Friday, May 9, 2008

Hume & Chesterton on the Philosophy of Science

It seems appropriate to offer introduction and annotation in critical commentary, but I will curb my intuitions to let the texts speak for themselves.

I hope the juxtaposition of these two citations incites curiosity, romance, and rigorous intellectual effort.
For all inferences from experience suppose as their foundation that the future will resemble the past and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar qualities. If there is any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless and can give rise to no inference of conclusion. It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future, since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance. Let the course of things be allowed up to now ever so regular, that alone, without some new argument of inference, does not prove that for the future it will continue so. In vain do you pretend to have learned the nature of bodies from your past experience. Their secret nature and, consequently, all their effects and influence may change without any change in their sensible qualities. This happens sometimes and with regard to some objects. Why may it not happen always and with regard to all objects? What logic, what process of argument secures you against this supposition? My practice, you say, refutes my doubts. But you mistake the purport of my question. As an agent, I am quite satisfied in the point, but as a philosopher who has some share of curiosity--I will not say skepticism--I want to learn the foundation of this inference. No reading, no inquiry has yet been able to remove my difficulty or give me satisfaction in a matter of such importance.

- David Hume. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section IV: Part II.

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance.

- G. K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy, Chapter 4: The Ethics of Elfland.


  1. ethics of elfland? cool story hansel.

  2. Dear Hume,

    You’re a schmuck. I mean that in the anatomical-metaphorical sense, of course, for I confess you’re no dummy.

    (1) Inferred causal proposition p is epistemically justified iff the proposition intends at least two universal qualities which the agent has experienced in temporal succession such that the first universal (the cause) has brought about the next universal (the effect) and said agent has never experienced an exception.

    I submit that (1) (or something like it) is a priori true, and necessarily so. Disagree with me and I’ll settle on the classic, “well we just have different intuitions” response.

    But (1), admittedly, does little to show us how inferential premises actually show us how the world works rather then merely justifying our associating some things with other things.

    I still have nothing to say about this problem.

    But I do have a causal explanation of collisions.

    (2) No two bodies can occupy the same space.
    (3) Therefore collisions happen.

    I think Hume should have discussed these kinds of cases because they deal with a priori/necessary premises while still telling us about the world. This is significant because Hume said that “all matters of fact” can be denied without making a contradiction. True, in denying premise (2) you wouldn’t be contradicting yourself -but you’d be doing something just as bad- you’d be expressing a necessarily false proposition. All this to say a priori necessary propositions might be foundational in securing our inductive reasoning as well as our knowledge of the world.


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