David Hume (1711-76) was a Scottish philosopher who developed a naturalist perspective on all aspects of human life.
For Hume, the highest good is based on the pursuit of happiness. We are personally happy when we’re good to others, not due to some high spiritual reward but because this approach leads to a harmonious social whole. So personal and social well-being go hand in hand.
This means that morality isn’t based on austere rational principles but on the desire for enjoyment. Accordingly, Hume believes that reason cannot determine anything without experience. And he goes as far to say that reason is the “slave of passion.”
Hume’s metaphysics, in particular his critique of the belief in cause and effect, remains an important challenge to our conventional way of seeing. All we can be sure of, says Hume, is that certain events occur one after another in a given region and for a certain duration.
In billiards, for instance, the white ball appears to cause the motion of other balls when impacting them on the gaming table. But here’s the radical part. Hume says that all we can truly know is that, in the past, the first ball impacted and the other balls moved. We cannot prove that the first ball’s impact will always be followed by movement of the other balls. And for Hume, there is no rational way to demonstrate a causal connection:
Reason can never shew us the connexion of one object with another, tho’ aided by experience, and the observation of their constant conjunction in all past instances. When the mind, therefore, passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determin’d by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects, and unite them in the imagination.¹
Put differently, from prior experience we build up a series of expectations and habitual ways of interpreting observations. Hume calls these “ideas.” But ideas they simply are. Although we expect the billiard balls to move, we have no way of proving or knowing that they always will.
At first, this may seem absurd. But Hume’s critique of causality had a profound effect on one of the most important thinkers in the history of Western philosophy, Immanuel Kant. Mortimer Adler says “…Kant tells us that David Hume awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers.”²
In addition, on a quantum level of reality, contemporary physicists claim that observations of subatomic particles support the ideas of probability and simultaneity instead of linear causality.
However, some say it’s invalid to compare quantum and macroscopic levels of reality because subatomic particles exist in an entirely different arena, and behave in different ways than the larger aggregate objects which they make up.
This debate continues to this day, the answer to which might depend on one’s core beliefs and related worldview. Or in Hume’s terms, one’s “customs of thought.”
¹ David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1896 ed.), SECTION VI.: Of the inference from the impression to the idea, paragraph 278.
² Adler, Mortimer J. (1996). Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Simon & Schuster. p. 94, cited at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critique_of_Pure_Reason#cite_note-2
- Link blog: philosophy, hume, atheism, david-hume (pw201.livejournal.com)
- Causality becomes increasingly elusive (boingboing.net)
- Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion by David Hume (belladeluna.wordpress.com)
- David Hume on Causation (socyberty.com)
- Hume on Rousseau (cafehayek.com)
- “Cause Is Not a Fact”: (brothersjuddblog.com)
- Of Hume and Bondage (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- On David Hume (myintelligentlife.wordpress.com)