Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hume, science, and religion

Suppose you buy Hume’s famous analysis of causation, and thus deny that we can have any knowledge of objective causal connections in nature (either because there aren’t any – the traditional, “verificationist” interpretation of Hume – or because there are but the mind can never genuinely know or understand them – the newer “skeptical realist” interpretation). You shouldn’t buy it (for reasons set out in The Last Superstition), but suppose you did. It is understandable why, in that case, you’d reject First Cause arguments for God’s existence. If we can’t have any knowledge of objective causal connections between things, then we can’t have knowledge of a First Cause.

But how in that case could you fail to reject modern science as well? Wouldn’t theism and natural science – which seems to be in the business of discovering objective causal connections between phenomena – stand or fall together? A way around this might be to adopt some kind of non-realist interpretation of science. You could take the instrumentalist view that scientific theories don’t really tell us anything about the nature of things, but are merely useful tools for predicting experiences.

One problem with this response is that non-realist interpretations of science are just implausible. As Hilary Putnam famously put it, realism is “the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle.” Another problem is that it arguably wouldn’t really address the heart of the objection anyway, but only push the problem back a stage. For if you are going to treat scientific theories as tools for predicting experiences, then it seems you are presupposing that at least one thing in the world – the experiencing human mind itself, or your own mind anyway – manifests causal regularities that can be captured in scientific theories. Even as a Humean you will do so; for example, qua Humean you will suppose that ideas come from, and can only come from, antecedent impressions; that they are combined only in accordance with the three Humean principles of association; and so forth. These seem precisely to be causal regularities, whose existence guarantees that there is an orderly set of experiences for an instrumentalist science to describe and predict.

Of course, this sits poorly with Hume’s own analysis of causation. If (as Hume claims) any effect might in principle follow from any cause or from none at all, where does he get off telling us that every idea (apart from the famous “missing shade of blue,” anyway) must derive from an antecedent impression? If there are no objective “necessary connections” between causes and effects – the very idea of necessary connection being a mere projection of the mind’s subjective expectation of A on the occasion of B, a propensity produced by observed constant conjunctions of A and B in the past – then why exactly must ideas behave only in accordance with the principles of association? Indeed, even the notion of a “propensity” to expect such-and-such an effect, and of this propensity’s being “produced” in the mind by constant conjunction, are themselves causal notions. So does Hume mean to say that all of these claims about the mind and about causation are themselves mere projections based on nothing more than observed regularities in the order of our impressions and ideas, and have no objective validity? Presumably not; indeed, the very idea seems not only implausible, but utterly incoherent. All the same, consistently pushing through a radical Humean skepticism about causation would seem to require applying Hume’s analysis of causation to Hume’s own claims about the mechanisms that govern the mind. And while this would certainly undermine First Cause arguments, it would also undermine science too – precisely because it would undermine almost every claim to knowledge, including Hume’s own theory. The traditional, “radical skeptic” reading of Hume leaves us with a snake that eats its own tail.

A more promising strategy for the Humean who wants to accept science while rejecting natural theology would be to take a softer “New Hume” or “Hume as skeptical realist” line, and deny that the Humean analysis of causation really entails taking a non-realist approach to science in general or causation in particular. One could hold that Hume’s position merely entails that we cannot strictly know or understand objective causal connections, but not that there are no such connections. The idea would then be that Hume’s view that our belief in objective causal relations is impervious to rational criticism anyway, since we can’t help but cling to it given our nature, also entails that the science we base upon this belief is something we can hardly bring ourselves consistently to doubt. Yet if causation might in fact have an objective basis even if we can’t know or understand it, so too would science. Hence we need not dismiss science, any more than causation, as an illusion. We may be unable either to justify it (rationally speaking) or to doubt it (psychologically speaking), but it doesn’t follow that a Humean has to regard our belief in it as either false or strictly meaningless. (I am not claiming that all of this is plausible or even coherent all things considered, either as an interpretation of Hume or as a defensible position in its own right. The point is just that this is a more promising position for a Humean to take if he wants to reject First Cause arguments but accept science.)

OK, so where does the rejection of First Cause arguments fit in? Why wouldn’t they, like science, survive a less radical “skeptical realist” Humeanism? If the mere possibility of objective (though unknowable) causes coupled with our animal faith in them lets empirical science off the hook, why not natural theology? The answer would seem to be that in the view of the Humean, and indeed of Hume himself, though we cannot know or understand objective causal connections, we can lay down criteria for determining which particular purported causal relations are likely to exist, if any causal relations really exist at all. And while the theories enshrined in “our best science” conform to these criteria, arguments for a First Cause do not.

Thus do we arrive at that long and dishonest (or at least woefully ill-informed) skeptical tradition of treating the traditional arguments of natural theology as if they were essentially little more than second-rate empirical scientific hypotheses, feeble exercises in “God of the gaps” reasoning (a tradition given aid and comfort by William Paley and his successors). And thus can the Humean have his scientistic cake and eat it too. For science is just an extension of what we cannot help but believe in “common life,” outside the philosopher’s study. Hence, despite its being rationally unjustifiable, science is OK; and natural theology would be OK too if only it were good science. On this view, it wouldn’t be Hume’s theory of causation per se that undermines First Cause arguments. Rather, the claim would be that considerations of parsimony, empirical adequacy, etc. make theism a less “probable” “hypothesis” than atheism.

The trouble is that, as I show in TLS (and I am hardly the first person to show it), the classical First Cause arguments are not empirical quasi-scientific “God of the gaps” arguments at all, but rather attempts at metaphysical demonstration. And the relevant metaphysics is the Aristotelian kind, which claims precisely to be doing nothing more than extending what we already take ourselves to know in common life. In particular, Aristotelian-Thomistic First Cause arguments attempt to show that the existence of a First Cause is a necessary precondition of there being anything like what common sense understands as “causation” in the first place. So, if for the Humean (or “New Humean”) our “common life” beliefs about causation (a) may well be correct, and (b) are legitimately held by us despite their rationally unjustifiable status, why may we not also accept the conclusion of such First Cause arguments? We are back once again to asking: If science is OK, why not natural theology?

The Humean may at this point object that such arguments still go beyond what an appeal to “common life” can possibly justify, insofar as they presuppose (a) an a priori metaphysical methodology, and (b) that we have a transparent grasp of the essences of things (and in particular of their causal powers). But while such an objection may have force against rationalist natural theology of the sort practiced by Leibniz – I’m not saying it really does, mind you, just conceding this for the sake of argument – it has no force against Aristotelian-Thomistic natural theology. For A-T does not argue a priori, and does not hold that we have in general a complete and transparent knowledge of essences; like the empiricist, the A-T metaphysician insists that knowledge of real existence must be a posteriori, and recognizes limits on our knowledge of the essences of things. Where A-T differs from empiricism is in refusing to collapse the distinction between intellect and imagination, between concepts and mental images – the cardinal sin of modern empiricism, from which all its many other errors follow. Hence A-T also rejects the nominalism that follows upon this chief error (or underlies it, depending on how you look at it), and rejects the radical skepticism about causation, substance, essence, etc. that follows in turn upon imagism and nominalism.

For this reason, while there is a tension between common sense and philosophy even on a “New Hume” view of causation – for given Humean epistemology and metaphysics, how can our common life understanding of causation be even possibly true, since causal connections become not merely unknowable but unintelligible? – there is no such tension in A-T. A-T really is what P. F. Strawson famously called a “descriptive” metaphysics, which leaves common sense intact, while Humeanism is “revisionary” to the core, thoroughly undermining common sense implicitly even when it pays lip service to “common life.” A Humean “skeptical realist” has, when outside his study, to feign complete ignorance of what he learned within it. Even the bare possibility that common sense might be right, the very intelligibility of causation, is ruled out when his methodology is taken seriously. No such pretense would be necessary on A-T even if the A-T philosopher were to entertain doubts about whether genuine knowledge is really possible, for there is nothing in his position (as there is in the Humean position) which casts doubt on the very intelligibility, and not just the knowability, of causes.

If we are really to take “common life” seriously, then, we have to take seriously the metaphysics which makes it even minimally intelligible, namely something like A-T metaphysics. And that means accepting (assuming they are otherwise unobjectionable, as I argue in TLS that they are) the First Cause arguments that follow from it. Conversely, to reject those arguments entails rejecting after all the idea that common sense is right even about the very possibility of objective causal connections – which means in turn rejecting even an “animal faith” justification of our commitment to science.

And that returns us yet again to the question we started out with: How can a Humean consistently accept science and yet reject First Cause arguments for the existence of God? The unavoidable answer seems to be: He can’t. As far as a consistent Humeanism is concerned, science and theism must stand or fall together. But then there is no good reason to be a Humean in the first place, and many good reasons not to be. So perhaps the question is moot.

23 comments:

Ilíon said...

"... One could hold that Hume’s position merely entails that we cannot strictly know or understand objective causal connections, but not that there are no such connections. The idea would then be that Hume’s view that our belief in objective causal relations is impervious to rational criticism anyway, since we can’t help but cling to it given our nature, also entails that the science we base upon this belief is something we can hardly bring ourselves consistently to doubt. Yet if causation might in fact have an objective basis even if we can’t know or understand it, so too would science. Hence we need not dismiss science, any more than causation, as an illusion. We may be unable either to justify it (rationally speaking) or to doubt it (psychologically speaking), but it doesn’t follow that a Humean has to regard our belief in it as either false or strictly meaningless. (I am not claiming that all of this is plausible or even coherent all things considered, either as an interpretation of Hume or as a defensible position in its own right. The point is just that this is a more promising position for a Humean to take if he wants to reject First Cause arguments but accept science.)"

But what about our belief (and/or the apparent Humean assertion) that we know and understand our own natures?

Ilíon said...

[sorry about not cutting off the tail of the above quote]

"... On this view, it wouldn’t be Hume’s theory of causation per se that undermines First Cause arguments. Rather, the claim would be that considerations of parsimony, empirical adequacy, etc. make theism a less “probable” “hypothesis” than atheism.

The trouble is that, as I show in TLS (and I am hardly the first person to show it), the classical First Cause arguments are not empirical quasi-scientific “God of the gaps” arguments at all, but rather attempts at metaphysical demonstration. ...
"

But, at the same time, to even speak coherently of "probable" is to at least imply "true" and "knowledge." Does not the "new Humean" simply end up playing a pea-and-shell word-game?

Edward Feser said...

Hi Ilion,

Not sure I understand what you mean. Hume holds that we have no idea of the self, apart from his famous (and unsatisfactory) "bundle" conception. So in that sense we have no clear idea of our own natures. Do you mean instead that Hume's own theory of the mind gives us, on a Humean view, some understanding of our nature? But I suggested that Hume's analysis of cause, if pushed through consistently, undermines that theory. So, again, I'm not sure what you mean...

J said...

One could hold that Hume’s position merely entails that we cannot strictly know or understand objective causal connections, but not that there are no such connections.

Not so merely. Let's have some NOAA people try to explain all the factors leading to a Katrina. Probability and unpredictability always a factor, even for Laplacean types.

That said, few would disagree that there are inconsistencies to Hume's writing.

Ilíon said...

EF: "Not sure I understand what you mean."

I quoted so much (though, I could have eliminated some of the tail of the quote) to give my question context. I thought the context would make clear what I am trying to get at.


EF: "... Hume holds that we have no idea of the self, apart from his famous (and unsatisfactory) "bundle" conception. ... Do you mean instead that Hume's own theory of the mind gives us, on a Humean view, some understanding of our nature?"

EF (in essay): "The idea would then be that Hume’s view that our belief in objective causal relations is impervious to rational criticism anyway, since we can’t help but cling to it given our nature, ..."

[Sorry about the bolding, I'd have preferred to underline, but that doesn't seem to be allowed by the comm-box software]

EF: ". ... Do you mean instead that Hume's own theory of the mind gives us, on a Humean view, some understanding of our nature?"

Quite the contrary. From what admittedly small bit of Humean thought I understand, I question whether the Humean has even the right to say "since we can’t help but cling to it given our nature."

The very statement implies some sure degree of knowledge about our nature (and our selves), does it not? Whence came this knowledge (for the Humean)? Was it seen with the eyes or or felt with the hands? Was it measured? Has it a breadth or a weight? Does it taste like chicken?

So, if the Humean can't (with consistency and intellectual honesty) use "given our nature" as the rational grounding for the assertion that "our belief in objective causal relations is impervious to rational criticism anyway," then where is his justification for the assertion? Is the assertion not merely a dogmatic (in the silly pejorative "Enlightened" sense) assertion of the sort the Humean claims to reject and to be battling?


EF: ". ... But I suggested that Hume's analysis of cause, if pushed through consistently, undermines that theory. So, again, I'm not sure what you mean."

It seems to me that Hume's hyper-skepticism undermines all knowledge and thought, and that it does so at all levels, and from start to finish.


EF: "... Hume holds that we have no idea of the self, apart from his famous (and unsatisfactory) "bundle" conception. ... "

To a point, he's correct: we do have no clear idea or conception of what the self is -- for, if we did, we could *make* selves. However, we do all know immediately what it is to *be* a self -- and this fact Humean hyper-skepticism ultimately denies.

But, because all rational knowledge we can ever hope to acquire is built upon non-rational intuitive knowledge, and because all that greater mass of intuitive knowledge starts with the intuitive, non-rational knowledge that "I exist, I am myself," and, because Humean hyper-skepticism ultimately denies that I can know that "I am myself" or even know that "I exist," then Humean "thought" destroys all knowledge and all thought.

Ilíon said...

EF (in essay): "And that returns us yet again to the question we started out with: How can a Humean consistently accept science and yet reject First Cause arguments for the existence of God? The unavoidable answer seems to be: He can’t. As far as a consistent Humeanism is concerned, science and theism must stand or fall together. But then there is no good reason to be a Humean in the first place, and many good reasons not to be. So perhaps the question is moot. "

It seems to me that the question is moot in terms of rational philosophy and of a rational appreciation of what we know and how we know it. However, in terms of sociology, it will likely never be moot ... because there will always be those who will latch onto this hyper-though-selective skepticism (and will not let go for dear life), and there will always be those who are impressed, in one way or another, by the first set.

Damien S said...

Ed

Would you mind explaining this sentence?

"Where A-T differs from empiricism is in refusing to collapse the distinction between intellect and imagination, between concepts and mental images – the cardinal sin of modern empiricism, from which all its many other errors follow."

And how does this follow?

"Hence A-T also rejects the nominalism that follows upon this chief error (or underlies it, depending on how you look at it), and rejects the radical skepticism about causation, substance, essence, etc. that follows in turn upon imagism and nominalism."

Thanks!

Damien S

J said...

Buena suerte with that, Damien. That's epistemology (not dogma) and takes up a few chapters in Hume's ECHU--an interesting read, even if you decide to align yourself with Herr Feser, and cast Hume and his perfidious tome into the Fiery Furnace.


The point on the contingency of natural laws, including the supposed regularity of causation (though DH's discussing at least two senses of cause, as in perception of phenomena, and supposed natural laws--even Russell gets that), actually not that different than Leibniz. Push Hume and he's still a scientific realist, even Newtonian (ie the uniformity of experience--important in regards to his points contra-miracles). As far as scientific realism goes, Herr Doktor Feser seems to suggest there are empirical proofs of "substance" and "essence".

Chen-song said...

Not so merely. Let's have some NOAA people try to explain all the factors leading to a Katrina. Probability and unpredictability always a factor, even for Laplacean types.

Is this a "Hume of the gaps" argument?

J said...
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J said...

No, more like you don't understand Hume, gaps or not (hint: this discussion relates to induction, which DH doesn't just simply reject as the naive think--including Popper, at one point--but subjects to scrutiny and analysis. Read Carnap on Hume for more hints (Carnap realized the importance of Hume for analytical phil.)--though I suspect your anti-semitism might prevent that a priori.

DH's not exactly Newton but brings forth a number of important issues which cannot be simply dismissed because the local parish priest finds Hume's character reprehensible or something. The ugly graphic shows what EF really thinks--maybe Hume's statue at U. of Edinburgh, instead. ).

Ricky 'The Hitman' Hatton said...

I like reading J's posts.
Because it reminds me how relevant GK Chesterton still is.

A mad man isn't the man who lost his ability to reason. He is the man who lost everything except his ability to reason.

Thanks, J!

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward Feser said...

Damien, I've responded in a new post, which you've no doubt already seen!

thomism said...

Doc Fayser,

As I read Hume now, he has no problem with causality, so far as it is verified in first person experience. I found this position by accident, because I was originally just offended that he never used "cause" in the first part of the treatise, but he did use it in the second part, which deals with our internal experiences. It hit me that Hume's real complaint is that he denies that there is any power that can "see the interiors" of things outside of ourselves (an intellect as St. Thomas would account for it) and he denies that we can draw an analogy from our own experience to describe things. How can we know the inner life of a billiard ball? Hume has a certain point, even on thomistic terms- for when our idea of "exterior causality" is two mechanical events, there is not much interiority to know, and not much causality either.

All causality involves act, and all act involves perfection and goodness, but the perfection or goodness in the inanimate world is barely existent, and can only ultimately be understood in relation to another. Causality is very clear in lions chasing gazelles, it is less so in trees dropping acorns; and it is very obscure in an stones falling to the earth. The stone has no self that can benefit at all! When we start off wanting to understand causality at the inanimate level, as scientists and Humeans do, it is inevitable that we will miss most of what Aristotle says.

One great resource on imagination and intellect is the the Catholic Encyclopedia article on imagination- a wonderful read

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07672a.htm

James Chastek

Edward Feser said...

Hello James,

Well, Berkeley certainly thinks we have a "notion" (if not "idea") of ourselves as causes, but I don't see how Hume does. In fact, he thinks that even in our introspection of our selves as acting, what we perceive is a volition followed by (say) a bodily movement, but not any necessary connection between them, nor any force or power in the first to bring about the second. In other words, the relationship between events in the first-person, mental case is not relevantly different from the relationship between events in the third-person, material case. We observe a constant conjunction (between the motion of billiard ball A and that of billiard ball B, or between a volition and a bodily movement) but that's it. Or am I misunderstanding you?

Chen-song said...

Pardon my French acronyms, but WTF? You know, J., a reasonable person would explain some of Carnap's views pertaining to this debate. What's with this Alice-in-Wonderland style accusation of anti-semitism?

And no one here brought up any hypothetical local parish priest's criticism of Hume's character, whatever that maybe. People here have been discussing his ideas all the way through.

Ilíon said...

Chen-song,
J is what is affectionately know by the Old Norse term "troll." When you fully understand that, you will find it no difficulty at all to simply skip his posts entirely.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

Hume merely points out the natural laws are not logically necessity. It's not a denial of external reality, nor even ultra-skepticism--it's a point on induction (modifying it, not rejecting it). Regularity of appearance, uniformity of experience leads us to believe that yes, the apple will fall when dropped (at least in earth's gravity). And the history of science tends to confirm Humism: Einstein replaced Newton (at least when matter approaches the speed of light).


For real skeptics, you need to consider religious thinkers-- say the catholics, at least of Cartesian sort, who deny that physical reality exists at all. (Funny, your Cartesian soul does seem to need a bit of nutrition and H20)


(Hey Idion: you're what is known as a lying sack of fascist mierda.
And hopefully sedated and put away, pronto).

Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton said...

Catholics who deny that the physical reality exists at all.

Please J,
Tell me you're just joking around.
That all of this has been one planned out farce.

J said...

Well, immaterialist-idealists are not limited to the catholic or platonic sorts of witchdoctors. Berkeley was Anglican-- sort of catholicism for Anglos.

Hume's points follow from his fairly standard constructivist starting point--no ideas without antecedent impressions--that's the starting point for empirical science as well. Religious people might not care for it, but Hume's arguments are consistent and imminently rational.

The alternative would seem to imply upholding the witchdoctor's a priori --whether that of Plato, Kant, or Christendom

Ricky 'The Hitman' Hatton said...

Now there's a thoughtful reply.
J, I didn't know you had it in you.
But, regardless.... thank you for the sincere and intelligible reply. I mean that too.

What were Hume's thoughts on the Principle of Sufficient Reason?
With my understanding of his view on the relationship between cause and effect I would think (guess) he wouldn't hold it as a valid principle at all.
I could be wrong.
But it seems to me that a strict Humean would take exception with the PSR.
If so, why do ideas need antecendent impressions?