Monday, January 28, 2008

An Explanation of Hume's Empiricism (for my History of Western Philosophy class)

(My back yard)

A simple way to understand Hume’s empiricism

Plato and Descartes were Rationalists. Truth and knowledge can be obtained by reasoning watched from empirical observation. One can arrive at some very important facts just by using reason in an a priori way.

Hume is an empiricist. All knowledge, for Hume, is grounded in sense experience.

There is no knowledge about which this cannot be said.

This means that for Hume, ultimately, there is no such thing as pure metaphysical knowledge. Even “pure” mathematics is grounded in the idea of causation, which proceeds from sense experience.

If any ethical, religious, metaphysical, or aesthetic judgments are to be called rational, it must be shown how they are grounded in sense experience.

Hume’s central example is that of causation, or cause and effect. How do we arrive at the idea of cause and effect?

The idea of cause and effect is not a priori. Hume writes: “Causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason but by experience.”

But, “There is no impression conveyed by our senses, which can give rise to that idea.”

This means: for any object set before us we can see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, and hear it. We can measure it and weigh it and discover its physical composition. But we will never, by mere sense observation, find “causality” in it.

For example, when a scientist studies DNA under a microscope and refers to it as “elegant,” he has just left science; he has just left the world of sense observation. A strand of DNA may have a certain length, but it does not contain some property called “elegance.”

Hume uses this kind of empirical reasoning to ask the question as to the nature of the human “self.” Since all knowledge is fundamentally sense knowledge, one never encounters something called a “self.” All we really do encounter are bundles of sense experiences; we feel pain or pleasure, we hear noises outside of us, we see colors and shapes. From all these sense observations, over time, we infer the idea of the “self.”

For Hume, ideas like that of a “self,” are but weaker versions of sense impressions.
Note: Whereas from Descartes we have a mind-body dualism, from Hume we have, ultimately, the elimination of "mind" in the sense that what we call "mind" is but an epiphenomenon of the material brain.