The Scottish Sceptical Solution

August 18, 2017

With my move to the Scottish highlands getting closer, I'd like to discuss a famous Scottish philosopher: David Hume. He was one of the first thinkers that I remember coming into contact with during high school, and - don't cringe - really inspired me. When my high school teacher was explaining his ideas on causation, I left the classroom bewildered, wondering (even if for a split-second) whether the sun was really going to rise tomorrow.

 

First, a little introduction is in order. David Hume lived in the 18th century. I like him for a number of reasons. First, to me he is one of the clearest and most straightforward writers. Second, he is Scottish. Third, he influenced and inspired one of my other favourite philosophers (but at lot less easy to read), Immanuel Kant. And fourth, he is Scottish. Now, why did he make me wonder about the sun rising? In order to answer this, we will delve briefly into Hume's theory of causation.

 

Imagine I'm holding a golf club*, and I hit the little white golf ball with all my might. The golf ball moves. There are two things happening here, 1) I swing the golf club, 2) The golf ball moves. You could say, The golf club causes the golf ball to move. But Hume asks - could you really? All we really see is one thing moving, and then another. We don't see the causation. So we don't know causation a posteriori** - then can we know it a priori***? This means to think of causation independently of any experience or observations we have of it. That does not seem to plausibly explain causation either, as even thinking of causation always involves objects or things or observations: can you think of causation without thinking of a particular cause and effect?

 

What does explain causation is habit. When you see a golf club hitting a golf ball twenty times, and if each and every one of those times the golf ball rolls away, you assume - very sensibly - that the golf club causes the golf ball to roll away. And we not only assume this, we also presume that if I hit a golf ball with a golf club tomorrow, the golf ball will certainly roll away. For Hume, the only way we can say this (because we do not see causation a posteriori, or intuit it a priori) is if we assume that the future will be like the past. It is habit or custom that supposes the future will be like the past, that the golf ball will roll tomorrow as well, and not reason!

 

Well the next morning the sun did rise, and it was the first (and luckily last) that Hume was the first thing to pop in my mind when I awoke. Hume of course did not really think that at some point the golf ball was all of a sudden gonna jump instead of roll, or dissolve into the air. He did not think the sun was not going to rise at some point: he just wanted to point out, that where we think there is 100% certainty, this is actually more a probability than a certainty. As Hume calls it, a sceptical solution to sceptical doubts. 

 

* In Hume's example it's about a billiard game, but since St Andrews (the place I'm moving to) is the home of golf, I figured this was more appropriate ;) 

** A posteriori means after the fact, or literally "from the latter" I'm really not trying to be pretentious using Latin, but these are terms that are used a lot in philosophy. 

*** A priori means before the fact, or literally "from the earlier".

 

As Scottish wine is supposedly quite bad, let's have a glass of scotch with Hume instead. Celebrating that habit trumped reason, with the bad habit of drrrinking a wee bit too much. I like it.

 

The one time it doesn't rain in Scotland it's really pretty:

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