Hume on Induction

When I was taking my historical philosophy classes, I did them out of chronological order.  I took modern philosophy an entire year before I had taken ancient philosophy.  So when I read Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, I had very knowledge of the preceding philosophical tradition.  When I first read Hume, I was thoroughly convinced that his arguments were foolproof, especially his argument concerning induction.   However, upon re-examining his arguments in preparation for my comprehensive exams, I’m not as sure that his arguments are as good as they once seemed.  Whereas I questioned very few of his premises in his argument against induction a couple of years back, this time I am not as comfortable with it. 

Preceding Hume’s argument is a discussion of cause and effect.  The relation between any cause and some effect cannot be learned through some rational process, but must be learned through experience.  With this said, Hume asserts that the conclusions of experience cannot be grounded in anything else.  Many philosophers at this point in time were foundationalists, following in the footsteps of Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes.  They wished to make philosophy into a science like geometry, where certain conclusions are deduced from self-evident first principles.  So Hume is arguing that experience cannot be rationally grounded by anything self evident.  Since he is an empiricist, all knowledge comes through the senses, and so he is claiming that none of our knowledge can be grounded in something more basic. 

With his assertion, he merely challenges his interlocutors to come up with a way to ground experience; however, he goes one step further and presents the argument that the conclusions of experience cannot be grounded in something rationally prior.  Due to our experience, we think that the world has a certain uniformity to it.  But how do we discover this uniformity?  Through induction:  for example, we see that one billiard ball will move another when the two collide.  After seeing this process several times, we make inductions about future events, and we begin to expect that one billiard ball will cause the other one to move when they collide.  However, if all of our knowledge of cause and effect comes through induction, and it is through induction that we form experience, and it is through experience that we arrive at the uniformity of the world, the justification of conclusions from experience is circular.  Induction is used to justify the uniformity principle, and the uniformity principle is used to justify induction.  Hume then asserts that only a fool would cease to trust his experience.  If he did, he would be unable to live in the world.  However, the utility of trusting our experience does not rationally justify using experience to justify philosophical conclusions. 

I’m going to think aloud for a while here.  First, why does experience need to be rationally justified?  Hume is probably responding to Descartes here, who thought that experience could not be trusted.  However, to my knowledge no philosopher prior to him thought that our experience itself was so unreliable that its reliability had to be justified in such an extreme way.

But what’s wrong with making this move?  Why do I have to agree with Descartes and assume that the reliability of experience needs to be justified?  Why do I have to play Hume’s game in the first place?  Hume is right that somewhere along the line there are going to be brute facts, facts that are fundamental to any philosophical justification.   The fact remains that even if we never made inductions about future events or asserted some uniformity principle, each of us could cite countless instances of similarity between events we have witnessed, and those similarities demand an explanation.  Am I supposed to believe that the similarities are just a cosmic coincidence and that these similarities are just chance occurrences? 

I’ll heed Hume’s advice:  yes, there is a possibility that I am wrong.  Yes, he is right that not everything can be rationally demonstrated (Aristotle seemed to take this for granted).  But if his only advice is that I could be wrong on this particular point and that I should proceed with meticulous caution when doing philosophy, always questioning my conclusions, I can confidently say that I didn’t need Hume’s argument to tell me that. 

It’s hard to take Hume seriously when he says that we shouldn’t give up looking for a justification for conclusions of sense experience (and by extension, all other philosophical problems) just because an answer isn’t readily available or simply demonstrated, especially after he later states that books on metaphysics should be consigned to the flames.  Such philosophical curiosity has not been witnessed since the cave dwellers in Plato’s cave. 

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2 Comments on “Hume on Induction”

  1. Joel Gamache Says:

    Paul,
    I read an interesting book by Will Durant called “The Story of Philosophy” which spoke briefly about Hume. I was surprised to read that you liked him so much to begin with, but was happy to find you revisiting his thought with a new perspective. I remember that I was not complete adverse to his thinking but was put off by quite a bit of it. One of the main reasons for my distaste is that I found he began to pave the way for a lot of erroneous thinking. The most interesting thing abou the book I found was that Durant went straight from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance, completely ignoring most Christian thinkers and their contributions to the discipline of philosophy. Many of the philosophers he chose to uplift were strongly anti-Church, anti-Religious or militantly atheistic. I keep meaning to write a post on the book because I find so much modern theology and thinking regarding the Church of God wrapped up with the ideas that originated with these folks. I personally find it disgusting and detrimental to the life of the Church and I have prayed that you and your fellow seminarians are not overly influenced by the likes of Spinoza, Voltaire, Schopenhauer and their conteporaries. I pray for you to receive the Lord as the Apostles and Church Fathers delivered Him and so deliver Him to your charges free of atheistic and anti-Catholic influence.


  2. Joel,

    I initially liked Hume for two reasons, the first which I stated above: Hume was the first real philosopher that I had read (outside of the Nichomachean Ethics and the Republic of Aristotle and Plato respectively). However, even if I now disagree with Hume on almost all important points, I still find a certain appeal to him on other points: as a matter of fact, even though I can acknowledge how much damage his thought has done to the intellectual culture of our times, nevertheless I can also say that reading him had ironic spiritual benefits to me.

    I had huge doubts about my faith shortly before entering the seminary. I had had a huge conversion experience a year earlier which convinced me I needed to enter the seminary, a conversion from near-atheism. But those doubts began to come back, and so I came into the seminary trying to find intellectual answers to spiritual problems, which did awful things to my psyche. Despite the best efforts of my spiritual director and college formator, I for one reason or another did not grasp what was wrong with what I was doing.

    Two things changed me: first, Perry Robinson from Energetic Procession, who was my Ethics teacher at the time, scolded me and told me that I needed to “mellow out.” I took his advice seriously (it meant much more coming from a fellow philosopher), and a tried to follow his advice and be satisfied with not knowing everything or expecting myself to know the answer to every argument.

    But secondly and more ironically, Hume helped me to do the same thing. Even if I knew that Hume was wrong because his views cannot be reconciled with the Church, the very fact that it is logically possible that a skeptic like Hume *could* be right, i.e. it is a logical possibility, taught me how truly limited our intellects are. When I realized this, I suddenly became comfortable with a degree of intellectual uncertainty. If uncertainty in philosophy is par for the course to some extent, then I have to play with the hand I’m dealt, and I can’t go around wishing I had a better one. Hence, I learned to mellow out, and as a consequence the spiritual problem went away.

    So to that extent, I still like Hume. He is a philosopher that admires the limits of human reason. However, as I said at the end of my post, I also dislike him because he is a cave dweller. He used philosophy as a means to give up pursuing philosophical truth. To that extent, I find him repulsive.


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