The Book of Reasonable Doubt

December 28, 2009 § 1 Comment

Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Hume, David)

Much like Galileo Galilei‘s Two Chief Systems, reviewed earlier in these pages, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, too, got its author into trouble – David Hume was charged with heresy for the trouble of writing it. But it was now over a hundred years since Galileo’s travails ended, or since Rene Descartes watered down his own scepticism with a nervous eye set on the Vatican, and the world was a different place and a safer one for heretics. Hume was acquitted (apparently on the grounds that as an atheist, he was not bound by the Church’s heresy laws!) and while the book was never a best-seller in his day, it is now recognized as a canonical contribution to western philosophical thought.

It is almost shocking to note how refreshingly modern Hume’s thinking is – and how revolutionary it must have sounded in the eighteenth century. The science of Descartes, Newton and Leibniz had sought to predict the future by means of a mesh of cause-effect relationships, and inspired by the heady laws of gravity and motion, philosophers rushed precipitately to apply the same seemingly infallible science to solve human problems as well. In one blow, Hume demolishes this superstructure by demonstrating that cause-effect relationships pertaining to the real world exist only in the mind, and are created there, not by any feat of human reasoning and calculation, but by staid old custom and experience. Borges said it better, two centuries later, but it was Hume who inspired these lines:

“Las pruebas de la muerte son estadisticas
y nadie hay que no corra el albur
de ser el primer immortal”
(The proofs of death are statistics / And everyone runs the risk / Of being the first immortal)

It is only experience that makes us expect patterns from the past to repeat themselves in the future – and we are usually right, mind you, but in a broad, probabilistic, sense. But there is no theorem, no overriding all-encompassing law of nature or logic, that makes it so: and this is Hume’s biggest message. Distrust simplistic philosophies that reduce reality into abstract reasoning, he says – be they pseudo-scientific, metaphysical or theological in origin, commit them all to the flames at once, because the truth is not in them.

Despite all the distrust, Hume doesn’t get carried away with the scepticism, either. In what I felt was the most inspired and most self-aware part of the book, Hume shows that he is very conscious of the biggest problem with excessive scepticism, that it is at best a negative, destructive mode of thinking out of which no lasting good can ever result:

A Copernican or a Ptolemaic, who supports each his different system of astronomy, may hope to produce a conviction, which will remain constant and durable with his audience. A Stoic or Epicurean displays principles, which may not only be durable but which have an effect on conduct and behaviour. But a Pyrrhonian cannot expect that his philosophy will have any constant influence on the mind; or that if it had, that its influence would be beneficial to society. On the contrary, he must acknowledge…that all human life must perish, were his principles universally and steadily to prevail. All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in a total lethargy…Nature is always too strong for principle. And though a Pyrrhonian may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasoning, the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples…”

All he asks for, therefore, is that “a degree of doubt, caution and modesty…ought forever accompany” a man’s reasoning – good sane advice, I think, as applicable today as it was in Hume’s time.

“Human Understanding” is an amazing book, and I strongly recommend it. However, its companion piece, Enquiries concerning the Principles of Morals, is not, I fear, of the same high standard. Perhaps I expected too much after the first book – but I did find his theory of justice too smugly reliant on calculations of public utility and self-love – arguments that seemed as specious as the ones he destroyed in the earlier book. “Truths which are pernicious to society,” he says at one point, “will yield to errors that are salutary and advantageous.”

If, in a hypothetical society, the majority were to profit from the suppression of rights of a minority, it would be an advantageous error, in terms of public utility, but the truth is that it would be a crime, and the cause of justice would not be well served. Hume’s only defense is to point weakly to the sentiment of ‘humanism’, an instinct he believes resides in all men, which serves as the conscience of the majority and prevents inhumane exploitation. It isn’t as satisfactory as an exact science, I suppose – but then, that is Hume’s world – probabilistic, inexact, very touchy-feely, very human.

Be a philosopher, as Hume says: but amidst all your philosophy, be a man.


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