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The Secret Connexion, Part II

Continuing yesterday's train of thought...

Galen Strawson

Strawson (pictured here) observes that there are differences between the young Hume and the mature Hume: the fellow who wrote the TREATISE (1740) and the man who wrote the ENQUIRY (1748). To some extent, at least, the positivistic reading of Hume on causation follows from some dramatic overstatements in the earlier book, overstatements that Hume later regretted. In the latter book he said, "the positive air, which prevails in that book, and which may be imputed to the ardor of youth, so much displeases me, that I have no patience to review it."

Strawson also sometimes quotes from DIALOGUES ON NATURAL RELIGION, which was written subsequent to the ENQUIRY by at least another couple of years, and specifically of course the words of Philo, the Humean mouthpiece there.

At any rate: Strawson reads Hume, at all stages of his working life, in such a way as to connect the issue of causation/Causation to the issue of the independent reality of material objects -- another point on which Hume's epistemological skepticism can (but shouldn't) be taken as a metaphysical denial. This is, after all, why the word "realism" appears in the subtitle of the book.

On the reality of material objects, Strawson says, Hume at least allowed for the possibility that objects in a Lockean sense do exist, "tables and chairs more or less as ordinarily conceived" as Strawson puts it. Given this, even as a possibility, we have to have our doubts already that Hume would have entertained a regular-succession-only dogma about causation. For the combination of realism about objects and positivism about causation is at best a volatile one.  It amounts to saying that regularity rather than chaos occurs from moment to moment in this realm of tables and chairs, but there is no reason why regularity occurs. The highly regular nature of the world we observe is a huge continuing fluke. That is the sort of belief that we ought to attribute to Hume only upon finding unambiguous textual evidence, and Strawson can't find it.

Indeed at one point, admittedly tucked away in a footnote on p. 89, Strawson suggests that positivists about causation don't so much need to be refuted as to be cured. Here is part of that footnote, "A generally positivist approach to things may ... be presented as admirably modest and clean-limbed in its self-denying austerity, while simultaneously fulfilling a deep and unacknowledged psychological need, insofar as it renders everything safe, tidy, inspectable, masterable, encompassable, and relieves anxiety or unease about the unknown or unknowable."

It is possible to believe that there is a level of objective indeterminacy in nature (because of quantum mechanics or whatever) without jumping all the way into the denial of real objects or Causation. To say hat "99% of all Xs which have Y become Z" is still to state a regularity, and to keep chaos at bay, and still raises the question whether it is a fact about the nature of Xs, and thus about the nature of the world, or just a fluke.


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