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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.

February 6, 2016 Posted by | philosophy | , , , , | Leave a comment

Natural Rights: Objective, Subjective and Volition

I often have people say Natural Rights do not exist.  Then they point to something like the Earth and state the Earth is a sphere – that is real, the mass of the Earth is real and can be measured, but the Right to Property or the Right of self ownership are not real, they don’t exist in nature and there is nothing natural about them.  A similar complaint is that Natural Rights are subjective, while the mass of the Earth is objective.

This sort of argument represents an extreme empiricism point of view and confuses objective with subjective with volitional.  Here are the definitions of these words from web based dictionaries.

Objective: (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

Subjective: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

Volition: 1) the act of willing, choosing, or resolving; exercise of willing: She left of her own volition. 2. a choice or decision made by the will.

Note that a choice can be objective or subjective but both are exercising one’s will.  One can choose to not believe the world is a sphere (technically a spheroid and not a perfect spheroid).  One can choose to ignore the objective facts and contend the Earth is flat.  This does not make the decision to understand the Earth is a spheroid subjective.  Note the Catholic Church choose to believe the Sun rotated around the Earth, despite the objective facts.  Global warming (AGW) prophets ignore the facts every day.  It is clear that just because something is volitional does not make it subjective.

But what about Natural Rights or ethics, there are no objective facts involved according to these people.  As we established above, just because something is volitional (i.e., a choice) does not make it subjective.  Euclidean Geometry (EG) is not based on any objective facts.  It is a purely logical system and devoid of any empirical facts, does that mean it is subjective?  There have never been any two perfectly parallel lines that go on forever and finding or not finding such lines is irrelevant to EG.  Does this mean that Euclidean Geometry is subjective?  Does it mean it is not real?  Well the answer to any problem in EG is not based on personal feelings or opinions, it is based on facts, but not empirical facts.  But is EG real?  Well certainly the mathematical system of Euclidean geometry exists.  You might object that EG is not based on empirical facts, but it is influenced by them.  Two perfectly straight parallel lines might not exist in nature, but close representations of them do exist and are used in construction and numerous other area’s every day.

The extreme empiricist wants to deny any higher order concepts exist.  So to the extreme empiricist the number four does not exist.  Four oranges exist and four nails exist, but four does not exist.  This sort of thinking, would deny the existence of gravity.  Things fall to the Earth and the Earth rotates around the Sun, but gravity is not an empirical fact; it is a scientific theory.  A scientific theory is a model of nature that explains and predicts many different empirical facts.

Locke explained Natural Rights in terms of a “state of nature.”  He stated that when man lived by himself, he necessarily owned himself and the products of his labor.  Locke’s theory of Natural Rights explains why slavery is illegal, where property rights come from, why theft, murder, and assault, are illegal.  Almost all of our common law is based on Natural Rights.  It is an extremely powerful theory, much like Newtonian gravity and motion, or evolution.  The Marxists attacked Locke based on the idea that people lived in groups.  This is an intellectually dishonest sleight of hand.  Locke was not making an empirical argument, he was making a logical argument.  It is the same as Euclidean Geometry starting with the idea that two parallel lines never intersect.  The power of Locke’s ideas is undeniable.  The results were the creation of the industrial revolution, unparallel reduction in human suffering, the elimination of slavery and the elimination of force as an accepted method of settling disagreements.

Ayn Rand explained that values are only possible to living things, because life faces the metaphysical choice of life or death.  Ethics is the selection of those rules consistent with life.  The ethics of a human being are different than the ethics of a tree.  Man is the only species that does not have a built in ethical system or instinct.  Man is volitional, so he can choose an ethics of death.  However, such an ethical system is a contradiction in terms, since only something that is alive can have values.  Ethics is based on the fact of life and the only logically consistent ethical system is one that chooses life.  Humans are rational animals and therefore must have an ethical system consistent with their nature.  Since reason is a personal attribute (not collectivist), ethics is about a set of rules that allow individuals to exercise their attribute that is necessary for survival.  Thus any ethical system that limits or undermines man’s reason is inherently an ethics of death, which is a contradiction in terms.  This means that man must own himself, because the ability to think without the ability to act is meaningless.  Now we are back to Locke.

Natural Rights and ethics are based on objective reality.  You can choose to ignore these facts, just as you can choose to ignore gravity, but you cannot escape the reality that to do so is to choose death in both cases.

April 14, 2014 Posted by | -Philosophy | , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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