David Hume in his lifetime greatly influenced the ideas of skepticism and empiricism. His theories in turn were influenced by John Locke and George Berkeley. These two philosophers held that sensation and reason are essentially different. Hume expounded on their ideas and went on to conjecture that reason and rational judgments are actually distinct sensations or experiences that we associate by habit. Hume deplored the theory of causation and the common idea that our inferences regarding events can be considered a knowledge.
He argued that our generalizations on the basis of our experience can never be regarded with certainty, hence our beliefs could never be proved nor justified by what we observe in the physical world. According to him, our habit of inference based on observation is not determined by our reason but by certain principles that associate events together. If Hume’s propositions were to be accepted and held true, this will inadvertently imply rejection of scientific knowledge and laws, which basically presumes that one event inherently causes another and that it will always be that way in future instances.
Based on Hume’s philosophy, therefore, beliefs justified merely by experience are fundamentally invalid. It is just on the grounds of practicality and convenience that people had to maintain the certainty of cause and effect, this besides the further difficulty of proving the validity of their perceptions. Hume however acknowledged the possibility of the knowledge of the relationships among ideas, such as concepts in Mathematics and the relationships of numbers. Within one year after Hume published his theories, several reviews appeared in scholarly review journals.
One of this reviewers, who himself admits that he was not philosophically up to the task of grasping a work as complex as Hume’s, proceeded to severely criticize his ideas. Among his comments, he ridiculed Hume’s supposed utter demolishment of the causal proofs for God’s existence by his disposing the principle that whatever exists must have a beginning and a cause of existence. This reviewer’s point had been carried on by most of Hume’s early critics, and even today some philosophers discuss the extent to which the causal proofs for God’s existence are affected by Hume’s notions.
Another of these critics tackled his view of causality and personal identity, and sarcastically suggested that Hume might as well conjecture that his own mind is nothing but a collection of fleeting perceptions. Despite this general indignation of Hume’s ideas in its early years, there had been positive responses to it by the late 18th and early 19th century. Foremost among these philosophers who acknowledged the soundness of his theory would be Immanuel Kant, who by his own admission declared that Hume had awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber. The first of Kant’s works directly influenced by Hume was Critique of Pure Reason (1781); in this and later in the Prolegomena (1783), Kant describes his metaphysical system as an attempt to remedy the problem that Hume took notice about causality. This gained prominence and in no time stimulated interest in Hume’s theory within some parts of Europe. Many features on Kant indicated his intellectual debt to Hume. Among other prominent philosophers who either directly or indirectly acknowledged Hume are John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte.
With regards to the apparent degradation of scientific knowledge and laws as an implication of Hume’s ideas, it would be worthy to note that on deeper understanding of the nature of science and its assertions, it does not necessarily contradict with the dictum of the uncertainty of knowledge. Despite its reputation of being authoritative, science has no claims whatsoever of the ultimate factuality of its laws and its consequences. Its basic premise is the supposition that what we observe in the real world is the only knowledge we can claim, which in the first place is what is challenged by Hume.
It is important to realize that they are on an entirely different arena – Hume ponders on the ultimate factuality of things, while science leans more on its practicality as a tool for gaining knowledge with “a certain degree of validity. ” By our own impressions, it is easy to dismiss Hume’s ideas as downright absurd – it just doesn’t agree with our common sense. But to clarify and understand where the difficulties of forming knowledge lie as Hume had pointed out, let us suppose that a valid argument could be formed in support of our beliefs in the persistence of physical matter.
This would lead us to conclude that the objects that we have observed have existed even when we were not observing them, and that they will persist in the future. We likewise believe that objects we have never perceived or observed have existed and will continue to exist. In other words, we by “common sense” suppose that the future will be not much different from the past, and that other areas or parts of the universe that we have not examined are roughly like those that we have observed.
For instance, I think that my shoes will persist into the future indefinitely until of course someone or circumstances destroy it. How come I think of this as an unquestionable fact? Suppose however that I am forced to state this formally and in detail. My reasoning would look something like: My shoes have always existed in the past. The universe is roughly invariable across time and space (which means that the future will be approximately like the past). Therefore, my shoes will continue to exist in the future.
We could keep on reasoning like this and eventually prove the rest of our beliefs about the things we do not observe and the events of the time we have yet to experience. Are these kinds of suppositions valid? Not if we ask Hume. This is because the argument presented, and all other similar arguments, include an unproved premise – the second premise. This is the belief that the universe is always uniform. This perception has soaked deep within our consciousness that our conscience never bother to make us question it.
But do we really have to believe this to be true? Hume suggests that we should present a reason that supports this belief. We can stand back and try to reexamine what is fundamentally wrong with our argument, which would probably lead us to another problem that is inherent with the process of induction itself. This I think is what basically Hume disagrees with – that if in several occasions we have witnessed and “proved’ something to be true, we are not justified in supposing further that this will always and everywhere be true.
Dealing with the difficulties of proving knowledge is one of the forefronts in the discipline of Philosophy. Any assumption of knowledge that we have always thought to be true must be reexamined; we must try to at least ascertain it, if at all it can be considered a knowledge in the first place. This will further lead us to the problem of establishing what constitutes a knowledge, and how this is verified. But we mortal beings could only proceed to argue the things that we think our intellect compels us to believe.
There are no ultimate proofs to any philosophical claims, as the discipline itself primarily espouses doubt to any beliefs. And thus while we would probably like to believe and trumpet the plausibility of Hume’s arguments, let us heed our conscience to be sober and be reminded of the dangers of any semblance of philosophical bigotry; while we may risk being ridiculed by others on the basis of cowardice to espouse a belief, let us take refuge in the realization that we have been brave enough to challenge the authority of logic and intellect. Now who between us and them would Hume side with?