Author Archives: Ray

A tweet-summary of David Hume’s “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding”

After conducting a Twitter poll, I decided to re-read Hume’s Enquiry, one of my favorite works of philosophy. I posted my summaries of each section in a Twitter thread, which I’m reproducing here with some modifications.

Section 1: Of the different Species of Philosophy
In Section 1 Hume tells us he’s basically trying to construct a science of the human mind. He wants to do for the mind what Newton did for external bodies. This means not just describing the different parts of the mind, but actually explaining how the mind works by understanding its fundamental principles and capacities. This will clearly have consequences for the way we think about what kinds of knowledge we’re capable of.

Section 2: Of the Origin of Ideas
In Section 2 Hume draws a distinction between impressions and ideas. Impressions are things like sensations, desires and emotions. Ideas are dull copies of impressions we use when reflecting or thinking about them. The difference is here is the difference between (for example) actually having an experience of a red object, such as when looking at an apple, and later thinking about redness or red objects. Next, Hume says that while the human imagination is powerful, there are important constraints on what imagination is capable of. All complex ideas arise out of us “compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing” simple ideas, which are in turn derived from impressions. Eg: we can think of a golden mountain by bringing together our ideas of “gold” and “mountain” which we were previously independently acquainted with.

Towards the end of the second section, Hume brings up a possible counter-example to this: the famous “missing shade of blue” thought experiment. All simple ideas are supposed to have their origins in corresponding impressions (and colors are supposed to be simple, not complex, ideas). But wait, we can line up various shades of blue progressing from darkest to lightest with a single space somewhere in the middle left blank instead of having a particular shade of blue. Isn’t it plausible that someone looking at this series would be able to imagine that shade of blue even if they haven’t had a direct impression of it? Hume acknowledges that this seems to be a difficulty for his account, but immediately sets it aside by saying that’s such a singular case that we don’t need to alter the general principle outlined here.

Section 3: Of the Association of Ideas
Section 3 is the shortest so far. In Section 3 Hume points out that our ideas seem to enter into various relations with each other, but that all of them can be boiled down to three fundamental ones:

– resemblance
– contiguity in time & space
– cause & effect

He thinks the last one is the most important, as we will soon see.

Section 4: Sceptical Doubts Concerning the Operations of the Understanding
Hume begins Section 4 by dividing human reasoning into two kinds: reasoning concerning relations of ideas, and reasons concerning matters of fact. Mathematics and logic belong in the former category, all forms of empirical investigation fall into the latter one. When we’re dealing with relations of ideas (math, logic) we can achieve certainty. When we’re dealing with matters of fact, the best we can hope for is probability. Hume then states that for all empirical reasoning that goes beyond immediate observation and memory, is based on cause and effect.

How do we know about cause and effect? They’re not things we can discover a priori. Causes and effects are distinct, so logic along will not get us from one to the other. So we must learn about causes and effects through experience. But there’s a problem. Our reasoning based on cause and effect proceeds like this: we recall that in the past we’ve observed that certain causes produce certain effects. But we go on to think similar causes will produce similar effects in the future. That is, we think the future will resemble the past. But why think this? What is the basis for thinking that because things have happened a certain way in the past, they will happen that way in the future?

It can’t be a logical deduction – “X has always happened in the past” doesn’t entail “X will happen in the future.” Hume points out there’s no contradiction in holding, for instance, that the sun, which up until now has always been observed to rise, will not rise tomorrow. OK, so it’s not something we know a priori. So maybe it’s something we infer based on experience? But hold on, we just said a short while ago that all reasoning concerning matters of fact presupposed the relation of cause and effect. But we also just showed that cause and effect presupposes that the future will resemble the past. So we appear to be reasoning in a circle. Not good!

Similarly, Hume says, you can’t say that because up until now, the future has resembled the past, it will do so in the future as well. That’s presupposing precisely what you set out to demonstrate – that the future will resemble the past. So where does that leave us? Hume’s conclusion in this section – a purely negative one – is that we don’t reason ourselves into believing that the future will resemble the past. He’s just shown that there is no possible route reason can take to do this. So if it’s not based on reason, why do we draw inductive inferences? That will be the subject of Section 5.

Section 5: Sceptical Solution of these Doubts
We were left with the question of what grounds our practice of using induction / inferences based on cause & effect, since it’s been argued that it can’t be reason. Hume is going to give us his answer to this question now. In Part 1 of Section 5, Hume asks to imagine that someone with all the normal faculties of reason is suddenly brought into the world – that is, he has no previous experience. In case like this he would observe regular successions of events but would not arrive at the idea of cause and effect. And so he would not be able to reason about anything beyond the senses and memory. After he’s been around for a while and gained more experience, he will begin to draw inferences: he will infer a certain object/event from the presence of another object/event because over time he’s observed constant conjunctions of objects/events.

And so we have our answer. What makes him – and by extension, us – do this is custom or habit not reason. In Hume’s own words, “All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning.” It’s simply a fact about us that we come to conclusions this way – every bit as unavoidable as feeling love or hatred.

In Part 2 of Section 5 Hume analyzes the nature of belief. He begins by pointing out again that the human imagination can come up with various complex ideas by modifying and compounding simple ideas. What makes these “fictions” of the imagination different from beliefs? Hume thinks that beliefs have a different feeling attached to them. A feeling that “gives them more weight and influence; makes them appear of greater importance; inforces them in the mind; and renders them the governing principle of our actions.”

In other words, beliefs have a different feel to them than things we merely imagine, and this feeling in turn disposes us to act in certain ways. And this disposition is itself brought about by belief + the memories the belief triggers + custom, which is what makes us draw inductive inferences. So we can see that for Hume, custom or habit is of crucial importance, not something to be dismissed because it’s not a form of reason. Custom is “necessary to the subsistence of our species, and the regulation of our conduct, in every circumstance and occurrence of human life.”

Section 6: Of Probability
Section 6 is a short section on probability. Hume says straight away that “chance” is not something in the world. Rather, our ignorance of certain causes makes us form various degrees of belief, which is where probability has a role to play. Again, it’s experience + custom that’s doing all the work here. The more often we observe certain conjunctions of events – the more we see this sort of uniformity – the higher our degree of belief. And Hume takes this to be the essence of probability.

Section 7: Of the idea of necessary Connexion
After a brief introduction, Hume points out that all our ideas deas related to cause and effect, such as “power”, “force” and “necessary connection” are extremely obscure. So he wants to try to figure out what they are and where they come from. Hume reminds us about his theory of simple and complex ideas: simple ideas are copies of impressions, complex ideas arise out of modifying and compounding simple ideas. Do our ideas of power/necessity arise from experience? But we don’t actually perceive powers or necessary connections. We observe, for example, a billiard ball moving after being struck by another billiard ball, or that whenever there’s fire there’s heat. But our senses don’t actually grasp the causal connection between one billiard ball and the next, or between fire and heat. So there’s no external impression that generates the idea of power or necessary connection.

Maybe there’s an internal impression that does? Perhaps it could be argued that whenever we voluntarily move parts of our body, we feel this power, and that’s where the idea comes from. Hume argues that this isn’t actually what’s going on: we will to move a certain part of our body and this is followed by that part of our body moving. We don’t actually encounter any powers or necessary connections here, just a succession of acts: the willing and the moving. Besides, a close study of anatomy reveals there’s a whole bunch of stuff that happens between the willing and the final effect that we have no knowledge of, so it doesn’t make sense to say we’re actually aware of the connection between the willing and the acting. OK, we don’t encounter powers in cases when the mind tries to command the body. Maybe we do when we bring certain ideas into our mind or decide to turn our inner attention to certain ideas? But again, Hume argues, what happens here is similar to what happens in the case of moving parts of our bodies. We experience the desire / will to focus on a certain idea, and then we find ourselves focusing on certain idea. We still don’t encounter the supposed power that connects the first event and the second. So we’re still left with the fact that we only perceive conjunctions between objects/events, not connections.

Hume now points out that some philosophers, as a result of this, have adopted occasionalism. According to occasionalism, the powers are not in objects but in God. God wills all the conjunctions we observe. Hume’s response to this is that it doesn’t really solve the problem. It’s true that we don’t understand the power that determines how bodies operate on each other, but we’re equally ignorant of how a mind – even a supreme one – could operate on bodies. And the power of minds to act on bodies is also not something we have an impression of, as we’ve already shown. Having rejected these explanations we’ve considered so far, Human proposes his own.

We’ve shown that powers/connections are not things we observe – internally, or externally. What we observe are regular successions of events. But we also showed in Section 5 that as a result of custom, we always form certain expectations. Every time we see one billiard ball strike another, we see the second billiard ball move. And so the next time we see it, we expect it to move. That is, the connection between ideas is not something that is impressed on us by the world – it’s something felt by the mind. We project this felt connection on to the world. which is why we think there are necessary connections between objects/events. Hume then offers his own revisionary definitions of cause & effect:

– “An object, followed by another, and where all the objects, similar to the first, are followed by objects similar to the second”

– “An object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other.”

Hume ends the section by worrying whether his chain of reasoning will be understood by the reader, but also says he doesn’t want to spend more time on it, lest he further confuse the reader. I say: Don’t worry, Hume! You did a really good job explaining what exactly the chaining of reasoning is, and I didn’t have much trouble understanding it.

Section 8: Of Liberty and Necessity
In section 8 Hume wades into the free will / determinism debate, or he calls it the question of liberty and necessity. Straight away Hume makes a bold claim: all the ink spilled over the supposed tension between liberty and necessity rests on a semantic mistake rather than some deep metaphysical principle. In his own words, “the whole controversy has hitherto turned merely upon words.” Liberty and necessity can be reconciled.

When Hume talks of necessity he’s referring to what’s often called causal determinism: the idea that events are necessitated by prior causes. But remember, Hume says, we’ve shown that the idea of necessity is suspect – all we have are constant conjunctions we observe and our disposition to form expectations on the basis of our observations. Hume thinks this is important because he thinks what can tempt people to deny the necessity thesis is something like this: they think there are necessary connections in the physical world, but when it comes to their own mind, these necessary connections don’t exist. So we can secure liberty for the mind if we think it’s exempt from the causal necessities that physical objects are governed by. But once we ditch the idea of necessary connections entirely, this analogy doesn’t hold. The whole picture falls apart. There are no necessary connections out in the world or in the mind. What we have is constant conjunctions / uniformity – and this is true of both the mind (desiring, willing, acting) and the world (physical events).

Hume then argues that no one really denies the necessity thesis (or, if we’re being philosophically rigorous, the uniformity thesis) even when it comes to human minds, because we constantly make inferences / predictions about how humans will behave based on past observations. Hume spends a significant amount of Part 1 of this section showing how all our practical activity relies on the presumption of uniformity in human thought and action (even across very different cultures).

OK, so how can this necessity / uniformity be reconciled with liberty, which is what Hume promised us? I will share Hume’s own compatibilist definition of liberty: “By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we chuse to remain at rest, we may; if we chuse to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one, who is not a prisoner and in chains.” In other words, freedom means being able to do what you want.

In Part 2 Hume wants to show that many of our ideas about reward and punishment, or praise and blame, require both necessity and liberty. What’s guiding Hume’s argument here is the thought that reward/punishment or praise/blame for an action only make sense if that action is a reflection of the person’s character. But if we grant this, we also grant that they require uniformity. That is, we hold that certain kinds of behavior regularly follow from certain kinds of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions etc). If people’s actions did not follow from prior internal and external causes – that is, if actions did not follow this pattern of uniformity – then they are not a reflection of their character – they’re not a reflection of who they are – and so reward/punishment or praise/blame would make no sense. Similarly, Hume points out that our practices presuppose liberty, since it wouldn’t make sense to apply them when people acted because they were coerced by external violence, because once again, their actions don’t reflect their character.

Hume then brings up two difficulties for the reconciliation he has proposed between liberty and necessity. First, someone could argue that even though we may be free to act according to the determination of our will, the will itself is determined by a prior series of causes that presumably has its origin in God. If that’s the case, people cannot be held responsible for their wills, and all the responsibility lies with God. Here Hume responds by saying that it’s a mistake to think our moral ideas are born of reason alone – when we praise or blame we are motivated primarily by sentiment. It’s a mistake to focus on the question of ultimate responsibility since our beliefs about this won’t significantly alter the way our sentiments are formed. He doesn’t develop this much further here, and to fully understand where he’s going with this I assume you’d have to be familiar his sentimentalist theory of morality. The second objection is that if God is ultimately responsible for the chain of causes that created people’s wills (which in turned led to people engaging in harmful acts), then God must be imperfect or immoral. Hume doesn’t give us a response to this – he says that tackling this question regarding God is beyond the scope of philosophy.

Section 9: Of the Reason of Animals
Section 9 is a short but super underrated section on animals and their capabilities of reasoning. It’s remarkable how, in a pre-Darwin age, Hume was able to stress the continuity between humans and animals in many things – including the ability to reason. Hume says it’s clear that animals also reason in the sense that they are capable of learning from experiences, and this enables them to avoid things that cause them pain and seek things that they find enjoyable. In this sense they are similar to us – they experience various constant conjunctions, and their minds automatically form expectations on the basis of these experiences. He gives the example of a horse learning how high it can jump, and a dog learning to fear the whip.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean animals get by in the world with highly abstract reasoning or formal argumentation. But neither, Hume points out, do we – most of the time. A quote I really liked from this Section: “Animals, therefore, are not guided in these inferences by reasoning: Neither are children: Neither are the generality of mankind, in their ordinary actions and conclusions: Neither are philosophers themselves, who, in all the active parts of life, are, in the main, the same with the vulgar, and are governed by the same maxims.”

Similarly, Hume says, animals are often guided by instinct rather than by things they’ve learned through observation. But then again, so are we. So Hume once more stresses the continuity between humans and animals. I think this is a natural consequence of his stated aim: constructing an empirical/natural science of the mind.

Section 10: Of Miracles
Hume’s made plenty of bold claims throughout the book, and this section on miracles is no exception. In the very second paragraph of Part 1, Hume says “I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.” Strong words – let’s see if the argument lives up to them.

Hume begins laying out the argument by recalling that for all matters concerning experience, we rely on constant conjunctions / regularities / uniformities that we have observed. These regularities are confirmed to various degrees, so we’re always dealing with probabilities here. Some regularities are extremely well confirmed in that we’ve never observed anything contrary to them. Whenever we encounter a claim, we must measure its probability based on our experience of these regularities. In Hume’s words, “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Hume makes a point about testimony here, and it’s crucial to understand it, since it plays an important role in his argument. Why do we believe people’s testimony? As with anything else, says Hume, it’s because of our past experience that there is some sort of connection between testimony and truth. By “connection” of course I don’t mean a “necessary connection.” Rather, I’m referring to the correlation we’ve observed in the past between people saying X and X actually being the case. What Hume says is that we’ve observed in the past that people aren’t always mistaken or trying to mislead us when they report things, which is why we think we can rely on testimony. This is the only reason to think testimony has some value. If not for this experience of a correlation we would have no reason to take testimony seriously.

Hume then goes on to say we’ve also experienced that testimony is not always reliable, and there are many circumstances in which we would doubt someone’s reports. All of this lays the groundwork for the core of the argument. Hume now defines a miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature.” It’s worth stressing here that Hume’s conception of laws of nature is entirely epistemic. There’s nothing impossible in principle about violating the laws of nature. Laws of nature are simply our best confirmed regularities – the facts about the world we have the most confidence in. Hume: “It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country.”

The second point to note here, which Hume mentions earlier, is that the reason we’re usually given for believing a miracle is testimony – people report witnessing a miraculous event. Hume says that when this is combined with what he’s said so far, the conclusion that follows is “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish[.]”

Part 1 ends here. In Part 2 of Section 10 Hume sets out to show why exactly testimony for a miracle doesn’t rise to the level of being more miraculous than the miracle it’s supposed to establish. Remember that at this stage we’re weighing two different probabilities. One the one hand, there’s the claim that a certain law of nature was not violated. Remember, a claim like this is one we have the highest amount of confidence in, given our experience of regularities. We’ve never seen an exception to something like “Dead men stay dead” ever. When it comes to matters of fact, probabilities don’t get much higher.

On the other hand, there’s the testimony from witnesses that the law was violated. Hume wants to show that we will have no reason to assign this testimony a higher probability than the alternative that the law of nature was violated. Some people have portrayed Hume as giving some sort of a priori argument against miracles here, but this is not borne out by the text, and goes completely against the spirit of Hume’s empiricism. The reasons against assigning the testimony in favor of miracles a higher probability are straightforwardly empirical, and Hume lists them:

1) Testimony is strongest when it comes from people who are well educated and have good reputations that they would not wish to tarnish. All the testimonies we have for miracles fail to meet these conditions.

2) It’s a fact about human psychology that we have a propensity to believe miraculous things, especially in matters concerning religion, because of a combination of fear and wishful thinking, among other things.

3) Most reports of miracles come from people who are “ignorant and barbarous.” That is, people who don’t know much about how the world works, and are especially prone to attributing effects to supernatural causes. Hume points out that people sometimes wonder why miracles and supernatural intervention seemed to be so abundant in ancient times but seem so scarce now. The answer is simple: people were more easily fooled into believing such things in the past than they are now.

Finally, there are various miracle claims across history purporting to be evidence for various religions, all of which are in contradiction with each other. Even the religious person, therefore, has to believe that the vast majority of miracle claims are false. But the kind of testimony that exists for different religions is of the same nature and quality, so there’s no reason to think that the miracles described in any specific religion are more likely to have occurred.

On the basis of all this, Hume says, none of the testimony we have for miracles so far is good enough to overturn our belief that a law of nature was not suspended, and it’s unlikely that there will be any such testimony in the future. But again, this doesn’t mean that such testimony will be in principle impossible to find, and Hume himself provides an example of something that could work as sufficient testimony for believing something extraordinary: If everyone in every country agreed that there was darkness for eight days starting on January 1, 1600, and there was absolutely no variation in the accounts about this among people of different nations, then it seems reasonable to believe this did really happen, on the basis of testimony.

Hume immediately contrasts this with a different example: On January 1, 1600 Queen Elizabeth died. A month later she came back to life and resumed her rule, as confirmed by many witnesses of the time in England. Hume thinks that in this case we shouldn’t believe that it actually happened, for precisely the kinds of reasons outlined above.

One final point Hume makes is that someone could respond by saying we can say that the probability of a miracle isn’t actually low because God can suspend the regularities we observe anytime he wants. Hume’s objection to this is that the only basis we have for learning about the nature of God’s actions is experience, and all our experience shows us that he doesn’t like to suspend regularities. We’ve observed mistaken testimony and fraudulent miracles far more often than we’ve observed God violating a law of nature, so even if you’re a theist, you should bet against the miracle actually having occurred.

It’s interesting how everything Hume’s said so far can be seen as a direct attack on Christianity, and indeed that was how it was received in his time. I’m sure Hume didn’t make things easier for himself with the way he ended this section: “So that, upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” Oof.

Section 11: Of a particular Providence and of a future State
In Section 11 Hume tackles philosophy of religion, although his treatment of the subject is pretty short here. But you can see the germs of the criticisms that would be more fully developed in his later work, the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Amusingly, Hume places most of the criticisms of theistic arguments in the voice of a friend, who’s also playing the part of an Epicurean arguing against the Athenian gods rather than the Christian one. It seems pretty clear Hume wanted to distance himself from being seen as an outright atheist.

Hume’s main target here is the argument from design. It can be stated in a lot of ways, but the general idea is that given the extraordinary order and structure of the universe, we infer that its cause be some powerful intelligence(s) behind it. We’re reasoning by analogy here: if we came across some complex artifact we would infer that it was designed by an intelligence. The same applies to the universe. Hume’s main criticism here is that from any effect you can only infer proportionate causes – that is, you can only infer causes that have the particular capabilities that the effect requires. Anything more is just a shot in the dark. So if we want to infer that the universe has a designer, all we can say is that the designer has the ability to create the universe. We don’t have any grounds for inferring that the designer has attributes like omnipotence or benevolence or anything approaching perfection. This is especially true given all the imperfections we see in the world.

Hume goes on to say that if there’s no reason to think the gods are just, there’s no reason to think there will be a proper distribution of justice in the world either – that is, that good deeds will be rewarded and bad deeds will be punished. At this stage Hume considers an objection. Suppose we see a half-finished building with various tools and materials around. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume from this, not just that there was a designer, but that the designer had not yet completed the project? Why can we not reason in an analogous fashion, on observing the universe, that while rewards and punishments may have not yet been meted out in a just matter, they will in the end, as events run their final course? Hume points out the relevant disanalogy here: in the case of the half-finished building we’re justified in drawing that kind of inference because we’ve observed humans and how they behave in the past. The same is not true of the gods – we have no experience of them that tells us what their behavior is like or what their intentions are.

A final point Hume makes about inferring causes from effects is that we can only infer like causes from like effects. If we’re dealing with a singular effect that has no parallel in our experience, there’s not much we can say about its cause. This is what Hume thinks about inferring things about the cause of the universe as a whole. When we’re looking at specific objects within the universe, we can infer their causes based on constant conjunctions we’ve seen before with similar objects. But the universe as a whole is something singular; there’s no similar kind of object we’ve observed in the past to come to conclusions about its cause.

Section 12: Of the academical or sceptical Philosophy
In Section 12, the final section, Hume goes over the different varieties of skepticism. First there’s Cartesian skepticism, which begins by universally doubting the veracity of all our faculties, and seeks to arrive certain foundations from which knowledge can be built up. Hume thinks this is hopeless: once you entertain Cartesian doubt, you’re never going to reason your way into knowledge. It can’t be beaten. Another form of skepticism is more modest and more specific: We have reason to doubt our senses because we know they can be deceived (hallucinations, illusions). Then there’s skepticism about the external world. Each of us is naturally inclined to believe that there exists a world out there, independent of our minds. But we know that all the mind has access to is impressions. How do we know these impressions are caused by, and resemble, objects in the world? To do this we’d have to compare the impressions to the objects. But there’s no way to do this – there’s no way to get outside the impressions and at the objects themselves, independent of our impressions, because all the mind has access to is impressions. If all we have are impressions, there’s no proof that they were caused by or resemble objects in the world.

After this Hume brings up another variety of skepticism, which has its origin in the distinction Locke drew between primary and secondary qualities. According to this view, which Hume takes as being universally acknowledged by philosophers, the “sensible qualities of objects” such as color or hardness don’t exist in the objects themselves – they exist as impressions in the mind, produced by objects. The primary qualities of objects are things like solidity and extension. Now, rationalist philosophers like Descartes thought these things could be grasped as intrinsic qualities of the objects by the mind (as opposed to the senses). As an empiricist, Hume obviously doesn’t think this is true. Hume things ideas like extension are also acquired through sensible qualities perceived by the senses.

Hume also says this “grasping by the mind” doesn’t make sense because the process of abstraction involved in it doesn’t really make sense – we can’t conceive of an extended object that is devoid of sensible qualities. Hume challenges to conceive of “a tangible or visible extension, which is neither hard nor soft, black nor white” and concludes that it’s impossible. In my opinion the argument here is not sufficiently developed. Hume is far too brief here, and it’s hard to evaluate what exactly the chain of reasoning is, although I’m sure you could reconstruct a sympathetic version of the argument if you tried. Anyway, Hume’s conclusion is that primary qualities are every bit “in the mind” as secondary qualities, and once we accept that, there’s really nothing we can say about the nature of the external world: “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 perceptions; a notion so imperfect, that no sceptic will think it worth while to contend against it.”

Moving on, Hume hints at some paradoxes related to space & time which can also lead to skepticism, before eventually distinguishing between two kinds of skepticism: Pyrrhonian skepticism, and mitigated or academic skepticism. Pyrrhonian skepticism is an “excessive” form of skepticism about all our faculties and abilities to reason. If we were capable of taking Pyrrhonian skepticism seriously, we would be paralyzed and unable to act. Hume rejects this form of skepticism. The point of mitigated skepticism is to restrict our areas of inquiry to fields where we may actually arrive at answers. What are these fields? The same fields Hume listed in Section 4: relations of ideas and matters of fact. The former includes mathematics and logic, the latter includes everyday empirical investigations. What Hume wants to rule out is reasoning about deep metaphysical questions that are beyond the purview of empirical investigation.

Further, Hume insists a priori reasoning (which can grant us certainty) is only applicable to relations of ideas (that is, mathematics and logic), it cannot demonstrate metaphysical conclusions. And for empirical reasoning, we must work with the cautious, modest, systematic application of custom, which can lead us to probable conclusions. This is what we’re left with once we adopt mitigated skepticism. And so we come to the dramatic conclusion of the Enquiry, which Hume ends by declaring: “When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Final thoughts:
I’m more convinced than ever that Hume is rightly considered one of the greatest early modern philosophers, and the Enquiry is rightly considered one of the greatest early modern works of philosophy. It isn’t perfect – there are reasonable objections you could raise at various stages, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fantastic piece of philosophy. Also, Hume is a great writer. He manages to be clear and profound. I honestly think someone with next to no background in philosophy could pick up the Enquiry, read it, and grasp most (if not all) of it.

My favorite sections: Section 4 (induction), Section 7 (causation / necessary connections), Section 8 (free will & determinism), Section 10 (miracles).

Post-Classical Anarchism: A Reading List

I have often noticed online that when people ask for reading recommendations to understand anarchism, most of the suggestions they receive involve works by the early anarchists: Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Rocker and so on. While I consider these anarchists absolutely essential reading, I do think that reading lists that consist solely of their names can give the unfortunate impression that anarchist thought has not progressed much beyond the early 20th century. As a partial corrective to this, I have compiled a reading list featuring texts that were written from the second half of the 20th century up to the present. I hope this gives the anarcho-curious reader a taste of the various ways in which anarchism has developed over the last seven decades.

This reading list is not intended to be comprehensive, and it is certainly not representative of the full range of recent/contemporary anarchist theory. However, I did do my best to not be overly restrictive: I have included works from a variety of anarchist traditions in the hopes of capturing – however imperfectly – some of the diversity of anarchist thought. I should add that I only included texts that I have personally read myself in this list. If you notice a number of omissions that strike you as egregious, it is most likely because I haven’t read those works, and not because I don’t think they are worth reading. Finally, I don’t necessarily agree with all or even most of the content of the works on this list – the fact that they’re included only means I found them interesting and worth engaging.

This list is organized into six broad sections:

  • Overviews: General introductions to anarchist theory and practice
  • Philosophy: Texts that focus on philosophical issues central to anarchism
  • Anthropology: Studies in anthropology with a focus on social stratification, state formation and resistance to domination
  • Analysis: Anarchist and anarchist-friendly analyses of the state, class, culture, technology and ecology
  • Tactics: Studies of strategy and tactics developed over the years that characterize anarchist practice
  • History: Histories of various anarchist movements and revolutionary movements more broadly, and the lessons we can draw from them

A few of the texts on this list were not written by anarchists or fellow travelers of anarchism, but have been included all the same because I think they contain insights anarchists will find valuable. Authors who do not claim the anarchist tradition in any form have an asterisk (*) next to their name. Among these non-anarchist authors, I have deliberately tried to exclude Marxists as far as possible, since I plan to make a separate Marxism Reading List in the near future. However, given the overlap between various anarchist and Marxist currents, minimal inclusion of Marxist theory was inevitable.

The texts here are of varying lengths – they include articles, essays, academic papers and books. The shorter reads can be anywhere from a page or two to ~50 pages, and are in Italics for the convenience of readers who may want to start small. This reading list is a work in progress, and I will likely make periodic additions to it. If you have any suggestions for improvement, criticisms, or general feedback, please feel free to drop a comment below this post.

Happy reading!

***

 Overviews

Philosophy

Anthropology

 Analysis

Tactics

History

An Introduction to Abhidharma Metaphysics

The Abhidharma school of Indian Buddhism represents one of the earliest attempts to form a complete, coherent philosophical system based on the teachings of the Buddha. Abhidharma metaphysics rests on mereological reductionism: the claim that wholes are reducible to their parts. On the Abhidharma view, a composite object like a table is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is a convenient designator based on our shared interests and social conventions. Crucially, for Abhidharma Buddhists, this also extended to the self. The self, rather than being an enduring substance, is reducible to a bundle of momentary mental states (Carpenter, 2).

Based on this principle of reductionism, Abhidharma went on to develop the Doctrine of Two Truths. A statement is “conventionally true” is if it is based on our commonsense view of the world, and leads to successful practice in daily life. Thus, it is conventionally true that macro objects such as tables and chairs exist. A statement is “ultimately true” if it corresponds to the facts as they are, independent of any human conventions. According to the Abhidharma view, the only statements that can be considered ultimately true are statements about ontological simples: entities that cannot be further broken down into parts. The tendency to think that statements involving composite objects like tables are ultimately true arises when we project our interests and conventions on to the world.

The primary opponents of the Abhidharma Buddhists were philosophers of the Nyāya orthodox tradition, about which I have written before. Nyāya philosophers were unflinching commonsense realists. They held that wholes existed over and above their parts. The word “table” is not merely a convenient designator or a projection of our interests on to the world, it is a real object that cannot be reduced to its parts. Nyāya held that there are simple substances and composite substances. Simple substances are self-existent and eternal. Composite substances depend on simple substances for their existence, but cannot be reduced to them. They possess qualities that are numerically distinct from the qualities of their component parts.

There are some obvious difficulties with the view that wholes exist in addition to their parts, and Abhidharma philosophers were quick to point this out. If the table exists in addition to its parts, it would follow that whenever we look at a table, we are looking at two different entities – the component parts and the (whole) table. How can two different objects share the same location in space? Nyāya philosophers responded by stating that wholes are connected to parts by the relation of inherence. In Nyāya metaphysics, inherence is an ontological primitive, a category that cannot be further analyzed in terms of something else. To put it very crudely, inherence functioned as a kind of metaphysical glue in the Nyāya system. The inherence relation is what connects qualities to substances. The quality redness inheres in a red rose. Similarly, the inherence relation also connects wholes with their parts. In this case, the whole – the table – inheres in its component parts.

At this point in the debate, the standard Abhidharma move was to ask how exactly wholes are related to their parts. Do wholes inhere wholly or partially in their parts? If wholes are real and not reducible to their parts, but nonetheless inhere only partially in their parts, it would mean that there is a further ontological division at play. We now have three different kinds of entities. The parts of the table, the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table, and the whole. Now, what is the relation between the whole and the parts of the whole that inhere in the parts of the table? Does the whole inhere wholly or partially in the second set of parts? If it is the former, then the second set of parts becomes redundant, for the whole could simply inhere wholly in the first set of parts (that is, the parts of the table). If the whole inheres partially in the second set of parts, then we will have to introduce yet another whole-part distinction, and there is an obvious infinite regress looming.

The Nyāya school held that wholes inhere wholly in their component parts. They drew an analogy with universals to make the illustration clear. Just as the universal cowness inheres in every individual cow, the table inheres wholly in every one of its individual parts.

Abhidharma philosophers rasied a second set of difficulties for Nyāya. Consider a piece of cloth woven from different threads. According to the Nyāya view, the cloth is a substance that is not merely reducible to the threads. But now let us suppose I cannot see the whole cloth. Let us suppose most of the cloth is obscured from my view, and I only see a single thread. In this case, we would not say that I have seen the cloth. I am not even aware that there is a cloth – I think there is just a single thread. But if the Nyāya view is correct, then the cloth (the whole) inheres in every single thread, so when I see the thread, I should see the cloth as well. But since I don’t, it follows that the Nyāya view is incorrect.

Now consider a piece cloth woven from both red and black threads. Since the cloth is a separate substance, and since composite substances possess qualities numerically distinct from their component parts, the cloth must have its own color. But is the color of the cloth red or black? Nyāya responded that the color of the cloth is neither red nor black, but a distinct “variegated” color (Siderits, 111). But this only multiplies difficulties. If the cloth is wholly present in its parts, and it possesses its own variegated color, why do I not see the variegated color when I look at its component parts? When I look at the red threads, all I see is red, and when I look at the black threads, all I see is black. I do not see the variegated color in the component parts and yet, if the whole inheres wholly in its parts, I should.

Finally, if the whole is a distinct substance over and above its parts, the weight of the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. But we do not observe this when we weigh composite substances. This is highly mysterious on the Nyāya view. But these problems are all avoided if we simply accept that wholes are reducible to their parts.

Abhidharma is a broad tradition that encompasses numerous sub-schools. Two of the most prominent ones are Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika. While both sub-schools agree that everything is reducible to ontological simples, they disagree on the number and nature of these simples. The Vaibhāṣika school is fairly liberal in its postulation of simples, while Sautrāntika is conservative. Moreover, Vaibhāṣika treats simples as bearers of an intrinsic nature. According to Vaibhāṣika atomists, an earth atom, for instance, is a simple substance that possesses the intrinsic nature of solidity. The Sautrāntika school rejected the concept of “substance” entirely. There are numerous reasons for this (most of them epistemological, that I will cover in a subsequent essay), but roughly, it came down to this: We have no evidence of substances/bearers, only qualities. Further, there is no need to posit substances, because everything that needs to be explained can be explained without them. For Sautrāntika philosophers, an earth atom is not a substance that is the bearer of an intrinsic nature “solidity” – rather, it is simply a particular instance of solidity. Thus, in Sautrāntika metaphysics, there are no substances or inherence relations, there are simply quality-particulars. This position is similar to what contemporary metaphysicians call trope theory.

The term “reductionism” is often cause for confusion when used in relation to Abhidharma Buddhism. It must be emphasized that the kind of reductionism relevant here is mereological reductionism. Abhidharma Buddhists were not reductionists in the sense of believing that consciousness could be reduced to material states of the brain. All Abhidharma schools held that among the different kinds of ontological simples, some were irreducibly mental, as opposed to physical.

Apart from mereological reductionism, the other key aspects of Abhidharma metaphysics are nominalism and atheism. I have covered the Buddhist approach to nominalism in a previous essay, so I will not go over it here. When it comes to atheism, it is important to recognize that Abhidharma Buddhists (like all Buddhists) were only atheistic in a narrow sense. They rejected the existence of an eternal, omnipotent creator of the universe. This did not mean that they were naturalists or that they rejected deities altogether. They believed in many gods, but these gods were not very different from human beings apart from being extraordinarily powerful. Venerating the gods was a means of obtaining temporary benefits in this life or a good rebirth, but the gods could offer no help with the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice: liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The gods themselves, being unenlightened beings, were stuck in the cycle of rebirth. To attain liberation one must seek refuge in the Buddha, the teacher of gods and men.

Works Cited:

Carpenter, Amber. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. Routledge, 2014. Print.

Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Śrīharṣa’s Master Argument Against Difference

The Advaita Vedānta tradition is one of the most popular and influential Indian philosophical systems. The best translation of the Sanskrit word advaita is “non-dual.” The thesis of Advaita is that reality is at bottom non-dual, that is, devoid of multiplicity. Advaita recognizes that our everyday experience presents us with of a plurality of objects, but maintains that the belief that plurality and difference are fundamental features of the world is mistaken. The ultimate nature of reality is undifferentiated Being. Not being something, but Being itself – Pure Being. The phenomenal world, in which we experience Being as separate beings is not ultimately real. It is constructed by avidya – ignorance of the true nature of reality. We are beings alienated from Being, and true liberation lies in ending this alienation.

One of the reasons offered by Advaitins for accepting these claims is that they form the most plausible and coherent interpretation of the Upaniṣads – scriptures accepted as being a reliable source of knowledge. But this will hardly convince someone who does not already acknowledge the authority of the Upaniṣads. Here, the strategy of Advaita philosophers has typically been to go on the offensive and argue that the very notion of “difference” or “separateness” is in some sense conceptually incoherent. The arguments for this claim were first formally compiled by the 5th century philosopher Maṇḍana Miśra. Subsequent philosophers in the Advaita tradition further developed, defended and extended these arguments. In this essay, I will briefly go over the master argument against difference presented by the twelfth century philosopher Śrīharṣa in his magnum opus, Khaṇḍanakhaṇḍakhādya (“The Sweets of Refutation”).

Śrīharṣa begins his inquiry by asking what “difference” really is. He identifies four possible answers to this question:

  1. Difference is the intrinsic nature of objects.
  2. Difference consists in the presence of distinct properties in objects.
  3. Difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects.
  4. Difference is a special property of objects.

Śrīharṣa considers each option in turn, and finds them all untenable.

The claim that difference is the intrinsic nature of objects is rejected because difference is necessarily relational. To state that bare difference is the nature of X is to utter something meaningless. At best, we can say that difference-from-Y is the intrinsic nature of X. However, this raises another problem. To describe the intrinsic nature of X is to describe what X is in and of itself, independent of anything else.  In contrast, the very notion “difference-from-Y” indicates a dependence on Y. We have arrived at a contradiction: if X has an intrinsic nature that is parasitic on the nature of Y, then it follows that X doesn’t really have an intrinsic nature.

Śrīharṣa offers a subsidiary argument to drive home the implausibility of the view that that difference is the intrinsic nature of an object. Consider a blue object and a yellow object. An object that is blue by its very nature does not depend on the yellowness of the other object. Even if all the yellow objects in the world were to disappear, the blue object would still be blue. But this could not be the case if difference-from-yellow-objects was the intrinsic nature of the blue object.

According to the second definition of difference, X is different Y if distinct properties are present in X and Y. X and Y can be any two objects, but we may use Śrīharṣa’s example: A pot is different from a cloth because the property potness is present in the pot, while the property clothness is present in the cloth. But this raises an obvious question: what makes potness different from clothness? The answer cannot be (1) – that is, that difference is the very nature of potness and clothness – because that view has already been refuted. If we answered the question with (2), then we would end up saying that what makes potness different from clothness is that potness is itself possesses a property that clothness does not. We would have to maintain that potness-ness is present in potness, and clothness-ness is present in cloth-ness. Even if we ignore the oddness of properties being present in other properties, we can raise another question: What makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness? This series of questions could go on indefinitely, generating an infinite regress. Hence, this option is unsatisfactory.

Śrīharṣa considers the possibility that difference consists in the mutual non-existence of properties in objects. According to this view, what makes a pot different from a cloth is the absence of potness in the cloth, and the absence of clothness in the pot. But much like before, this raises the question of what makes potness different from clothness. It cannot be (1) or (2), because they have already been refuted. If we bring up (3) here, we would have to say that what makes potness different from clothness is the absence of potness-ness in clothness, and the absence of clothness-ness in potness. At this point, much like before, we could ask what makes potness-ness different from clothness-ness. Once again, we are left with an infinite regress.

This brings us to the final option: that difference is a special property of an object. According to this view, difference-from-Y is itself an attribute of X. But if difference-from-Y is an attribute of X, then difference-from-Y is not X itself, but something different from X. This entitles us to ask what makes the attribute difference-from-Y different from X. It cannot be (1), (2) or (3), so it must be (4). This would mean that it must be another attribute that makes difference-from-Y different from X. But then this attribute itself would be different from both X and difference-from-Y, which simply raises the same question. One more, we see an infinite regress looming.

Having rejected all four possibilities, Śrīharṣa concludes that the very notion of difference is incoherent, and so it cannot be a true feature of the world. A typical reaction to Śrīharṣa’s arguments is that there must be something wrong with them – indeed, something obviously wrong with them. But it isn’t necessarily straightforward to identify what exactly it is. One could question whether Śrīharṣa really has considered all the possible options, whether some of these options really lead to an infinite regress, and finally, whether an infinite regress is something to be worried about. Philosophers from rival traditions adopted all these approaches. Śrīharṣa and his successors anticipated and responded to a number of these objections. They also modified and extended the arguments against difference to more specific cases, to show that differentiating cause and effect, moments in time, and subject and object, were all impossible. For a thorough examination of Śrīharṣa’s critique of difference, Phyllis Granoff’s Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedānta is a good place to start.

Buddhist Apoha Nominalism

The Problem of Universals is one the oldest subjects of debate in Indian philosophy. Realists about universals believe that universals exist in addition to concrete particulars, while nominalists deny the existence of universals. The Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā schools were vocal defenders of realism. Nyāya philosophers believed in universals for a number of reasons:

  • Universals explain how different objects share common characteristics. Cow A and Cow B differ from each other in various ways, and yet we recognize that they’re both cows. The Nyāya explanation for this is that what Cow A and Cow B have in common is the universal “cowness” that inheres in both.
  • Universals fix the meanings of words. The word “cow” doesn’t just refer to a particular cow, but cows in general. How can a word refer to many different objects at once? The Nyāya solution is that the word “cow” refers to a particular qualified by the universal cowness, which is present in all individual cows.
  • Universals are a solution to the Problem of Induction, first raised by the Cārvāka empiricists. Nyāya philosophers viewed the laws of nature as relations between universals. Our knowledge of these universals and the relations between them justifies inductive generalizations, and consequently, inferences such as the presence of fire from the presence of smoke.

Buddhists were the best-known nominalists in the Indian philosophical tradition. The Buddhist hostility towards universals is perhaps best expressed by Paṇḍita Aśoka (9th century): “One can clearly see five fingers in one’s own hand. One who commits himself to a sixth general entity fingerhood, side by side with the five fingers, might as well postulate horns on top of his head.”¹

In this post, I will briefly go over how Buddhists responded to the first two reasons for believing in universals provided by the Nyāya school. The Buddhist defense of induction will have to be the subject of a separate essay.

The form of nominalism Buddhists advocated is called apoha, the Sanskrit word for “exclusion.” The first precise statement of apoha nominalism can be found in the works of Dignāga (6th century). Dignāga claimed that the word “cow” simply means “not non-cow.” Since there is obviously no universal “not cow-ness” present in every object that is not a cow, this semantic view doesn’t commit us to the existence of universals. Every cow is a unique particular distinct from all other objects. We simply overlook the mutual differences between cows and group them together based on how they’re different from non-cows.  Thus, it’s not because cows share something in common that we call them by the same name. Rather, we think all cows share something in common because we have learned to call them by the same name.

There are some objections that immediately spring to mind, and Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā philosophers brought them up repeatedly in their criticisms of apoha nominalism. First, how does saying that “cow” means “not non-cow” provide a solution to the problem of universals? “Not non-cow” involves a double negation, so to say “cow” means “not non-cow” is just to say “cow” means “cow.” This leads us right back to where we started, and just as before, it seems that we need to posit a universal cowness. Second, how can we focus on cows’ common differences from non-cows unless we already know how to tell what a cow is in the first place? Once again, we seem to have gone in a circle, and apoha seems to presuppose precisely what it was supposed to explain.

Dignāga’s successors responded to the first objection by drawing distinctions between different kinds of negation. Consider the statement: “This is not impolite.” Now, at first glance it might seem like this just translates to “This is polite,” because of the double negation involved in “not impolite.” But this is not necessarily the case. The statement could be about something to which the very category of politeness does not apply, in which case “not impolite” is distinct from “polite.” Thus, “not non-cow” can mean something genuinely different from “cow.”

To understand how Buddhists responded to the second charge of circularity, it helps to look at another Buddhist view. Buddhists were mereological reductionists: they did not believe that wholes were anything over and above their parts. So, a table, for instance, is nothing more than its parts arranged table-wise. The “table” is just a conceptual fiction: a convenient designator we use because of our shared interests and social conventions. It is conceivable, for instance, that someone who has never seen or heard of tables before will not see a table, just pieces of wood put together in seemingly random fashion. The idea that the table is ultimately real arises when we project our interests on to the world. How is any of this relevant to the question of universals? Buddhist philosophers argued that something similar goes on when we fall under the impression that all cows share a common cowness. We overlook the differences between individual cows because they satisfy some of our desires – for example, the desire for milk – that non-cows don’t. We then project our interests on to the world, mistakenly concluding that cowness is a real thing.

This may not seem like a very satisfactory response. It just pushes the problem back a step. How do all these particulars satisfy the same desire if they don’t share something in common? In this case, it seems like the cows really do share something: the ability to satisfy our desire for milk. Dharmakīrti (7th century) responded to this by using the example of fever-reducing herbs. He pointed out that there are many different herbs that reduce fevers. But it would be foolish to conclude from this that there exists a universal “fever-reducing-ness.” Each of these herbs is different, and they don’t reduce fevers in the same way, or use the same mechanisms to do so. We group them together under a single category only because of our subjective interest in reducing fevers. Dharmakīrti’s claim is that the same is true of everything. Each particular serves our interests in a manner that’s utterly distinct from everything else in the world. And so once again, there is no need to posit universals.

But there are still some lingering worries here. While we may accept that in the case of the herbs there is no universal fever-reducing-ness, does the same response work for simple substances such as elementary particles? Assuming for the sake of argument that an electron is an elementary particle, surely all electrons share something in common. Doesn’t the ability to bring about similar effects require a shared capacity – in this case, the same set of causal powers? One possible response to this line of argument, formulated by the philosopher Kamalaśīla (8th century), is to adopt what we would recognize as a Humean view of causation. Kamalaśīla rejected the notion of causal powers entirely, and like Hume, stated that there is nothing more to causation than constant conjunctions of events. Once again, talk of “causal powers” is just a convenient way of speaking about certain correlations that we never fail to observe.

This is obviously a very brief sketch of apoha nominalism. There is much more to say, particularly on the subtle differences between different versions of apoha defended by different Buddhist philosophers. Thisis a good place to start for further reading.

References

[1] From the translation in Apoha: Buddhist Nominalism and Human Cognition, edited by Mark Siderits, Tom Tillemans and Arindam Chakrabarti (2011).

Nyāya Substance Dualism

In an earlier post, I went over an argument for the existence of God that was formulated by philosophers in the Nyāya tradition. Here my aim is to provide a brief summary of some Nyāya arguments for substance dualism, the view that mental and physical substances are radically distinct.

The categories of substance and quality were fundamental to Nyāya metaphysics. A substance is the concrete substratum in which qualities inhere. An apple, for instance, is a substance, and redness is a quality that inheres in it. Substances can be complex and made up of parts (like an apple) or simple and indivisible (like an atom).

Nyāya held that in addition to physical substances, there are non-physical ones. Our individual soul – that is, our Self – is a non-physical substance. Like atoms, individual souls are simple and indivisible, and hence eternal (since destroying an object is the same as breaking it up into its constituent parts, and simple substances do not have any constituent parts). Consciousness, and different conscious states like desires and memories, are qualities that inhere in the substantial Self.

The primary philosophical adversaries of Nyāya belonged to two different camps. The first was Cārvāka, which claimed that only physical substances exist, that the mind does not exist apart from the body, and that the self is reducible to the totality of the body and all its functions. The other was Buddhism, which rejects physicalism but denies the existence of the substantial Self. Buddhism replaces the idea of the Self with a stream of momentary causally connected mental states. Nyāya was engaged in a protracted series of debates with both Cārvāka and Buddhism. Versions of the arguments I summarize in this essay were developed and defended by Nyāya thinkers such as Vātsyāyana (5th century), Uddyotakara (7th century) and Udayana (10th century), among others.

Against Physicalism

Nyāya came up with a number of arguments against physicalism. The one I focus on here has interesting similarities to arguments found in contemporary debates within the philosophy of mind. It can be stated like this¹:

(P1) All bodily qualities are either externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(P2) No phenomenal qualities are externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(C) Therefore, no phenomenal qualities are bodily qualities.

The argument is deductively valid, so let us examine the premises. As the term suggests, externally perceptible bodily qualities are features of the body that can be directly perceived by external agents. Color is an example of an externally perceptible quality. Everyone who can see me can see that the color of my body is brown. An imperceptible quality is a feature of the body that cannot be directly perceived, but can be inferred through observation and analysis. Weight was a common example used in Nyāya texts. You cannot directly perceive my weight, but if I stand on a weighing scale, you can know my weight by looking at the number displayed by the scale. P1 states that all physical qualities are exhausted by these two categories.

Let us movie on to P2. Phenomenal qualities are the features of conscious experience: the subjective, first person what-it-is-likeness to have an experience. The experience of color, pleasure, pain, desire, and memory are all examples of phenomenal qualities. P2 draws on the intuition that phenomenal qualities are essentially private.

To say that phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible is to say that I cannot immediately know what it is like for you to have an experience. I have direct access to externally perceptible qualities of your body like color, but I don’t have direct access to your phenomenal qualities. I may be able to infer based on your behavior that you are in pain, but I don’t experience your pain in the immediate, first person manner that you do. The contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel made a similar point in his classic paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat? We may be able to observe how bats behave, and how their organs, brain and nervous system work, but we can’t know what it feels like, from the inside, to be a bat. Only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.

If phenomenal qualities aren’t externally perceptible, perhaps they are imperceptible qualities like weight. But this is extremely implausible. Phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible, but they’re clearly internally perceptible. The whole point is that I have direct perceptive access to phenomenal qualities – my conscious experiences are given to me in a basic and immediate fashion. Even if I don’t know that my experiences are veridical, I always know what the features of my own experience are. Thus, phenomenal qualities are not imperceptible.

Since phenomenal qualities are neither externally perceptible nor imperceptible, they are not physical qualities. If physicalism is the thesis that only physical substances and their qualities exist, and the above argument is sound, we must conclude that physicalism is false.

Against No-Self Theory

The above argument by itself does not get us to the kind of substance dualism that Nyāya favored. Buddhists, after all, are anti-physicalists, but they do not believe that the Self is an enduring substance that persists through time. Instead, Buddhists view a person as nothing more than a series of sequential causally connected momentary mental states. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and more recently, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, came to roughly the same conclusion.

Again, the Nyāya canon has several arguments against the Buddhist no-Self theory, but I will touch on just two of them here. The first of these is that the Self is necessary to explain the first person experience of recollection or recognition. The intuition here is something like this: If I notice a tree and recognize that it is the same tree I saw a few days ago, there has to be a subject that was present both during the first experience and the second one for recollection to occur. Similarly, if the desire to eat a banana arises in my mind at t2 because I remember that I previously enjoyed eating a banana at t1, there has to be a subject that existed during the initial experience that occurred at t1, and persisted through time until the recollection at t2. Without the Self – a substance that endures through these different points in time – the experience of memory is a mystery.

The Buddhist response was that causal connections between momentary mental states could explain the phenomenon of memory. If the mental state at t1 is causally connected to the mental state at t2, that’s all that’s needed for the mental state at t2 to recall the experience at t1. The Nyāya rejoinder was that causal connections were not sufficient to account for how a mental event can be experienced as a memory. When I recognize a tree I saw few days ago, it isn’t just that an image of the previously perceived tree pops into my mind. Rather, my experience is of the form: “This tree that I see now is the same tree I saw yesterday.” In other words, my present experience after seeing the tree involves my recognition of the previous experience as belonging to myself. Similarly, my current desire to eat a banana is based on my recognition of the previous enjoyable experience of eating a banana as belonging to myself. One person does not experience the memory of another, and in much the same way, one mental state cannot remember the content of another. So a single entity that persists through time must exist.

The second argument for the Self takes for granted what we might call the unity of perception. Our perceptions aren’t a chaotic disjointed bundle despite the fact that they arise through different sense organs. There’s a certain unity and coherence to them. In particular, Nyāya philosophers drew attention to mental events that are characterized by cross-modal recognition. An example would be: “The table that I see now is the same table I am touching.” We have experiences that arise through different channels (in this case, my eye and my hand), but there must be something that ties these experiences together and synthesizes them to give rise to a unified cognitive event. In other words, the Buddhist no-Self theory might be able to explain the independent experiences of sight and touch, but for the object of both experiences to be recognized as one and the same, there must something else to which both experiences belong, and which integrates the experiences to give rise to the unified perception of the object. Again, it seems we must admit the existence of the Self.

Needless to say, all these arguments were (and remain) controversial. The debates between Buddhist and Nyāya philosophers got extremely complex over time. They involved increasingly fine-grained analyses of the phenomenology of recollection/recognition, and increasingly technical discussions on the metaphysics of causation. Similar debates took place between other orthodox Indian schools of thought that believed in the Self (Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, etc.) and their Buddhist no-Self rivals. A good place to start for further reading on this subject would be the collection of essays in Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self.

Notes

[1] The argument I’ve presented here is based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition.

A Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika Argument for the Existence of God

Historical Context

The different philosophical traditions in classical Indian thought are usually categorized under the labels of orthodox and heterodox. The orthodox traditions accepted the scriptural authority of the Vedas, while the heterodox ones such as Buddhism and Jainism did not. Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika were initially two different orthodox schools. Nyāya was mostly concerned with logic, reasoning and epistemology. Vaiśeṣika focused on metaphysics and identifying the different kinds of substances that ultimately exist. By the eleventh century, these two traditions had merged into a single school, which came to be known simply as Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika (NV henceforth). Apart from a few academic philosophers, the NV tradition is basically extinct today. Historically, however, they were extremely influential and made a number of important philosophical contributions.

Of all the theistic systems in India, NV had the greatest confidence in the scope of natural theology. They came up with a number of arguments for the existence of Īśvara (“the Lord”), and were engaged in a series of polemical debates with other thinkers, their primary adversaries usually being Buddhists. I will go over their most well known argument for theism in this essay.

What the Argument is Not

Before I lay out the the argument, I want to make a few preliminary comments on what the argument is not, since this is often an issue of confusion.

The argument is not like the popular Kalām cosmological argument, which states that everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and that if you trace the chain of causes you eventually get to an uncaused cause that explains the beginning of the universe. Indeed, the NV system holds that a number of entities are eternal and uncreated. These include the atoms of different elements, time, space, universals, individual souls, and of course, God.

The argument also does not belong to the family of arguments from contingency, which conclude that there is a necessarily existent being that explains why anything at all exists. The NV thinkers were not committed to the view that everything that exists has an explanation for its existence. Finally, the argument is not like familiar teleological arguments that draw on observations of biological complexity to infer that an intelligent designer exists.

That said, the NV argument does bear some resemblance to all of the above arguments. It is therefore best understood as a hybrid cosmological-teleological argument. The argument points out that certain kinds of things require an intelligent creator that has the attributes traditionally assigned to God.

Overview of the Argument

The argument can be stated as follows¹:

(P1) Everything that is an effect has an intelligent maker.

(P2) The first product is an effect.

(C)  Therefore, the first product has an intelligent maker.

The argument as spelled out here is a little different from the way the NV philosophers usually framed it, primarily because they had a more elaborate way of laying out syllogisms. But that need not concern us. The important point is that the argument is valid – if the premises are true, the conclusion does follow. But what are we to make of the premises?

Some terminological clarification is in order before we can assess the premises. By an effect, defenders of the argument refer to a composite object – i.e., an object made of parts. Buildings, rocks, mountains, human bodies are all examples of effects. Recall that NV philosophers were atomists, and since atoms are indivisible and indestructible, they do not count as effects.

The first product refers to the simplest kind of effect that can be further broken down into atoms. In the NV system, dyads – imperceptible aggregates of two atoms – were seen as the first product. But again, that need not concern us. All we need to know is that the first product is the smallest unit that is itself further divisible. We can now move on to scrutinize the premises.

Support for the Premises

P2 is necessarily true, since the first product is defined as the simplest kind of effect. Things get interesting when we consider the first premise. P1 states that every effect has an intelligent maker, where an intelligent maker is defined as an agent who:

(i) Has knowledge of the components that make up the effect;

(ii) Desires to bring about the effect; and

(iii) Wills to do so.

The obvious question then is: why believe that every effect has an intelligent maker?

The support offered for P1 is inductive. NV philosophers defend P1 by pointing out that we have a very large number of examples that confirm it. The classic example is that of a pot. We observe that pots have an intelligent maker: the potter who is aware of the material out of which the pot is made (the clay), desires to make the pot, and wills to do so. Atoms are deliberately excluded from P1 since they aren’t effects, and hence cannot be seen as counterexamples. Given this, defenders the argument claim that the numerous confirming instances (as in the case of the pot/potter) entitle us to accept P1 as a general principle.

Responding to Objections

Philosophers in the NV tradition were aware that the argument was extremely controversial, and came up with a number of interesting responses to common objections. I will go over three of them here.

Objection 1: Counterexamples to P1

The most common objection is that there are obvious counterexamples to the first premise. Rocks, mountains, plants – these are all made of parts, and yet, don’t have a maker. Thus, P1 is false.

The NV response is to say that this objection begs the question against the theist. The mere fact that we don’t immediately observe a maker in these cases does not establish that a maker was not at least in part involved. For the maker could, after all, be spatially or temporally remote² from the effect.

NV philosophers press the point by insisting that if direct observation of the cause was necessary, then even ordinary inferences would be defeated. For instance, we wouldn’t be able to infer the presence of fire from smoke if the fire wasn’t immediately observable. But of course, the fire could be a long distance away. Similarly, if we happen to come across a pot, we wouldn’t suspend judgement about whether it was made by a potter simply because we didn’t directly and immediately observe the pot being made by one. The potter could, after all, be in a different town, or even be dead. In other words, this objection proves toomuch, since it would render everyday inferences that we all rely on unjustified.

Objection 2: The Possibility of Counterexamples to P1

At this point, we might be willing to concede that we can’t rule out the existence of a maker for things like rocks and mountains. However, since the maker isn’t directly observed, the theist can’t be sure that a potential counterexample doesn’t exist either. It may be true that we have observed several instances of effects that have makers, but the possibility that there exists a counterexample means that P1 is at the very least unjustified, if not shown to be false.

Once again, the NV response is that the objection proves too much. The mere possibility of a counterexample is not reason enough to give up on the first premise. Consider, again, the example of smoke and fire. The mere possibility that there may have, at some time in the distant past, or in a faraway land, been an occurrence of smoke without fire does not give us enough reason to reject general fire-from-smoke type inferences. Unless we are willing to give up on induction entirely, there is no reason to reject P1.

The skeptic is also accused of another inconsistency at this point. Why does the skeptic not doubt that material things have material causes? If someone who is skeptical of P1 came across an object they had never seen before, they probably would not doubt that the object had been made out of pre-existing matter. And yet, the support for the belief that material objects have material causes is also inductive. The skeptic must provide some principled reason to reject P1 while also believing in material causes without the reason collapsing into the first objection which has already been refuted. Since the skeptic has not done this, they have failed to show that we must not accept P1.

Objection 3: The Gap

Many arguments for theism face what is sometimes called “the gap” problem. In other words, even if these arguments establish the existence of an intelligent maker, there is no reason to think this creator has any of the attributes traditionally assigned to God. A skeptic may point out that in all the cases of intelligent makers we have observed, the makers were embodied agents. The makers were not omniscient, uncreated or eternal. So there is no reason to suppose that the argument, even if successful, gets us to God. At best, it can establish the existence of some kind of intelligent maker, but any further claims about the omniscience or eternality of the maker would not be justified, since these properties are not observed in any of the cases we discussed.

Predictably, the NV response is that the criterion for inference being proposed as part of the objection is too strong, and would defeat many of our everyday inferences. In most inferences we make, we go beyond the general cases, and can justifiably infer special characteristics depending on the context. To go back to the commonly used fire-and-smoke example, if we observe smoke rising from a mountain, we don’t merely infer that there is fire. Rather, given the specific context, we infer that there is fire that has the property of being on the mountain. Similarly, based on the specific context, we can conclude that the maker of the first product has certain characteristics.

Since the maker exists prior to the first product, it must be uncreated. It cannot have a body, since bodies are made of parts, and this would simply introduce a regress that would have to be terminated by a creator that is not made of parts. Thus, the maker must be disembodied and simple. Since it is simple, it cannot be destroyed by being broken down into its constituent parts, and hence must be eternal. Since it has knowledge of all the fundamental entities and how to combine them, it must be omniscient. Finally, simplicity favors a single maker over multiple agents. The intelligent maker thus has many of the attributes of the God of traditional theism.

Conclusion

The argument, if successful, does get us to a God-like being. P1 is the controversial premise, and as we have seen, NV philosophers respond to objections by essentially shifting the burden of proof on to the skeptic. This can seem like trickery, and indeed, that’s how the influential 11th century Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti characterized it in his work Refutation of Arguments Establishing Īśvara, which is arguably the most thorough critique of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika argument. Either way, it is at least not obvious that the first premise can be easily rejected, so the skeptic must do some work to justify rejecting it. I may go over Ratnakīrti’s criticisms in a future essay.

Notes

[1] The argument as I’ve presented it here is roughly based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition.

[2] The terminology I’m using is based on Parimal Patil’s translation of the original Sanskrit terms in Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India.