Saturday, July 2, 2011

In The Beginning - Part 3

3. Impossible Question

“Reason alone can never give rise to any original idea, and reason, as distinguished from experience, can never make us conclude, that a cause or productive quality is absolutely requisite to every beginning of existence.” [1]
I was not being flippant when I listed the third possible answer to the question of the origin of the physical world as “It is impossible to know the answer to this question, so it is pointless to ask.” It is important to understand that the phrase “impossible to know the answer to this question” is not meant in the same way that someone might say that a calculus problem is impossible, meaning of course that it is very difficult. By “impossible,” I mean literally “not possible.” Perhaps a better way to phrase Answer #3 would be as follows: “The question of the origin of the physical world is beyond the reach of human reason or experience; therefore, we can have no informed opinion about this topic.” Now let’s look at this possible answer in more depth.
To say that it is impossible to know the answer to this question is a form of skepticism. While skepticism is as old as philosophy itself, it is David Hume’s particular brand of skepticism that I have in mind and that is most relevant to this question. Every significant modern variation of Answer #3 of which I’m aware traces its roots back to Hume, so it is on Hume’s philosophy that I will focus. I will do my best to provide a concise and faithful summary of Hume’s position below, but I highly recommend reading Book I, Part III of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature [2] which, although it draws on earlier parts of the Treatise, provides the reader with a reasonably thorough understanding of Hume’s position on this topic. Hume believed that all of our ideas, and ultimately all human understanding, is derived from experience, or in the language of epistemology, is a posteriori. Hume thus rejected the idea of a priori knowledge; the type of knowledge the justification of which does not depend on experience. According to Hume, the way we learn is by seeing event B follow event A multiple times, and from these observations we draw the inference that B always follows A. One radical aspect of Hume’s philosophy is that he rejects any a priori understanding of causation, and thus he ultimately rejects the idea that every effect must have a cause. For everyday events the practical consequences of this is of interest only to philosophers. For example, if we see two objects that we have never seen before about to collide, we can form a judgment about what will happen, and the legitimacy of this judgment would not be rejected by a Humian philosopher. This is because, following Humian reasoning, even though we never saw these two particular objects collide before, we all have ample experience seeing other objects collide that have enough in common with these two novel objects such that we can legitimately form a judgment, based upon our experience seeing similar objects collide, about what will happen when these two previously never seen before objects collide. However, for the Humian, the game completely changes if we are examining a truly unique event. The Humian would argue that we can have no knowledge about the origin of the physical world because the creation, or the coming into existence of the physical world, is a singular and completely unique event, and thus inductive reasoning can tell us nothing about it. Since all human reasoning is inductive, the Humian would argue, it follows that we can know nothing about the origin of the physical world. Put in terms of my description of Humian epistemology above, if B represents the effect of the existence of the physical world, since we have no experience with events of type B, we can know nothing about A, and going even further, we cannot even conclude that there was an A.
I do not agree with Answer #3 because I disagree with the fundamental Humian tenet that all human knowledge is derived from experience. The most concise refutation of Hume which I have read comes from the pen of R.L. Dabney, a 19th Century Reformed theologian, in his Lectures in System Theology Dabney wrote:
“Let us not then refute Hume from his own premises; for they are false. It is not experience which teaches us that every effect has its cause, but the a priori reason… Neither child nor man believes that maxim to be true in the hundredth case, because he has experienced its truth in ninety-nine; he instinctively believed it in the first case. It is not a true canon only so far as experience proves its presence. If it were, would induction ever teach us anything we did not know before? Would there be any inductive science? Away with the nonsense! Grant that the world is a “singular effect.” It is a phenomenon, it should not be without a cause of its being, either extrinsic, or intrinsic. And this we know, not by experience, but by one of those primitive judgments of the reason, which alone make experience intelligible and valid.” [3]
The importance of the “primitive judgments of the reason” to which Dabney refers cannot be overstated. I call these primitive judgments “intuition” and will discuss intuition in detail in subsequent posts. In brief, these are judgments we make that are prior to deductive reasoning. These intuitive judgments must therefore be more certain than judgments arrived at using deductive reasoning. One example of an intuitive belief is the belief that deductive reasoning itself is valid. A moment’s thought makes it clear that using deductive reasoning to prove that deductive reasoning itself is valid is absurd. Our belief in deductive reasoning is an intuitive judgment; it is a judgment which we immediately see as true without the need for any type of logical argument. Another example of a truth arrived at by intuition is Descartes’ conclusion in the Second Meditation that “I am, I exist” [4] which is more well know from its expression in other works as “I think, therefore I am.” In Descartes’ own words, “When someone says ‘I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist’, he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind.” [5]
Now let us look at Dabney’s refutation of Hume in a little more detail. At first glance Hume’s tenet that our belief in causation is based completely on experience might seem valid, even common sense, but a deeper look reveals just how radical this idea really is. Suppose you are in a room and you see someone press a button on the wall and then you hear a ding. You would naturally conclude that there is probably a causal chain that connects the pressing of the button to the ding; however, you would not be certain of this because it could have merely been a coincidence that the ding sounded at the same time the button was pressed. Of course additional experience of hearing the ding after the button was pressed would strengthen your belief in a causal link. However, even after hearing the ding for the first time, would there be any doubt in your mind that something caused the ding? Even if the ding was not the end of a causal chain initiated by pressing the button, you certainly believe the ding must have been caused by something. You believe this because you have an a priori belief in causation. You believe that all physical events must have causes.
Experience alone could not have lead to this belief because experience alone can do nothing more than indicate probability. The moment you cross the line from “highly probable” to “absolutely certain” you have crossed the line from a posteriori reasoning to a priori reasoning. Again, I submit that you do not believe that it is merely highly probable that something caused the ding, you believe it is absolutely certain that something caused the ding. Speaking more generally, we do not merely think it is highly probable that every physical event has a cause, we are certain that every physical event has a cause. This leads to two possibilities. First, our belief in causality is flawed; it is not certain that all physical events have causes, it is merely highly probable. Second, Hume is wrong and we must accept the truth that our belief in causality is a valid a priori judgment. Now the idea that all physical events must have causes is inseparable from our understanding of causality, and thus if we try to remove the “must” from causality, then causality itself ceases to exist as a concept with any vigor. To accept Hume’s argument you would have to stop believing that all physical effects have causes. So what might have seemed almost common sense at first glance, in fact turns out to be a rejection of one of the most fundamental of all human beliefs, a belief upon which all science is based, that all physical effects must have a causes.
The truth is that we know by a simple intuition of the mind that all physical events must have causes, these causes might be incredibly complex, and our senses might not always be the best way to determine these causes, but this is no way diminishes this belief. Furthermore, our belief that all physical events must have causes is not strengthened by additional experience. Hearing thunder follow a flash of lightning one more time in no way increases our belief in causality. That experience does not strengthen our belief in causality is another proof that our belief in causality does not depend on experience.
To my argument above the Humian might respond that we are indeed mistaken, that we do not understand our own judgments; specifically, that we do not properly understand our own belief in causation. He would have to say that our belief in causation is strengthened by experience, but that our experience is so great that the additional strengthening is imperceptible, it would be similar to strengthening the Hover Dam by placing a single additional bucket of concrete at its base. My reply would be to ask the Humian, why should I reject my strongly perceived intuitive belief in causation? Upon what grounds would he have me reject such a strong intuition? This intuition is as strong as the intuition that deductive reasoning is valid, and it is as strong as the intuition that “I think, therefore I am.” If our intuition is so flawed as to lead us to such a false judgment about causation, does this not call into question all of our intuitive judgments such as the belief that deductive logic itself is valid? If human intuition is so flawed, all human knowledge is undermined. Surely Hume would not call into question our intuitive belief in deductive logic and thus undermine all human knowledge? I believe Hume’s answer, if he spoke plainly and honestly, would be that he rejects an a priori basis for a causation because admitting an a priori basis for causation would lead to inevitable conclusions which he is not willing to accept, the most important of which being the metaphysical problem of existence, which is of course the subject of this post. Thus I believe that Hume’s metaphysical beliefs are driving his epistemological beliefs, not the other way around as he and modern Humanians would have us believe.
In conclusion, I reject Answer #3 because accepting Answer #3 would require us not only to reject our a priori intuitive belief that all physical events must have causes, but it would also call into question the validity of all intuitive judgments which are the foundation of all human knowledge.
Part 2 - Something from Nothing
Part 4 - The First Cause
1. ^ Hume, David, L.A. Selby-Bigge, and P.H. Nidditch. A Treatise of Human Nature. 2nd. Oxford University Press, 1978. 157. Print.
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2. ^ Hume 69-179
3. ^ Dabney, R.L. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Baker Books, 1985. 18. Print.
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4. ^ Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Vol. 2. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 17. Print.
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5. ^ Descartes 100

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