Hume’s critique of rational causation Essay
Hume’s critique of rational causation
If you look out over the world, everything is held together by something philosophers have called Causation. The rain falls and feed the streams, rivers, and oceans that then evaporate back up into the atmosphere where it gathers in clouds waiting to come back down as rain. When it rains, trees grow, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, and other living things thrive. The circle of life is but a chain of causes and effects, and Causation is the common sense idea that one thing or event causes another. The idea of causation can be rationally expressed in the following relation: If X, then Y.
So, for example, I am used to the light coming on after I flip the switch. In this case, my flipping the switch causes the light to go on. But what if I flip the switch and the light does not come on? I may deduce that this is because the light has burned out. This is because, in my experience, whenever the light does not come on it is because the light has burned out. This is what Hume calls associationism; that is, the tendency that we have, as humans, to link up to things that we normally experience together or in sequence.
The difference between rationalist causation and Hume’s associationism is that causation is meant to establish a relation of certainty between the cause and its effect, whereas the latter says that all we can know is that one is a correlate of the other – that is, that in the past X and Y came together in a sequence, but this in and of itself is n guarantee that this will be the case in the future. If Hume is right, then we have no way to know what the future will bring, and cannot make any predictions that might carry the weight of certainty.
Hume critique of rational causation is based on his distinction between two kinds of objects of knowledge corresponding to two different and separate bodies of knowledge. He theorizes that there is knowledge that express the relation between ideas, and that this is different from knowledge that has to do with matter of fact things about the world. The relationship between there two epistemological realms is not necessary: that is, we can have certain mathematical knowledge about perfect circles, but this has little to do with human experience.
Similarly, the rational idea of cause and effect (if X, then Y) expresses a logical relation, but it is a categorical mistake to assert that this principle can be used to gain or secure knowledge about the world. So, Hume argues that although we perceive one event following another, we can never be certain of it. We cannot say, of things in the world we perceive and experience, that one thing caused another in part because we cannot see (perceive) causation (because it is an idea, or a logical relation).
What we perceive is one thing of event that we come to associate (through force of habit) with the other. So, for example, to take Hume’s example: you see a cue hit a ball, and the ball takes off across the pool table and goes into a pocket. Where is causation? If you cannot perceive it, then how do you know about it. (Hume assumes, along with the other Modern British Empiricists that there are no innate ideas and all human knowledge is based on human experience).
Hume’s critique of causation is both simple and devastating to the sciences, where causation is the basis for both inductive and deductive logic. Not only can we not predict the future with certainty, but we cannot know causes by their effects (or the past from the present). This took the wind out of arguments for the existence of God that said that given that nature displays a certain order and beauty, that there much be some entity who made or organized nature, and this is what we call God, whom we know only indirectly through his creations (ourselves included).
In one fell swoop, Hume took the ground out from under both Science and Religion. But Hume meant to give humans not cause for despair, but cause for hope. We may not know the world through the machinations of reason, but this should not lead us to assert that we do not know is any sense at all. In fact we do and must make all sorts of judgments about the world – it is just that our judgments are not based on certainty or reason. The explanation lies not with the world, but with human nature and human psychology.
We would be judged mad if we repeatedly put our hand on the stove just because our past experience cannot with certainty predict the future. What does happen has to do with the way that we experience the world as repeating certain consistent patterns (even if we cannot prove it is so, it is still our experience), and through sheer repetition, we learn how to behave in the world inn such a way as to not put ourselves in dangerous position, and to put ourselves in good positions.
Hume’s explanation is better that causation, liberating, because it leaves the future open to possibility – the future is in not wholly determined by the past. So, to take a trivial example: Hume talks about how “we” might be used to associating flees with dogs because, in our experience, these two things always arrive together. But today, now that most dogs and other pets wear flea protection, we do not necessarily associate dogs with flees (but perhaps only with irresponsible pet owners).
This last example shows how from our experience in the world, we form expectations, but these expectations are open ended, changeable, and can be either fulfilled or disappointed. In this same way, on the basis of our past and where we come from , we as human form expectations about our future possibilities, but there is nothing at all to say that these expectations will or will not be fulfilled, or changed. Our expectations, buttressed through habit, may be the basis about out beliefs about ourselves and the world.
In this sense of the world, belief is not an innate feeling or knowledge of some otherworldly entity, but it is defined as a being sensitive and attuned to our experiences in the world. Because if we are not, then we form bad habits, false expectations, and an inability to make sense of our very own lives. It should be no surprise, then, the Hume did not believe in God – the postulated original cause for all of existence. No causes in the world, no causes of the world – at least that we can know. There is just the world there, and us experiencing it.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 21 April 2017
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