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Aristotle and Rand vs Hume: Causation and Induction

Ayn Rand and many scholars blame Kant for killing the Enlightenment.  Kant is the founder of what I call the Germany anti-Enlightenment movement.  It seems to me that David Hume may be as responsible for killing the Enlightenment or more so than Kant partly because his arguments are more understandable.  Hume is part of what I call the Scottish anti-Enlightenment.  Francis Hutcheson is usually considered the father of the Scottish anti-Enlightenment, but Hume is its most powerful advocate.

Hume provides three arguments that attack the core of the Enlightenment:

1) His skepticism of causation

2) His skepticism of induction

3) His “is-ought” attack on ethics.

Rand concentrated her attention on the third problem.  She explained, “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do.”

The first two arguments are actually interrelated for Hume.  He was grappling with the problem that for deductive syllogisms to be true the premise statements must be true, but how do we arrive at the premise concepts?  The classical example is:

 

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

 

For Hume this syllogism raises the issue of how do we know that all men are mortal?  We have not met all men and all men who have lived have not died and how do we know that the future will be like the past?  Hume realized that all abstract statements, indeed all concepts must be start with humeindividual perceptions or instances, unless god or someone gives us a tablet with all the abstractions.  But how do we go from particular instances to an abstraction?  For example, all the people I know are mortal, to “all men are mortal”?  This is a question of induction and Hume realized for induction to be true, we must assume that cause and effect exists and is knowable.  However Hume did not see any justification for our confidence that cause and effect exists or is knowable.  Hume saw cause and effect as a physiological pattern recognition that at best has a probabilistic certainty.  Thus to Hume his skepticism about induction and causal relationships are intimately interconnected.

Hume ignores the law of identity in his arguments, which is at least in part how I think Rand and Aristotle would respond to Hume.  A thing is what it is and therefore it has certain properties.  If a thing changes then we know that something caused it to change.  Otherwise it would violate the law of identity.  Perhaps Hume’s response would be to attack the law of identity, however this would be an extraordinary claim and therefore require extraordinary evidence.[1]

Hume illustrates his ideas on the lack of causality with billiard balls.  This is how Wikipedia explains it:

For example, when one thinks of “a billiard ball moving in a straight line toward another”, one can conceive that the first ball bounces back with the second ball remaining at rest, the first ball stops and the second ball moves, or the first ball jumps over the second, etc. There is no reason to conclude any of these possibilities over the others.

This example shows that Hume is ignoring the law of identity.[2]  For instance, the first ball cannot jump over the second ball without violating the law of identity.[3]  Billiard balls do not jump for no reason.  The same is true of the first ball bouncing back and the second ball staying in place.  A billiard ball when struck moves.

A famous example to illustrate Hume’s attack on induction is the black swan scenario.  In this scenario you observe one hundred swans and they are all white.  Thus you infer (induction) that all swans are white.  The next day you see a black swan.  This is essentially what Hume thinks scientists are doing.  Hume is making this argument about 50 years after Isaac Newton’s Principia.  I think this shows that Hume had an agenda to attack the Enlightenment.  Newton’s laws of mechanics and gravity had overwhelming shown the power of science and reason and therefore induction, but Hume chose to reject them.  Hume did not even come close to meeting his burden of proof in this argument.

The swan example shows another flaw in Hume’s argument.  Hume has made an inference based on an accidental cause.  I consider this and intellectual dishonest argument.  Eggs are white, clouds are white, paper is white, some flowers are white, and so are some other birds.  Drawing the conclusion that all swans are white is to focus on an accidental cause of relations, Aristotle would point out.  Most humans are within a certain height range, but that would be no reason to define humans as being above 4.5 feet or below 6.5 feet.  Hume in this example ignores what is an important or causal feature of swans for a trivial feature.  This is worthy of a side show magician not serious philosophy or science.  His excuse would be that there is no causation.

 

Perfect knowledge.

This is another error that people who argue along the lines of Hume make.  An example of this argument was used to attack Newton’s ideas on gravity.  People argued that Newton had failed to explain why masses have gravity or how gravity works at a distance and therefore they rejected all of Newton’s ideas on gravity.  The criticism is fair, but the conclusion is not.  In fact, Newton acknowledged this was a problem, but that did not mean that he had not contributed enormously to the understanding of gravity.

 

The perfect knowledge argument is that if you do not know everything with perfect precision, then you do not anything.  The only way to you can meet this definition of knowledge is to be omniscient, which is metaphysically impossible.  Thus they setup a false argument by setting a standard for knowledge that can never be met.

Rand’s response would be that perfect knowledge proponents are using the wrong definition of knowledge.

“Knowledge” is . . . a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation.[4]

A related attack on knowledge is to ignore its context and then show it does not work outside of that context.

Knowledge is contextual . . . By “context” we mean the sum of cognitive elements conditioning the acquisition, validity or application of any item of human knowledge.[5]

In the case of Newton his mechanics are correct within the context in which the knowledge was developed.  There are areas (context) where Newtonian mechanics is not correct.  All this proves is that Newton was not omniscient, not that “he got it all wrong.”

 

Probabilistic knowledge

One of the proposed solutions to Hume and suggested by Hume himself is that knowledge is probabilistic.[6]  Karl Popper is probably the best known advocate of this idea.  This idea as applied to the black swan case above would be that the more swans we see the more certain we are that all swans are white, however we never know for sure.  Thus we never know anything and scientific theories are never true, they have just not been proven incorrect yet.

This idea has become quite popular in the scientific community.  However, probabilistic knowledge ignores the law of identity.  Probability is built on the law of identity.[7]  Probability theory was developed to understand the odds in games of chance.  For instance, what is the probability that a die when rolled will land on a six.  If we rolled a die and the position of the numbers could change without cause {that is the die could violate the law of identity) then probability theory would not work.  In order to determine the probability of the die being six when rolled we determine all the possible outcomes (law of identity) and then we determined how many of these are a six.  Probability also does not defy causation, it assumes that we do not know the initial conditions and the initial conditions are random.  If we know the initial conditions then we can use Newtonian mechanics to determine exactly which number will appear on the die when we roll it.

Now some people will counter that is not true since we don’t know if a fly will land on the die or an asteroid will land on us just as the die is thrown.  This is context dropping of knowledge and this was discussed above.

The probabilistic hypothesis of knowledge shows a lack of understanding of the law of identity.

 

Conclusion: Why Does This Matter?

David Hume is still highly influential today.  For instance, his “is-ought” argument underpins the moral and cultural relativism arguments of today.  His attack on causality shows up in Karl Popper’s ideas that knowledge is probabilistic and we can never know anything.  This leads to today’s modern cynicism.  It also is the basis of the environmentalists so called “precautionary principle.”  Hume’s attack on causation allows Keynesians to maintain that consumption is more important than production, modern economics to maintain that production is more important than invention. or that capital causes inventions ,or Obama’s “you didn’t build that”

Confusing cause and effect is the source of numerous errors that lead to real problems in the real world.  For instance, are increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere the cause of increasing temperatures on Earth or is it the result of increasing temperatures.

What is amazing to me is that Hume wrote these ideas after Locke, Bacon, Newton, Galileo, Robert Boyle, etc.  In my opinion, Hume and his non-continental followers have not been given the scrutiny they deserve.

Hume deserves equal billing with Kant for the ignominy of killing the Enlightenment and the resulting human suffering.

 

[1] Thomas Paine

[2] To some extent Hume’s “is-ought” argument also ignores the law of identity.

[3] This is true not withstanding the nonsense of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

[4] Ayn Rand Lexicon, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology “Concepts of Consciousness,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 35

[5] Ayn Rand Lexicon, Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series, Lecture 5

[6] This is an easy trap to fall into and one that the author has made.

[7] This is true notwithstanding the nonsense of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

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February 6, 2016 - Posted by | philosophy | , , , ,

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