30 November 2007

Hume, Take II

Well, we finally made it to Hume in my philosophy class. I posted on it in August, after I'd read it for the first time. My initial impression still stands, but Dr. Levenson has helped clarify a few things for me.

He gave us more specific labels for the three characters than those I came up with.

Philo: the skeptical philosopher, likes to explore a multiplicity of ideas
Cleanthes: the rational theist, wants to justify theism rationally and empirically
Demea: the mystic, doesn't think the divine is knowable in a rational sense

In the Dialogue, Demea gets the short end of the stick. Philo initially seems to agree with him, but then makes an abrupt turn-around. In class, we've only discussed up to just before the turn around. But Philo does argue persuasively that the argument from Design has no merit. Why? Well, the obvious one is the infinite regress. A much larger problem, conveniently skirted by the current cdesign proponentsists, is that it gives no knowledge of the Nature of the Designer. Philo makes spectacular leaps of imagination, from an Infant to a Senile Fool to an Animal to a Seed... none of which are Ultimately satisfying.

My sympathies lay somewhere between Philo and Demea, despite Hume placing them at odds in the end. Demea's claims are a bit too stringent for my tastes. He brings to mind a Terry Pratchett line, something like "things man wasn't meant to wot of." Like we have to draw a line in the sand and say, "No investigation past this point!" I consider that patently ridiculous. Of course you can investigate the nature of deity. I would even argue that you are supposed to do so. I do agree with Demea that you can never be certain of the results of your investigations, but the idea that it cannot be investigated, or, worse, that it shouldn't be, is repulsive.

Earlier in the week, we also discussed some of Hume's other works. He seems to be the premier skeptic in the Philosophy of Science. We had a good discussion about cause and effect on Monday. Hume argues that we don't see events causing one another. What we see are successive, continuous events, that always seem to come together, so we infer that the first causes the second. But we don't see the causation itself. Another way of putting it, science is always contingent. Up to now, data may support that A always causes B, but suddenly A happens and there's no B, and theories have to be revised. That's the process of science.

An example that we used in class: Someone gets punched in the face and reels backwards. As this is the general pattern, we infer that being punched in the face causes one to reel backwards. But consider television programs and movies. There we also observe a punch to the face and reeling backwards...but it's rarely the punch causing the reeling backwards in that case. It's a plot device. We see successive, continuous events in both cases, but in the television case, if it's a fictional program, we don't think that the blow itself causes the reeling backwards.

At any rate, I may have more to say about Hume next week, but I just happened across a rather good take on Hume's empiricism that is worth reading. It seems to be part of a larger book review, but is perfectly readable on its own.

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