Necessary Connection

In Chapter 7 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume says about the idea of “necessary connection”:

We have looked at every possible source for an idea of power or necessary connection, and have found nothing. However hard we look at an isolated physical episode, it seems, we can never discover discover anything but one event following another; we never find any force or power by which the cause operates, or any connection between it and its supposed effect. The same holds for the influence of mind on body: the mind wills, and then the body moves, and we observe both events; but we don’t observe– and can’t even conceive– the tie that binds the volition to the motion, i.e. the energy by which the mind causes the body to move. And the power of the will over its own faculties and ideas– i.e. over the mind, as distinct from the body– is no more comprehensible. Summing up, then: throughout the whole of nature there seems not to be a single instance of connection that is conceivable by us. All events seem to be entirely loose and separate. One event follows another, but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem associated, but never connected. And as we can have no idea of anything that never appeared as an impression to our outward sense or inward feeling, we are forced to conclude that we have no idea of ‘connection’ or ‘power’ at all, and that those words– as used in philosophical reasonings or in common life– have absolutely no meaning.

This is not Hume’s final word on the matter, as we will see below, so this has to be taken with a grain of salt, even as a representation of his opinion. Nonetheless, consider this caricature of what he just said:

We have looked at every possible source for an idea of mduvvqi or pdnfhvdkdddd, and have found nothing. However hard we look at an isolated physical episode, it seems, we can never discover anything but events that can be described by perfectly ordinary words; we never find any mduvvqi involved, nor any pdnfhvkdddd.

We could take this to be making the point that “mduvvqi” and “pdnfhvdkdddd” are not words. Other than that, however, the paragraph itself is meaningless, precisely because those “words” are meaningless. It certainly does not make any deep (or shallow for that matter) metaphysical or physical point, nor any special point about the human mind. But Hume’s text is different, and the difference in question is a warning sign of Kantian confusion. If those words had “absolutely no meaning,” in fact, there would be no difference between Hume’s passage and our caricature. Those words are not meaningless, but meaningful, and Hume is even analyzing their meaning in order to supposedly determine that the words are meaningless.

Hume’s analysis in fact proceeds more or less in the following way. We know what it means to say that something is necessary, and it is not the same as saying that the thing always happens. Every human being we have ever seen was less than 20 feet tall. But is it necessary that human beings be less than 20 feet tall? This is a different question, and while we can easily experience someone’s being less than 20 feet tall, it is very difficult to see how we could possibly experience the necessity of this fact, if it is necessary. Hume concludes: we cannot possibly experience the necessity of it. Therefore we can have no idea of such necessity.

But Hume has just contradicted himself: it was precisely by understanding the concept of necessity that he was able to see the difficulty in the idea of experiencing necessity.

Nonetheless, as I said, this is not his final conclusion. A little later he gives a more nuanced account:

The source of this idea of a necessary connection among events seems to be a number of similar instances of the regular pairing of events of these two kinds; and the idea cannot be prompted by any one of these instances on its own, however comprehensively we examine it. But what can a number of instances contain that is different from any single instance that is supposed to be exactly like them? Only that when the mind experiences many similar instances, it acquires a habit of expectation: the repetition of the pattern affects it in such a way that when it observes an event of one of the two kinds it expects an event of the other kind to follow. So the feeling or impression from which we derive our idea of power or necessary connection is a feeling of connection in the mind– a feeling that accompanies the imagination’s habitual move from observing one event to expecting another of the kind that usually follows it. That’s all there is to it. Study the topic from all angles; you will never find any other origin for that idea.

Before we say more, we should concede that this is far more sensible than the claim that the idea of necessity “has absolutely no meaning.” Hume is now conceding that it does have meaning, but claiming that the meaning is about us, not about the thing. When we see someone knock a glass off a table, we perhaps feel a certainty that it will fall and hit the floor. Experiencing that feeling of certainty, he says, is the source of the idea of “necessity.” This is not an unreasonable hypothesis.

However, Hume is also implicitly making a metaphysical argument here which is somewhat less sensible. Our feelings of certainty and uncertainty are subjective qualities of our minds, he suggests, not objective features of the things. Therefore necessity as an objective feature does not and cannot exist. This is not unrelated to his mistaken claim that we cannot know that the future will be similar to the past, even with probability.

What is the correct account here? In fact we already know, from the beginning of the conversation, that “necessary” and “possible” are meaningful words. We also know that in fact we use them to describe objective features of the world. But which features? Attempting to answer this question is where Hume’s approach is pretty sensible. Hume is not mistaken that all of our knowledge is from experience, and ultimately from the senses. He seems to identify experience with sense experience too simplistically, but he is not mistaken that all experience is at least somewhat similar to sense experience; feeling sure that two and two make four is not utterly unlike seeing something red. We want to say that there is something in common there, “something it is like,” to experience one or the other. But if this is the case, it would be reasonable to extend what we said about the senses to intellectual experiences. “The way red looks” cannot, as such, be an objective feature of a thing, but a thing can be objectively red, in such a way that “being red,” together with the nature of the senses, explains why a thing looks red. In a similar way, certainty and uncertainty, insofar as they are ways we experience the world, cannot be objective features of the world as such. Nonetheless, something can be objectively necessary or uncertain, in such a way that “being necessary” or otherwise, together with the nature of our minds, explains why it seems certain or uncertain to us.

There will be a similarity, however. The true nature of red might be quite strange in comparison to the experience of seeing red, as for example it might consist of surface reflectance properties. In a similar way, the true nature of necessity, once it is explained, might be quite strange to us compared to the experience of being certain or uncertain. But that it can be explained is quite certain itself, since the opposite claim would fall into Hume’s original absurdity. There are no hidden essences.

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