Hume’s Insouciance on Causation

It is Hume’s opinion that the principle “whatever begins to exist must have a cause of existence” is not obvious and maybe even false.

He considers and rejects the following argument in favor of the principle:

All the points of time and place, say some philosophers, in which we can suppose any object to begin to exist, are in themselves equal; and unless there be some cause, which is peculiar to one time and one place, and which by that means determines and fixes the existence, it must remain in eternal suspense; and the object can never begin to be, for want of something to fix its beginning.

Hume replies:

But I ask; Is there any more difficulty in supposing the time and place to be fixed without a cause, than to suppose the existence to be determined in that manner? The first question that occurs on this subject is always, whether the object shall exist or not? The next, when and where it shall begin to exist? If the removal of a cause be intuitively absurd in the one case, it must be so in the other: And if that absurdity be not clear without proof in one case, it will equally require one in the other. (A Treatise on Human Nature, 1.3.3, 4)

It’s not just the time and place that must be determined but also the essence of the object that will begin to exist. We may call the event random, but at some point, even a second before it occurs, there must be determination. The roulette will stop spinning and reveal definite values. Then we should be able to predict that, for example, a chair precisely described will pop into existence tomorrow at 11 am and right in front of me.

Hume argues that we can imagine this to occur without any cause. The question, however, is what or who do we consult to make even this limited prediction? What do we inspect and study in order to find all this information out? Now while it is tempting to answer that it’s precisely the cause of the chair, let’s slow down a bit.

Suppose it’s written in some database cleverly etched onto helium atoms to which we have managed to gain access that the chair will appear thusly. Why believe this information? Probably because similar entries have yielded correct predictions. Now we have 2 events appearing close to each other: a new row is added to a certain table in the database and then the thing specified, at the prescribed time and place (in that row’s fields), appears out of nowhere. The connection between the database and real-world events cannot be doubted. There is no coincidence; the former anticipates and predicts the latter. This is now a law of nature, discoverable by experiment and reason. Now if the database itself is not the cause of the events recorded in it, some definite X must connect the two. Some X must one way or another force the universe to obey the instructions written in the table. X must read each entry in the table and act accordingly.

This X is what all men call the cause(s) of the chair in front of me at 11 am.

So then, yes, everything that begins to exist has a cause.

Whether Memory and Imagination Differ Only in “Force and Vivacity”?

Hume here does not really seem to know what he is talking about. His view is that the difference between “memory” and “imagination” lies in the “superior force and vivacity” of the former. (AToHN, 1.3.5)

But surely, memory is merely a source of phantasms entertained by the imagination. The difference must be sought rather between abstract objects perfectly recalled and those fancifully created in the mind’s eye.

Once this is grasped, we can see that the difference between the two is in the level of detail of the phantasm being entertained. Assuming perfect memory, I may close my eyes and imagine a bowl of salad that looks exactly like the actual bowl in front of me. Since the modes of existence (real vs. ideal) of the two differ, there is no identity between the ideal and the real but a weaker relation of correspondence. (The image of the bowl is true.)

Now let me make one slight difference to the picture I am holding in my mind, viz., change the color of the bowl from tan to blue. Surely, there is little loss in the “force and vivacity” of the phantasm which for all that instantly changes from being of the “memory” to of the “imagination.” This disproves Hume’s theory. In addition, the two objects are equally detailed. Since they have different properties, they are not identical to each other.

Now let our imagination run wild and picture in the mind a “fat man in the doorway.” W.V. Quine asks, his words dripping with contempt:

Take, for instance, the possible fat man in the doorway; and, again, the possible bald man in the doorway. Are they the same possible man, or two possible men? How do we decide?

How many possible men are there in the doorway? Are there more possible thin ones than fat ones? How many of them are alike? Or would their being alike make them one? Are no two possible things alike? Is this the same as saying that it is impossible for two things to be alike?

Or, finally, is the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles? But what sense can be found in talking of entities which cannot meaningfully be said to be identical with themselves and distinct from one another? (“On What There Is”)

Well, yes, the concept of quantitative or self-same identity is inapplicable to phantasms, because they hang in no time or place but in the mind’s eye; nor do they persist in being but upon the seer’s will. Further, we might be able to call two phantasms that look or sound or whatever the same qualitatively identical, but only if they were fully defined. Thus, all we know about the fat man in the doorway in the imagination is that it’s a man, fat, and has a doorway around him. Whether he is in addition bald is not specified. As a result, neither kind of identity applies to the Quine’s two men. They are neither the same nor different; yet surely, imagining things can make “sense” for a variety of purposes, such as graphic design or writing fiction or inventing a new machine or in a hundred other ways.

And now we can see that the main difference between phantasms that are recalled and those that are imagined is precisely the extent of their definition and description. Perfectly recalled things are full-featured qualitatively; imagined things rarely are. For example, in now imagining a non-existent “possible” entrée, I may be so focusing on its shape and color that I forget to “see” the surface it would need to rest on or the fork in it or the smell of its contents or most other things that might have been part of the experience, if it were real and could then be at least in principle faithfully recalled.

Memory & Imagination: Further Concerns

Also, surely, we can conceive of a man with weak memory yet vivid imagination, who tends to forget less important things but is a great storyteller.

Moreover, and speaking of stories, a tale of real adventure and derring-do retold orally a hundred times can easily become more embellished and more exciting every time it’s recounted, such that the now partly fictional story will become far more forceful and vivid than the actual series of events, however well-remembered.

Both of which cast doubt on Hume’s understanding.

Memory & Imagination: Total Recall?

There may be another way of interpreting Hume on this matter.

According to him, every simple idea arises from a sense impression. So, even if I replace in my mind’s eye the tan color of the salad bowl with blue, the idea of the blue color was ultimately sensed some time in the past and is now merely being remembered.

Hume then may be saying that the bowl being recalled truly produces the most forceful and vivid image in the mind; while the more the imagination rearranges the simple parts (color, shape, smell, etc.) in novel ways, the less clear the resulting complex idea becomes in comparison with the idea of the original thing. How interesting.

Thus, the force and vivacity of the idea of a new mousetrap still to be built in the mind of its inventor are bound to be weaker than the force and vivacity of the same idea in mind of a consumer who bought the mousetrap after it’d been produced, carefully inspected and tested it, and, having put it away, is indulging in recalling its form.

This may or may not be plausible; I am not sure.

Phenomenology of Belief and Doubt

The more I read Hume, the more shallow and careless he appears to me.

Thus, “an idea assented to feels different from a fictitious idea, that the fancy alone presents to us: And this different feeling I endeavor to explain by calling it” drum roll… “a superior force, or vivacity, or solidity, or firmness, or steadiness.” (AToHN, 1.3.7)

But surely, “greater” force, etc. that allegedly distinguishes a true idea from a false one, or an idea believed from one doubted, is a difference in degree; whereas truth is distinct from falsity, and assent from doubt in kind. How long shall the Humean submarginal changes in degree accumulate before they become a marginal change in kind? Hume does not tell us. If idea A is slightly more forceful or vivid to me than another idea B, am I permitted or required to conclude that A is true, and B is false? Implausible.

It seems to me rather that (1) people very often believe in fictions with remarkable fanaticism, such that the false ideas are extremely forceful and vivid in their minds; and (2) doubt is marked by a feeling of uneasiness, agitation, and discomfort from the professed ignorance that drives one to search for truth. Upon discovering an apparent truth or upon finalizing a decision, there is a feeling of peace and pleasure and accomplishment: now I know; now I am ready to execute the plan of action that has just crystallized.

Moreover, an idea that is assented to, i.e., understood to be true, is similar to a figment of the imagination in that the falsity of the latter is similarly assented to. Why should propositions known to be false or phantasms known not to correspond without a doubt be any less vivid, etc., given that of neither doubt is entertained?

Is Hume saying perhaps that ideas assented to are more important (for action, say) than mere fancies, and so by some instinct, more effort is put into their presentation to the intellect? By virtue of this, the former are felt more forcefully. Hmm… this is hardly self-evident. I’m going out on a limb here; this is reading into Hume far more than he deserves.

Force and vivacity seem to play little role in the phenomenology of these things.

“Force and Vivacity” of Different Ideas

To summarize, there are in particular ideas

1. that are true and correctly assented to;
2. that are false and mistakenly assented to;
3. that are doubted and are being researched;
4. whose truth value is not known and that are fancifully entertained;
5. that are true yet thought false;
6. that are false and known to be such.

Hume, arrange these in the order of increasing “force and vivacity.”

Causality: Human Reason and Animal Faith

As I argue in my book, “I do not know that laws of nature do not change, and that in natural sciences the past can be a guide to the future. But I can have reasons for believing these things, and understand why I believe. Causality is a praxeological a priori category. … for the sake of (a) optimal psychological balance, (b) success and happiness, and (c) outright continuation of life, it is best to hold that natural laws are immutable.” (SAtK, I, 26)

However, for these (a)-(c) it is sufficient to lack the false idea that causality does not exist, and that the world is or might become chaotic. Not only adult humans but babies and cats all are sensible in this regard. I would even say, imitating Descartes, that the easy confidence that causality is a feature of the world is a mark of the Creator upon our minds. To obtain the true idea that the world is lawful requires philosophizing.

Skepticism As Self-Defeating

One cannot prove the alleged worthlessness of reason by rational arguments, because if reason is impotent at gaining knowledge, it is equally impotent at proving itself such.

(If, however, we can rigorously prove reason to be feckless, than there is at least one thing reason is good for, namely, undermining our confidence in itself.)

Yet reason may nevertheless still be inadequate despite our inability to demonstrate it.

Thus, skeptical arguments are self-defeating but not self-refuting.

“Continued and Distinct Existence” of the External World

It seems to me that belief in the continued existence of the external world, though enabled indeed by “constancy and coherence” of sense experience, as Hume puts it, is simply an innate, fundamental, and primordial power of human beings. A baby playing peek-a-boo is exercising his power to grasp object permanence.

As for “distinct” existence of objects, it is partially up to us to carve the world at meaningful joints. To do so successfully is yet another power. A measure of intersubjective sanity is required from all people, but still, when a member of a newly discovered tribe points at a rabbit and says “gavagai,” the scientist studying the tribe’s language has good reason to believe that gavagai means “rabbit” rather than “an undetached rabbit part.” The 4 Aristotelian causes play a role here.

So, that there are mind-independent external objects and which objects it is useful to recognize are deliverances of human powers the beginnings of which are built into us from birth.

Perceptions and Things-in-Themselves

Hume seems unhappy with the idea that there are “perceptions” that are “dependent, interrupted, and different” and also “objects” that are “continued, identical [through time], and [mind-]independent.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1.4.2, 52)

To solve the problem of “double existence,” we can have recourse to my understanding of a “thing-in-itself.” From my book:

When I say, (a) “This desk is brown,” is it not the case that “brownness” is not “really” “in” the desk? It is just a perception, conditioned by our sensory organs and spiritual machinery. Brownness is a subjective experience. What has it to do with the actual desk?

In epistemology, we would have a truth-bearer (that thing which has a truth value), i.e., an (ideal) proposition; and a truth-maker (that thing which makes the truth-bearer true), such as the (real) state of affairs of the desk’s being brown, to which the proposition corresponds. If (a) is to be true (and since in epistemology we do not indulge in justifications, I will certainly not lower myself to prove that to my reader), then there had better be a real brown desk out there. The brown desk is the thing-in-itself, and that is the end of it.

In philosophy of empirical science, on the other hand, all we have are perceptions. All we see and hear and so on are signs — of something, perhaps, but who knows and who cares of what? We use these signs in our lives to pursue happiness. We manipulate them in order to cause them to conform to our desires. Simply put, we entertain ourselves. Mises would seem to agree: “We may define the external world as the totality of all those things and events that determine the feasibility or unfeasibility, the success or failure, of human action.”

There are no longer truth-bearer and makers, only usefulness-bearers and makers.

Notice how the situation is reversed: the usefulness-bearer (that item which is useful) is (really) “out there,” as represented by signs. The usefulness-maker is our (ideal) notions on how exactly the usefulness-bearer is useful.

Whether there is anything “behind” the perceptions is now irrelevant. The material world can be cut off with Occam’s razor. “Solid reality,” according to science, is a useful illusion.

Let me now put this another way. Consider a syllogism:

(Major) A dresser is used to store clothing.
(Minor) There is a brown wooden dresser to the left of me.
(Conclusion) I have a place to store clothing.

There are two aspects to this modus ponens. One is validity; the other, soundness.

Regarding the former, assuming the premises are true, does the conclusion follow? In this case, yes, it does. But what does it mean to say that “there is a brown wooden dresser to the left of me” is true? Only that the dresser is a really existing object — not a perception! — indeed, continued, somewhat identical to itself, and independent, of a certain kind in a certain location.

Regarding the latter, is the minor premise true? Well, it at first glance seems so, but I won’t vouch for it. For example, physics teaches that what appears solid to the senses, on the atomic level is in fact mostly empty space. The sign that whatever-it-is emits that is delivered to us may well fail to “resemble” (Hume’s term) the “real object.” What is the “real” dresser apart from how it appears? I have no idea and don’t care to speculate.

So, we can see that the double existence is in fact a useful device and a reasonable supposition. If Hume denies that there are objects, straightforwardly described by their appearances, then he will lose the capacity to judge the validity of inferences. If it is a hopeless case even to assume a premise such as our minor to be true, then we can’t arrive to a conclusion, and that would be pretty sad, because I’d be forced to throw my clothes on the floor.