Essays and treatises: on several subjects. By David Hume, Esq; In four volumes. ... [pt.3]
Hume, David, 1711-1776.
Page  55


BUT we have not, as yet, attained any tolerable satisfaction with regard to the question first proposed. Each solution still gives rise to a new question as dif|ficult as the foregoing, and leads us on to farther en|quiries. When it is asked, What is the nature of all our reasonings concerning matter of fact? The proper answer seems to be, that they are founded on the rela|tion of cause and effect. When again it is asked, What is the foundation of all our reasonings and con|clusions concerning that relation? it may be replied in one word, EXPERIENCE. But if we still carry on our sifting humour, and ask, What is the foundation of all our conclusions from experience? this implies a new question, which may be of more difficult solution and explication. Philosophers, that give themselves airs of superior wisdom and sufficiency, have a hard task, when they encounter persons of inquisitive dis|positions, who push them from every corner, to which they retreat, and who are sure at last to bring them to some dangerous dilemma. The best expedient to prevent this confusion, is to be modest in our preten|sions; and even to discover the difficulty ourselves before it is objected to us. By this means, we may make a kind of merit of our very ignorance.

Page  56 I SHALL content myself, in this section, with an easy task, and shall pretend only to give a negative answer to the question here proposed. I say then, that even after we have experience of the operations of cause and effect, our conclusions from that experi|ence are not founded on reasoning, or any process of the understanding. This answer we must endeavour, both to explain and to defend.

IT must certainly be allowed, that nature has kept us at a great distance from all her secrets, and has aoffrded us only the knowlege of a few superficial qualities of objects, while she conceals from us those powers and principles, on which the influence of these objects entirely depends. Our senses inform us of the colour, weight, and consistence of bread; but neither senses nor reason ever can inform us of those qualities, which fit it for the nourishment and support of a human body. Sight or feeling conveys an idea of the actual motion of bodies; but as to that won|derful force or power, which would carry on a mov|ing body for ever in a continued change of place, and which bodies never lose but by communicating it to others; of this we cannot form the most distant conception. But notwithanding this ignorance of natural powers* and principles, we always presume, Page  57 where we see like sensible qualities, that they have like secret powers, and lay our account, that effects, similar to those, which we have experienced, will follow from them. If a body of like colour and consistence with that bread, which we have formerly eat, be presented to us, we make no scruple of re|peating the experiment, and expect, with certainty, like nourishment and support. Now this is a process of the mind or thought, of which I would willingly know the foundation. 'Tis allowed on all hands, that there is no known connection between the sensible qualities and the secret powers; and consequently, that the mind is not led to form such a conclusion concerning their constant and regular conjunction, by any thing which it knows of their nature. As to past Experience, it can be allowed to give direct and certain information only of those precise objects, and that precise period of time, which fell under its cogni|zance: But why this experience should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which, for aught we know, may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist. The bread, which I formerly eat, nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities, was, at that time, endued with such secret powers: But does it follow, that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must always be attended with like secret powers? The consequence seems no Page  58 way necessary. At least, it must be acknowleged, that there is here a consequence drawn by the mind; that there is a certain step taken; a process of thought, and an inference, which wants to be explained. These two propositions are far from being the same, I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect, and I foresee, that other objects, which are, to appearance, similar, will be attended with simi|lar effects. I shall allow, if you please, that the one proposition may justly be inferred from the other: I know in fact, that it always is inferred. But if you insist, that the inference is made by a chain of reason|ing, I desire you to produce that reasoning. The con|nection between these propositions is not intuitive. There is required a medium, which may enable the mind to draw such an inference; if indeed it be drawn by reasoning and argument. What that medium is, I must confess, passes my comprehension; and 'tis incumbent on those to produce it, who assert, that it really exists, and is the origin of all our conclusions concerning matter of fact.

THIS negative argument must certainly, in process of time, become altogether convincing, if many pe|netrating and able philosophers shall turn their inqui|ries this way; and no one be ever able to discover any connecting proposition or intermediate step, which supports the understanding in this conclusion. But as the question is yet new, every reader may not trust so Page  59 far to his own penetration, as to conclude, because an argument escapes his research and enquiry, that there|fore it does not really exist. For this reason it may be requisite to venture upon a more difficult task; and enumerating all the branches of human knowlege, endeavour to shew, that none of them can afford such an argument.

ALL reasonings may be divided into two kinds, viz. demonstrative reasonings, or those concerning relations of ideas, and moral reasonings or those con|cerning matter of fact and existence. That there are no demonstrative arguments in the case, seems evi|dent; since it implies no contradiction, that the course of nature may change, and that an object seemingly like those which we have experienced, may be at|tended with different or contrary effects. May I not clearly and distinctly conceive, that a body falling from the clouds, and which, in all other respects, resembles snow, has yet the taste of salt or feeling of fire? Is there any more intelligible proposition than to affirm, that all the trees will flourish in DE|CEMBER and JANUARY, and decay in MAY and JUNE? Now whatever is intelligible, and can be dis|tinctly conceived, implies no contradiction, and can never be proved false by any demonstrative argu|ments or abstract reasonings à priori.

Page  60 IF we be, therefore, engaged by arguments to put trust in past experience, and make it the standard of our future judgment, these arguments must be pro|bable only, or such as regard matter of fact and real existence, according to the division above-mentioned. But that there are no arguments of this kind, must appear, if our explication of that species of reasoning be admitted as solid and satisfactory. We have said, that all arguments concerning existence are founded on the relation of cause and effect; that our knowlege of that relation is derived entirely from experience, and that all our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavour, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.

IN reality, all arguments from experience are founded on the similarity, which we discover among natural objects, and by which we are induced to ex|pect effects similar to those, which we have found to follow from such objects. And tho' none but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience, or to reject that great guide of human life; it may surely be allowed a philosopher to have so much curiosity at least, as to examine the principle of human nature which gives this mighty authority to Page  61 experience, and makes us draw advantage from that similarity, which nature has placed among different objects. From causes, which appear similar, we ex|pect similar effects. This is the sum of all our expe|rimental conclusions. Now it seems evident, that if this conclusion were formed by reason, it would be as perfect at first, and upon one instance, as after ever so long a course of experience. But the case is far otherwise. Nothing so like as eggs; yet no one, on account of this apparent similarity, expects the same taste and relish in all of them. 'Tis only after a long course of uniform experiments in any kind, that we attain a firm reliance and security with regard to a particular event. Now where is that process of rea|soning, which from one instance draws a conclusion, so different from that which it infers from an hun|dred instances, that are no way different from that single instance? This question I propose as much for the sake of information, as with an intention of rais|ing difficulties. I cannot find, I cannot imagine any such reasoning. But I keep my mind still open to instruction, if any one will vouchsafe to bestow it on me.

SHOULD it be said, that from a number of uni|form experiments, we infer a connection between the sensible qualities and the secret powers; this, I must confess, seems the same difficulty, couched in diffe|rent Page  62 terms. The question still recurs, On what pro|cess of argument this inference is founded? Where is the medium, the interposing ideas, which join pro|popositions so very wide of each other? 'Tis con|fessed, that the colour, consistence and other sensible qualities of bread appear not, of themselves, to have any connexion with the secret powers of nourishment and support. For otherwise we could infer these se|cret powers from the first appearance of these sensible qualities, without the aid of experience; contrary to the sentiment of all philosophers, and contrary to plain matter of fact. Here then is our natural state of ignorance with regard to the powers and influence of all objects. How is this remedied by experience? It only shews us a number of uniform effects, result|ing from certain objects, and teaches us, that those particular objects, at that particular time, were en|dowed with such powers and forces. When a new object, endowed with similar sensible qualities is pro|duced, we expect similar powers and forces, and lay our account with a like effect. From a body of like colour and consistence with bread, we look for like nourishment and support. But this furely is a step or progress of the mind, which wants to be explained. When a man says, I have found, in all past instances, such sensible qualities, conjoined with such secret powers: And when he says, similar sensible qualities will always be conjoined with similar secret powers; he is not guilty Page  63 of a tautology, nor are these propositions in any re|spect the same: You say that the one proposition is an inference from another. But you must confess, that the inference is not intuitive; neither is it de|monstrative: Of what nature is it then? To say it is experimental is begging the question. For all in|ferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that simi|lar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qua|lities. If there be any suspicion, that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. 'Tis im|possible, therefore, that any arguments from experi|ence can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance. Let the course of things be allowed hitherto ever so regular; that alone, without some new argument or inference, proves not, that, for the future, it will continue so. In vain do you pretend to have learnt the nature of bodies from your past experience. Their secret nature, and con|sequently, all their effects and influence may change, without any change in their sensible qualities. This happens sometimes, and with regard to some objects: Why may it not happen always, and with regard to all objects? What logic, what process of argument Page  64 secures you against this supposition? My Practice, you say, refutes my doubts. But you mistake the purport of my question. As an agent, I am quite satisfied in the point; but as a philosopher, who has some share of curiosity, I will not say scepticism, I want to learn the foundation of this inference. No reading, no enquiry has yet been able to remove my difficulty, or give me satisfaction in a matter of such vast im|portance. Can I do better than propose the difficulty to the public, even tho', perhaps, I have small hopes of obtaining a solution? We shall at least, by this means, be sensible of our ignorance, if we do not augment our knowlege.

I MUST confess, that a man is guilty of unpar|donable arrogance, who concludes, because an argu|ment has escaped his own investigation, that there|fore it does not really exist. I must also confess, that tho' all the learned, for several ages, should have employed their time in fruitless search upon any sub|ject, it may still, perhaps, be rash to conclude posi|tively, that the subject must, therefore, pass all hu|man comprehension. Even tho' we examine all the sources of our knowlege, and conclude them unfit for such a subject, there may still remain a suspicion, that the enumeration is not compleat, or the exami|nation not accurate. But with regard to the present subject, there are some considerations, which seem to Page  65 remove all this accusation of arrogance or suspicion of mistake.

'TIS certain, that the most ignorant and stupid pea|sants, nay infants, nay even brute beasts improve by experience, and learn the qualities of natural objects, by observing the effects, which result from them. When a child has felt the sensation of pain from touching the flame of a candle, he will be careful not to put his hand near any candle; but will expect a similar effect from a cause, which is similar in its sensible qualities and appearance. If you assert, there|fore, that the understanding of the child is led into this conclusion by any process of argument or ratio|cination, I may justly require you to produce that argument; nor have you any pretext to refuse so equitable a demand. You cannot say, that the ar|gument is abstruse, and may possibly escape your enquiry; since you confess, that it is obvious to the capacity of a mere infant. If you hesitate, there|fore, a moment, or if, after reflection, you produce any intricate or profound argument, you, in a man|ner, give up the question, and confess, that it is not reasoning which engages us to suppose the past resembling the future, and to expect similar effects from causes, which are, to appearance, similar. This is the proposition, which I intended to enforce in the present section. If I be right, I pretend to have Page  66 made no mighty discovery. And if I be wrong, I must acknowlege myself to be indeed a very back|ward scholar: since I cannot now discover an argument, which, it seems, was perfectly familiar to me, long before I was out of my cradle.