding (i.e., the "Mind"):
Hume divides the contents of the mind (all of which Descartes had called "ideas" and
Berkeley had called "perceptions") into two categories:

The first are what he calls "impressions" which are our immediate sensations when we
are having them,
The second are called "ideas" which are the memory's copy of impressions (note that
Hume's use of the word "idea" is not equivalent to Descartes' use; what Hume calls
"ideas" is a subcategory of what Descartes called "ideas").

Hume argues that the only difference between these two is degree of "vivacity": the
dullest "impression" is more vivid to the experiencing consciousness than the liveliest
"idea." Hume claims that every idea in the mind can only originate by copying some
prior impression (the basic empiricist line), but of course Hume has to explain how
imagination can create ideas of things of which we have had no experience. This leads
him to distinguish complex impressions and ideas from simple impressions and ideas
of which they are composed. The idea of an apple, for example, is the memory's less
vivid copy of a complex impression which we have had when we have experienced an
apple. That idea may be broken down into its simple components: the color, the shape,
the taste, the feel. the odor, etc., of the apple. Simple ideas are just those beyond
which any further analysis is impossible. While I can say that the idea of red is a
component of the complex idea of an apple, that idea of "red" cannot itself be further
analyzed into yet simpler ideas. the mind, through its faculty of imagination, can copy
simple impressions as simple ideas and then construct compound ideas by combining
simple ones to create ideas of objects of which the senses have never had any
impression. Thus for example I could combine in my mind the idea I have of an apple,
copied from actual impressions of its shape, its feel, its taste, its odor, etc., with the
idea I have of "blue" copied from impressions of blue objects, to produce in my
imagination the complex idea of a "blue apple" even though of course I have never
had an impression of such a thing. Thus the imagination can create ideas of centaurs
and other such mythical creatures, but all of the component simple ideas of which
these complex ideas are constructed must themselves be copied from some previous
Hume gives two arguments for his clam that all ideas are copies of prior impressions.
The first is essentially a challenge for any potential opponent to produce an idea
which allegedly can be shown not to have originated in any prior impressions. Hume
claims that he can analyze any idea into simple ideas all of which originated in the
mind by copying impressions actually experienced. The second argument he provides
is the claim that if anyone is born with a defective sense organ such that he or she
cannot have impressions of a certain kind (for example a person born deaf or blind),
we find that such a person does not have any ideas of the relevant impressions (for
example, sounds or colors). In fact the conclusion of this second argument does seem
to be confirmed by examination of such persons.
Hume uses this empiricist platform as a method for analyzing ideas. Since every
complex idea can be broken down into ultimate simple ideas, and every simple idea
must be a copy of some impression(s), if we want to know what is involved in a
compound idea we need only break it down into its simple ideas and ask what
impression was each of these simple ideas copied from.
Hume applies this method of analysis to the idea of "causal connection" which is of
course an essential idea in the universal principle of causality on which many of his
predecessors had relied. We can summarize the conclusion of his analysis by saying
that he concludes that the impressions we have of "causes" and "effects" cannot give
us any impression which is the origin of the idea of "necessary connection" between
"cause" and "effect" which is claimed by all causal principles, and thus that no causal
principle can ever be known. It is because of this conclusion that he ends in
skepticism. What follows is an analysis of how he gets to this conclusion.

Two Kinds of Judgments (i.e. "Statements" or "Propositions"):
Impressions and ideas cannot be considered true or false by themselves; however,
when combined to make assertions or "judgments" (or in more contemporary
terminology, "statements" or "propositions") then the question of the truth or falsity of
the judgment can be raised. Since "knowledge" by definition must be
true, knowledge, if there is any, must be composed of judgments. The first step is to
consider the sorts of "judgments" of which knowledge might consist. Knowledge for
Hume, as for any empiricist, consists of judgments based on our impressions and
ideas which copy those impressions. These fall into two categories:

Judgments of relations of ideas are those which are such that their denial is logically
impossible, e.g. "All bachelors are married." Because they are logically impossible to
deny, these judgments of this type are such that their truth can be known by "reason"
alone, even though, as an empiricist, Hume of course holds that the ideas on which
they are based must originate in experience. Judgments which can be known by
reason alone are said to be known "a priori," meaning "prior to experience."
Contemporary philosophy calls judgements of this sort "analytic propositions."
The other class of judgments, judgments of matters of fact, are such that their denial
is logically possible, so if they are true, they cannot be known by reason alone, but
can be known to be true only after experience or "a posteriori," or as we would say
today,. "empirically." These are now known as "synthetic propositions."

As long as one restricts oneself to making judgments of relations of
ideas (analytic judgments) one can know these judgments are true, but only at the
cost of saying nothing at all about reality. Analytic judgments are in effect just
grammatical conventions or stipulations about the usages of words; their truth is, in
effect, the consequence of definitions which are themselves arbitrary. For example,
given the usual definitions, we can know simply by understanding the proposition that
"All bachelors are unmarried" and that ""All unicorns are one-horned." This fact is
expressed by saying that such judgements can be known by "reason" alone, "prior" to
any particular experience of the world. A proposition which can be known in this way
is said to be known a priori. Nevertheless, from these definitions alone, which give us
the meaning of "bachelor" or "unicorn," it is quite impossible to know by reason
whether there are in realty (i.e., "in fact") any "bachelors" or any "unicorns" (that
there are bachelors and there are no unicorns can be known, if it can be known at all,
only by "experience" of the world). Thus the truth of judgments of relations of ideas
(analytic judgments) does not depend on the "facts" of the world, and so while we can
know "a priori" that such judgments are true, that knowledge tells us nothing about
the nature of "reality." Since "metaphysics" aspires to give us knowledge of reality,
metaphysical knowledge (if there is any) cannot consist of analytic judgments.
Judgments of matters of fact (synthetic propositions), however, are not true as a
consequence of the definitions of their terms. If they are true, they are true because of
the facts of reality. Thus if they could be known as true, such judgments would indeed
be informative about the world (and so would give us metaphysical knowledge), but is
it possible for us toknow whether or not such judgments of matters of f act are true?
Hume's answer distinguishes between those judgments of matters of fact which are
restricted to the testimony of our senses (impressions) and the contents of our memory
(ideas) versus those which "go beyond" that testimony. Unless we wish to assert the
metaphysical view of "solipsism" that reality simply is my impressions and ideas (and
this is a view which is very probably impossible to refute), anytime we claim we
know something about "the facts" or "the world" or quite simply "reality," we are
"going beyond" the contents of our senses and memory. Thus (except for the solipsist)
all metaphysical claims are judgments of matters of fact which go beyond the present
testimony of our senses and the records of our memories.
Hume argues that any such judgments of matters of fact which go beyond the present
testimony of our senses and the records of our memories requires a causal inference
from what is present in our experience (impressions and ideas) as the "effect" alleged
to be caused by something regarded as "outside" or beyond what we immediately
experience. But for such a causal inference to be sound, it is necessary to know a
causal principle which connects the effect, our impressions, to such a presumed cause
in "reality" outside or "beyond" the impressions in our conscious awareness.
Hume now argues that all causal principles are such that their denials are logically
possible, thus if they can be known at all, they must be known only empirically, on
the basis of experience (i.e., they are all synthetic propositions or what he calls
"judgments of matters of fact"). Hume sets out to show no experience can justify these
sorts of principles as necessarily true. Hence his skepticism.

Hume's Analysis of Causal Inferences
First, what is a causal inference? It is the process of reasoning from what is given as
known directly by experience to something else which is not directly experienced, but
which is claimed to be the "cause" of the given "effect." From smoke seen on the
horizon, we infer that there exists a fire out of sight which causes the effect of the
smoke. Any such inference must use as a premiss a "causal principle."
What then is a causal principle? Any statement of the form "C causes E" or "E is the
effect of C," (where "C" and "E" are any two "objects" (Hume's term) or "events" that
are called the "cause" and the "effect" respectively) expresses a causal relation to hold
between C and E. Such statements as "fire causes heat" or "temperatures below
freezing cause water to turn into ice" are examples of "causal principles."
But we might ask, what does it mean to say "C causes E"? Recall that Hume's
empiricism leads him to hold that any idea can be explicated by analyzing it into its
simple components and then showing what simple impression each component simple
idea copies. The idea of a causal principle in effect includes the ideas of E following C
in time and that C and E are "necessarily connected," such that when C happens,
E must follow, and when E happens, C must have happened previously. Only if the
two are necessarily connected would the occurrence of the cause permit one to infer
that the effect has happened or will happen; or that the occurrence of the effect
permits one to infer that the cause happened previously. Any process of reasoning in
this way may be called a "causal inference." Thus any causal inference always
requires assuming a certain causal principle to hold true, or in other words that a
certain "C" and a certain "E" are necessarily connected as "cause" to "effect". This
fact in turn implies that we can know a "causal inference" is a sound inference (all
premises are true, so conclusion is true) only if we can know that the relevant causal
principle is true.
Can we know whether any particular causal principle is true on the basis
of reasoning? Hume begins by showing that there is no process of a priori (i.e., not
based on sensory experience) "reasoning" or "demonstration" which could ever lead to
such knowledge. The only judgments which we can know to be true by reason alone
are those Hume calls "judgments of relations of ideas" (analytic judgments). [Recall
that the test for whether any statement expresses a relation of ideas is to try to deny it.
If its denial is self-contradictory(logically inconsistent), then it is a judgment of
relations of ideas. A judgment such as "all triangles are three sided" expresses a
relation of ideas because one cannot consistently think of something which is a
triangle and not three sided. Thus we can know by a priori reasoning that this
judgment is true.] But there is nothing logically inconsistent in thinking of the
occurrence of C and the failure of E to occur. For example, I can think of fire without
thinking of heat; it is possible to imagine an idea of a "cold fire." While I have never
experienced such a thing and I do in fact associate the impression of a fire with the
impression of heat, there is nothing about the idea of "fire" that requires it be
connected with "heat." Therefore, no judgments which express causal principles could
be reached on the basis of a priori reasoning, and so any such judgments must be
based on sensory experience.
Thus we are naturally led to ask, what is there in experience which leads to the belief
in any causal principle? To say a causal principle is not a judgment of relations of
ideas is equivalent to saying it must be a judgment of matters of fact. Hume
essentially asks how do we come to believe that any given C and E are causally
connected. Since a priorireasoning has been ruled out, it must lie in something we
experience. But all we experience is the impression of C followed by the impression of
E; we do not have any experience of the alleged "necessary connection" between
them; yet this is part of the complex idea involved in thinking "C causes E."
In order to explain how we arrive at the belief that two types of events are causally
connected, Hume observes that on the experience of a single C-type impression being
followed by an E-type impression, we are not likely to conclude that the two are
necessarily connected. However after the repeated experience of the two types of
impressions being "constantly conjoined in time" (one following the other), we come
to believe that the one, C, causes the other, E.
But, Hume asks, what is there is the experience of the same
occurrence repeatedly that was not in the experience of a single occasion where E
followed C? Hume answers it can only be that after repeated experience of C being
followed by E, we come to associate the ideas, such that when we think of C
occurring we come to expect E to occur. (When we think of having and impression of
fire, we expect to have an impression of heat.) Hume calls such an impression of
expectation formed by repeated association of C and E a "habit" or "custom" of the
mind. He argues that this is the only possible impression from which one can derive
the idea of necessary connection which forms part of the complex idea of causation
which is present in judgments expressing causal principles of the form "C causes E."
As a consequence of this analysis of the idea of causality Hume concludes that the
judgment that "C causes E" is derived from the impression of a "habit" of the mind in
expecting E when C happens implies that the basis of our belief in a causal principle is
"subjective," or in other words determined by the way we think, rather than
"objective," determined by the nature of C and E. We may mistakenly hold that
knowledge of a causal principle is based on an objective "power" ("causal efficacy")
to produce the effect imagined to be in the cause, but we can have no idea of such a
power because we have no corresponding impression.
What does this conclusion imply about our knowledge of the truth of any causal
principle? A causal principle maintains that the cause and effect
are necessarily connected, which means that whenever C happens, E must follow, or
when E happens, C must have preceded it. However, our belief in such a principle is
based on experience of repeated cases of C being followed by E and the "habit" of
expecting this pattern to continue into the future. But this basis cannot justify the truth
of the conclusion that C will always be followed by E, for the habit of expectation is
purely subjective, and, since a causal principle cannot be known as a relation of
ideas, no experience of the past conjunction of the two in time can ever establish
that they will continue to be so conjoined in the future.
But, a critic of Hume might object, why can't we infer from past instances in which C
was followed by E to the conclusion that C will always be followed by E? Hume
refers to such an inference as "experimental or moral reasoning"; today we would call
it an "inductive inference" because it reasons from particular premises (past cases of
C being followed by E) to a universal conclusion that this connection always holds
true. No such inference can ever establish its conclusion to follow with certainty from
its premises. Since knowledge requires certainty and no inference to a causal principle
can ever be certain, it follows that knowledge of causal principles is impossible. All
we can hope for is a possibly fallible belief based on our habit of expecting
experienced connections of C and E in the past to be continued into the future.
One might consider trying to turn the inference to a causal principle into a deductive
inference. Such an inference would look like the following argument:
In the past C has always been followed by E.
The future will resemble the past.
Therefore, in the future C will always be followed by E.
[or, in other words, C is always followed by E; or C and E are "necessarily
The first premise can of course be known by experience. But how could we ever know
the second premise? This statement, "The future will resemble the past." is known
as the "principle of the uniformity of nature," but it is futile to try to appeal to it to try
to prove a causal principle is true, because we can never know the principle of the
uniformity of nature to be true. To see why, we need only repeat the same strategy
Hume has used on causal principles. It can't be known by a priori reasoning because
its denial is logically possible (it's not a judgement of relations of ideas). It can't be
known by experience because we have no experience of the future. So just like any
specific causal principle, the principle of uniformity of nature is simply a belief based
on the habit of expecting the future to resemble the past because in the past what was
then the future, when it became the present, turned out to resemble the past. But that,
of course, is no grounds for certainty concerning what is still the future. We can
conceive of the possibility that the course of nature could change.Thus there is no way
to prove, either by experience or by reason, that the course of nature can't change,
because having no experience of the future, we cannot establish it on the basis of
experience, and since its denial is not self contradictory, we cannot establish it be
demonstrative reasoning. So, in short, the principle of the uniformity of nature cannot
be known.

How this analysis of causality lead to skepticism:
Why does the fact that no causal principle can be known lead to skepticism? Hume
has argued that any knowledge of the world exterior to our mind (i.e. which "goes
beyond" the testimony of our sense and the contents of our memory) requires
an inference from what we know immediately, our impressions and ideas, to the
alleged cause of those impressions in the external world. But what would it require to
be able to give any meaning to the sort of causal principle which would be necessary
to support such an inference? We would have to have experience of both C and E
conjoined in time. But in this case we can never have any experience of the "C"
preceding the "E," because it lies in the "external world" outside our mind, and all we
experience is our impressions and ideas. So, having no impression of the presumed
cause, we cannot ever formulate a causal principle which would connect this
presumed cause to the impressions as its effect. Hume is not merely saying we cannot
know what it is that causes our impressions, but we could possibly believe that they
were caused, for example by material substances, as does the materialist, or by God's
ideas, as Berkeley has argued He is making the much stronger claim that we cannot
even give any meaning to the notion of a cause of our impressions lying "outside" the
mind, because, by his empiricism, we can only think of that of which we can have
experience. But the only things we can experience are impressions and the ideas
which copy them, not some presumed "cause" of these impressions. In short we
cannot ever infer from our impressions to anything at all which causes them, if
indeed there even is such a cause.
Consequently, if we are indeed restricted from ever making any justified inference
from our impressions and ideas to anything external, what can we know? Hume allows
two possibilities: analytic knowledge of judgements of relations of ideas, but it is
uninformative about the world or "reality" (so metaphysics cannot be analytic),
or knowledge which is restricted to our impressions and ideas. One might mistakenly
suppose that the latter option would lead Hume to a metaphysical idealism like
Berkeley's and make the positive assertion that reality is simply impressions and ideas
in minds. But Hume will not take this path either, for Berkeley's notion of "spirit" or
"mind" as that "in" which perceptions exist is an idea for which no corresponding
impression can be found. Hume argues we simply have impressions, we do not have
any impression of the "mind" or "spirit" having the impressions. Just as Berkeley had
shown that on empiricists' principles, one cannot have any idea of "matter" or
"material substance" as some non-thinking "substance" which has the alleged primary
properties, so we cannot have any notion of "mind" or "thinking substance" as that
which has impressions and ideas. Thus Hume stands pat with skepticism andasserts
nothing at all about the character of any reality that might (or might not) exist
"external" or "beyond" our impressions and ideas. For Hume "reality"
simply is impressions and ideas.

What is david Hume's position on philosophical
what is David Hume's position on philosophical skepticism?
This is based on the reading : Hume's enquiry: Ch 12 on Skepticism

I know the following points about Hume:
-suppose world to be as we believe it
-objects are constant
-our ideas change
-moderate/mitigated doubts
According to Hume, no proof exists in support of cause and effect relationships within the universe. This
is the case because through habitual observation, one infers a relationship between two independent
events. Since one cannot experience the necessary connection between two events such as, the Law of
Gravity, one cannot necessarily prove that event A caused event B. Therefore, even though experience
and reasoning indicate that objects act in a predictable way, this fails to necessarily prove how objects will
act in the future based upon previous interactions.

To establish these claims, Hume puts forth the notion that causal relationships belong to two types of
knowledge: relations of ideas and matters of fact. Relations of ideas refer to a priori knowledge, or
knowledge learned sans experience. They include anything that may be true by definition or discovered
by mere thought. In order for anything to represent a relation of ideas, its contrary must be self-
contradictory or inconceivable. For example, mathematical truths belong in the relations of ideas category
because the opposite of 2 + 2 = 4 is inconceivable. Additionally, a square could never be circle because it
is inconceivable nor could one conceive of the contrary to the statement a triangle has three sides.
Since relations of ideas are known through reason alone, they are vacuous because they do not assert
anything about the world. While causes and effects may be discoverable by experience, they may not be
discoverable by reason alone. Every effect is distinct from its cause, and every cause is distinct from its
effect. Therefore, an effect cannot be discovered in a causal object or event merely by a priori reasoning.