The End of the Road -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The End of the Road

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The philosophy of empiricism, which began its life with such great expectations, finally comes to a dead stop with David Hume (1711-76). An arch-Tory, Hume followed faithfully in the path laid down by Berkeley, albeit more cautiously. His most famous work, the Treatise on Human Nature was published in 1739 in France where it went down like a lead balloon. For Hume, reality is only a string of impressions, the causes of which are unknown and unknowable. He regarded the question of the existence or non-existence of the world to be an insoluble problem, and was one of the first of those philosophers to translate their ignorance into Greek and call it agnosticism. In essence, what we have here is a throwback to the idea of the Greek sceptics that the world is unknowable.

His main claim to fame rests on the section of his work entitled Of Knowledge and Probability. Here also he was not original, but merely developed an idea already present in Berkeley, namely the non-existence of causation. Arguing against the discoveries of the newly developed science of mechanics, he tried to show that mechanical causation did not exist, that we cannot say that a particular event causes another event, but only that one event follows another. Thus, if we boil a kettle of water to a hundred degrees centigrade, we cannot say that this action has caused it to boil, but only that the water boiled after we heated it. Or if a man is knocked over by a ten-ton truck, we have no right to affirm that his death was caused by this. It just succeeded it in time. That is all.

Does this seem incredible? But it it is the inevitable result of the strict application of this kind of narrow empiricism, which demands of us that we stick to "the facts, and nothing but the facts." All we can say is that one fact follows another. We have no right to assert that one thing actually causes another, since this would be to go beyond the single fact registered by our eyes and ears at a given moment in time. All of which forcibly brings to mind the warning of old Heraclitus: "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men who have souls that understand not their language."

Once again, it is astonishing to note that, of all the marvellous philosophical ideas produced in the last two centuries or so, modern philosophers and scientists choose to take as their starting-point and inspiration the writings of...Hume! His denial of causality has been eagerly seized upon in order to provide some ideological support for certain incorrect philosophical conclusions which Heisenberg and others have attempted to draw from quantum mechanics. We shall speak of that later. In essence, Hume asserts that, when we say "A" causes "B," we only mean that these two acts have been seen together many times in the past, and that, therefore, we believe they may be repeated in the future. This, however, is not a certainty but only a belief. It is not necessity, but only probability. Thus, "necessity is something that exists in the mind, not in objects."

First of all, to deny causation leads us to the denial of scientific and rational thought in general. The whole basis and "raison d’?tre" of science is the attempt to provide a rational explanation for the observed phenomena of nature. From the observation of a large number of facts, we draw general conclusions, which, if they have been sufficiently tested and shown to have a wide application, acquire the status of scientific laws. Naturally, all such laws reflect the state of our knowledge at a given stage of human development, and, consequently, are subsequently overtaken by other theories and hypotheses, which explain things better. In the process, we gradually arrive at a deeper understanding both of nature and ourselves. This process is as limitless as nature itself. Thus, to look for an Absolute Truth, which would explain everything, or, to use a fashionable expression, a Grand Universal Theory (GUT) is about as profitable as looking for the philosopher’s stone.

The fact that a particular generalisation may be falsified at a given moment does not entitle us to dispense with generalisations altogether. Nor does it mean that we have to renounce the search for objective truth, taking refuge in a sceptical attitude, like that of Hume, which, because of its complete and utter irrelevance to our actual practice, whether in science or in everyday life, is really just a pretentious pose, just like the idiotic posing of those who deny the existence of the material world, but who do not, on that account, refrain from eating and drinking, and who, while firmly maintaining the non-existence of causality, are very careful to avoid untimely physical encounters with ten-ton trucks.

All natural laws are based on causality. The ocean tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. The splitting of the atom causes a nuclear explosion. Deprivation of food and drink over a long period causes death by starvation, and being run over by a lorry causes the same result by other means. The existence of causality is as certain as anything can be in this sinful material world of ours. But not certain enough for the disciples of Hume. Accepting his line of argument, all future prediction becomes irrational, because there is always the possibility that things will turn out differently. Bertrand Russell, supposely with a straight face, explains: "I mean that, taking even our firmest expectations, such as that the sun will rise tomorrow, there is not a shadow of reason for supposing them more likely to be verified than not." (Op. cit., p. 641.) Further on he says: "For example: when (to repeat a former illustration) I see an apple, past experience makes me expect that it will taste like an apple, and not like roast beef; but there is no rational justification for this expectation." (Ibid., p. 643.)

Since we cannot know anything, according to Hume, he concludes that "all our reasonings concerning causes and effects are derived from nothing but custom; and that belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures." (Hume, Book 1, part 3, sect. 4.) In other words, knowledge is abandoned in favour of belief.

It should be borne in mind that the declared intention of all this is to eliminate metaphysics from thought, which will thus be limited to a bare and, hopefully, scientific enumeration of the "facts." Some wit once defined metaphysics as "a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black hat which isn’t there." This phrase adequately describes the metaphysical fumbling of those who, by denying causation immediately open the door to irrationality. With Hume, empirical philosophy comes full circle. As Russell correctly says:

"The ultimate outcome of Hume’s investigation of what passes for knowledge is not what we must suppose him to have desired. The sub-title of his book is: ‘An attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.’ It is evident that he started out with a belief that scientific method yields the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; he ended, however, with the conviction that belief is never rational, since we know nothing. After setting forth the arguments for scepticism (Book I, part iv, sec. i), he goes on, not to refute the arguments, but to fall back on natural credulity." (Op. cit., p. 644.)

One may be tempted to ask what the practical worth of such a philosophy is. On this point no answer is forthcoming from Hume, who comments with the utmost frivolity, tinged with cynicism: "This sceptical doubt, both with respect to reason and the senses, is a malady, which can never be radically cured, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chase it away, and sometimes may seem entirely free from it...Carelessness and inattention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader’s opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and an internal world." (Op. cit., p. 645.) This is not real philosophy but precisely a metaphysical dead end. It tells us nothing about the world, and leads nowhere. Just what one would expect from a man who thought that there was no reason to study philosophy except as a pleasant way of passing the time. And indeed, there is certainly no reason to study Hume’s philosophy except as a pointless way of wasting time.

On one thing we can agree with Bertrand Russell. The philosophy of Hume represents "the bankruptcy of 18th-century reasonableness." Hume’s ideas, like Berkeley’s, represent a move in the direction of subjective idealism. It is empiricism turned inside out. From the starting point that everything was learnt from experience, we arrive at the conclusion that nothing can be learnt from experience and observation. This is the antithesis of the progressive scientific spirit with which the period opened. Nothing positive can be obtained from such an outlook. We may therefore safely leave those who cannot be sure that the sun will rise tomorrow where we found them—in the dark, where they can find some consolation for their difficulties by looking forward one day to eating an apple which tastes like roast beef.

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Ron C. de Weijze - 18 Mayıs 2008 07:52

The end of the empirical road meant the beginning of the rational-empiricist road. The synthetic, co-incidental, accidental, turned out to possibly be inherent to perception and not just following it. If Hume had not shown the roadblock, Kant might never have had his stroke of genius.

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