Thursday, August 23, 2012

Coffee with David Hume

My fortnightly ABC column is up (today, which is odd): 'Coffee with David Hume'.

I'm reflecting on some religious ideas and apparitions in light of Hume's empiricism. A sample:
Hume was by no means a radical sceptic - that is, someone who believes knowledge is impossible. In fact, he rightly lambasted this theory, arguing that even confessed sceptics did not really believe it. Hume's scepticism was more modest. He kept returning to experience, reminding readers to check whether or not their ideas were derived from it. And if not, to discover where the ideas did come from: the world, or their own minds? And if minds, by reason or caprice? 
This is particularly helpful for philosophical and theological ideas, often considered more rational, and hence more truthful, than apparitions of the Saviour in hot beverages. For example, Hume devoted a marvellous, albeit complicated, section in the Treatise to the idea of necessity. He argued that we never actually experience this in the world - there are no impressions of necessity. Instead, we have impressions of our own regular ideas of causation, derived from contiguity, precedence and resemblance. In this light, necessity is less an observation of the world, and more a feeling about the mind's workings, which is then 'seen' in the world. It is, in other words, imaginary. Hume wrote:
Upon the whole, necessity is something that exists in the mind, not in objects; nor is it possible for us ever to form the most distant idea of it, considered as a quality in objects. Either we have no idea of necessity, or necessity is nothing but that determination of the thought to pass from causes to effects, and effects to causes, according to their experienced union.
If ideas of physical necessity, despite their ordinariness, require doubt, what of an all-powerful, all-knowing, just, loving but invisible creator, who is a "necessary being"?
(Photo: coffeegeek)

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