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Skepticism and doubt is employed as a tool for both Descartes and Hume. For Descartes, he uses doubt to find truth and knowledge in the sciences, whereas Hume uses it in an attempt to explain how we acquire knowledge. Thus both use skepticism for epistemological reasons. Hume dwells with the topic of cause and effect. He distinguishes between ‘relations of ideas’ and ‘matters of fact’, whereby talking about what makes humans sure of matters of fact. He proposes that our certainty for matters of fact come from cause and effect, which in turn derives from our experiences. He argues that empiricism is at the heart of how we know what we know and so it is his mission to show that knowledge about causes always comes from experiences and never through a priori reasoning. Descartes on the other hand claims that our knowledge is independent of our senses, as he establishes early on in Meditation I that our senses cannot be trusted. He proposes that we are ‘rational animals’ and that there are other ways that we derive knowledge from, without depending on our senses.
Descartes states that sense data is sometimes deceiving, and because it is sometimes deceiving, it must be dismissed. He also says that imagination cannot be trusted, as we can imagine things that are not real. He proposes that humans have other means of obtaining knowledge. Descartes’ wax example is one means of proving this. He says that we know a piece of wax at first, through its smell, texture and appearance. But when that wax melts, it loses its original shape and form; however we still know that it is the same piece of wax. But this knowledge that it is the same piece of wax is not through our senses, because it no longer feels or looks the same. We cannot know that it is wax by using our imagination either, as there are endless shapes that wax could melt into and thus impossible for us to imagine every single shape. Thus there must be another way of knowing and understanding independent of using senses, which is using out intellect he says.
On dwelling with the topic of cause and effect, Hume generally suggests that ’causes and effects are discoverable not by reason but by experience’. This illustrates how he disregards rationalism as a form of gaining knowledge. He says that we use out past experiences from situations to infer future effects in similar situations. In section four, he challenges the reader to prove him otherwise in asking ‘if we are asked to say what the effects will be of some object, without consulting past experience of it, how can the mind go about doing this?’ He uses the example of colliding billiard balls to demonstrate this, in showing that we know when one ball strikes another, it will cause the stricken ball to move and that we can infer this from past experiences or custom. Another example he uses, is that one cannot infer that water can drown people just by looking at it.
Throughout the meditation, Descartes constantly contradicts himself. He also traps himself in a circular argument in later mediations, whereby he uses his reasoning to prove God, but at the same time uses God to prove his reasoning. Descartes also contradicts himself in his wax argument in Mediation two. He says earlier that senses must be dismissed; however it is his senses (scent, tastes, look and feel) that tell him that the piece of wax is in fact a piece of wax, before it is melted and disfigured. After giving the example, he mentions how surprised he is when he sees the weakness of the mind and how it is prone to error. He says that it is the language that is misleading and that we say for example that ‘we see the wax’ when what we really mean is that we see it and judge that it is wax with our intellect – not our senses. So in a way, he acknowledges that he may have contradicted himself in his own example, but he replies by saying that although senses may tell us some things, it is up to our mind and intellect to make sense of what we see, which emphasizes his rationalistic perception.
In section two, Hume suggests that we cannot think or imagine something we have never experienced through our own senses. But then he also comes up with an example of an objection to this. His example is that if a person is shown different shades blue (or any other colour) but one shade is missing, the person looking at the different shades is still likely to be able to imagine the colour that is missing. Hume replies to this objection by saying that it is ‘so singular that it’s hardly worth noticing’.
In addition to this, Hume says that we infer similar effects from similar objects we have experienced before, and that we infer unknown future situations from similar known situations from the past. We assume that future situations will resemble past situations; however there is nothing to prove that the future will be like the past. Even if we say that from our experience, the future usually resembles the past, we still have no proof that this will continue to happen. And so Hume says that there is a step that we take in assuming that the future will be like the past. However, he cannot prove what intermediate step this is. In replying to this, he is rather sarcastic in stating that because he cannot find the reason, maybe he should put it before the public in ‘hope’ for a solution. He is quite negative towards the knowledge capabilities of the public and carries on to say that even if the answer isn’t found at least we can be aware of our own ignorance. In addition to this he says that just because he hasn’t discovered an argument, it doesn’t mean that an argument doesn’t exist.
Descartes ends his meditation on a somewhat positive and satisfactory note. By adopting Descartes’ rationalism, one would be led to believe that humans are ‘rational animals’, with a faculty of mind and intellect, with the ability to think and reason. All this would propose that we are the most superior species on the earth. This would also conform to religion and Christianity, whereby it was strongly believed in society at the time that God created us as special creatures. Hume alongside empiricism on the other hand, would lead one to believe that as humans, we do not know everything, and we are not as clever as we may sometimes believe ourselves to be. In his work, he wrote that we should burn ‘any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics’ as it contains ‘nothing by sophistry and illusion’. It illustrates how against metaphysics he was as it did not contain any experimental reasoning using numbers of empirical data. Hume ends his work on a more pessimistic note. He proposes that our knowledge comprised of matter of facts, is merely derived through cause and effect and custom and habits. But we still cannot prove why it is that we assume past experiences or causes and effect to be the same in the future as in the past as the world is always changing, thus he ends without being able to prove this.
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