Tuesday, 3 November 2015

A Comment on Human Understanding

'Hume, you are fat bastard'

We live in a world of cause and effect. Something occurs and an event or effect follows on from that initial cause. Without the initiating event, there can be no subsequent follow-on event. This is how the real world works, doesn't it? Some folk state that an infinite regress of 'causes' is not possible and therefore, we must have an initiating, first cause. Therefore, there must be an ultimate 'first cause' and some wise folk reckon that this first cause must be the hand of god; ergo god exists. Now this is an excellent example of specious reasoning and easily demolished with a little stern thought- another post, perhaps?

However, we should be wary in thinking that every example of cause and effect, although correlated, represents a causal chain of action. This is a trap to ensnare the intellectually lazy; observer beware! There is a nice Latin tag for this sort of thing: 'post hoc ergo propter hoc'. This fallacy renders into English as: "After this, therefore because of this."  Here is such  an example: Consider two clocks sitting on a shelf. They are both set to chime on the hour however, the first clock has been set to chime one second before its companion time piece. A naive observer may reason that the chime of the first clock initiates the chime of the second. Even after a thousand observations the correlation of the two events would remain perfect. Only a madman, or an African Bushman, would be swayed and convinced by causality in this instance. Other examples are not so obvious. Spurious deduction from 'causative correlation' is beloved by the politician and the bane of the scientist.

The British Empiricist Philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776) understood this problem very well and couched it in lucid and beautifully canted prose. Hume was a student of induction and thus considered that most of our knowledge is based on our sensory experience. In this way, he deviated from the ancient Greek philosophers who placed a greater emphasis on pure thought. Both methodologies have their place and all knowledge comes from both these fundamental sources; nothing else exists.     

Hume did not take causation for granted and challenged our common sense intuitive approach to the subject. He raised the problem of 'correlation' and considered cause and effect an artificial juxtaposition imposed by the mind. I think he was right to expose causation to intellectual rigour. He stated, that when we experience 'causation' we can only say that one event follows another event in time. We can't state for certain that the events are causally connected, or can we? The argument that constant conjunction between events infers causation, in the general sense, is flawed. As we have seen with the problem of 'The Chiming Clocks', correlation  does not necessarily imply causation. Furthermore, Hume considers that the inference of causal events is not based on reason but adherence to custom. It is simply the mind making the connection of causality, whether causality actually occurs on any particular occasion is a different question. Are there instances where we can be certain that event 'A' causes event 'B'. Of course there are, otherwise we would be living in a madman's dream. Are we able to refute Hume whilst taking into account some of his salient points?

I think Hume is correct to think that our minds are conditioned to recognise patterns of correlation from which we then, extrapolate; how could it be any other way? As one event follows another we make the connection that the first event invokes the second event. And with repetition we become more convinced in our deduction. When we strike our thumb with a hammer is it correct to deduce that the subsequent pain and swelling is due to the descent of the hammer? We don't have to repeat the performance in this instance; ultimate wisdom follows from a single blow and cause and effect is fixed in the mind after a single, very painful, observation of conjoined events. If Hume is wrong in this simple example then he must be wrong in others also. It is not difficult to conceive other such instances of such clear causality. Hume may concede the point but rejoinder that the general 'idea' of causation is fixed in the mind, in the first place, by the conjoining of contiguous events.  

It is a matter of conjecture whether Hume believed of what he wrote and if he did, to what extent. Philosophers are scamps and do not always write as they think. Nevertheless, their writings provide a spur for deeper thought and thus make us intellectually richer. Not me, though, I'm still pondering the problem of the hammer. Wisdom, for some, can only be gained once they run out of fingers. Now to dream......

'God, you don't exist'


  1. This garbage is still predicated on the bourgeois presupposition that time is a linear and unidirectional construct. You, Saxon, are the result of a Western education, steeped as it is in the Scientific Method. You also display the typical empiricist's aversion to Hume's metaphysical explanations and cognition. You both, however, suppose a cause, and its attendant effect, are separated by a measurable time-ish interval, and that the subsequent effect necessarily belongs to the future of its cause. You both accept the notion of Causal Determinism on the one hand and at the same time Chaos Theory on the other – what the fuck’s up with that?
    I believe all to be inherently acausal. Only probabilities rather than specific effects can be 'determined' from any given supposed causal event. For your hammer and thumb example, those conjoined events are only relevant if the thumb in question is attached to the same body as is the hand holding the hammer - that is; a single 'inertial observer'. If this is not the case, from the point of view of the 'inertial observer' holding the hammer, the descent of the hammer is followed not by pain, but by entertainment. And the second time 'round, the alleged imminent 'pain', or at least the anticipation of the alleged imminent 'pain', is a violation of the construct of Unidirectional Linear Time and Causality. The signal has traversed a space-ish interval and the inertial observer with the thumb experiences the effect BEFORE the cause - the signal has traveled back in time. The idiom: “Once burned, twice shy” violates Special Relativity.

    1. You raise some interesting points. I don’t flatter myself to be able to answer them all. The following should be seen in the spirit of commentary and discussion.

      As for time being a linear construct: Surely time is simply an artefact of causality? I am steeped in the ‘scientific method’- guilty as charged. The scientific method works and produces longer lasting light bulbs and nuclear weapons more often than any mystical, esoteric, Eastern, fanny batter. When has the Dali Lama made a more efficient cluster bomb- I rest my case? As for Humes’ metaphysical pretensions: I will forgive him, as he said it so well. As you would expect, I’m not a great fan of ‘metaphysics’ per se. It smacks of sophistry (nothing wrong with that). The ancient Greeks were great exponents and built great metaphysical edifices. I get the impression that they did this because they could and were bored. I find it hard to believe that very clever men actually believed the complex constructs they so lovingly crafted. We should read Plato to be amazed; no other reason. Nothing he says is ‘true’, in any sense of the word.

      Are the concepts of ‘causal determinism and ‘chaos theory’ mutually exclusive? As you know our conception of any reality is determined by the way our brains perceive and processe external stimuli- is it a mirror of reality (through a mirror darkly- maybe not the best analogy, but I’m sure you get my drift) or is it our imposed perceptual reality? Secondly, can we have an inherently chaotic system at some level and still have determinism? I think so- It would depend on the level of the chaos, the unpredictability of events and their multitude. Stochastic events may in fact cancel each other out and thus produce directionality and determinism at the level of our ‘reality’. Although, fundamentally nature is chaotic I can’t believe this is the case at the macro level cf quantum mechanics. Please note, I don’t want to get embroiled in the problem of ‘free will’, not today, anyway.

      How can we have an acausal universe? Surely, causality must occur otherwise chaos and incomprehensibility reigns akimbo, unless you are suggesting that our minds impose ‘reguality’ to events because we have to make sense of an insane universe to survive. I get your point, but I think, even if you are correct, it is beyond our limited intellectual powers to work this out; a world of determinism and causality is enough to deal with without losing my tenuous grasp on sanity. I agree that we can only talk about probabilities when considering events known by induction. Stating that principle is easy, stating those probabilities in a mathematical sense is very hard. You are simply correct when you state that sequence of events can change depending on the observer. Although for most of the time, what I observe will be the same as you- unless one of us is travelling close to the speed of light.

    2. The Scientific Method, when studiously applied, will indeed produce nuclear weapons. But is it not the dictates of mystic and esoteric fanny batter that empowers people to use them? The metaphysical pen is mighty because it can marshal many a physical sword to do its bidding.
      It is acausal with the proviso that for the majority of events the probability that a given effect is in a causal relationship with a given event is as close to "1", but not "1", as one can get.
      And what you observe is not the same as me. You are a privileged First World white male and I am a little, brown Third World female.
      And I worked hard on my 'hammer and thumb' analogy to prove the idiom, "Once burned. Twice shy" violates the construct of unidirectional linear Time and Causality in Special Relativity. You could have at least acknowledged my attempt at cleverness. You're a cunt Saxon, and no mistake.

    3. I do acknowledge your cleverness and I am a cunt.