Hume as not deranged

Christopher Howse:

It is hard not to think that Hume was deranged if he thought that, when you put the kettle on the fire and it boiled, the putting the kettle on was not the cause of the boiling effect.

But there’s a lot of daylight between (a) denying causality and (b1) denying distinct human knowledge of (b2) a necessary causal connection between objects that are (b3) not directly related to interior human states.  To explain:

(b1) The teaching referenced is from a section called Of Knowledge and Probability, in a book called Of the Understanding in a larger treatise not on reality but On Human Nature. We’re clearly speaking about what can be known about causes. Rather than speaking about causes in every possible sense, he speaks about causes as they can arise in the relation of a subject to its object.

(b2) Hume’s critique of causality goes only as far as his critique of necessary connection. Stripped to essentials, the argument is:

Necessary connection cannot be known.

Causes can be known so far as necessary connection can be.

Since Hume’s idea of necessity is what is true at all times, and we never perceive something at all times, then we can’t perceive a necessary connection. Prima facie, denying necessity becomes as self-evident as denying we can see the future.

It’s interesting to use this idea to contrast the Ancient and Contemporary accounts of science. Until Newton, it was generally thought that if we could not know causes, we could not have science since science was nothing but the logical order of causes in some subject area. Working from Hume’s account of cause and our Contemporary account of science, the exact opposite is true: if we knew causes, we could not verify predictions about anything, and science is most of all about verifying predictions. “Knowing causes” means the future is already given and so could not be predicted and later verified. Future data could not confirm scientific laws any more than future unmarried men could confirm our definition of a bachelor.

(b3) This is my own theory of Humian causality, but it is the only way I can make sense of how he rules out the possibility of causes in the First Book of the Treatise while he appeals to causes on almost every page of the Second Book. We can understand the causal relations between our own passions, appetites, knowledge, and other interior states because – unlike when we look at billiard balls – we can understand these active powers from the inside. The mere use of a straw can’t tell us whether we are pulling the liquid up or whether we are creating the conditions under which the atmosphere will push it down, but the mere use of the straw does involve a known relation between the straw and our thirst.

This also helps us to see why Howse’s objection to Hume’s theory is too ambiguous: when we put the pot on the fire the fire is being used as an instrument to our intention, and so far as we take it in this way there is real causality between the flame and the pot. But so far as we abstract from this and try to speak about causality in natural things, then we can object that fire no more obviously heats than our use of a straw pulls the liquid up. Or perhaps fire heats like the gallows-executioner drops the condemned man or like ice cools water. So far as we are talking about these things as instrumental to our intention, we can abstract from these differences, but as soon as we try to figure out the cause in itself (is it adding a form? Taking one away? Removing an impediment to one?) we see that, at the very least, the problem is a good deal more complicated, demanding that we make guesses that are capable of being confirmed by future evidence.

A political hypothesis

Hypothesis: Refuse to accept any individual or group as a political villain unless they routinely issue very large campaign checks. Under this, we get

possible villains: the NEA, CALPERS, Goldman Sachs, the members of our national insurance cartel, Mark Zuckerberg, the NRA.

not possible villains: Radical Islam, immigrants, American overconsumption, Leftists on campus, SUV’s, and (as a rule) all individual politicians.

The rule will miss a few obvious villains (corrupt city councils, ideological judges) but the spirit of the rule is to only vilify beings that have direct control (even if not total control) over the levers of power.

Sic et Non on evidence

A: … What, like we don’t have video of him?

B: Well yeah, I suppose so.

A: But no one I know thinks he’s the sort of thing you can videotape. Maybe you could expect to have this sort of evidence for Olympians – though even then I’m not sure.

B: That’s not the way the Bible talks about it. The heavens are opening all the time, lepers are being healed, fire is coming down out of heaven, smoke is covering Mt. Sion. That seems easy enough to videotape.

A: “All the time” seems too strong. About half the Old Testament miracles are during the exodus to the Holy Land, which is a relatively short period in salvation history. After that, the miracles are mostly for Elijah, with a few famous ones in Daniel. The videotaping standard won’t even work on that many of them: sure, it would be impressive to see fire come down on Elijah’s altar, but would it be that impressive to see Daniel all night in the lion’s den? If you saw the widow’s son rise from the dead, wouldn’t you just assume he revived?

B: Ah ha! You don’t even find the evidence impressive! Maybe Daniel just got lucky (The Romans couldn’t always make lions eat criminals) Maybe Elijah just got lucky – there are all sorts of stories about people with no vital signs reviving.

A: I took it another way. Big, videotapable miracles seem to happen at phase transitions in Salvation History: the shift from Israel being a group of landless slaves to being a nation; the shift from this nation ruled by kings to being ruled by prophets; the shift from their being a nation to being a wandering people, etc. The first shift is the most significant and accounts for half the miracles, most of the rest occur at the second phase, and a few happen at the last, along with some outlier miracles on the fringes. A Christian would expect the greatest concentration of miracles to occur with Christ, and then for the great public miracles to cease.

B: So we’re in an inter-miracle period.

A: Like the vast majority of history. Scripture records two thousand years of narrative history, and not a hundred years of it are great times of miracle. Even that overstates the case since we certainly don’t mean that we find a hundred years of continuous miracles when we add them all up.

B: But then there really isn’t evidence.

A: I was only trying to speak to your claim that Scripture makes us expect that miracles happen all the time.

B: Okay, but that just leaves you proving a small point but losing the main one. When we look closer at Biblical evidence, we see that it’s either unconvincing (a lucky man in a lion’s den) or that it only happens in rare, transition moments of history. But we need evidence do get us to believe now!

A: But if miracles happen primarily at transition points in Salvation History, then they’re not meant to get unbelievers to believe but to get believers to change their beliefs.  If anything, Scripture doesn’t hold out much hope for the power of miracles to cause unbelievers to believe. Consider Pharaoh. Consider that the plot to kill Christ was a response to the raising of Lazarus. Consider the final moral of Lazarus and Dives.

B: You can’t deny that a world with more signs and evidence is one where more people would believe. You can’t doubt that if everyone saw the heavens open up that belief would be far more reasonable.

A: I think that’s exactly what we’re disagreeing about. Your idea of God is a counterfactual opposed to both what we know about God by reason (which gives us no reason to expect videotape-style evidence or great theophanies) and what we know by revelation (since Scripture sees miracles as for believers) Just where are you getting this view of God that tells you he should open up the skies for everyone? What source of evidence can you appeal to prove this is the sort of thing that a God would do?




Sic et Non, Souls and Pre-existence

A: So, if the eye were an animal, vision would be its soul.

B: That’s what he says.

A: And you take that to mean that vision is both cause and effect of the eye in different ways: that we have a harmony (now called a “mechanist”) account of soul as an effect of complex parts, while the soul is also a source of genesis and continued existence.

B: Right. Vision explains facts about embryogenesis, why the body attacks certain things causing eye disease, and why it takes in certain nutrients that allow it to rebuild cells in the lens, to nourish the muscles that adjust focus, to swat out and flush out particles that fly into the eye, etc.

A: All this doesn’t object to the historical fact that eyes were selected for by chance, and might not have arisen from any plan in nature.

B: I’d prefer to say that but chance plays a role in the plan, like a coin-flip that the beginning of the game or the number-jostler in a bingo game, but sure, all this is in keeping with eyes arising from chance.

A: Fine, but your basic idea makes no sense. Speaking about vision prior to the eye is like talking about waterless waves or knowledge without a knower. In fact, I think this is exactly what you’re arguing for! If the mind were an animal, knowledge would be its soul!

B: But this is just how we find nature. Embryogenesis, immune responses, building tissues, etc. are all execution of plans. If “Plan” is too much of a metaphor, we might say that the present part of all these actions (talking in the right nutrient at time T) is clearly a part of a larger whole (nourishing the muscle at T + x). What is happening makes no sense except in relation to a whole that is both given and coming to be. In fact, this is just what a “process” is, and nature clearly follows processes.

A: You’ve got to pick: either the whole exists or it is coming to be.

B: Why’s that? Isn’t this just a variant of the Parmenides/Aristotle problem?

A: Maybe that’s right – we could take Aristotle’s final cause as being a way of saving the truth of Parmenides (and later Einstein). Every process must be somehow whole and given – for Aristotle it is given through the he ho heneka or “for the sake of which”.

B: The final cause.

A: Right, if by “final” we mean “the whole”, or complete actuality.

B: If that’s how we take it, then natural things are never whole all at once.

A: Right. They’re historical too, and to exist like that is to never be all at once.

B: So now you want history to be a whole in one sense and not in another? Or is that what I was saying?

A: You’re the one who wants wholes to both be there and not be there.

B: Yes. What else is a process? It’s paradoxical, but that’s just how we find nature.

A: So are you saying that, so far as nature is a unified process, it is already given even while it is being worked out?

B: Yes. That’s true of any process. Try to picture “pregnancy” in a way that could forever do without a timeline stretching from conception to implantation to birth. Still, at any given time one has either conception or implantation or development or birth. Saying that pregnancy is a whole process is a large part of what one means by its having a “final cause”.

A: But aren’t we proving too much now? Now everything is a whole, including all of nature! Why is it not alive?

B: I’m happier proving too much. This is another reason why we lose sight of soul. Let a thousand souls of things bloom.

A: This is pantheism.

B: Or maybe “soul” is only a whole that somehow depends for its being on the process.

A: There you go- wanting a soul to depend on the thing that arises and to pre-exist to it.


If they tell you, then, See, [the Messiah] is here, in the desert, do not be stirred up; if they tell you, See, he is there, in hidden places, do not believe them.

Mt. 24: 26.

The hidden places are the ταμεῖον, which is defined functionally as a place that is one’s own or personal. Luke uses the same term in “Whatever you say in the ταμεῖον shall be shouted from the rooftops”. In other words, it is the opposite of “public space” or “common space”.

And so false Messiahs will come either from outside the city or from spaces closed off from public view.

Working out an idea about history

A: Let’s critique history.

B: Like what?

A: Like Kant’s critique of metaphysics.

B: That didn’t leave all that much. Certainly very little of what was left before.

A: Maybe not. I want to give an account of history as unscience. 

B: Understand it as the opposite of science, then.

A: Right.

B: But hasn’t that critique been quietly playing itself out? Who would ever write a book like Hegel these days? We’d all roll our eyes and snicker at grand claims of universal structure in history. No one would ever teach history as a science these days.

A: I think this is a verbal solution to a much more difficult problem. Sure, we don’t use the word “science” but we treat the thing we’re studying as a scientific entity.

B: Explain.

A: We divide it up into stages of natural progression like it’s an organism. We pull back from the data and see eras like “Middle Ages” and “Reformation” and “Enlightenment”.

B: Sure, these are rough and inadequate generalizations and everyone recognizes that these days.

A: But that’s being understood on an analogy to the sciences too. A scientist will, say, disregard friction when watching things roll in order to get a clearer view of the main law governing the roll. But what if there is no underlying law to see? What good is the simplification?

B: So this is the sort of vanity you see in history?

A: Yeah. I want to turn simplification, which is so effective in science, into an analogy against history.

B: Why say there is no law though? Isn’t there a logic to decision that plays itself out over time?

A: No – a law is timeless but action is not.

B: Say more.

A: Laws are essentially predictive but history will never give us anything predictive. A predicting historian can’t be anything more than lucky. History never gets beyond time to law. How could it? What good is this simplification process?

B: That goes way too far. Look, human action has effects on the world, and some actions have way more effect than others. You can’t tell people to stop noticing this.

A: Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere. History is becomes collective psychology.  How were human beings affected by events and what effects did this lead to. Once we have a descent idea of psychological mechanisms, history should be a cinch.

B: And I suppose you think we have none.

A: Look, the history of psychiatry is not exactly a heroic narrative of success. How many Schools have been formed and lost? Is there anything more quaint than a 60 year old theory about a case file? I see no reason to think that 60 years from now they’ll read ours in the same way, and so on ad infinitum.  Is schizophrenia any more defined than neurasthenia? Sure, maybe we have a little more data, but all the categories are inadequate.

B: You and the extremes!

A: And you are always counseling a confused moderation that never says anything definite.


Mechanism and soul

The melody is both entirely responsible for the structure of the music box and entirely produced by it. Analogizing to biology, Mechanism limits itself to the second move, explaining how cell functions and the activities of life are just ways of playing out genetic information. Notice first that, even if this Mechanist project is possible, it is in no way opposed to an account of soul that not only arises within structure but is also prior to it.* There is also, however, discontent with the Mechanist project within biology itself, even if popular biology is quiet about it. Strohman summarizes the basic problem:

Genes specify information necessary to make proteins and the genome provides a collective informational source. However, by itself a genome is passive: DNA, for example cannot make itself, and cannot construct a protein never mind an actual cellular function. DNA has been called the book of life by HGP [human genome project] scientists but for many other biologists DNA is not a book but simply a collection of words from which a meaningful story of life may be assembled.


*If the soul is the sort of thing the ancients thought it was – an ultimate cause of life in the living – we could not expect to find it by our contemporary methods until our sciences were complete. We want to start with the sort of causes most known to us, and even with these our account has a dizzying complexity that no one would expect to be complete any time soon. In fact, “complete science” might be as contradictory as “final hypothesis”, and for the same reason. So Mechanism might relate to soul as something it approaches at an infinite limit. Physics might relate likewise to God.

Souls encoding in bodies

Soul: Whatever a living body has that its corpse lacks.

Answer 1: this is some complexity or arrangement of parts, appropriately energized. The proof is that if we put together the right stuff in the right way and hooked up to the right energy source, it will, ipso facto, be alive.

Problem: some things only arise from a complexity of arrangement because they cause it. A melody only arises from the music box because it was a principle that determined how the music box was built in the first place; webs only catch fly-sized things because they were spun with > fly gaps.

When Aristotle says “if the eye were an animal, vision would be its soul” he means to speak about vision in the same way that melody is responsible for the way the music box is built.  Notice we’re not talking about selection of the eye but its embryogenesis. Selection involves a lucky fit with an environment: embryogenesis does not.

If this is what soul is, then we come to understand the soul of things by looking to what operation sets them apart from other things. Man’s soul is said to be rational so far as, unlike either animals or machines, he deliberates over means and relates to objects as true.

Christ’s not knowing the final hour

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

The scandal of the passage for orthodox trinitarians is familiar; but one of the simplest responses is to read it as a part of a larger whole that is given fully in Christ’s last revelation:

It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

Acts 1: 7-9

While the operations of the Trinity in creation are indistinguishable (otherwise we would not need revelation to know them) their operations in salvation history are not; and so the Son does not know the time of the final revelation because to set this is the work of the Father. The Father thus constructs the formal structure of times which break forth in revelation,  Christ is the one revealed (“you shall be my witnesses”), and the Spirit is the one whose power effects the revelation (“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit, etc.”). Christ no more knows the hour of salvation than, say, the Spirit knows the message that is revealed, which is not far from how he is actually spoken of:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
John 16:10-15

In other words, the “knows not” language is a way of speaking of the order among the distinct work of the trinitarian persons in the work of salvation history. If we wanted to describe the equality of the persons in this work we would have to give a different but complementary description – perhaps one that appropriates St. Thomas’s metaphor of the flower, i.e.   The work of the Father is to set the conditions that of themselves bring forth the flower, the Holy Spirit is the energy of the flowering, and the Son is the flower itself. More simply, we could point out that to effect salvation or be the final revelation is proper to God alone.

Scripture and truth value

One element in a Scriptural theology is to notice that a large and significant part of Scripture lacks truth value. The language of praise, rejoicing, adoration, exultation, glory, imprecation and even complaint cannot be analyzed in logical ways, even if we can buttress or support them with claims having truth value.

A further move might be the claim that this sort of speech is what Scripture is ordered to.

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