May 19th 2021

The Lasting Significance of David Hume

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.


The pandemic, which has taken over three million lives and continues to ravage parts of the world; the rise of Trumpism, culminating in the January 6th attack on the Capitol; the degradation of the environment and the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change; these things, and others, have served to alert many of us that the comfort we take in the notion that what has always been the case one’s whole life will always remain the case is nothing more than a pleasant fiction. Several centuries ago, a Scottish philosopher made a similar observation, and notably took it quite a bit further.

May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley. As a philosopher, one must admire Hume, even when ultimately rejecting his skepticism about knowledge and certainty. Hume discovered a problem that no one had ever recognized. It is often said, and for good reason, that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Well, Hume laid bare a problem that simply did not exist for the ancients, including Plato. Hume had a moment of true originality, which makes him someone extraordinary in the history of philosophy.

“The Humean predicament is the human predicament,” as W. O. Quine famously quipped. He was undoubtedly referring to Hume’s critique of causality and inductive reasoning. What was the essence of Hume’s critique? Hume saw his critical analysis as effectively undermining any rational grounds for the claim that science discovers universally valid laws of nature. There is no rational justification, according to Hume, for such a claim.

Briefly stated, Hume’s critique runs as follows. Causality – or the cause-effect relation – involves three components. That is, to say A is the cause B, then three things need to be present. The first two are unproblematic: spatial contiguity and temporal priority. The cause has to be spatially adjacent to the effect, and prior to the effect in time. These are unproblematic for Hume, because we have impressions of and encounter them frequently in our experience. But while they are necessary, they are not sufficient: the most important element remains – namely, a necessary connection between cause and effect. Hume’s critique is based on the discovery that we never have an impression of a necessary connection. We never have an experience of causal necessity: the idea of necessary connection is without a corresponding impression; and, for Hume, an idea that cannot be traced back to an impression is nothing more than a fraud.

To make the point clearer: Hume distinguished between two kinds of statements – namely, matters of fact and relations of ideas. When it comes to the relation of ideas, which includes mathematics and logic, we can attain absolute certainty, because an iron logic prevails. But the certainty it yields is purely formal and tells us nothing about the way the world actually is. Matters of fact do tell us about our experience but there is no necessity to be found here: there is no logical contradiction involved in the denial of any matter of fact.

But Hume does not stop there. Why do we believe that nature will continue to behave as it has always behaved? What entitles us to this conviction? We may appeal to the principle of the uniformity of nature — which simply says that the future will resemble the past. But how can we establish the uniformity of nature? It cannot be demonstrated, because there is no logical contradiction involved in its denial; nor can we appeal to past experience as that would be viciously circular. True, in the past the future has resembled the past – that is, past futures resemble past pasts, but that does not mean that future futures will resemble future pasts. In the past, the future has resembled the past — but there is an unjustifiable leap from there to the claim that in the future the future will resemble the past.

Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect.

It is a testament to Hume’s greatness that his analysis can support very different interpretations and conclusions. Consider Quentin Meillassoux’s notion of Divine Inexistence: For Meillassoux, the advent of the divine is possible – that is to say, God is possible. But this is not because it is possible that God might exist at present. Rather, what he means is that God may come to exist in the future. God ‘inexists’ – that is, he happens not to exist at present, but God’s possible existence is necessary.

Divine Inexistence means first that there is no God extant (no metaphysical principle or creator of the world). But Divine Inexistence also means that what remains still in a virtual state in present reality harbors the possibility of a God still to come.

A God that is yet to come would also be innocent of the disasters of the world. In short, we are permitted to hope for a God who does not yet exist and hence is not responsible for the atrocities of history, but who may come to exist in the future and resurrect the dead.

In proposing the theory of Divine Inexistence, Meillassoux draws on David Hume – starting from Hume’s skeptical doubt as to the necessity of causal relations. Neither the logician, nor the scientist can establish the necessity of the causal connection – that is, neither can prove that it is necessary that the same effects should always follow from the same causes. The idea of necessary connection is not derived from rational self-evidence, nor is it derived from empirical sense impressions.

Objects have no discernable connection together, nor is it from any principle but custom that we draw inference from one to the other. For Hume, a cause is nothing more than an object in constant spatial and temporal conjunction with another, such that the experience of the one compels the mind to expect the other.

Meillassoux observes that it is possible to draw very different conclusions from the same premises. For rather than conceding that reason cannot prove causal necessity a priori, why not affirm that reason reveals that all causal relations are contingent, that it opens up the possibility that in the future completely different effects could follow from exactly the same causes?

Accordingly, in proposing the notion of Divine Inexistence, Meillassoux appeals to his Humean argument that the laws of nature can change at any moment for any or no reason whatsoever. G. K. Chesterton, like Meillassoux, avoids the skeptical conclusions to which Hume’s critical analysis of causality is supposed to lead. Chesterton certainly takes a page from Hume when he observes that “learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened – dawn and death and so on – as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees makes three. But it is not.”

When it comes to matters of fact, or the observations of scientific method, Chesterton refuses to give the word ‘law’ and instead speaks of ‘weird repetitions’ (Hume calls them ‘constant conjunctions’). But Chesterton derives a very different lesson from Hume. To see the world is to wonder at it. Life itself has the character of a fairy-tale – it has a telos, an entelechy, we feel ourselves to be part of a story. There is something personal in the world as in a work of art.

In Meillassoux’s rendering of Hume, God is yet-to-be. In Chesterton’s appropriation of Hume, God is calling every morning on the sun for a theatrical encore: “God says ‘Do it again’ to the sun and every evening ‘Do it again’ to the moon.” Meillassoux emphasizes that at any moment everything may become utterly strange and foreign. Chesterton underscores how strange and enchanted the world already is. “Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.”

There is nothing mystical about any of this. For Chesterton, one who insists on some law connecting, say, trees and fruit is the real mystic or the dreamy-eyed sentimentalist. Seeing the world as enchanted, Chesterton is paradoxically perhaps the true realist because he is remaining true to our actual experience, in which we can find no logical connection whatever between trees and fruit, or flames and heat for that matter.

The greatness of Hume lies not in the skeptical conclusions he arrived at, but the wholly original considerations which allowed him to get there. Hume’s critique of causality has the ability, at the very least, to defamiliarize the world, and in that sense to potentially re-enchant it, to enable us to see that the world has indeed the structure of a fairy-tale. There is an aesthetic comprehension of the natural world that makes a genuinely scientific grasp of it possible. If we are not seeing the world as a work of art, then we are not seeing it scientifically.



Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

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Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."