For this week we are going to look at the Philosopher known as David Hume. In his work A Treatise on Human Nature Hume sought to define the basic principles underlying human knowledge. He asked two questions:
*How do we know anything for certain?
*And what exactly is it that we do know for certain?
These are two very large philosophical questions that Hume would take on throughout his work. Hume would call into question all that we think we know in terms of religion and science using empiricism as his method and means. Empiricism means all knowledge is derived from sense-based experience. Our senses in biological and ecological terms. Hume’s thinking was in step in with experimental science in the 17th and 18th centuries of Europe. All knowledge, according to Hume is based on our experiences. Hume’s philosophical approach involves an all-out challenge to what we think we know in terms of science and religion. Experience, according to Hume consists of:
“Those perceptions which enter with most force and violence we may name impressions; and, under this name, I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these (impressions) in thinking and reasoning…Every simple idea has a simple impression which resembles it.” Our complex thinking then is derived from impressions by way of simple ideas. Hume would argue impressions and ideas are the only certain basis for our knowledge and what we think we know. He would argue then: objects, continuity, the self, cause and effect – all are shown to be fallacious notions. Ultimately, we never actually experience an object in its authentic form, but only by impressions like that of color, shape, consistency, and taste.
Think about it this way: Can you actually see the molecular structure of your computer as you are looking at these words on your screen without an electron microscope? No. What you are seeing then is what has been created by matter coalescing in a certain way to form what appears to be what we call a computer. Impression gives rise to an idea of a person, place, or thing, and then an idea in your mind, forms a certain notion of reality! Another way to think about this is in terms of a mirage. What you think you see is not what is necessarily there at all! It’s not a puddle of hot water you see on the horizon of a road on a hot summer’s day. Just your mind working to relate to what it thinks it is experiencing versus what is actually there in front of you. Whew.
What this boiled down to from Hume’s point of view concerning our experiences with reality, was that life is utterly precarious as it concerns human experience, and ways of knowing. Hume would argue that we can only think we know a lot about life – but in reality – what we know is only supposition. Thus, the importance of logic, reason, critical thinking, and an empirical approach to testing knowledge. Without this form of pragmatic thinking, what we think we know we might seek to make real. If anything about human life shows us – this can be very precarious to say the least. A few examples I can think of include the mental construction of things like racism (which is important in consideration of Hume’s thoughts on race as they are highly questionable and should be addressed in philosophical circles), sexism, and reasons derived for the condoning of colonial genocidal acts. Never mind just our everyday perceptions of what we consider to be real. Real, based on our impressions of what we think we know about a person, place, or thing. This, to me, is why it is so, so, important to do your homework and research on anything, and I mean anything, being offered in the world of social media these days. Human ideas and impressions unchecked can have violent and deadly results for self, other, and the planet.
With Hume, nothing was devoid of being able to be questioned empirically, thus rendering nothing to be sacred anymore. For Hume, both religion and science need to be pragmatically and critically challenged daily as it concerns truth. According to Hume, truth in its most authentic form, is available to everyone and not just maintained by oppressive systems of thought, rule, and knowledge. Hume’s was a progressive challenge to an orthodox time period that further established the importance of learning how to think, see, and experience the world for yourself in terms of religious doctrines, scientific rationale, and political social constructs.
Some quotes from our reading this week from Hume’s: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
*When we [suspect] that a philosophical term is employed without any meaning…we need but inquire, from what impression is that supposed idea derived?
*The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction.
*Belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object, than what the imagination alone is ever able to attain.
*We must not, however, expect…that all men, in the same circumstances, will always act precisely in the same manner.
*Animals, as well as men learn many things from experience, and infer, that the same events will always follow from the same causes.
*If we take…any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics…let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number [or] any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?
Further Background Reading (An Excellent Source):
Questions for Reflection:
*What is an impression?
*What is an idea?
*How do impressions create ideas? How do ideas define our experience of reality in terms of a person, place, or thing? Use an example in your response to this question.
*Why does Hume say that it is really important to challenge impressions and ideas with pragmatic thinking, critical thinking, logic, and reason in an experimentally scientific fashion? Use a real life example of why this might be an important way to challenge ideas and impressions. (Think social media.)
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