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Hume on the notion of cause, and essays on logic


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on the notion of cause, and essays on logic
Date: 6th February 2009 12:12

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 22 January, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy paper, in response to the question, 'In both the Treatise and the first Enquiry, Hume provides two definitions of 'cause'. What does the second definition add to the first, and why did Hume think it necessary to introduce it?', and your email of 31 January, with your essays for the UoL Logic paper, in response to the questions, 'How can we best understand the notion of necessity?', 'How can one justifiably distinguish true counterfactual conditionals from false ones, given that all such conditionals have false antecedents?' and ''Truth entails coherence, not vice versa.' Does this refute coherence theories of truth?'

Hume on causation

I puzzled over why you thought that Hume's two definitions are both definitions of 'cause(b)' in your sense ('the belief formed by some conscious mind about the necessary association of some event A and some event B'), rather than definitions of 'cause(a)' ('the actual material, physical, scientific connection etc.') and cause(b) respectively.

Lawlike connection is what we (ought to) mean when we assert that A caused B, according to Hume. This cannot be verified conclusively. The grounds for asserting this lawlike connection are the observation of regular connection between A and B instances. According to Hume, the mind is naturally (i.e. psychologically) disposed to form causal beliefs. Given his ideological view that all the things we call 'reasons' are ultimately founded in the principles of psychological association, we can interpret the definition as offering verification conditions (i.e. defeasable 'reasons' for forming judgements about causes).

Possibly, you have been motivated by the observation (which has been thought to be problematic) that Hume talks of the mind being 'caused' (the one place where you use the term 'caused(a)') to form the belief in causal connections.

A further complicating factor is that as you state Hume recognizes that there are 'secret, concealed' causes that owing to limitations of observation we can know nothing about. Arguably, Hume was wrong about the latter, failing to appreciate the possibilities for scientific advance. What he was not wrong about was that it is impossible to verify conclusively that a lawlike connection holds between A and B, since this covers infinitely many instances.

Notion of necessity

I'm not altogether happy with what you say about Quine. You state, 'In order to support his conclusion that synonymy is not possible, Quine must maintain that while there is a fact of the matter about what each sentence means, no two sentences can ever possibly mean the same thing.'

Why? Why does there have to be a definitive 'fact of the matter' about what a sentence means? It is not necessary to embrace full-blown 'meaning holism' in order to believe that we don't know ourselves exactly what we mean.

This is consistent with the belief that we know roughly what our words mean (contra what seems to be suggested by the 'gavagai' example). We know roughly what we mean by 'cause' for example. The main impetus for analytic philosophy is the desire to sharpen our understanding. Here, Quine has an attractive alternative to the traditional view of the philosopher 'analysing' a given concept, and the problems raised by Meno's paradox (Moore's 'paradox of analysis'). We are replacing concepts from everyday usage with concepts we have artificially devised (and therefore whose meaning is determinate because we explicitly defined them) -- a process which Quine calls 'regimentation'.

You can be a modified meaning holist without accepting the whole package: this is the point of Dummett's criticisms of Quine in his first book on Frege. To maintain the notion of a difference between statements on the 'periphery' and statements which are 'embedded' in the network of beliefs we need to maintain a degree of rigidity with regard to what beliefs can be modified, i.e. preserve the laws of logic.

I'm not persuaded that necessity can ultimately be defined in terms of analyticity. It doesn't follow that we have to embrace possible world semantics as a definition of necessity. Why not just bite the bullet and state that 'necessity' and 'possibility' are sui generis, not definable in any other terms?

Counterfactual conditionals

Not all subjunctive conditionals are counterfactual, because subjunctive conditionals can have true antecedents. It is important to make this clear.

Contrary to what you appear to state, Lewis does not give a 'rigorous treatment' of the notion of similarity of possible worlds. The rigorous treatment of counterfactuals which he offers assumes an unanalysed and unanalysable notion of similarity. As you point out, this is open to objections (people's intuitions differ). However, Lewis would reply that he is merely offering a truth conditional analysis of an admittedly vague locution, relocating the source of vagueness in the notion of similarity so that it is plain for all to see.

Thus if you and I differ over the 'truth' of a given counterfactual, the reason is that we differ in our intuitive judgements of similarity with respect to the worlds in question.

You miss the crucial criticism which Lewis gives of Mackie's account (see 71, the Kennedy-Oswald example).

I am tempted to agree with your account in terms of our intuitions about causation. However, the first criticism would be that these intuitions, like intuitions about similarity are vague. How can counterfactuals be useful in science if they rely on vague intuitions?

Compared with Lewis, you don't offer any rigorous format in which the truth conditions of counterfactuals can be explained, in terms of your chosen (admittedly vague) concept whereas Lewis does. (It has been tried: I remember Dorothy Edgington telling me about a book by a philosopher defending a rigorous causal account. Published by Reidel, the book was so expensive that she feared that no-one would read it. I don't have the reference unfortunately.)

The best that one can say is that (in terms of our account, or, for that matter, Lewises) we can distinguish some true counterfactual statements from some false counterfactual statements, while there remain a huge amount of counterfactuals whose truth or falsity interests us -- yet we have no means to discover that truth value, nor any illuminating way to grasp the nature of the unknown or unknowable reality by virtue of which those unanswered questions would have answers.

Truth and coherence

I agree with your criticism of the question. My main difficulty here is that I couldn't see any rationale for the coherence theory. You mention the 'frame problem', 'We cannot 'get outside' our set of beliefs and compare propositions to objective facts,' but this looks more like (or, failing that, equally) an argument for minimalism rather than for a coherence theory.

It is rather important that coherence theories have been put forward in the context of metaphysical definitions of reality which reject the Russellian picture of discrete terms and relations, i.e., the kind of objective idealism one finds in F.H. Bradley, or the Hegelian/ Spinozistic view of thought in Brand Blanshard's 'The Nature of Thought'.

In other words, a coherence theory of truth would be appropriate in the context of a particular metaphysical view about the nature of reality, and it is this rather than epistemological considerations or worries about the limits of language which primarily motivates the theory.

All the best,