Tuesday, July 14, 2015

An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

David Hume (1711- 1776) provides an interesting analysis for us to ponder: Neither reason nor experience can justify the “necessary connections” found in philosophical causality. According to Hume, it is habit or custom that accounts for our feelings (or impressions) about causal relations among objects. The laws of nature are not guaranteed. Indeed, to establish a correlation between two things, there must be a proper temporal relationship in their occurrence and at least a presumptive agency which connects them. At most, connections between cause and effect are not necessary but probabilistic. Empiricist Hume thus believed there are no compelling arguments for religious propositions. The concept of a deity as a first cause or designer of the universe will always be experientially unverifiable.

Excerpts from the section entitled, Of the Idea of Necessary Connection:

“…When we look about us toward external objects and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connection, any quality which binds the effect and the cause and renders the one an infallible consequence of the other. We only find that the one does actually in fact follow the other… [as in fallacy of post hoc propter hoc: event B happened after event A; therefore, it happened because of event A].

“[W]e never can, by utmost scrutiny, discover anything but one event following another, without being able to comprehend any force or power by which the cause operates or any connection between it and its supposed effect…

“But when many uniform instances appear, and the same object is always followed by the same event, we then begin to entertain the notion of cause and connection. We then feel a new sentiment or impression, to wit, a customary connection in the thought or imagination between one object and its usual attendant, and this sentiment is the original of that idea which we seek for…

Of Liberty and Necessity:

“…Beyond the constant conjunction of similar objects and the consequent inference from one to the other, we have no notion of any necessity of connection… But being once convinced that we know nothing further of causation of any kind than merely the constant conjunction of objects and the consequent inference of the mind from one to another, and finding that these two circumstances are universally allowed to have place in voluntary actions, we may be more easily led to own the same necessity common to all causes…

Of Miracles:

“…We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact when the witnesses contradict each other, when they are but few or of a doubtful character, when they have an interest in what they affirm, when they deliver their testimony with hesitation or, on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind which diminish or destroy the force of any argument derived from human testimony…

“[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish… [T]here is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning as to secure us against all delusion in themselves… A religionist may be an enthusiast and imagine he sees what has no reality; he may know his narrative to be false, and yet preserve in it with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause…

“[T]he usual propensity of mankind toward the marvelous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature… [I]t is nothing strange… that men should lie in all ages… [W]e may establish it as a maxim that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion…

“[L]et us examine those miracles related in Scripture… Here, then, we are to consider a book presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous and, in all probability, long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts which every nation gives of its origin. Upon reading this book we find it full of prodigies and miracles. It gives an account of a state of the world and of human nature entirely different from the present: Of our fall from that state; of the age of man extended to near a thousand years; of the destruction of the world by a deluge; of the arbitrary choice of one people as the favorites of heaven, and that people the countrymen of the author; of their deliverance from bondage by prodigies the most astonishing imaginable—I desire anyone to lay his hand upon his heart and, after a serious consideration, declare whether he thinks that the falsehood of such a book, supported by such a testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates; which is, however, necessary to make it be received according to the measures of probability above established…Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity. And whoever is moved by faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person which subverts all the principles of his understanding and gives him determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience…

Of a Providence and a Future State:

“…Speculative dogmas of religion, the present occasions of such furious dispute, could not possibly be conceived or admitted in the early ages of the world, when mankind, being wholly illiterate, formed an idea of religion more suitable to their weak apprehension, and composed their secret tenets of such tales chiefly as were the objects of traditional belief more than of argument and disputation…

“What must a philosopher think of those vain reasoners who, instead of regarding the present scene of things as the sole object of their contemplation, so far reverse the whole course of nature as to render this life merely a passage to something further—a porch which leads to a greater and vastly different building, a prologue which serves only to introduce the piece and give it more grace and propriety? Whence, do you think, can such philosophers derive their idea of the gods? From their own conceit and imagination surely… [Consider the fallacy of wishful thinking: believing a proposition is true because we want it to be true].

“While we argue from the course of nature and infer a particular intelligent cause which first bestowed and still preserves order in the universe, we embrace a principle which is both uncertain and useless. It is uncertain because the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience. It is useless because our knowledge of this cause being derived entirely from the course of nature, we can never, according to the rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause with any new inference or, making additions to common and experienced course of nature, establish any principles of conduct and behavior… [Consider also the fallacy of cum hoc propter hoc: (or) mistaking correlation for the cause].

“Consider the world and the present life only as an imperfect building from which you can infer a superior intelligence; and arguing from that superior intelligence, which can leave nothing imperfect, why may you not infer a more finished scheme or plan which will receive its completion in some distant point of space and time? Are not these methods of reasoning exactly similar? And under what pretense can you embrace the one while you reject the other? [Consider also the reductive fallacy or the reduction of complexity to simplicity in causal explanations].

An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature:

“…No matter of fact can be proved but from its cause or effect. Nothing can be known to be the cause of another but by experience… All our idea of a deity (according to those who deny innate ideas) is nothing but a composition of those ideas which we acquire from reflecting on the operations of our own minds… [B]elief which attends experience is explained to be nothing but a peculiar sentiment or lively conception produced by habit…”


Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Charles W. Hendel. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1955.


  1. As coincidence would have it, just two days ago I completed The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. This is a new re-publication that I had to re-annotate because I had worn out (shredded) my original copy. Durant, as you may know, not only wrote about and quoted philosophers, he was also wise enough to refer the reader to recommended original sources by title and even chapter. Durant was responsible for the beginning of my personally directed education.
    In this volume he briefly summarized David Hume's philosophy and his position in philosophy. Because of the enormity of his attempt, Durant states that he feels that Hume, Berkeley and Locke caused the ire and the opposing direction of Immanuel Kant's philosophy. Hume seems to have had the wider audience during his lifetime that acted as a catalyst for a reaction from Christian circles. Kant, having an even longer and wider influence in Western Christian philosophy, is considered the most influential philosopher to respond, yet he in turn influenced Nietzsche's reaction which is the antithesis of Kant's thinking.
    Pages 334 to 336 of The Story of Philosophy, in my opinion, might act as a brief introduction to students as to where Hume fits in the living web of thought referred to as philosophy.
    (Actually, Durant has eighteen references to Hume as listed in the index. The pages above provide an introduction to and a summary of Hume.)

  2. Thanks, Ken. I have an old copy of Durant's book. It has a 1943 copyright. One of the many books I inherited from my mother's library. Here's an interesting excerpt:

    "David Hume (1711-1776) at the age of twenty-six shocked all Christendom with his highly heretical Treatise on Human Nature,--one of the classics and marvels of modern philosophy. We know the mind, said Hume, only as we know matter: by perception, though it be in this case internal. Never do we perceive any such entity as the 'mind'; we perceive merely separate ideas, memories and feelings, etc. The mind is not a substance, an organ that has ideas; it is only an abstract name for the series of ideas; the perceptions, memories and feelings are the mind; there is no observable 'soul' behind the processes of thought" (Durant 195).

  3. It amazes me that Durant says so much with so few words, yet never oversimplifies or talks down to his readers.