Philosopher David Hume on the Idea of Necessary Connection Summary

SECTION VII: the Idea of Necessary Connection


48-50. Mathematical sciences have this advantage above the moral sciences: the ideas of the former are clear and determinate even to the smallest distinction. An oval is clearly distinct from a circle; but virtue and vice, right and wrong, are not clearly distinct from each other. Geometric terms are clearly defined; moral ones are not, and introduce ambiguity into our reasoning. Objects that are but similar are assumed to be identical. Such terms as power, force, energy and necessary connection are obscure and uncertain and their impressions are difficult to examine. And they point towards effects while solidity, extension and motion are qualities in themselves. Without extreme care, moral ideas fall into obscurity and confusion. Further, a Euclidean proposition can be lengthy and involved while moral reasoning is expected to have few parts.

51-54. When we move the organs of our body or direct the faculties of our mind, we are conscious of internal power. This idea is an idea of reflection. We are conscious of our will commanding our motion. But the means of this operation, the energy behind it, is far from our immediate consciousness and escapes our enquiry because:

First , energy concerns the mysterious, spiritual substance with influence over a material one. (If we should wish to move a mountain or control planets, the activity would not be any more beyond our comprehension.)

Second , energy concerns the various with remarkable differences. (The will can influence the tongue and fingers but not the heart or liver; and experience can teach us about the influence of our will but not explain the secret connection which binds one event with another.)

Third , energy cannot be explained by anatomy which instead can show only that it is not the member that is moved but certain muscles and nerves.

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Our conclusion is that our idea of power is not a copy of any consciousness of power within us, but is unknown and inconceivable. We learn by experience the frequent Conjunction of objects, not anything like a Connection between them.

55-57. Many philosophers believe that here they can use their reason to acknowledge mind to be both the ultimate and immediate, sole cause of every event, and that every cause is but a volition of the Supreme Being whose will is behind every effect. A billiard-ball is not moved by a force derived from the author of nature, but it is the Deity himself who wills the movement, or that our mind's ideas are but revelations made to us by our maker. But such words do not erase their ignorance of that power. But if everything is full of God, then nature and all creation are robbed of power. And the argument has taken us to fairy land. We can have no idea of the Supreme Being or of power except from what we learn from reflection on our own faculties. If our ignorance were a good reason for rejecting anything, it would be the rejection of the principle of all energy being in the Supreme Being. For we know as little about the one (our ignorance) as we do the other.

We have sought in vain for an idea of power or necessary connection. Some events seem conjoined but never connected. We have no idea of connection or power. And such ideas are absolutely without any meaning, either by philosophers or by any in common life. Because of our mind expecting an effect due to the custom of our experience, we project onto a cause a power that is not there. We project onto two events a connection which we feel in the mind and from which we form the idea of power or necessary connection. There is no other area in our understanding in which there is such ignorance than this of cause and effect. All science can do is to teach us how to regulate future events by their causes. And a cause is nothing other than an object, followed by another, where all similar objects to the first are followed by objects similar to the second. Or: if the first object had not been, the second never would have existed. And because a cause always conveys to the mind the idea of the effect, there is another definition of cause: an object followed by another whose appearance always conveys the thought of that other. What do we mean when we say that the vibration of this string is the cause of this particular sound? We can have no further idea of the relation than by these definitions. Beyond these we have no idea of the relationship between the vibration of a string and a sound.

To summarise this section:

Without an impression there can be no idea; therefore, there is no idea of power or necessary connection.

The notion of cause and connection is entertained by custom.

The first time we saw one event followed by another (as in the movement of billiard-balls) we could not infer one event from another. It is only by the experience of a number of events following each other that we can do so.

Mr. Locke in his chapter on power claimed that he found from experience that things must have a power capable of producing them and from this reasoning arrived at the idea of power. But no reasoning can give a new idea as he himself would have admitted.

We may exert force to overcome resistance in bodies, but this does not give us the idea of power; for we attribute power to various objects, and to the Supreme Being, and to the mind, and not to any direct connection. An endeavour to overcome resistance has no direct connection with any event. What follows it we know, not through à priori reason, but through experience.

We find by experience that a body at rest or in motion remains so under certain circumstances without resorting to the idea of power. When we speak of gravity we observe effects without comprehending power. Sir Isaac Newton never intended to rob causes of force. Instead, that great philosopher proposed the hypothesis of an active fluid. Descartes took recourse to the efficacy of the Deity. But Locke did not do this and it is not necessary to do so in spite of its prevalence among modern metaphysicians.

Philosopher David Hume on the Idea of Necessary Connection Summary

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