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Humes Analysis of Our Belief in External Objects (Section XII)

Humes empiricism, when driven to its full logical implications, leads to skepticism. This is the skeptical aspect of Humes philosophy. (See the
overview of Humes philosophy in the first set of notes.)

Montaigne, Descartes, and Locke all maintain that we directly experience are ideas in our mind. Some of these ideasperceptions or sensations
they believe, are caused by material objects in the external world, and these ideas represent material objects in the external world. (This is
the Causal-Representative Theory of Perception.) In other words, our ideas are like pictures of objects in the external world. Descartes and
Locke argue that our ideas are accurate representations of physical objectsthey are good pictures of what the world is really like. For example,
the desk-idea (the picture in my mind) is an accurate picture of the desk itself (the material object in the external world). Montaigne, as a
skeptic, believes we cannot be sure that our perceptions accurately represent material objects.

Hume argues that the Causal-Representative Theory is not rationally justified. He challenges both the supposed causal relation between
perceptions and material objects, and the supposed representational relation between perceptions and material objects. First, given Humes
analysis of causation (see notes about Hume on causation), he believes that we can judge that there is a causal relation between X and Y only
after observing a constant conjunction of X and Y. So, we can judge that there is a causal relation between material objects and our perceptions
only after observing material objects constantly conjoined with our perceptions. But we cannot possibly observe such a conjunction, since
according to the CRTwe directly perceive only our ideas and not material objects. (Hume is basically employing the same reasoning here that
he employed in his critique of the Design Argument: since we cannot possibly observe a constant conjunction between an intelligent designer
and a universesince it is only possible for us to observe this universewe cannot rationally conclude that the universe was caused by an
intelligent being.)

Second, Hume argues that we cannot possibly know that our perceptions accurately resemble physical objects, since we are trapped behind the
veil of perception. Hume points out that, in order to know that X (an image in the mind) resembles Y (a physical object in the external world),
one must have direct access to both X and Y. (Remember the example from class: To know that the picture of my daughter accurately represents
my daughter, you must have direct access to both the picture and my daughter herself.) But, according to Descartess and Lockes theory of
perception, we have direct access only to the images in our mind. Hence, it is impossible to verify that our ideas accurately represent objects.
So, this theory of perception inevitably leads to skepticism.

Humes Application of his Empiricist Principles to the Notion of an External World

Hume pushes these skeptical doubts one step farther, though: If all of our thoughts must be rooted in experience (the basic claim of
empiricism), and if ideas are the only things that we experience (as all of the people we have discussed this semester assume), then the very
notion of objects in the external world is meaningless gibberish (jargon, as Hume says). In fact, the very idea of an external world is incoherent.
So, empiricism implies that our fundamental belief in an external worlda world made of up physical objects that exists independently of our
ideasis not rationally justified.

A Naturalistic Explanation for our Belief in an External World

Although the common belief in external objects cannot be rationally justified, it can be psychologically explained. This is the naturalistic aspect
of Humes philosophy. (Again, see the overview of Humes philosophy in the first set of notes.) Our belief in external objects has its origins, not
in sense or reason, but in the imagination. Because our ideas (perceptions) exhibit coherence and constancyorder, uniformity, regularity
we imagine that they must represent things (objects) that have a distinct existence. But, again, we have no good reason to believe that this is

Consider the following example: Every morning when I get up, I have the following series of experiences (perceptions): I perceive going down a
set of stairs, then into a kitchen, then a coffee-pot, then a sink, then a filter, then coffee-grounds, then percolating sounds, then coffee smells,
then a coffee cup, then a full cup of hot coffee, then a half-full cup of warm coffee, then a quarter cup of cool coffee, then a few sips of cold
coffee. Day after day I have this same basic series of experiences, and the series always exhibits the same basic order. I never, for example,
experience a quarter cup of cool coffee and then later a full cup of hot coffee. Also, every time I perceive the coffee pot, I have the same set of
experiencesI have the same color, shape, tactile experiences: I always perceive smooth stainless steel in a pot shape. This is just a (very
brief) description of a set of experiences that I have on a regular basis.

Humes point is this: because the experiences that I have described exhibit order and regularity, my imagination (a non-rational faculty) leads
me to imagine that these experiences (perceptions) must represent distinct things (objects), such as stairs, a coffee-pot, a coffee-cup, etc. Since
the coffee-pot experience that I have on Thursday is basically the same as the coffee-pot experience that I had on Wednesday, which is basically
the same as the coffee-pot experience that I had on Tuesday, and on and on; I imagine that there must really be a coffee-pot out there that I
am experiencing. But, again, Hume has shown that the very notion of a world out therea world beyond my ideas (experience)is utterly
inconceivable. So, my belief in the external worldmy belief that there is a coffee-pot out thereis a figment of my imagination that cannot
be rationally justified, but which is psychologically unavoidable.