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In the late 1700’s, philosopher David Hume was looking to improve the ideas of empiricism created by John Locke and George Berkeley, but he took it to an extreme of radical skepticism. The way in which he attempted to improve Locke’s ideas of empiricism was that he would apply scientific methods of observation to the nature of human beings. Hume felt that we should try to observe humans and how they function in the world, primarily because that made the most sense to him. By doing this, he thought that he would be able to uncover the true causes of human belief. He also believed that the real goal of philosophy was to be able to explain why and how we believe the things we do. Hume wrote about his goal in his book, Treatise of Human Nature.
David Hume’s idea of skepticism was set up to contrast with what we considered ordinary claims of knowledge, which is different from Descartes in that Descartes used doubt and skepticism as a way to find out the foundations and roots of knowledge. Hume stated that you can neither inductively or deductively establish knowledge from the external world. When we talk about induction, we are assuming that nature is constant in that what has happened before is more than likely going to happen again. You can compare it to a trend because you know what is going to happen based on prior experience with it. But in this case, we can’t use induction because we have no proof of it playing a role in this situation. And deduction cannot work either because the things we know about something might be only a fraction of the information that we might actually be able to learn about these physical objects. Since this is the case, the things we consider to be factual or that exist are not allowed to be objects of knowledge.
Human belief, according to David Hume contains several different mental elements. He determined that from actual experience, we have impressions which are very vivid, realistic and to the point. He also determined that ideas take the original impressions and attempt to copy them, usually doing a less than savory job in doing so. For instance, looking at an orange, and knowing that it is in fact, the color orange is an impression, but remembering what your first grade teacher looked like is an example of an idea. Hume argued that every idea comes from an impression, and he said that it makes sense for us to ask what the basis of our ideas are by finding out what the impressions were that they came from. He also argued that every one of our ideas and our impressions has the ability to be separated from all the others and when we manage to connect one of our ideas to another idea, this is simply the consequence of how we think.
Hume also talked about the difference in two belief types in Enquiry IV. There is what he referred to as relations of ideas, which is the result of our beliefs being associated inside our mind. And then there are matters of fact, which see things that are in existence and take those things and give an explanation and description of those things.
Real knowledge is what we assume to be genuine information, and Hume was very much concentrated on explaining where the knowledge came from. Hume felt that in order to be able to learn, we must first realize and accept the fact that the experiences we had in the past have at the very least something to do with what is going on in the present, as well as what it might do to influence the future. But everyone seems to think that our past and present will both resemble what the future will look like. But this isn’t self evident. There is always that change and likelihood that things will change in the future, that nature will all of a sudden change and this makes any inferences we have from the past and for the future appear to be uncertain. So keeping this in mind, Hume makes it clear that everything we consider to be absolutely the truth are all non-rational.
Hume used an example of this in his story of how the sun rises each day, and although our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on observation of previous sunrises, other than us thinking we know that the rotation of the earth causes the sun rise and set, there is no rational basis for us to know that it will rise again the next day; but for some reason we just believe that it will happen anyway.
When Hume talks about belief as it pertains to habit, he says that unjustifiable beliefs with the help of habit or even custom can have an explanation because it has habit or custom. This is how we are able to take from experience and apply it to what we know. But with Hume’s skepticism we aren’t allowed to think outside the content of our experiences or our memories, but for some reason we consistently do just that.
Since Hume says that unjustifiable beliefs with the help of habit or even custom can have an explanation because it has habit or custom, it in turn can be said that our beliefs, considered to us as facts, come from our sentimental feelings as opposed to actual reason. According to Hume, what we imagine and what we believe are only different in how we interpret them. Hume states that habit and custom are very important to the foundation of natural science.
When it comes to necessary connection, Hume states that the way we think we know that events are related is habit or custom that we get from our personal experience. Once we observe how often these particular events happen with one another, we are able to then create ideas, which in turn forces us to expect that particular outcome when these particular events occur. But, the one thing that we are forgetting to mention is the fact that the cause will in some way or fashion produce an effect. But even if we couldn’t prove the belief to be true, there has to be a reason for why we think it and believe it to be true. The way in which Hume felt was the best way to prove something to be true was to look for the first sign in which the idea was found. By being able to trace back to where the idea originated, Hume argues that by doing so we will be able to make the connection between the cause and the effect. (He wrote about this in Enquiry VII).
Hume also had a lot to say about the self as well. In the Treatise, David Hume discussed how in our self there is also a belief of our reality. Hume asks, “From what antecedent impression does the idea of the self arise?” Hume makes it very clear that we are never completely aware of ourselves. What I mean by that is that we can’t make an impression in relation to the self. The things we experience are individual and separate ideas which are in association with one another based on causality.
When talking about the external world, Hume believes that the belief we have about the external world is completely non-rational. (This found in Enquiry XII) This is true because our belief of the external world cannot be supported as matter of fact, nor can it be considered as a relation of ideas. Even though there isn’t any way to prove or justify this, belief in the external world cannot be avoided but it is in fact natural. We seem to have a tendency to assume that our ideas are backed up by some form of proof, even though it would appear as though we do not have any proof in doing so. Because of this representationalism no longer exists, and everything that was supposed to act as a middle man between things and those who perceive those things becomes absorbed, which makes all the things other than us completely unnecessary and obsolete.
David Hume also talks a lot about Mitigated Skepticism. Mitigated Skepticism basically means unbelief. What it is implies is that sure, we can proclaim that knowledge is impossible; but whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter. What we really need to be looking for is just a mental decision or judgment in regards to the question or situation. We really just need something to say in response to it.
Hume is a very important figure when it comes to skepticism. One of the best arguments in skepticism was his argument against believing miracles. He claimed that to be a miracle, something must defy all laws of nature. There is so much proof against the existence of a miracle. There are certain laws of nature which the idea of a miracle does not obey. Hume’s argument for skepticism is not only limited to just miracles. The same principles of his argument can be applied to such things as, channeling, levitation, psychic surgery, and may more. Basically anything that requires us to neglect our experience and not allow ourselves to use it as a guide. That being the case, and there being so many different examples that would fit into this category, there is one that doesn’t make it that many people make the mistake of thinking it does. That would be ESP, unless you argue that ESP external to the laws of nature. But since ESP still maintains that it follows the laws of nature that haven’t been discovered, Hume’s argument can’t work for it.
David Hume makes it clear to us that there are two forms of skepticism. One being antecedent skepticism and the other being consequent skepticism. And for each of these types of skepticism, there are two forms, one being a moderate form and the other being an extreme form. When it comes to skepticism in its extreme form, we can bring in Descartes’ “universal doubt” that starts to question beyond what Hume questioned by even challenging all prior opinions and even what our senses tell us. Without at least one principle, there’s no way a skeptic can accept this. But for Hume, no first principle can be so self-evident that it can be beyond any doubt. But let’s say that there were a first principle, there would be no way that we could proceed after it, and this is because we still doubt ourselves to the point that we can use deductive reasoning.
When discussing the Enquiry, David Hume seems to be using consequent skepticism. I say this only because it makes us question our own judgments and conclusions by bringing into question the very grounds for which they lay upon. Hume talks specifically of the testimony of senses that tells us that there is a world that is not only external to us, but also independent of all of our senses. Our instinct is what leads us to think that what we consider to be a depiction of the external world is what our senses inform us of. But our perceptions change, as well as there are cases in which we become completely deceived in the event that we become crazy, or we become possessed by dreams we might have. Once again, experience tends to be the only thing that can fully justify our belief through the external world. But on that same note, even experience does not allow us to go passed any perceptions we are skeptical about. Because of this, Hume says we have no rational justification for our belief in the external world.
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