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The Secret Connexion, Part I

My favorite Christmas present this year was one of several from Diane, love of my life.

The one I have in mind was a book both of substantive philosophy and of the history of philosophy written by Galen Strawson, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin. The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David Hume (2014).  The first edition of the book came out a quarter century ago, this second edition, judging from all the post-1989 references, is the product of a good deal of additional toil. And to answer an obvious question: no, it wasn't Diane's idea to buy this for me, but I am grateful she accepted my prodding in this direction with good grace.

Strawson's historical point is that David Hume is often misunderstood on the issue of causation. He is seen as having denied that there is any such thing as Causation (capital "C"), allowing only a sort of lower-case causation. There is, in his opinion as generally understood, no force in the world of events and objects by virtue of which some events regularly produce other events, inclusive of impacts upon the human senses. That would be Causation. Rather, there is only the bare fact of regularity of succession, the lower-case "causation."

That standard understanding of Hume is, Strawson says, quite mistaken. It is the work of subsequent positivists fishing about for an ancestor. Hume did believe in Causation, he just didn't believe that humans understand or ever will be able to understand it. His epistemological point is mistaken for a metaphysical/ontological point.

Hume said for example that we humans "are ignorant of those powers and forces on which [the] regular course and succession of objects totally depends." It doesn't follow that there are no such powers or forces. Indeed, if there weren't, it wouldn't make any sense to bemoan our "ignorance" thereof, as Hume plainly does. So he presumes what he is often thought to have denied.

Strawson also contends that Hum was more-or-less right in all of this -- right to believe in Causation as something to which we can at least make vague reference, and right to contend that we can know very little about it, though our acquaintance with lower-case causation may confuse us into believing otherwise. This is the philosophical point, beyond the historical argument.

I hope to examine Strawson's case in more detail in each of my next two blog entries. Tomorrow the substantive philosophical argument, Saturday the historical question of what to think about Hume.


  1. Christopher,

    Perhaps I should wait for your next to blog posts to comment on this subject, but it seems to me that there is little practical difference between the epistemological view and the metaphysical/ontological view. This is because, even if Hume believed that Causation exists, he could not prove it, because there is no evidence for it other than regularity of succession, and regularity of succession could be coincidental. If Hume believed that Causation exists, then he did so for the same reason that everyone believes it, which is that it seems impossible that a sufficiently persistent regularity of succession, such as water boiling when heated to 212 degrees, could be coincidental. Nevertheless, as impossible as it seems, it could be coincidental. Therefore, whether Hume believed in Causation seems of little interest philosophically, but perhaps revealing of Hume's psychology. Was he, like most people, willing to believe something that seems obvious even in the absence of proof, or was he an extreme stickler for proof?

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  3. Henry, in the big picture, Strawson's interpretation makes Hume seem a good deal more Kantian than the standard interpretation. Causation with a capital "c" is there, but unknowable. Furthermore, this unknowable is of tremendous importance. It is whatever-it-is that renders the world a place of predictable sequences -- that renders the world habitable.

    In general, Strawson's argument reminds me of the following words of Bertrand Russell, "Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation...."

  4. Christopher,

    If there is no Causation with a capital "c," but merely coincidental regularity of succession, then the world would still be habitable if we acted as if there were Causation with a capital "c." Consider, for example, the fact that, as far as we know, nobody who has exited a building through an upper-story window has done anything other than fall to the ground, with grave consequences. I might not believe in Causation with a capital "c," and therefore I might believe it possible that, if I exited from an upper-story window, I might gently glide to the ground or perhaps fly. Nevertheless, I would decide to take the stairs or the elevator down, because, after all, I cannot prove the absence of Causation with a capital "c," anymore than I can prove the non-existence of God. I suppose that I am advocating a form of Pascal's wager when it comes to exiting buildings from upper-story windows, or more generally, when it comes to ignoring the possible existence of Causation with a capital "c.".


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