Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) challenged the tradition we have been studying because he believed metaphysical knowledge that was beyond human capability. Hume is a strict empiricist; the motto of empiricism is “there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses.” Therefore we can analyze our thoughts in an attempt to discover where they might come from. He does not argue that we cannot imagine what we have never seen. He gives the example of a golden mountain: the thought of a golden mountain is easily analyzable into impressions we have seen separately (mountains and gold). So our minds can dissect and build collages of our sense impressions, but anything we believe we have in our minds that cannot be broken down into sense impressions is literally “non-sense.” This is a powerful critical tool—it eliminates a great deal of loose talk. Think about this: how often do we talk about ideas that cannot be explained through sense knowledge? What are we talking about?
An obvious target of this criticism is the idea of God: What can we really know about God through unaided human reason? Faith experiences asides (and we are not challenging that here) what can a philosopher know about God? What are philosophers talking about? In many ways Hume simplifies the knowing process: We have our sense impressions, their lingering memories in our minds (thoughts), and various analyses and re-combinations of them.
Another target of Hume’s empiricism is causality. In Sections III, IV, and V of our readings, Hume explains that most of what we think we “know” about the empirical world is simply a habit of the mind. For example, we think that fire causes heat but really all we have is the association of first (event A) and the feeling of heat (event B). We want to say that fire causes heat, but we have no empirical impression of that. We simply have learned to associate event A and event B.
Hume distinguishes Relations of Ideas (three times five is fifteen, or the square of a hypotenuse is equal to the added squares of the two other sides of a triangle) and Matters of Fact. The former, which includes the truths of mathematics and logic, can provide us with knowledge (therefore we know that three times five is fifteen); the latter gives us mere probabilities based on the association of these ideas. Hume is urging that we dispense with pointless speculations and concentrate on what is observable and practical in scientific endeavors.
Based on this approach, in this Reflection Essay you should explain one of these statements from Hume. What does he mean in the statement and what does it imply?1. “The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible.” (Section IV, Part 1)2. “Custom, then, is the great guide of human life.”
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