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Hume on Induction

By Jblyons1 May 06, 2013 992 Words
Hume’s Problem Of Induction

In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume challenges the traditional theories of causality, the idea that one can make an observation about two events and infer a new claim concerning the conjunction of the first event and the “resulting” second event. Instead of accepting this notion of causality, Hume questions the certainty of matters of fact and more specifically induction. Hume states there are two distinct types of knowledge: relations of ideas and matters of fact. Relations of ideas are products of deductive, truth-preserving inferences. For instance, the statement 2+2=4 will always be true and cannot be negated without contradiction. Hume denotes relations of ideas as ‘a priori’ , ideas that can be known without experience. On the other hand, matters of fact are products of inductive reasoning that can be negated with contradiction because they may only be known through experience. Hume reckons that experience doesn’t prove very much because the future cannot be proven by the past. Even though we have seen something over and over again, doesn’t mean that it will happen tomorrow or the next day after that. For instance, one could conclude the sun will rise tomorrow morning based on the observation that it has risen every morning of our existence. Yet, this relationship between the morning and the sun rising “leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition” (Hume 267) that goes beyond our present observations and memory. In essence, cause and effect is no more than ones meaningless habit of association. We have no rational basis for believing that the sun will rise, yet we choose to believe it.

In response to his problem of induction, Hume poses a skeptical solution indulging upon habits and beliefs. He recognizes that there is no exact solution to address the problem of induction because as human beings, when we observe the constant conjunction of two events occurring repetitively, we habitually grow accustom to associating them with each other. In our minds we create a necessary connection, so the next time we see the event happen, we automatically assume the resulting event. The idea that every morning the sun will rise demonstrates humanity’s habit of association. Even though we have seen the sun rise in the past, doesn’t guarantee that it will reoccur, but the experience of seeing it rise so many times produces this expectation within that it will rise again tomorrow. Hume notes that these types of customary conjunctions surround humanity everyday: flame and heat, snow and cold, ravens and black. Experience leads us to believe such causal relationships exist because we don’t know any differently. Nobody has ever held a white raven or touched a cold fire, but what says the possibility for such a thing to occur in the future is impossible? Hume’s argument suggests that we consider how we make factual inferences, since we cannot justify what is sought to be the impossible from happening. Hume recognizes the idea to form these causal relationships is not optional; humanity has no choice but to accept the Uniformity of Nature, “the assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now, have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe” (Uniformitarianism 1). Nobody can disapprove nor prove such matters of fact. We believe them because we choose to. Hume is just pointing out that it’s circular to say that the future will resemble the past, unless you have observed the future yourself. Without the assumption that past experience will be a replica of future experience, inductive reasoning is unjustified.

The structure of Hume’s argument claims that the problem of induction poses a serious threat for traditional theories of causation. Hume’s justification of his concerns about inductive reasoning validate the fact that we cannot base the future off of the past. Unless somebody has experienced the future for themselves, we cannot make claims with one-hundred percent certainty that something will happen. The expectation that the sun will rise tomorrow is unjustified, circular and weak. Just because the scientific method has been successful in the past, doesn’t mean it will continue to be successful in the future. All empirical science and everyday reasoning does in fact depend upon induction. If Hume states that induction is irrational, this means that the sciences and everyday reasoning are just as irrational. However, even if induction may not be that good, it is the best approach to acquiring such knowledge. Induction allows us to gain knowledge of the universe that would not merely be possible if we based our knowledge solely upon means of deduction. In doing so, this would lead to the problem of deduction and it’s this conclusion that proves the accuracy of Hume’s argument.

Even after recognizing the threats posed by induction, Hume’s solution fails to answer the problem, due to the fact that induction is unsolvable. Instead, Hume confirms that there is nothing that can physically stop a human-being from inductively thinking. If you constantly see something over and over again, it is merely impossible not to associate the two events in conjunction with one another. The reason being is humans have a natural instinct to associate ideas. We habitually say event A caused event B, if we repetitively observe such a connection. According to Hume, nothing can possibly justify induction. There is no definitive way of creating a logical solution. The success of science is a valid attempt to disprove the problem of induction, but this response ends up being a circular argument because success in the past doesn’t guarantee success in the future. In short, we can use induction with certainty when we can prove it is reliable, but for now we can only ponder upon the possibilities of uncertainties that the problem of induction poses.

Works Cited

Hume , David. A Treatise of Human Nature. 1739. Print.

"Uniformitarianism." n.pag. Memidex. Web. 12 Apr 2013.

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