27 October 2015

Book Review: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

An Enquiry Concerning Human UnderstandingAn Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first whole reading of an actual work by David Hume and it is such an experience to have read something straight from the actual philosopher instead of bits and pieces of biography or explanation of his ideas. The book was a revised form of his first work, A Treatise on Human Nature, which was not received with eagerness by the public upon its first publication.

First, my impression of Hume's style was that he was frank to the point of being humorous at times with how he pokes at the way people think, behave and react within themselves and their environment. His choice of words and the presentation of ideas were presented in a clear and logical style. Just like any thinker, he considered himself  unrestrained in going against what he thought were unreasonable beliefs, superstitions, and reinforced dogmatism, and as such, allowed himself to go deep in continuous process of questioning in matters of human thought and reaction, events, and the material world.

It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another. Such is the foundation of moral reasoning, which forms the greater part of human knowledge, and is the source of all human action and behaviour. 

He employed a rigorous style of empirical thinking and the way he deduced what he advocated to be the way to have a correct understanding of things is through reasoning by analogy. All throughout the book, the theme of cause and effect resulting to experience recurred in all of his ideas, and it is through this means of analogy, by applying ones understanding of experience to something newly encountered, that he applied what he thought was the correctness of knowledge in human thought and the natural world.

In this book, (though I may consider giving it a second reading), I found two striking arguments that Hume made: concerning the existence of God, and of the material world.

In the first pages, he acknowledged the existence of a Creator by whom everything in the universe is dependent upon. But in the middle of the book, he went on to apply his method of analogy and causation to God. According to him, every effect must have a cause that brought it to existence. For example, the footprint on the sand near the sea must have been caused by a person who walked on the sand. What made us arrive at such a conclusion was we had been taught by prior experience that such a cause (a person walking) led to an effect (footprint on the sand), and therefore, we gain an understanding of the effect simply of our previous experience of actually perceiving the cause. This was his way of rigorously applying his empirical thinking which is limited to what is 'observed and experienced' and then to discard everything that does not conform to this method. But then, he went on to say that the existence of God cannot be justified because even though we see the creation (which is the effect), we have no direct actual experience of its Cause (God), so how can we prove the logic of His existence?

This is where the limitation of logic and rigid empiricism is shown, though Hume will not accept it. Reason will always have its limitation, as much as Faith as how Hume subjected it with criticism will have its limitation as well. Now that in this book, Hume established how human understanding can be subjected to many factors that will deem it susceptible to many kinds of errors, so too, does his method of reasoning by analogy and experience can be subjected to similar flaws. Despite the comparison of what we know of objects and experiences, that does not negate the fact that each are distinct from the other with their own unique qualities. In the case of the Creator - he applies analogy, but he disregards that the Creator is distinct and His Attributes are different from His creation, and therefore for him to make an analogy in the context of the creation is unreasonable. Thus, Hume becomes a victim of logic by the fact that he failed to see the difference between what and whom he is trying to compare, because he reduced the notion of 'qualities' to abstract ideas existing only in the human mind.

Much criticism can be attributed to religious interpretations as practiced by so-called religious people, but the depth of faith and wisdom coming from a belief on a Creator will always make a logical sense to humanity. What Hume dealt with is narrowly confined to issues of language, but the expression of language cannot be rid of its subjectivity and sophistry on the part of human beings with the way they express and understand it, in contrast to what reality and the actual world really is.

Human understanding can indeed be flawed, but this flaw allows room for humanity to adapt to an ever-changing world. It has to grapple with continuous change, which may lead to a downward spiral of conflict and chaos or growth, since the way humans think (as influenced both by their innate nature and outside forces) lead them to act on many different ways toward their fellow beings and with the world around them. On the other hand, if empirical thinking as what Hume employed in this book is applied in an absolutist sense and make manifest not only in human thought but in belief, and then subject everything to the limited role of language and reasoning by analogy, including the understanding of the Creator Himself, humanity will be devoid of values and depth of wisdom, and will function merely as robots, and worse, capable of relentless destruction. Language, thought, and experience are thus, among many, are only parts of a complex reality that humanity possess, and irrespective of the perception and resulting expression of these human faculties, there is an external world that exists independently  of human beings. Hume, in this book failed to make a distinction between the perceiver and the perceived. This alludes to the second point.

The second subject was Hume's argument on the perception of the material world. In this book, he did not go at great lengths in discussing it, although his ideas are particularly profound in the philosophical sense:

It is universally allowed by modern enquirers, that all the sensible qualities of objects, such as hard, soft, hot, cold, white, black, etc. are merely secondary, and exist not in the objects themselves, but are perceptions of the mind, without any external archetype or model, which they represent. If this be allowed, with regard to secondary qualities, it must also follow with regard to the supposed primary qualities of extension and solidity; nor can the latter be any more entitled to that denomination than the former. The idea of extension is entirely acquired from the senses of sight and feeling; and if all the qualities, perceived by the senses, be in the mind, not in the object, the same conclusion must reach the idea of extension which is wholly dependent on the sensible ideas or the ideas of secondary qualities. Nothing can save us from this conclusion, but the asserting, that the ideas of those primary qualities are attained by Abstraction, an opinion, which id we examine it accurately, we shall find unintelligible, and even absurd. An extension, that is neither tangible nor visible, cannot possibly be conceived: and a tangible or visible extension, which is neither hard nor soft, black nor white, is equally beyond the reach of human conception.

Bereave matter of all its intelligible qualities, both primary and secondary, you in a manner annihilate it, and leave only a certain unknown, inexplicable something, as the cause of our perception; a notion so imperfect, that no sceptic will think it worthwhile to contend against it.
Hume was pointing that the material world cannot possibly exist without human perception consisting of a collection of qualities which were acquired through experience. These qualities are ascribed to objects perceived in the material world, but at the same time, they are abstract in nature and only exist in the mind. This meandering is absurd to common sense, but Hume contends that the perceived world is only a collection of qualities that humans attribute to what they perceive, and the independence of the external world as existing apart from the perceiver seems to be only an illusion. This reminds me of another passage from a book entitled Consciousness by a Neuroscientist, J. Allan Hobson,

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest, does it make a sound?

The immediate answer will be 'yes,' but a philosopher will be inclined to ask, 'what sound does it make if there is nobody to hear it?' So in this case, we have a world which is centered and continuously subjected to human perception - that in Hume's book, is not acknowledged to be existing as independent of human, nevertheless flawed perception and understanding. Though this might be of interest to those who like engaging in questions and matters of the mind, but looking closely, do they purport to have any practical value in the larger scheme of things?

David Hume, in this book, allowed me to re-evaluate on a much investigative level, the ways and the limitations of human understanding. He was frank and brutally to-the-point writer, certainly unconventional, not afraid to present alternative modes of thinking and looking at things, and he has to be commended on his empirical approach which is useful in the Scientific disciplines.

Unfortunately, regardless of how it is presented as an objective/systematic manner, Empiricism has its own limitations like human understanding, and cannot apply in an absolutist sense to matters existing beyond the capacity and scope of reason and observable experience.