Ex Hume’d Commentary

I was reading David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding the other day and came across a lovely item. Mind you, I tend not to wallow in philosophy texts, but I find the occasional jaunt into the realm a welcome relief from my usual reading in science and politics. Given the inevitable connection between religion and politics that will once again be thrust upon us by the talking heads for the midterm elections, whether you call them “values voters”, “moralistic moms”, or just plain “over-zealous, domineering, jingoistic, superstitious pinheads”, this quote hit home:

There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavor the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretence of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality. When any opinion leads to absurdities, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that an opinion is false, because it is of dangerous consequence.

What was true 250 years ago in the Age of Enlightenment remains true today, although I fear that a large portion of the population does not see this. In my dreams, I can imagine Hume travelling in a time machine to the present and having spirited debate with the likes of Dobson and Falwell. Oh, the sweet smell of carnage.

  1. #1 by JKB on September 15, 2006 - 11:41 am

    When any opinion leads to absurdities, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that an opinion is false, because it is of dangerous consequence.

    That is an excellent point but lets remember a few things:
    1. Things can be right and yet still be counterintuitive.
    2. Absurdities can be ill-defined. What’s absurd to one can be unconventional thinking to another. I love Monte Python because their absurdity conveys a valid point of view that can take years to understand.
    3. The nature of falseness, like the nature of truth can be ephemeral.
    We make jumps of is-ought on a daily basis with a disturbing conviction.

  2. #2 by Jim on September 15, 2006 - 12:21 pm

    Absurd means clearly illogical or senseless. You’re describing the atypical. Absurdity never conveys a valid point of view although it can be used for humorous effect. That’s not the same as saying “what’s absurd to one is not absurd to another”. While one could get swallowed up by so-called “cultural absurdities”, Hume was clearly not addressing that.
    In matters of logic, the “nature of falseness” is anything but ephemeral.
    You might want to pick up the piece for a read. It’s only around 100 pages.

  3. #3 by JKB on September 15, 2006 - 2:04 pm

    I had previously read the Treatise some time ago and passed on this one because I understood it be a shortened version. It’s been some years, but here are two points that may help clarify my position. I’ll review the short version because you suggest it.
    1. I find philosophy easiest to read as a set of bracketed points vs. some holistic document because I don’t believe in a centrally consistent philosophy. The original writers were a product of their times; I don’t fault them for that, but I do run it through the filter of knowledge/experience that came later. Their cohesive whole may be worth examining from an academic curiosity but their followers tend to hone, critique and discard elements (sometimes at random), and so do I. In a classroom, I found the easiest way to get along was to simply parrot back to the instructor that which gets the grade — but in real life I have the option not to do that.
    2. I got the impression that you pulled a quote because you wanted to apply it to current situation sans the holistic whole in order to demonstrate some germane element to current dialogs.

    In matters of logic, the “nature of falseness” is anything but ephemeral.

    I generally agree with that, if logic is looked at from a mathematical perspective, but I thought your post was about politics, religion and jingoism.
    I can envision your doing a logic calculation proving that God doesn’t exist and then pointing this out to security moms. I proudly still wear my far side t-shirt where Einstein discovers that time is actually money, so why not?

  4. #4 by tbell1 on September 15, 2006 - 2:14 pm

    Thanks for this.
    I think that for many people, the refutation of an idea doesn’t consist of a pretence of dangerous consequences, instead I think that they actually think that bad consequences consitute evidence for an argument’s incorrectness.
    And worse, people ‘reason’ not on the basis of actual consequences, but rather on their perceptions of an argument’s consquences.
    Which sometimes puts one me in a dilemma. If I wish to have a rational discussion, I have to actually adress the above fallacy, but if i want to (dishonestly) persuade someone, it is enough to show that the consequences of an argument aren’t bad. Like say convincing someone that evolutionary theory is ok because it doesn’t have bad consequences for (some) theology.

  5. #5 by kemibe on September 15, 2006 - 3:17 pm

    Religious beliefs are perhaps the most fertile ground for the calumny of rational inquiry, chief among these the whole set of mindless “If-there’s-no-God, there’s-no-point-to-life” proposals, many of which are used to “justify” attacks on evolution. But this stuff is everywhere. If, on average, East African distance runners have an inherent advantage over their Western Hemisphere counterparts, someone will use this for nefarious purposes and therefore it’s untrue (a liberal favorite). Lance Armstrong can’t have used EPO because he’s a cancer survivor and a hero, dammit, so therefore he’s clean. Being overweight doesn’t cause health problems because, well, it’s wrong to claim that fat people are unattractive. My girlfriend or wife can’t be cheating on me or have a drinking problem because if she is or did I’d have to address a ruinous reationship and I’d rather not; therefore, everything’s hunky-dory. Beauty is on the inside, size doesn’t matter, the meek shall inherit all this shit, everyone gets his comeuppance in the end, everything happens for a reason, blah blah blah. I’m OK, you’re OK. Thanks, Barney, you deluded purple fuck.
    It’s great that we can experience emotions as well as cogitate more proficiently than other animals, but when emotions overrule reason, this sort of bullshit propagates throughout society and makes people look a lot dumber than they realy are (or exposes their basic mental weaknesses, take your pick).

  6. #6 by Jim on September 15, 2006 - 3:39 pm

    Enquiry… is not a reduced version of the Treatise… It is more of a recasting. Hume was not pleased with the Treatise and even regretted having published it. As you have read Hume, I will assume that you are familiar with the context of his work, and thus, I don’t understand the basis for your original complaints. Further, I believe that any thinking reader would process such a work through the filter of following human experience (as you claim to). I like some things that Hume has said but by no means would I consider him above reproach. I think you’re moving well outside the bounds of the original intent of the post.

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