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Hume Misunderstood

September 11, 2011

Over the last few months, and via a few different sources, I’ve come to realise that a couple of philosophical positions that I’d thought were put forward by Hume weren’t. It’s a wonderful case of learning that there’s a lot that you don’t know. I thought I’d share the simplistic statements that I thought Hume put forward and then explain why it isn’t as simple as commonly assumed (at least I assume that other people assume these simple positions – they’re positions that are certainly echoed in discussions I’ve seen…).

The first problem is with the is-ought divide. It’s commonly assumed that Hume showed that is does not equal ought; that is, that just because some state of affairs exists does not mean that that state of affairs matches what ought to exist. What does Hume actually say? From A Treatise of Human Nature:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

This does not say that is doesn’t imply ought. What it says is actually much more realistic and modest – if we want to go from an “is” to an “ought” then we have to say why this move is valid. Hume is just pointing out that he has not seen a system of morality that has done this. Indeed, it is a very easy shift to make without realising that justification is necessary. Why should you conform to my way of doing things? Because that’s how these things are done! Why should I give you any more reason? That’s (a very simplistic version of) the natural law of catholicism, probably the ultimate conflator of is and ought.

So, can is imply ought? I suspect that it can, but Hume teaches me that if I want to claim this then I have to be explicit in laying out exactly why I can make the connection.

The second problem is concerned with Hume on miracles. I’d always assumed that Hume argued that miracles don’t happen. Obviously I was mistaken. From Of Miracles in Enquiries concerning the Human Understanding:

The plain consequence is “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsity would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior”

This is the central claim of the piece, that it would take some extraordinary testimony or evidence to “establish a miracle”, evidence that shifts the balance or probability in favour of acceptance of the occurrence of a miracle (in line, one supposes, with the evidentialism principle).

Meanwhile in the rest of On Miracles, Hume has argued that no testimony can shift probabilities enough to accept the occurrence of a miracle. Miracle stories conflict with each other, they do no appear in settings where suitable people can witness and evaluate them in a “scientific” setting, they always seem to support some pre-existing ruth claims, and importantly we know that the human mind is weak and prone to self-deception and belief in “unbelievable” claims. Hume argues that these considerations should make us realise that we are never in a position to rationally believe in miracles.

It is therefore an epistemic arguments. Hume does not say that miracles are impossible (through being incoherent) or that they don’t happen. It’s just that if they do happen we are never in a position to have knowledge of their occurrence. It just isn’t rational.

Both the problems in my prior understanding are great counterexamples to claims to intellectual arrogance or epistemic certainty that are often made about the enlightenment philosophers and todays new atheists. Is there a more modest position than saying that you should explain subtle shifts from is to ought? Is there a more modest position than saying that we should withhold belief in epistemically weak statements? I don’t think so, and Hume thus shows that it isn’t rational thinking people who need to develop a sense of modesty.

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