Friday, 23 December 2011

Hume on Scepticism

First of all apologies for not posting for a while, my main concern has been with finishing off my Hume studies (although informally I will continue to read him as he is definitely one of the greatest philosophers of all time).
After a delay caused by gale force winds. I sat the exam which consisted of three questions of which we had to answer one in 3/4 hour. There was a question on induction and it's importance in the rest of the Enquiry. I think I answered the first part quite well, but did not spend much time on the second one. In answering the first part I essentially rehashed the post below. I wonder if you can be charged with plagiarism if you quote yourself ? I then spent last weekend writing an essay on Hume's scepticism, the question was is there a good Humean case for Scepticism ? The relevant section of the Enquiry is section 12.

Hume distinguishes three types of scepticism, the first due primarily to Descartes is called antecedent scepticism. In the first part of the meditations Descartes attempts to purge his mind of anything that is possible to doubt so that he can found a sure foundation from which he then move forward. As is well known
Descartes thought he could find an indubitable principle in the proposition 'I think therefore I am' (the cogito) but this does nothing really to help Descartes. His notorious dilemma that we may be deceived by an evil demon isn't really addressed, but left hanging. Invoking a benevolent God as Descartes does just begs the question. On the other hand even if we have such an indubitable principle such as the cogito, and development of this principle to some of Descarte's notorious conclusions such as the existence of God or the separation of mind and body can only be achieved by use of the faculties which Descartes has already condemned as faulty.

On the other hand Hume says that some form of scepticism is necessary to any good philosophy that we should always subject our initial premsises to scrutiny and careful check of our reasoning is a vital process. Indeed we may be so convinced of the rightness of our conclusion that we may have overlooked some faulty step in our reasoning. Hence the need to subject our ideas to external criticism.

The second form of scepticism is consequential scepticism, this starts from the premise that our experience of the external world is essentially through images present to the mind. But whereas the image we see varies from which angle or distance we see it, The object itself remains the same. Thus there is a difference between the world as we perceive it and the world as it is initself. The problem is that if all we have our images in the mind how can we be said to have real knowledge of the objects or even worse  how do we have any guarantee that there is a world independent of our experience of it. Hume admits that this problem so contrary to common sense seems insoluble, but Hume makes an important distinction between the philosopher in his study who is interested in the limits of Human reason to find out what the justification of our every day assumptions are and every day life. No one could live their lives as the Pyhrronean sceptics would have us do taking this seriously. The problem has to be acknowledged as a real one which may or may not be resolved one day but should not affect our every day lives.

Hume argues for a mitigated scepticism which acknowledges the limits of Human reasoning both deductive and inductive to provide a justification for many of our commonly held ones. The main argument is essentially the one he gives against our ability to justify  induction and in the essay I essentially reiterated this argument (plagiarising myself again ;).   There is a second less formal argument namely the benefits that would accrue to society if an acknowledgement of the limits of Human reasoning were to be taken on board.

Hume claims there are at least two, the first would be as a check against all forms of Dogmatism, which Hume sadly acknowledges affects a lot of human beings. The claim to have access to absolute truth quite often leads to seeing those who disagree with a particular viewpoint as enemies who should be destroyed.

As is well known this seems to have infected institutional religion which currently seems to brand anyone not religious as immoral and destroying the fabric of our society. Indeed our prime minister despite having a degree in philosophy, politics and economics seems to have jumped on this band wagon. I'll try and write another post in detail why I think this is totally wrong. But one of the main reasons why it is wrong to accuse liberal secularists of tolerating anything is given by Mill in his wonderful book An Essay on Liberty where he introduces a simple principle the so called Harm principle, namely any life style or belief can be tolerated provided it does not cause harm to other people. Thus liberals would not tolerate the behavior of the rioters in London as they definitely caused harm to other people. Thats not to say that liberals would not try to understand some of the underlying causes or condemn some of the punishments currently being meted out for example two years for stealing a bottle of water as unduly harsh. Or even condemn a society which tolerates Bullingdon bullies such as Boris Johnson or David Cameron himself in their undergraduate years smashing windows in a restaurant and then being let off with a caution and a small fine. As a final ad hominem point, the behavior of some of the Catholic Churches priests and even more worrying the attempted cover up in the child abuse scandal would show at the least that there is no strong link between belief in God and personal morality.
(I can see a secular Christmas sermon coming on watch this space !!)

I digress, Hume argues that instead of seeing those who disagree with us as enemies if we acknowledge the limits of Human reason we will have a certain modesty about our claims and see those who differ from us as fellow seekers after truth. Thus by dialogue rather than confrontation we may learn from each other and that way advance the search for truth in an open manner. Of course the realisation that there are limits to Human Knowledge may be troubling to some but we have to learn to live with it. Indeed as Locke says in his own Essay concerning Human understanding

"It will be an unpardonable, as well as childish peevishness (what wonderful language !!) if we undervalue the advantages of our knowledge, and neglect to improve it to the ends for which it was given us, because there are somethings set out of the reach of it. .... The candle, that is set up in us, shines bright enough for all our purposes. The discoveries we can make with this, ought to satisfy us... If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do muchwhat as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly"

I'll talk a bit more about the second benefit that Hume thinks that will accrue by acknowledging the limits of Human reason and it's surprising relevance to current debates in modern physics in another post.
Hope you all have a good Christmas, Winter  Solstice, excuse to pig out, whatever and look out for my Christmas secular sermon

Thanks to all my followers over the past year.

Best wishes Chris

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