virus: David Hume:beliefs, knowledge and reason

Bill Godby (
Sun, 21 Apr 1996 13:23:06 -0400

I've been sitting on the fence taking in much of what has been said over the
last week regarding reason, logic, rationality, religion, etc., and I'm
surprised that David Hume ( A Treatise of Human Nature) has never been
mentioned. His contribution to this discussion is profound. Hume confronted
the nature of human knowledge, addressing deductive versus inductive
reasoning, illustrating that all knowledge gained about the physical world
is gained via inductive reasoning since deductive reasoning doesn't tell
address actual experience and causation. He see the objects of human reason
as twofold, deductive/abstract "relations of ideas", i.e. math, science,
etc., and inductive "matters of fact", which are obtained via causal
reasoning through experience and observation. Matters of fact allow for the
contrary of each "fact" without contradiction, contrary to relations of
ideas, 2x2 is always 4. Of course enter quantum physics, which appears to
undermine the nature of reality, via deduction you can arrive at the logical
possibility of two answers (somewhat related to Hume's central point).

Hume presents a very detailed argument that I can't possibly deal with here,
but briefly as an empiricist he is basically saying that all ideas and
beliefs in their most reduced form come from sensory experience and are thus
born by induction. Anyone familiar with the nature of induction realizes
that this is a very strong statement. Inductive reasoning leaves the door
open to a possible contradiction, therefore any belief founded upon it is
subject to becoming false. The real issue here is that we commonly assume
that many beliefs are irrefutable, when indeed they are very refutable. A
further issue is that of logic and reason itself. Hume states "...reason is
nothing but a wonderful and unintelligible instinct in our souls, which
carries us along a certain train of ideas, and endows them with particular
qualities, according to their particular situations and relations
(Treatise:179)" (soul for Hume BTW holds no special meaning, he would just
as well have said body, since he is clearly an atheist). The real issue here
very related to this discussion group is pragmatism. Hume believes that we
certainly can't live in a world where we can believe nothing, even though we
continually rely upon induction to guide our everyday actions. Rather Hume
believes that our knowledge must be considered in its true light, and that
reason be revealed as what it really is. It is often construed as the
defining feature of humankind, the pillar upon which all ultimate truths
(dogmas) comfortably rest, but...haven't we seen conclusive evidence that
paradigms built upon human reason are continually redefined? Apparently
Einstein remarked once that he would never have dared to challenge the
science of Newton if he hadn't read Hume.

Hume doesn't however become absurdist in his scepticism rather he appeals to
the pragmatic nature of human existence. We must believe certain things to
survive and go on about our lives. His main point is that we must not fool
ourselves into believing that science or reason is anything other than a
product of the human mind. To try and conclude this lengthy ramble I
believe that separating off reason from intuition, religious thought from
scientific thought, and arguing for the primacy of logical/rational
discourse is to deny that reason is constructed. What is reasonable today
may not be tomorrow. There are no objective irrefutable truths that we
arrive at via human reason, all information is received and processed by the
human brain. This is the "truth" that Hume reveals.

As I said initially there is much more to be said to properly elucidate Hume
but I thought that it was relevant to introduce his concepts as they relate
to the discussions thus far.
Bill Godby
University of Michigan