Belief and custom

What is a custom?

Megan asks, “What’s up with this custom thing?” Custom implies long-standing practice, but certainly we can’t learn how to draw causal influences from others’ experiences. How does custom originate? How do we make the first causal influence?

Good questions all! Here’s my reply.

One set of questions are pretty easy to deal with. “Custom” is used interchangeably with “habit.” So I don’t think it’s supposed to be an interpersonal thing.

OK, so when did we develop these habits them? That’s trickier. I think his story is strange.

The view is that we acquire these ideas from experience, so it had to happen at some point. But he seems quite uninterested in the developmental process that had to have happened in order to get his theory off of the ground.

A possible developmental story

I would think that we would have to begin by separating out certain aspects of our environment and finding constant conjunctions among them. It’s no good to ask “what has been constantly conjoined with what in your experience from the last week,” after all, since the answer is impossibly long. It’s like being asked to list all the things you see.

This would be a good point to include some basic drives like hunger and the desire to avoid pain. Constant conjunctions involving food and pain are probably where we start. That is, we look for things that are constantly conjoined with food (when desired, of course) and things that are constantly conjoined with pain.

Then there would be a process of winnowing out the genuine from the spurious generalizations. Cats don’t always cause pain when you pet them, flames do. Big things don’t always produce food, the ones that put me in my bib and high chair do. And then these would be refined too. The bib/high chair-food correlation would become more refined, and so on.

But Hume goes straight to calling these generalizations habits without really going through that sort of obvious seeming developmental story to explain them. I don’t know why.