David Hume, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

David Hume, A Perspective

Who was he? He was born in 1711 and died in 1776. The year he passed on was the year we had our Declaration of Independence sighed by Thomas Jefferson and a few others. He was a great philosophical and intellectual modern day skeptics. He was also an empiricist. He rejected all knowledge except what we get from our senses. On the one hand he attacked rationalism and on the other hand he was, I believe, skeptic about what we can gain from our experiences. Quine also agreed with Hume that there’s not much we can gather from the senses either. Hume learned from Locke that all human knowledge is grounded upon relations among ideas, or ‘sense impressions’. If we don’t gain anything by experience, it is mere invention and must be done away with. Hume rejects the experience of God, the self, the objective existence of logical necessity, causation. He also denies the validity of inductive knowledge. It seems he kills two birds with one rock: Rationalism and empiricism.

His goal is twofold: on the one hand he acts like Shiva, the destroyer, namely, science shouldn’t be based on invention. It should rather be on experience. It must also be constructive, to establish a science of human nature, on the other hand.

 Just as Isaac Newton, who had described the physical world based on simple mechanical laws, Hume was thinking to do something like that for human nature.

Here I’m reminded of what Kant did in his philosophical project, that is, he tried to turn philosophy into a scientific enterprise. It is very much possible that Kant, who came later in time, followed Hume’s footsteps in this matter.

Hume’s ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ is a very careful study in experiential psychology to seek general principles.

He was skeptical of the inductive logic. Well, this logic is the logic of science. We check the majority of the squirrels in our area and find out they’re all gray and have long bushy tails. A friend of us found two baby ones a year ago and kept them away from harm’s way at home. Our conclusion is that they also must have bushy tails. We went from general to particular and finally conclusion. Not bad for our scientific inquiry! However, if I find a white or black squirrel in our neighborhood, our whole scientific search collapses. Here we made a generalization, which didn’t meet the facts. All swans are white, because we have been observing a lot of them in the United States of America. Nevertheless, we heard in the news, some black swans are found in Australia and Japan. As you can see, we can’t make a generalization that all swans are white. All crows are black, we may say. Some years ago my wife and I visited Sri Lanka, her homeland, which is a tropical Island in the south east of India. We visited a zoo where I found a white crow in a cage. I was very curious to find out why I was experiencing such a phenomenon, namely, a white crow. To my surprise it was written on a piece of board, ‘Albino crow’. What do you think about this?

Why would modern philosophers have problem with Hume here? Now you know why Hume was suspicious about the findings of science of his day. We make these kinds of generalizations in our social life every day concerning people who’re not like us or they don’t have the same color of skin like us.

When it comes to self, Hume has interesting ideas. He thinks we don’t experience our own self. What we experience is the continuous chain of observations. These are snap shots of who we’re. This psychological discovery directs him to the dubious metaphysical conclusion. What is that? It is that the self is an illusion. What about personal identity? It is, he said, nothing except the continuous series of perceptual experience. He said “I am nothing but a bundle of perceptions”. What does this mean? I wonder what the British professors felt when they realized Buddha had similar teachings thousands years ago, that is, there’s no self.

 You see, when we examine causality, for instance, we realize that it is never experienced in sense impressions. In other words, we see fire burning many trees in a forest. Consequently those trees fall and they’re broken in pieces and finally turned into charcoal. Hume argues that all what we experience is that one event is followed by another. However, we suppose, just because one event comes earlier in time, namely, ‘cause’, it must be followed by the event called ‘effect’. In reality this is nothing but our expectation projected onto reality. In other words, we’re reading into the reality. It is the mind that plays this game of causality. This is but an attack on rationalism pure and simple. There’s no causal necessity between cause and effect, Hume said. He maintained that we can never have a direct and an immediate (with no medium) perception of causality.

This was not original with Hume. Al-Ghazzali or Ghazzali (1058-1111), a Persian Muslim theologian and philosopher had also argued that just because the fire reaches a piece of cotton it doesn’t mean the former should be regarded as ‘cause’ and the latter as ‘effect’. There was a disconnect between cause and effect in reality. Unless God wills it, no such a thing could ever happen, that is, the fire would never burn the cotton. Not even a leaf falls from a tree, unless God want it to be so. Ghazali believed in this Jacob ladder of  Causality.  As we can see, there’s here a vertical Causality, which plays a great role in this so called horizontal cause and effect.

Is it possible Hume had access to Islamic philosophical sources? After all if he studied the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas, so he must have come across the name Al-Ghazzali, whether he admitted or not. Thomas very clearly talked about this great mind in the Middle East. But Hume was not ready to accept the fact that the presence of God matters in causality. What if there’s no God? Who are we, a bundle of perceptions? Our mind is snap shooting all the time. We’re snap shots of ourselves. My mind is a photographer snap shooting of myself and others. I’m dealing with what people think about me at all time. Who am I without them? To my physical therapist I’m one person and to others I’m a different one. I am constantly changing. Who am I? What about my perceptions of myself? I’m filling the gaps when there’s disconnect between cause and effect. I hear a gunshot and the cowboy falls off his horse while I’m watching a movie. My mind connects the two events. Hume believed it is the mind that paints the reality. We’re filling the gaps all the times. We’re falling into assumptions all the time.

I perceive my body, feelings, even my own perceptions, temperaments and consciousness. If I become enlightened like Buddha, then it is no longer my mind that perceives. I’m out of this state of being a human. What is is and what is not is becoming, and what is becoming is not. Cause and effect in sense perceptions is not connected. It is the mind that is filling the gaps.

For Buddha the self consist of five aggregates: body, feeling, perception, disposition, and consciousness. All of them are constantly changing. Being is and it is not becoming. Thus, becoming is nothing. According to Buddha, there’s no self. Hume via of Ghazali, sees the reality as disconnected in causality. Both Hume and Buddha seem to have reached a point where the self has no substantiality. The Hindus believed Atman or the ray of the sun by way of analogy, which is related to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, is never changing in us. The fact of the matter, however, is that Atman is beyond even change and no change. In Atman duality is completely non-existent. If this were the case, then we would have no measure whereby we can tell the self is constantly changing. How can we justify that the self is changing? There’s no logical way, as you can see. In reality this self of mine as well as everything else are, at the end of the day, nothing. They’re illusions. If I’m nothing but a bundle of perceptions, then I’m nothing but an illusion and Parmenides was right in when he argued that change is an illusion.Ultimately there’s only awareness or consciousness that is real.

Consciousness of the reality around us is also changing and even this is finally an illusion. For Al-Gazzali God is, at the end the day, the only Reality there’s, which in our language doesn’t even exist, namely, it is not standing out there becoming.

Is that why Hume didn’t believe in God? It beats me! Sometimes we think Hume was skeptical about the belief in empiricism. I personally think he was also skeptical regarding sense perception. He knew very well we get fooled by the findings of what comes into our experiencing the world. So we’re left with no true knowledge. I believe Hume’s skepticism was twofold: one was about rationalism and the other was of empiricism. How was his philosophy received in the colonies like India with the presence of Buddhism and Islam? I personally think Hume’s thoughts were not accepted by the great philosophical minds of these two Religions.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)