Scottish philosopher David Hume was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith, but today his ideas are less widely taught. This article, by British philosopher Julian Baggini, introduces readers to David Hume, whose skepticism and empiricism were influential in fueling the Enlightenment.
"[According to Hume] our belief in the power of cause and effect, on which all our reasoning about matters of fact rests, is not justified by either observation or by logical deduction. We only ever see one thing following another: we never observe any power that makes one thing necessitate an effect. Even if we could be satisfied that we had established x caused y, logic can’t establish any general principle of causation, since all the regularities we have observed in nature were in the past, but the principle of cause and effect is assumed to apply in the present and future. Logically, you can never arrive at a truth about the future based entirely on premises that concern the past: what has been is not the same as what will be. ... Hume saw human beings as we really are, stripped of all pretension. We are not immortal souls temporarily encaged in flesh, nor the pure immaterial minds Descartes believed he had proved we were. Humans are animals – remarkable, highly intelligent ones – but animals nonetheless. ... Arguing against Descartes’s claim that we are aware of ourselves as pure, undivided egos, Hume challenged that when he introspected, he found no such thing. What we call the ‘self’ is just a ‘bundle of perceptions’. Look inside yourself, try to find the ‘I’ that thinks and you’ll only observe this thought, that sensation: an ear worm, an itch, a thought that pops into your head. Hume ... anticipated the findings of contemporary neuroscience which has found that there is no central controller in the brain, no one place where the sense of self resides. Rather the brain is constantly executing any number of parallel processes. What happens to be most central to consciousness depends on the situation. ... For Hume, morality is rooted in nothing more than ‘sympathy’: a kind of fellow-feeling for others which is close to what we now call empathy. Moral principles cannot be derived by logical deductions, nor are they eternal, immortal principles that somehow inhere in the Universe. We behave well to others for no other reason than that we see in them the capacity to suffer or to thrive, and we respond accordingly. Someone who does not feel such sympathy is emotionally, not rationally, deficient."
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