Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hume And FLG's Time Horizons Theory

FLG was thinking more about his time horizons theory, and this passage by Hume popped into his head:
As to past experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cognisance; but why this experience should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar-this is the main question on which I would insist. The bread, which I formerly ate, nourished me: that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers; but does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers? The consequence seems nowise necessary. At least, it must be acknowledged that there is here a consequence drawn by the mind, that there is a certain step taken-a process of thought, and an inference, which wants to be explained. These two propositions are far from being the same: I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect, and I foresee, that other objects, which are, in appearance, similar, will be attended with similar effects. I shall allow, if you please, that the one proposition may justly be inferred from the other; I know, in fact, that it always is inferred. But if you insist that the inference is made by a chain of reasoning, I desire you to produce that reasoning. The connection between these propositions is not intuitive. There is required a medium, which may enable the mind to draw such an inference, if indeed it be drawn by reasoning and argument. What that medium is, I must confess, passes my comprehension, and it is incumbent on those to produce it, who assert that it really exists, and is the origin of all our conclusions concerning matter of fact.

This pretty much sums up why people who are empirical need to have short time horizons. To be truly empirical is to say that you only know that a precise object had some property at some point in the past. Projecting into the future or to other similar objects requires assumptions. We need to make assumptions, so that's not a big deal, but the more empirically focused you are the more likely you'll be uncomfortable the farther out you are projecting.

Hume later continues:
If we be, therefore, engaged by arguments to put trust in past experience, and make it the standard of our future judgement, these arguments must be probable only, or such as regard matter of fact and real existence, according to the division above mentioned. But that there is no argument of this kind, must appear, if our explication of that species of reasoning be admitted as solid and satisfactory. We have said that all arguments concerning existence are founded on the relation of cause and effect, that our knowledge of that relation is derived entirely from experience, and that all our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavour, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.


nadezhda said...

The light bulb just came on with those Hume quotes. You need a two-dimensional (at least) typology. Hume's talking about probability.

"Epistemology" emerged as a central topic of 17th-18thC philosophy in the debates over scepticism. There wasn't just one question -- "how do we know." There was also "what is knowable." If scepticism was profound enough, fideism was as or more likely an outcome as atheism (see e.g. Montaigne and Bayle).

And those questions are still with us today, though obviously focusing on a host of new areas of knowledge. Still, faced with the same evidence and proposal for action, two empiricists will use very different discount rates about the future, depending on the degree and source of scepticism. So as a rough cut, you need four ideal types that combine two dichotomies: empiricist/rationalist-idealist with sceptic/believer.

The reason you may need a third dimension is that the degree and source of scepticism itself is related to how one views causality. Rather than lose myself in contemporary epistemological debates, to simplify our ideal types I'm going to go back to the period Hume was writing in.

The freedom vs necessity stuff could be mapped on a two-dimensional typology of:
(1) causes, as either materialist (physical or human) or non-materialist (whether divine Providence or something like Fate) and
(2) processes, as either contingent or reflecting an eternal order. (There are undoubtedly better labels, but you'll get my drift).

[Let's see if Blogger is happier this time about breaking up my reply into parts]

nadezhda said...

[part 2] So to use our super-simplifying pairs of ideal types:
- one pair has Epicurean random swerving atoms or a bunch of individual free wills that produce historical contingency, so contingency is baked in to a material universe and we can only talk about probability.
- In a second pair, the source of contingency is a non-materialist divine Will (debates over voluntarism, miracles, Jehovah intervening in history, etc) or fickle Fate, which doesn't conform to predictable laws, so all we can do is conform our behavior to what we have reason to believe (through observation or deduction or revelation etc) might attract the benevolent attention of Providence/Fate (or for a Calvinist, serve as evidence of election by an arbitrary deity). Though poor Job always stands a cautionary tale.
- In a third pair, divine Providence operates in conformity with God's eternal laws, so we have non-materialist causality that operates according to fixed (that is, predictable) laws -- the big debate re that pair returns to the "how do we know" issue -- observation vs revelation vs revelation-combined-with-right-reason etc.
- And in the fourth pair, where empiricism can turn into "scientism" (in both physical and social sciences) we have material (physical and human) causes operating entirely according to fixed laws that have necessary effects -- the challenge there again is how do we go about discovering and applying those laws, not whether the laws "exist".

So I disagree when you write: "Projecting into the future or to other similar objects requires assumptions. We need to make assumptions, so that's not a big deal,..." Au contraire!. It's indeed a very big deal, because the assumptions we adopt, and how we use them, go not just to different epistemological methods (a prioris, deduction vs induction etc) but to the very question of whether something is "knowable."

To take an example of two rather different people who shared a sense of "the fierce urgency of now" within "the long arc of history" (though focused on quite different historical forces and processes). I think you could just as easily look at Martin Luther King as more of a Providential idealist and Maggie Thatcher more a material (in the sense defined above) empiricist. But neither was what I'd call an extreme sceptic when it came to "knowledge" of an imperative for immediate, major action.

FLG said...


I'll have to give more thought to your proposal, but when I wrote that assumptions weren't a big deal, I meant that we all need to make them. Some people, for whatever reason, assume assumptions are bad, but they are necessary.

When it comes down to it, assumptions are usually the most important thing, as you rightfully point out.

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