Hume’s Skeptical Solution Notes for October 11

Main points

Skeptical solution to what? The problem of induction, of course.

To put it more verbosely, this is Hume’s explanation of how we draw causal inferences. He argued in section IV that we don’t draw these inferences using reason. Nonetheless, we obviously do draw these inferences and it’s a good thing too: as Kimbia pointed out last time, we absolutely have to do so. In sections V and VII he tries to explain how we do it. He claims that it’s a matter of habit or custom rather than reason.

It’s a skeptical solution because it’s compatible with saying that we don’t have any reason for drawing these inferences. The skepticism is skepticism about our reasons for drawing causal inferences.

I tied this to the image of God idea. Hume, I said, is trying to show not only that we are not fundamentally reasoning creatures but that we could not be. Causal inferences are so essential to us that we cannot even sensibly try to understand the world in the way that God is said to do, namely, using reason rather than experience.

In addition, I compared Hume’s views with those of the occasionalists. And I argued that his definitions of causes do not really distinguish between cause and correlation. The handout has the material for these points.

Necessary and sufficient conditions

Sam, in effect, proposed that causes are necessary conditions for their effects. I pushed us to say that they are sufficient conditions. That, I said, is what the alleged necessary connection between cause and effect consists in. Since the cause makes the effect happen, it is a sufficient condition of the effect: whenever you have the cause you have the effect.

In order to press on, I pushed Sam’s proposal to the side. Undeservedly so! Hume himself says something like that:

“… we may define a cause to be an object, followed by another, and where all the objects, similar to the first, are followed by objects similar to the second. Or, in other words, where, if the first object had not been, the second never had existed.”** Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, §VII, ¶4, p. 51.

The last sentence treats the cause as a necessary condition of the effect. It says that if the cause had not existed, neither would the effect.

I doubt that this is our ordinary understanding of causes and effects. Suppose I (truly) say “I put the eraser on the cat”. Then I am the cause of the eraser’s being on the cat. But the eraser could have been on the cat even if I had not done so. You might have put it there, for instance.†† However, there may be a more specific description of the effect, such that only I could have been the cause. These are deep waters into which I shall not tread.

I am certain that, despite what Hume wrote, this is not just his definition in other words.

First, A could be the necessary condition of B even if there were only one A and one B. If I had to be at just the right place at the right time to have seen the rainbow, something that happened once (being at the right place at the right time) was a necessary condition of something else that happened just once (my seeing the rainbow). But Hume’s definition requires multiple instances of As and Bs.

Second, A can be a necessary condition of B even if A is not the cause of B. “If oxygen had not been, I would never have existed” is true. But oxygen did not cause my existence. That was Mom and Dad.

Monkey wrenches

It turns out that I wasn’t mangling the language. The phrase “to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery” has an accepted meaning: to cause trouble or confusion, to interfere disruptively.

That’s from no less of an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest use they report is from the Chicago Tribune in 1907: “It should look to them as if he were throwing a monkeywrench into the only market by visiting that Cincinnati circus upon the devoted heads of Kentucky's best customers.”

I don’t have the foggiest idea what that sentence is talking about. So I prefer this, from the American Economic Review in 1918: “Mr. A. Paladini, one of the larger wholesale dealers … threw a monkey wrench into the machinery of proposed fish distribution.”‡‡ In fact, it has been used at least three times in the American Economic Review.

A monkey wrench into the distribution of fish. Now that’s a menagerie!

This page was written by Michael Green for The Image of God, ID-1, Fall 2007. It was posted October 11, 2007.
The Image of God