Saturday 1 May 2010

On Scepticism (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010


David Hume, and
the role of chance in reasoning

By Paul Healey

What role does blind chance play in reason?
Sentiments that can be otherwise or not, as in feelings that follow from what is thought to be right, have a power. To simply deny sentiments their power, as Hume does, is to see those who stand by religion, democracy, environmental and any other contemporary issues, as irrational and irrelevant. By Hume's reckoning, choices are based upon suppositions which cannot be identified by their speculative value.

What is necessary, possible or contingent for the choices that can be made, if chances are merely the appearance of what can be otherwise? We don't have to agree that it is necessary that one of two opposed ways of thinking can make no difference, or that what is possible is determined by someone's opinion. It could be the custom that the chances are determined by the proportion of properties, like those of cards in a deck, but given the influences that can affect an outcome are external to the deck, what is determined, is what is true for the combination of the cards as an event which is possible. By denying certain combinations are possible, the understanding can place limits on what can be experienced and in so doing, can make errors. So when Hume asserts that 'Necessity is regular and certain.', while 'human conduct is irregular and uncertain', what can be said of human conduct is assumed to be necessary and certain, so one claim does proceed from the other! Yet Hume insists that it doesn't.

That we agree with a proposition, is explicit in making a claim. Belief in the truth of a proposition must be implicit if science is to have any moral standing. Many scientists to be sure, do believe all that can be done is to run trials and tests, so what is thought to be true for an hypothesis as a scientific claim can always be falsified in the light of new evidence. Clearly Newton's Laws as formulae, work for bodies on the supposition that there motion is regular and certain, but do not work when their motion is irregular and uncertain. Counting such an understanding of hypothesis' for the theories where it does work, is not proof that it is true for all of them. By such a reasoning, exceptions cannot be eliminated.

With this notion of falsification, it would appear that a belief in any claim can be true sometimes and false others; the opposition between two different ways of thinking can never be settled with any certainty. In mathematics, there is plenty of certainty, so why should there be none for science if its hypothesis' depend on what is true for mathematical relations? What is necessary, possible and contingent for mathematical formula presents a big problem for the morality of this hypothetical thinking. At this point, it seems the public are left in the dark between different ways of thinking that are in opposition. Knowledge of these it is claimed, require a special training within a language designed for an analysis that would be foreign to them. Not so, if the difference between making decisions which are efficient and effective can be compared with those that are not. Consider, for example the following explanation by way of an analogy that is portable and accessible to ordinary thinking:

Imagine an ideal engine where all its parts work at an optimum level of efficiency. Let us not worry whether such an engine actually exists, but rather think about what happens if some of its parts are replaced by ones of a lower standard. Chance tells us that a car that has a more efficient engine should produce more power, and vice versa. The driver and the mechanics don't have to believe that the engine is an ideal one; just that it is good enough. The car that it belongs to, can have flaws and yet still be the best one in a race. Surely that is a reason to improve their chances of success? What the modern sceptic should not deny, is that the efficiency of a car's function counts more than its looks! What is true for an understanding can mean there is a denial of the evidence.

Clearly, it is not belief in its efficiency based on mere appearances and assumptions, but the actual efficiency that counts. Many other relevant conditions can be counted, for example, the skill of the mechanics, but to count all those which are irrelevant to its history seems absurd. Why should their selection be irrelevant? Well it can be justly claimed, that there are many properties which coincide with the state of an event, such as turning the engine on; but do not have a direct effect on it i.e., what is happening in some other workshop. Although it can be said they are connected by space and time, this does not make them relevant to a degree that it is worth adjusting our beliefs. Neither do the actual chances of winning a race determine the efficiency of an engine. For example, the fact that some drivers might be more likely to crash, less experienced and have won fewer races has nothing to do with an engineís efficiency until they use it. Even that might not be a reason for the chance of an event to happen otherwise.

Of course, there are chances that affect why the driver's team believe what they believe. If not, their confidence would not be about knowing what the reasons for their successes and failures are. There are therefore reasons for their lack or gain of knowledge that affects their chances. A lot depends on their training, skills and creativity. In this sense, they are beneficiaries of others knowledge and the customs that make its acquisition possible. That is, the belief that the driver's team has in winning, as compared with their actual chance of winning, can be a fuzzy measure of the enthusiasm, commitment, loyalty and passion.

Customs that affect our understanding of chance

For those that follow Hume, all our reasoning concerning the cause and effect for the way probabilities can be calculated are based on custom, which given customs are thought to be evidence against the truth of speculation, they appear to be an argument against being skilled in the dialectic. Even if true, its truth has more to do with a psychological disposition than it has of being evidence. This implies that one of two opposed ways of thinking cannot conform to what is true for experience. In his own words Hume clearly rejects the idea that a belief is a cognitive part of our nature and so falls back on presupposing what is true for our understanding of chance is determined by that which he attributes to our human nature:
The principle is custom or habit. For whatever the repetition of any particular act or operation produces a propensity to renew the same act or operation without being impelled by any reasoning or process of the understanding, we always say that this propensity is the effect of custom. By employing that word we pretend not to have given the ultimate reason for such a propensity. We only point out a principle of human nature which is universally acknowledged, and which is well known by its effects. Perhaps we can push our inquiries no further or pretend to give the cause of this cause, but must rest contented with it as the ultimate principle which we can assign all our conclusions from experience.

- An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding 
As a guide to life, we respect the custom that surrounds the meeting, but we need not agree that they account for the chances of an event. Hume, it could be said was an advocate of those who have an interest in preserving customs. A reasonable enough desire, but what has this to do with undermining the reason for the chance of it coming about? In a world with no oil, both reason and chance count, for the occurrence of a combustion engine has a chance given the conditions are suitable. There is no reason why there couldn't exist a world with oil, but then it will never have any combustion engines. An understanding which is in opposition to this would be a belief in a proposition that does not conform to what can be experienced.

By proposing that chance is only about what appears to be otherwise, Hume makes the truth of what propositions refer to, determined by their mere being. This is how Hume interprets Newton's Laws.

The problem which modern sceptics like Lewis, Hall and even their more recent advocates; Ismael and Briggs as well as Thau who is supposed to be a critic, fail to recognise, is that if hypothetical use of language is based upon presuppositions, this has the effect of placing limits on our understanding as opposed to recognising what those limits are for it to have an identity in its difference. That is, the whole of the scepticís position hangs on the idea of a belief being a function as opposed to being subject to what is true for them. What a person believes does not have to be true for that which is confirmed by experience. That is why, for example, it is sensible to believe that someone who has a better knowledge of an engine should be trusted to repair it and so have a better chance of working as a result. Any mechanic who deserves the name of being one, would have a better chance of finding the reason why an engine doesn't work than someone who is not one! The beauty of the dialectical analysis, as bought down to us by Socrates, is that you don't have to be a mechanic, or skilled in any particular vocation, to appreciate what they can do, or that their way of working is efficient and effective.

To understand why this is so important, consider the presuppositions that surround the benefits of new technologies. These can be challenged, as science without reason can have no morality. A supposition which denies this is too handy for those in a position of power and influence and so needs to be refuted. To challenge the future consequences for the use of technologies is not unlike insisting that the rules of the race must be fair. Technology is a race where reason is no mere sentiment, but the conscience of a folk psychology that gives some teams a winning edge. Such an edge is a reason why its effect can become a spectacle; like the Roman games, it can end up being for the benefit and desires of the oligarchs and their preferred understanding of our customs.

Chance as a reason for our understanding of morality and human conduct

If sentiments about choices and their chances can only be guided by emotions expressed as sentences, presumably there would be no way to distinguish them. Once it is admitted that the weighing of choices does count, the reason for moral judgements should not be denied. That is, what is true for them is not a contingent state of affairs. By presupposing that it is, in the following quote, Hume undermines reason again by making everything that can be referred to, subject to being determined by the experience of its being:
I have objected to the system, which establishes eternal rational measures of right and wrong, that ítis impossible to show, in the actions of reasonable creatures, any relations, which are not found in external objects; and therefore, if morality always intended these relations, twere possible for inanimate matter to be virtuous or vicious.

- The Treatise of Human Nature 

Our understanding of science is not found in external objects like a brain, but is a product of its biological processes. Humeís reasoning results in a contradiction as processes are as real as sticks and stones, so if their properties have limits, why should beliefs not have them? In fact dispositions are a reason for the different understandings that constitute our beliefs in moral judgements. If we believe Hume, the consequence of our acts are subject to us being blind to the effects they have as mere outcomes of chance.

The idea that immoral sentiments, where capitalism is greed, are healthy for the worldís markets persists. It persists, because judgements like Hume's, about what constitute beliefs about chance have been absorbed into our folk psychology. Of course there are degrees of belief, and not everyone takes a sceptical position, which is as extreme as Hume's. The problem is, as long as it is considered reasonable to deny that the relation of good to evil is a moral judgement that is not affected by our understanding of chance, there seems no point to having them. If it is correct that the limits of our understanding about chance do affect our conduct then it does have an impact on our future. If human conduct is all and only about what is irregular and uncertain then this makes us look rather stupid. While Hume's attack on reason could be said to have had a profound influence on scientific attitudes towards chance, it appears that it does not readily conform with what is actually true for our everyday experience.

Address for correspondence:
Paul Healey <>

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