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Posts Tagged ‘A treatise of human nature

“Sophie’s World” on David Hume; (Written on Dec. 4, 2009)

How I stumbled on Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World”, one of New York Times best seller?

My niece is reading this book as required textbook in high school. The manuscript is of 513 pages divided in 35 chapters and talking of a wide array of philosophers and concepts from Socrates, to Descartes, to Hume, Hegel, Kant…, Freud, and the Big Bang.

A short introduction to the story might be entertaining.

The first chapter introduces us to Sophie Amundsen, a 15-year-old girl. Sophie arrives home from school and finds a first envelope addressed to her. The sheet of paper has a single hand written sentence “Who are you?”  Sophie finds another envelops that says “Where does the world come from?

The last delivery of the mailbox is a postcard “Hilde Moller Knag; c/o Sophie Amundsen, 3 Clover Close. Dear Hilde, happy 15th birthday. Forgive me for sending the card to Sophie. It was the easiest way. Love Dad.”

Sophie knows of no Hilde and the phonebook was of no help. Sophie has now three problems to resolve, all in one day. Sophie is baffled and confused:  She is starting her philosophical initiation.  Would Lillemor be the same person? If her hair was not straight and defying all cosmetics for a curly appearance, then would she behaved different? If her nose was a tad bit longer or her mouth smaller, would she be the actual Sophie?

The next problem is even harder to reflect on. Can anything come from nothing? If not, then how far has she to go to the sources in the creation process? Can a creating God come from nothing?

I jumped to page 267 on the British philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). 

Hume was the contemporary of Voltaire and Rousseau or the Age of Enlightenment.  The previous Age was of the “rationalists” such as Descartes, Lock, and Spinoza.

Hume published his main work “A treatise of human nature” when he was 28 of age.  He claims that he got the idea when he was 15.

The empiricist Hume (believing in experiments as the most valid method for acquiring knowledge) said:

“No philosophy will ever be able to take us behind the daily experiences or give us rules of conducts that are different from those we get through reflections on everyday life.”

For example, people have experienced or sensed wings on birds, but that does not mean that the complex idea of “angel” exists. Angels are associations in man’s imagination; thus, the concept of angels is false as an experienced reality and should be rejected from the knowledge baggage.

If a textbook does not offer any experimental reasoning concerning matter of facts and existence then it should be committed to the flames as a book of knowledge.

Hume wanted to know how a child experienced the real world. Hume established that man has two types of perceptions:

1. impression (immediate sensation) and

2. ideas of external reality.

Ideas are recollections of impressions.  For example, getting burned is not the same sensation as remembering getting burned: this would be a pale imitation of actually the stronger feeling of being burned.

Ideas can be simple or complex; we may form complex ideas of the world for which there is no corresponding “object” in the physical world such as angels or God. Each element in the complex idea was previously sensed and the mind constructed a “false object” if not actually existing for the senses.

Descartes indicated that “clear and distinct” ideas guarantee that they corresponded to something that really existed.

One example for Descartes affirmation is the ego “I”, which is the foundation for his philosophy.

Hume begs to differ.

Hume considers that the ego I is a complex idea and constantly altered.  Since we are continuously changing our alterable ego is based on a long chain of simple impressions that we did not experienced simultaneously. “These impressions appear, pass, re-pass, slide away, and mingle in infinite varieties of postures and situations.” It is like the images in a movie screen: they are disconnected single pictures, a collection of instants.

It is the same concept of Buddha (2500 years earlier). Buddha said “There is nothing of which I can say “this is mine” or “this is me””.  Thus, there is no “eternal soul” since “Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”  Hume rejected attempts to prove the immortality of the soul or the existence of God but he never ruled out their possible existence or that of miracles.

On his deathbed, Hume said “It is also possible that a knob of coal placed upon the fire will not burn.

A miracle works against the laws of nature; but again, we have never experienced the laws of nature.

All that we know results from “habit” of our experiences, such as witnessing relationship or “cause and effect” occurring many times, but that we can never say that it might happen “always”.

For example, adults are more awed by magic tricks than children: a child is no more impressed by an apple falling or just floating because he didn’t acquire the habit in his mind for natural occurrences.  Expectations lie in our mind and not in one thing following another.

We human are great in the task of cutting and pasting everything that impresses upon us. Hume says that the preconditions to assembling complex ideas is to have entered all the elements in the form of “simple impressions”.   If we imagine God to be infinitely “intelligent, wise, and good being” then we must have “known intelligence, wisdom, and goodness”.

(How man brought in the “infinitely” in his concept? Did it come from watching the sky as a substitute to the experience of infinity? Somehow, man is able to extrapolate on piece meal experiences).

Hume wanted “to dismiss all this meaningless nonsense which has long dominated metaphysical thought and brought it into disrepute.”  (The introduction of the term metaphysical gave terrible nightmares to the succeeding philosophers fearing that they might sound metaphysical and had to explain at great length their concepts).

Hume cut off the final link between faith and knowledge.

(I conjecture that the deficiencies of our perceptual senses provide rich sources of strong impressions that modify our view of the real world.  For example, when we see double for a while (a temporary affliction), or we feel the ground waving and shaking under our feet when drunk, or under the influence, or when we hear background noises, then these sensation are real first impressions and not just ideas.

Thus, the weaker our constitution, the more acute and varied are our experiences; the more adapted our brain for capturing associations the far more complex is our perception of the world.)


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