Why History Matters: Associations and Causal Judgment in Hume and Cognitive Science
University of Minnesota, Morris
Abstract: It is commonly thought that Hume endorses the claim that causal cognition can be fully explained in terms of nothing but custom and habit. Associative learning does, of course, play a major role in the cognitive psychology of the Treatise. But Hume recognizes that associations cannot provide a complete account of causal thought. If human beings lacked the capacity to reflect on rules for judging causes and effects, then we could not (as we do) distinguish between accidental and genuine regularities, and Hume could not (as he does) carry out his science of human nature. One might reply that what appears to be rule-governed behavior might emerge from associative systems that do not literally employ rules. But this response fails: there is a growing consensus in cognitive science that any adequate account of causal learning must invoke active, controlled cognitive processes.
Keywords: David Hume, associative learning, rules for judging causes and effects.
Hume’s account of causation is his most important legacy in the history of philosophy. His first major contribution to the philosophy of causation involves the definitional question: How should we analyze the concept of causation? Hume worries that we often use causal terms without the foggiest notion of what they mean. When philosophers are pressed to define causation, for example, they typically maintain that “A causes B if and only if A produces B or brings about B or necessitates B.” But these causal terms are all synonymous, and thus we have been taken around in a circle Requests for reprints should be sent to Mark Collier, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Minnesota, Morris, 600 East Fourth Street, Morris, Minnesota 56267. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1739/1978, p. 157). Hume makes significant progress, therefore, when he offers a deflationary analysis of causation in terms of invariable regularities. Hume recognizes that it is one thing to analyze what the term causation means, however, and another thing to explain how we discover causes and effects. Hume’s second major contribution to the philosophy of causation involves the epistemological question: How can we make causal inferences? The definitional and epistemological issues are, of course, closely related: if causes are constituted by constant conjunctions, then we can discover causes by searching for invariable sequences. For example, every time the ignition key is turned, the car starts. Since one event always follows another, we can pronounce them cause and effect. By taking the mystery out of causation, Hume has apparently taken the difficulty out of causal inference.
This is precisely how Hume characterizes our everyday causal inferences. We ordinarily make causal attributions whenever we observe a frequent repetition between events (p. 87). Why do we make causal inferences in this way? Hume’s answer is that these events have become associated in our imaginations; in short, we have become conditioned to do so.
When the mind… passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determin’d by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects, and unite them in the imagination. (p. 92)
Let us call this the “custom-habit” account. It has several important features. First, it does not postulate any explicit reasoning. We do not ordinarily make causal inferences through reflection, thought, or judgment; rather, our everyday causal attributions depend solely upon associative propensities of the imagination. Second, ordinary causal reasoning is automatic and implicit; when we approach a river, for example, we do not consciously deliberate about whether it is dangerous; rather, “custom operates before we have time for reflexion” (p. 104). Finally, this...
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