Re: Hume

From: Andrew Brown (Andrew@LUBS.LEEDS.AC.UK)
Date: Fri Nov 21 2003 - 10:52:20 EST

Hi Ian,

> >The usual misinterpretation of my position is that I am after
> >*certain* knowledge. This is quite wrong. I am trying to uphold
> >philosophically the obvious fact that we have *some* knowledge,
> >however weak and fallible.
> Yes, I think I have been guilty of that in the past.

Since it is the usual interpretation, it must be the fault of my exposition or perhaps a
flaw in my reasoning (I hope not the latter!)

> It is a logical possibility that there is a free-floating as
> yet undetected agency that with very low frequency rearranges
> personal computers into elephants. But as there's no positive
> evidence of such an agency then there's no need to waste time
> worrying about it.

As you know, I certainly do not advocate worrying about it! The purpose of my
argument is to think through the implications of 'mind-independent causation', as this
notion is usually articulated. It is a philosophical argument thinking through the
implications of a given premise, in order to offer a reductio ad absurdum disproving
the premise. Having done this we can replace the disproved articulation of 'mind-
independent causation' with a different, and sound, articulation of 'mind-independent
causation' (an articulation which is different from the usual one).

Your comment above presupposes the following:

(1)  'Positive evidence' is available regarding mind-independent objects.

That is, your comment presupposes that a force turning the computer into an
elephant is *unlikely* (but not 'logically' impossible), since no 'positive evidence'
supports the existence of such a force.

> But if there were such a thing, and it did
> indeed act, then there is some new, unexplained causal event
> that may be the object of scientific inquiry. In your terms,
> this would be an example of the action of a hitherto unkown --
> but not unknowable -- mechanism.
> So, if I understand correctly,
> you would not object to philosophical theories that admit the
> possibility of unlikely events, but philosophical theories that
> admit the possibility that some causal events may occur that
> in principle could not be explained by human reason.

Everything you write here presupposes (1), above.

> Because
> in this case we really could not know the "springs of the
> universe", rather than simply not knowing everything. Is this
> right, or have I mangled it up?

I think you may be mixing those things that I (and you) truly believe, with some
propositions I am putting forward as part of a reductio ad absurdum argument
against the usual interpretation of mind-independent causality.

The reductio says the following:

(i) Given 'mind-independent causation' (under the usual interpretation) then it *could*
be the case that an object or force exists that is inherently undetectable by humanity
at the current moment in time.

(ii) We cannot know what this force, if it exists, is about to *do*, since we cannot
detect or examine it and what it does is independent of our minds.

(iii) It may therefore be about to change the 'known' laws of physics completely. As
one example it could turn the computer into an elephant. As another it could cease
to endow bread with the power to nourish us.

But i, ii and iii invalidate your (1), above.  Take the bread example. What 'positive
evidence' do we have that bread will nourish us given i,ii and iii? The obvious
response is that it has done so before; past experience tells us it will do so again.
We may go further and argue that we have examined the chemical, etc. structure of
the bread, we know its' real essence' and hence we know what it will do in the future.

But this 'positive evidence' is *equally* compatible with the existence of a hitherto
undetectable force about to turn all bread into poison. The so called 'real essence' of
bread may be fundamentally changed by the hitherto undetactable force. Or it may
not. What 'positive evidence' can help here? Past experience does not help at all in
this case. There seems to be no 'positive evidence' at all to discriminate between
the scanario where the unknown force truly exists and the scenario where it doesn't.
In Post-Keynesian terms we have 'fundamental uncertainty' regarding this issue.

Hume is full of phrases challenging the reader to come up with a shred of the
requisite evidence.

In the same way, your presupposition that the computer turning into an elephant is
'unlikely' turns out to be unfounded, given the usual interpretation of mind-
independent causality. If a currently undetectable force exists that is about to cause
this event then it will happen. If it does not exist then it won't. Past experience
equally 'confirms', or is equally compatible, with both opposing hypotheses. We
must be fundamentally uncertain regarding which of these two hypotheses is correct
(given the usual interpretation of mind-independent causality).

But this means we have fundamental uncertainty regarding whether or not to eat the
next loaf of bread in front of us!! It means, in other words, inherently self-
contradictory Humean sceptcism so that we must abandon the usual interpretation
of mind-independent causality upon which Humean scepticism is premised.

> Also, what is the difference
> between your approach to the problem of induction, and
> straightforward pragmatism, that is by getting our hands dirty
> and interacting with the world we gain adequate, useful knowledge of
> it?

Straightforward pragmatism simply does not address the problem above.

> I ask because your mention of idea and object being united in
> human labour sounds like that, which seems entirely sensible (and not
> silly).

The stuff about labour does address the above problem. It provides a version of
mind-independence whereby we can uphold the obvious fact that a force about to
change all known laws does not exist. This certainty is summed up in the phrase 'all
the world is material'. We don't know much about the material universe but we do
know that it doesn't randomly morph into just any old chaotic arrangement, rather it
is law governed.

But the key is to appreciate the sceptical problem. Once having done that it is much
easier to grasp the materialist solution.

> Thanks for your patience.

Likewise. It is much appreciated.


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