Saturday, October 25, 2008

David Hume - 50 Greatest Books

This article is also in the Books section of the Globe and Mail today. The title simply says David Hume. I've never heard of this name so I ignored it. Now I discover that it IS this weeks 50 Greatest Books article.

David Hume: A man for all reasons

How do we know what we know? What do we know?

To that most lucid of Scottish empiricists, David Hume (1711-1776), the answer to the first question was a straightforward, if deceptively simple, "by experience."

Everything we know about knowing, Hume would argue, is acquired through experience.

Hume was a deadly, if jovial, enemy of creationists. For this reason alone, we should read him today.

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), a distillation of his Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume questioned whether we could know anything a priori, or innately.

A watch may imply the existence of a watchmaker (to use Bishop Paley's famous example), though all such notions, even where they appear self-evident, are based on habit or an association of ideas.

Hume is sometimes called an associationalist, though the word he preferred for his skeptical philosophy was Pyrrhonism — after Pyrrho of Ellis (c. 360-272 BC).

Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, tells us that Pyrrho, known as "the father of skepticism," so far distrusted the evidence of his senses that he once failed to recognize his tutor, Anaxarchus, floundering in a bog.

Can our senses be trusted to give an accurate picture of the world?

A round tower, seen from a distance, turns out to be square.

What is real?

We see visions all the time, in dreams, under the influence of opiates or when fevered.

Causality itself may be no more than "a habit of mind."

"Things as they are/ Are changed on the blue guitar," Wallace Stevens wrote in The Man with the Blue Guitar, his poetic meditation on Picasso's painting.

What do we know?

To his eternal credit, Hume reminded us that: "The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer: as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral or metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it."

The second half of this balanced, 18th-century sentence contains a deft Humean jibe against religion.

It is a stiletto-thrust to the vitals of ignoramuses like George W. Bush (Jesus Christ is his favourite "philosopher") and the monstrous dunces on the Kansas Board of Education who hold that a universe incomprehensible to them must be designed by a god.

Hume said that metaphysics tells us everything about invisible worlds, hence enlarging our ignorance. Physics tells us something, but not much, about known worlds.

"That the sun will not rise tomorrow," Hume wrote in Enquiry, "is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more a contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise." (Hume's italics.)

Reading this, I think of Karl Popper's idea of falsifiability, in which Popper argued that the utility of scientific hypotheses (as opposed to pseudo-scientific hypotheses) is not so much that they can be proved by evidence or experiment, rather that they can be refuted by evidence or experiment.

They may not always conform to experience or even common sense, as in the case of the "Schrödinger's cat" thought-experiment.

Hume, who wrote much about probability, would have enjoyed the paradox: The box containing the cat also contains a phial of potassium cyanide, which may or may not be broken by the spontaneous decay of uranium. Until we open the box, the cat is alive and dead. Simultaneously.

Given Hume's radical skepticism, it is surprising how much evolution, genetics and postclassical physics owe him.

Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Watson and Crick — all used methods of inquiry developed by this Scottish contrarian.

Consider the sentence quoted earlier, beginning, "The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind …"

Anyone who doubts that physics claims a more perfect understanding of the universe than metaphysics should read Bruno Maddox's Blinded by Science column in the May, 2008, issue of Discover magazine, in which Maddox takes on how physicists "explain" magnetism.

They don't.

"When you get right down to it," he avers, "these virtual particles [that somehow explain magnetic repulsion and/or attraction] are composed entirely of math and exist solely to fill otherwise embarrassing gaps in physics."

Hume would have smiled at that, I think, with a smile that resembles the Cheshire cat's as much as Schrödinger's — which, of course, is also a frown. Simultaneously.

Novelist Chris Scott philosophizes from St. Joseph Island, Ontario

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