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Putting it all together

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In the opening days of this year I wrote several posts inspired by Galen Strawson's book about David Hume and the issue of causation.

Today, I return to that issue with simply an editorial change. I've sliced those posts together into one, and removed some unnecessary duplication or throat clearing. The result follows:

THE SECRET CONNEXION (2014), by Galen Strawson, looks at David Hume's views on causation at great length, and brings in Kant in a fascinating way. Strawson has impressive credentials as a philosopher, but I'll let you look that material up for yourself. What I'll explain here is Strawson's bottom line on causation: HUME AND KANT WERE SAYING THE SAME THING. And what they were saying is a view that Strawson respects, although he doesn't quite seem to adopt it as his own. 

Through much of the book, Strawson makes a historical point, that 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 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.  

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. 

One of Strawson's underlying points is that Hume considered Berkeley's metaphysics a plausible one -- neither certain nor probable, but coherent and on its own terms irrefutable. Berkeley saw the world as consisting of a God, various human minds, and the ideas that God implants into their/our minds. These ideas include the entire sensory world, including the regularities we might describe as examples of causality. Berkeley too, then, believes in a separation between causation lower-case and Causation. In causation, a first sensory event (a) precedes another (b) and we say that a caused b -- the hand that dropped the ball in that action caused the ball to fall to the ground. In the deeper meaning, Causation, the first and second sensory events are both given us/caused/produced by the Divine Mind directly. All reality is immaterial and true Cause likewise. 

One of Strawson's underlying points is that Hume considered Berkeley's metaphysics a plausible one -- neither certain nor probable, but coherent and on its own terms irrefutable. Berkeley saw the world as consisting of a God, various human minds, and the ideas that God implants into their/our minds. These ideas include the entire sensory world, including the regularities we might describe as examples of causality. Berkeley too, then, believes in a separation between causation lower-case and Causation. In causation, a first sensory event (a) precedes another (b) and we say that a caused b -- the hand that dropped the ball in that action caused the ball to fall to the ground. In the deeper meaning, Causation, the first and second sensory events are both given us/caused/produced by the Divine Mind directly. All reality is immaterial and true Cause likewise.

Hume didn't endorse that view, but he always took it into account. This even shows up in the wording of statements that seem only tangentially related. Consider Philo, Hume's mouthpiece in the "Dialogues on Natural Religion," arguing against the inference that a supernatural intelligence must have created the world. Philo says there are at least two possibilities, "For aught we can know a priori, matter may contain the source or spring of order originally within itself ... there is no more difficulty in conceiving, that the several elements, from an internal unknown cause, may fall into the most exquisite arrangement, than to conceive that their ideas, in the great, universal mind, from a like internal unknown cause, may fall into that arrangement., The equal possibility of both these suppositions is allowed."

Consider the language in which Philo allows for the theistic supposition. It isn't a matter of God as an architect creating a material world. Rather, it is of God, as the great universal mind, falling into a particular "arrangement" of His own "ideas" which corresponds to the "most exquisite arrangement" in which we find things. That's a rather Berkelayan wording of the possibility of a world with God at its heart.

One common trope in the history of philosophy takes Berkeley, Hume, and Kant as a triptych of epistemological and metaphysical warriors, each setting out to overthrow the one before, to become the new champion. In a sense Strawson takes over this trope. Berkeley and Kant are both referenced quite often in this book centered on Hume. BUT ... Strawson sees their relations differently.

Just as Hume respectfully incorporates the possibility of a Berkeleyan world into his writing, so Hume anticipates Kant's distinction between noumenal and phenomenal worlds. In Strawson's view, these three aren't contending warriors, they are allies, the Three Amigos of philosophy!

I'm going perhaps beyond Strawson now, but I'll try to formulate the philosophy of these amigos as Strawson understands them in a series of propositions.

1. The world we unreflexively think we're living in is real only in a conditional sense, it is less than fully real.

2. Since our intellect and senses are adapted for [or to] this living world, we are definitionally not adapted to comprehension of the fully real world.

3. It is reasonable to expect that in that Really Real world there exists a relationship of cause and effect, though as implied in (2) there is much we cannot know about that.

4. One possibility we might imagine (though we may not claim to know it) about the Really real world is that it centers on a deep cosmic intelligence, a God, with whom we are all in direct contact, for he sends us the ideas that we mistake for self-standing material objects.

5. It is possible to do more than imagine this, (4) but to believe in it, to have faith in it. It simply isn't possible to KNOW it to be the case.

Is that unified vision of the world as it appeared to these three thinkers an appealing one to us in the 21st century?

Probably not. One problem: doesn't it amount to postulating a God who is at work deceiving us? Isn't that uncomfortably akin to the creature Descartes worried about, a malicious deceiving demon?

"Demon, be thou my God." Is that the gist as we get it from this troika?


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