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Monday, November 28, 2005

David Hume: Mysterion?

The famous Scottish Skeptic David Hume, starting with the fundamental principles of Brittish Empiricism in the tradition of Locke and Berkeley, seems to undermine many of the motivations for the modern turn in philosophy, one of which is to provide a philosophical rational for science by following science as a model for philosophical justification. He seems to show that rather than succeeding at this, Brittish philosophy in principle cannot provide any warrant for science or common sense. But to relieve ourselves of this, he says "Nature" leads us where wisdom fails us and appeals to "custom" to account for our continued efforts at scientific induction and other things, including morality and religion.

It is hard for me to understand what he is doing here. Surely after sustaining such crititicism on Berkeleyan though for postulating "spirit" as the fundamental substance and saying that this is as unmotivated empirically as Locke's substratum -- his "something I know not what", such an appeal to "nature" is also unmotivated. What could we really say about nature and custom now when we couldn't say anything before?

This is especially puzzling when he talks about society as being something determined by a kind of evolutionary selection process. He seems to prefer the views of his fellow Scot Adam Smith who gives an evolutionary account based on natural egoism; socially benefiting institutions supervene of self-interested activities by the "invisible hand" of natural economic selection. But what this invisible hand is is not clear. Supposedly we might assume that the process refered to by the phrase 'invisible hand" is a completely socially natural process. On this view, Smith's account is just an extension of Hobbesian materialism and mechanism. We will have to say that apparently altruistic behavior is ultimately to be explained in terms of natural survival and self-regard.

But if that's right, it seems Hume is guilty of a kind of "bait and switch", appealing to skepticism to remove from the table views he does not like such as Berkeleyan Theism, in order to appeal to "nature" to re-introduce views he likes such as Hobbesian social materialism. But then Hume would be guilty of a double standard in his appealing to a skepticism which rules out both equally while supposedly appealing to one account of nature as opposed to another for reasons that skepticism is just not applied to. But if that is the case, Berkeley is at least prima facie legitimate in offering his own reasons for his preferences (a point that I think is not lost on Berkeley and is precisely what he does do in his three dialogues).

But what if Adam Smith is not offering a strictly Hobbesian account (see link) but simply asserting that there are both survival oriented but also genuinely self-disinterested motives in human nature but that both happened products of natural evolution, then human altruism appears mysterious against any sort of Hobbesian account. The view would be that "evolution" is just a name for the "that whatever it is" that produces the various moral affections in humans, some of which are egoistic and some of which are not. If that is the case, then all the method does is document what we do in fact place our affections on withou offering any prefered way of dealing with the paradoxes. But this is just to take such affection with equal seriousness. If this is what Hume is appropriating in his account of nature, Hume seems to be a kind of 18th century counterpart to those "mysterions" in contemporary philosophy that find reductionistic accounts of human nature to materialist sources inadequate but find nothing yet to replace them with.

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