Topics: Causality, Psychology, David Hume Pages: 22 (6235 words) Published: October 29, 2013
Why History Matters: Associations and Causal Judgment in Hume and Cognitive Science

Mark Collier
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: mcollier@morris.umn.edu


(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...

References: Allan, L.G. (1993). Human contingency judgments: Rule based or associative?
Psychological Bulletin, 114, 435-448.
Bennett, J. (1971). Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central themes. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Bereiter, C
Cheng, P.W., and Holyoak, K.J. (1995). Complex adaptive systems as intuitive
Churchland, P.M. (1989). A neurocomputational perspective: The nature of mind and the
structure of science
Churchland, P.M. (1995). Engine of reason, seat of the soul. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
MIT Press.
Collier, M. (1999). Filling the gaps: Hume and connectionism on the continued existence
of unperceived objects
Collier, M. (2005a). A new look at Hume’s theory of probabilistic inference. Hume
Studies, 31, 21-36.
Collier, M. (2005b). Hume and cognitive science: the current status of the controversy
over abstract ideas
De Houwer, J., and Beckers, T. (2002). Higher-order retrospective revaluation in human
causal learning
De Houwer, J., and Beckers, T. (2003). Secondary task difficulty modulates forward
De Houwer, J., Beckers. T., and Vandorpe, S. (2005). Evidence for the role of higher
order reasoning processes in cue competition and other learning phenomena.
De Houwer, J., Vandorpe, S., and Beckers, T. (2005). On the role of controlled cognitive
processes in human associative learning
Dickinson, A., Shanks, D, and Evenden, J. (1984). Judgment of act-outcome
contingency: The role of selective attention
Dickinson, A. (2001). Causal learning: An associative analysis. Quarterly Journal of
Experimental Psychology, 54B, 3-25.
Glymour, C. (1998). Learning causes: Psychological explanations of causal explanation.
Gormezano, I., and Kehoe, J.E. (1981). Classical conditioning and the law of contiguity.
Hume, D. (1978). A treatise of human nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(Original work published 1739)
Jessop, T.E
Lagnado, D., and Sloman, S. (2004). The advantage of timely interevention. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 30, 856-876.
Pears, D. (1991). Hume’s system: An examination of the first book of his Treatise.
Pineno, O., and Miller, R. (2007). Comparing associative, statistical, and inferential
reasoning accounts of human contingency learning
Read, S.J., and Marcus-Newhall, A. (1993). Explanatory coherence in social
explanations: A parallel distributed processing account
Continue Reading

Please join StudyMode to read the full document

Become a StudyMode Member

Sign Up - It's Free