Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine (born on June 25th, 1908), there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

The Triage of Truth: Do Not Take Expert Opinion Lying Down, by Julian Baggini

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thirst for knowledge is one of humankind’s noblest appetites. Our desire to sate it, however, sometimes leads us to imbibe falsehoods bottled as truth. The so-called Information Age is too often a Misinformation Age.

There is so much that we don’t know that giving up on experts would be to overreach our own competency. However, not everyone who claims to be an expert is one, so when we are not experts ourselves, we can decide who counts as an expert only with the help of the opinions of other experts. In other words, we have to choose which experts to trust in order to decide which experts to trust.

Jean-Paul Sartre captured the unavoidable responsibility this places on us when he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (1945): ‘If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example – you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise.’

The pessimistic interpretation of this is that the appeal to expertise is therefore a charade. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the power of motivated thinking and confirmation bias. People cherry-pick the authorities who support what they already believe. If majority opinion is on their side, they will cite the quantity of evidence behind them. If the majority is against them, they will cite the quality of evidence behind them, pointing out that truth is not a democracy. Authorities are not used to guide us towards the truth but to justify what we already believe the truth to be.

If we are sincerely interested in the truth, however, we can use expert opinion more objectively without either giving up our rational autonomy or giving in to our preconceptions. I’ve developed a simple three-step heuristic I’ve dubbed ‘The Triage of Truth’ which can give us a way of deciding whom to listen to about how the world is. The original meaning of triage is to sort according to quality and the term is most familiar today in the medical context of determining the urgency of treatment required. It’s not infallible; it’s not an alternative to thinking for yourself; but it should at least prevent us making some avoidable mistakes. The triage asks three questions:

  •  Are there any experts in this field?
  •  Which kind of expert in this area should I choose?
  •  Which particular expert is worth listening to here?

In many cases there is no simple yes or no answer. Economic forecasting, for example, admits of only very limited mastery. If you are not religious, on the other hand, then no theologian or priest can be an expert on God’s will.

If there is genuine expertise to be had, the second stage is to ask what kind of expert is trustworthy in that domain, to the degree that the domain allows of expertise at all. In health, for example, there are doctors with standard medical training but also herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractors, reiki healers. If we have good reason to dismiss any of these modalities then we can dismiss any particular practitioner without needing to give them a personal assessment.

Once we have decided that there are groups of experts in a domain, the third stage of triage is to ask which particular ones to trust. In some cases, this is easy enough. Any qualified dentist should be good enough, and we might not have the luxury of picking and choosing anyway. When it comes to builders, however, some are clearly more professional than others.

The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise but the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take much advice with a pinch of salt, including that on how big this pinch should be.

This triage is an iterative process in which shifts of opinion at one level lead to shifts at others. Our beliefs form complex holistic webs in which parts support each other. For example, we cannot decide in a vacuum whether there is any expertise to be had in any given domain. We will inevitably take into account the views of experts we already trust. Every new judgment feeds back, altering the next one.

Perhaps the most important principle to apply throughout the triage is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s maxim: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Trust in experts always has to be proportionate. If my electrician warns me that touching a wire will electrocute me, I have no reason to doubt her. Any economic forecast, however, should be seen as indicating a probability at best, an educated guest at worst.

Proportionality also means granting only as much authority as is within an expert’s field. When an eminent scientist opines on ethics, for example, she is exceeding her professional scope. The same might be true of a philosopher talking about economics, so be cautious about some of what I have written, too.

This triage gives us a procedure but no algorithm. It does not dispense with the need to make judgments, it simply provides a framework to help us do so. To properly follow Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment injunction ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to know), we have to rely on both our own judgment and the judgment of others. We should not confuse thinking for ourselves with thinking by ourselves. Taking expert opinion seriously is not passing the buck. No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine, there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine, there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

For more about the great W.V.O. Quine, please visit the excellent sources below; a good place to start is the New York Times article.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Hylton, Peter, ‘Willard van Orman Quine‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Sinclair, Robert. ‘Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science‘, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine. In The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician. Website

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92.’ New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

OP Recommends: A Piece About How All Rivers Lead to Philosophy on Wikipedia

River, by Brandom Lam, Creative Commons via Pixabay

In ‘All Wikipedia Roads Lead to Philosophy, but Some of Them Go Through Southeast Europe First‘, Nathan Collins writes about a University of Vermont study on how knowledge is structured on Wikipedia, following the observation by webcomic xkcd that following hyperlinks in this giant e-encyclopedia seem to lead almost inevitably to the Philosophy page.

Makes sense to me. The ‘major organizing principle’ for the world’s largest online forum for sharing knowledge turns out to be philosophy, literally the ‘love of wisdom’?

Surprise surprise!

An enjoyable read.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Collins, Nathan. ‘All Wikipedia Roads Lead to Philosophy, but Some of Them Go Through Southeast Europe First‘, Pacific Standard, May 2016.

xkcd: A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language

 

Why We Need Citizen Philosophers

Writing a letter *oil on panel *39 x 29.5 cm *signed b.c.: GTB *ca. 1655I am a citizen philosopher, and very likely, so are you.

So what is citizen philosophy, why is it a useful concept, and what is its role in the world?

Let’s begin by considering what we mean by philosophy, generally speaking. For a long time, philosophy has been considered an almost exclusively academic pursuit, so highly specialized that only a very few experts can properly be called philosophers. As Eric Schwitzgebel points out, this is a relatively new development. In the Western world, it traces its origins to classical Greece; each region of the world has its own history of philosophy or its analogue, from Egypt to China to the Americas. As with all fields of inquiry, philosophy has branched out and specialized until much of it would be barely comprehensible to its first practitioners. Indeed, almost all fields of inquiry we know today started out as a branch of philosophy: mathematics, logic, science, medicine, theology, you name it.

But Philosophy, or ‘love of wisdom’, began in the home, the workplace, the market square, and the street corner with curious, intelligent people who, newly enjoying the luxury of free time accorded by advances in food-acquisition technologies, began to ponder on the whys and hows of the natural world and of the human experience. These people weren’t originally chosen or designated by some authority as the ‘thinkers’ as opposed to everyone else, the ‘doers’; instead, philosophy originated, grew, and specialized organically. We, as a species, began to ask and answer ever more complex questions about how to best live in the world as members of societies, what’s going on within our own minds and why, what are our roles in the universe, and what it all means… including the question ‘what is meaning?’. Over time, certain individuals came to be recognized as particularly adept at asking and answering these important questions, and came to be considered specialists and authorities in their fields of inquiry. But philosophy, broadly construed, remained a pursuit of many more people than that.Panthéon, Temple of Reason, Paris, France, Photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Philosophy has been demystified by re-entering popular culture, to a significant extent. There’s an ever-growing audience for popular philosophy books, articles, magazines, podcasts, and blogs. The term itself has also been re-broadened, so to speak. ‘Philosophy’ has taken on many new shades of meaning as it’s used to refer to a particular view of life, or aesthetic taste, or set of aspirations, or working theory of knowledge, or organization method, or substitution for the loaded term ‘spiritual’ …even a brand of skin care products (this one disgusts me somewhat, as it offends my aesthetic taste and sense of the ‘sacred’ by capitalizing on public respect for one of my most beloved, to me non-commodifiable things). Some of its newfound popularity is the result of advancing secularization accompanied by the desire to retain transcendence and meaning; some is the result of our newly data-centric lives brought to us by the word wide web, creating the need to make sense of the deluge of new information available to us; some is the result of the blending, annexing, and clashing of cultures in a world now widely and intimately connected through advanced media technologies and ease of travel, creating the need to find ways of communicating and living together in a world of new complexities. It’s all happening so fast that each of us is experiencing the urgency to make sense of it all right away, in a way that is practicable in our own communities and subcultures, and in a way each of us can understand and readily communicate.

In short, philosophy is enjoying a comeback in the public square. What I’m calling citizen philosophers are those who ask and answer questions there, about the nature of the universe and how to make sense of our experiences of it, who are not necessarily engaged in professional or academic philosophy. While citizen philosophers tend to spend a significant amount of time engaged in such inquiry and are motivated to educate themselves widely and systematically, many find academic philosophy too arcane and obscure to help the rest of us navigate our increasingly complex lives.

I, for one, love academic philosophy. I am continuously in awe of the work these men and women do, devoting their lives to hard study, to asking the most challenging questions, and to deep examination of the most nuanced and complex problems. This body of work is breathtaking in its scope, beautiful in the elegance of its arguments and solutions, satisfying in its wit and cleverness, fascinating in its intensive scholarship, and indispensable in its ability to help us figure out why and how to make a better world. I find it highly enjoyable and fulfilling, as well as challenging and frustrating, to grasp and wrangle with the work of academic philosophers. To be sure, academic philosophy has had its share of what David Hume calls sophistry and illusion, fit only to be consigned to the flames, and what Harry Frankfort more succinctly calls ‘bullshit’. But philosophy is not alone in this: science has had its phrenology and eugenics, medicine its humours and bloodletting, theology its justification for slavery and pogroms, and so on. Like these other disciplines, academic philosophy has some wonderfully effective built-in self-correctors, and continues to be an essential, I think preeminent, field of inquiry.

Marketplace in Duisburg by Theodor Weber, 1850, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsBut many of the most important and interesting questions don’t come down on us from on high, so to speak, originating from academia and revealed, as if a sort of holy writ, to the rest of us. In fact, most of the questions and problems we all wrangle with still originate in the public square, in the home, workplace, classroom, hospital, church, courtroom, political assembly, and so on. They bubble up from the challenges and uncertainties of our daily lives, are filtered through conversation and the arts, are swept up in social, legal, and political movements and institutions, and carried into the pool of academic philosophy, where they are further clarified and distilled in treatises, lectures, books, and so on.

And these questions don’t only originate with the public at large, we offer our first answers there. The answers range from fragmentary to nuanced, from intuitive to considered, from repetitions of received wisdom to original, from off-the-cuff to well-informed, by people from all walks of life with their own areas of expertise and unique capabilities of understanding born of particular experience. These citizen philosophers are on the first line of discovery and inquiry, and so called because they don’t participate in this process as a profession, but as a matter of personal interest and as a member of society at large, not subject to the demands and constraints of academic philosophy. Of course, the category of citizen philosopher does not exclude academic philosophers, because of course they, too, participate in the same process of question-creation and question-answering in the course of their everyday lives, separate from their academic pursuits.

It’s the very lack of the demands and constraints of academic philosophy that gives citizen philosophy an important role to play in public life. The world as it is offers so many varieties of human experience, so many ways of seeing the world, so many challenges that academic philosophers, like the rest of us, never have the opportunity to confront directly. Yet the scope of academic philosophy, at least potentially, is as broad as the possibilities of human (even, perhaps nonhuman?) experience. So how can it be that academic philosophers can possibly access enough information to ask and answer all the important questions that could be addressed? It may be, if academic philosophers were endowed with immense powers of comprehension and imagination that would enable them to take all the information available in the world, to truly understand what it’s like to be a coal miner in China, a cardiologist experiencing a heart attack firsthand, a one and a half year old who just created their first sentence, a person with frontal lobe epilepsy experiencing a supernatural vision, or a terrorist who became so after their entire family was killed by a bomb, and then conceive of all of the social, epistemic, metaphysical, political, and every other sort of question that may arise from these experience. (À la the mythical Mary in Frank Jackson’s black and white room.) But of course, this is impossible, as even the most intelligent and informed human mind has its limits. Sometimes, raw data is the fodder of academic philosophical inquiry. But most often, it’s the questions, moral precepts, stories, works of art, aphorisms, dogmas, memories, narratives, and all other products of the human mind, already having undergone a first round of questioning and examination, that academic philosophers take up as topics of inquiry. Group discussion in the camps of Nirman (cropped), by Abhijeet Safai, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I, for one, am glad to see philosophy ever more present in the public square. That’s because I perceive philosophy as the great quest for understanding that academic and citizen philosophers all engage in, and as I see it, each gives something of immeasurable and irreplaceable value to the other. We need only recall some philosophical forays that have failed, from hairsplitting quibbles of scholasticism to navelgazing-verging-on-masturbatory obscurantisms of postmodernism, to recognize that academic philosophy benefits enormously by maintaining a robust discourse with the broader human community of activists, artists, reporters, bloggers, protesters, discussion groups, and of all others who care enough to question.  The discipline and expertise of academic philosophers, and the broader set of experiences, challenges, and opportunities for new questions and unique ways of understanding of the larger community of citizen philosophers each serve to keep the other more honest, more challenged, and more informed, in the great world conversation we’re all having.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’

David Hume, sculpture by Sandy Stoddart on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh

David Hume was always a nerd, something I love about him. Since he was a young boy, he always had his face buried in a book. And he was a happy nerd, self-described as having a ‘cheerful’ and ‘sanguine’ (optimistic) personality. I like that too.

Perhaps that’s why he was able to enter into his self-described ‘New Scene of Thought’. It was a whole new philosophy, one which included, as a central guiding principle, that the honest thinker should never claim to know, or to understand, that which the human mind can’t know or understand, and if they can’t know or understand it, they shouldn’t make strong claims of knowledge about it. But another guiding principle is this: the process of learning and thinking critically is among the noblest endeavors there is.
 
This sounds simple enough. But to the thinkers and to the everyday person in his time, this was not the way people thought. It was the end of the long period of scholasticism, of academics and theologians who took great pride in devising complex and subtle arguments about anything and everything under the sun (and above it), and whose authority was not to be challenged. If you were a member of this elite, you better support this system or you better find another occupation if you don’t want to be financially, and reputationally, ruined. if you were an everyday person, you should stay in your place, accept what the great thinkers have to tell you, and don’t ask too many questions.
 
It’s also a challenge to the way many people think today, from the strong skeptic who says ‘no one can know anything at all, so who cares?’ to the theocrat who says ‘I know the author of the universe, I know what he says, and I know what everyone must believe and how they should act’. We live in an age where screaming pundits dominate the media, who are certain ‘the other side’ is leading us all straight to ruin; where politicians are more reluctant to serve the public interest by putting aside their differences and working together on important issues; where the funding and communication of science is up for grabs to the highest bidding corporations.
 
Hume challenged the philosophers, the theologians, all those who made extraordinary claims about the ultimate nature of reality and of the workings of the human mind. He thought that they were undermining, even destroying the great project of philosophy by being so abstract, and so extravagant in their claims. Too many, Hume thought, had pretensions of knowing exactly how the universe came into being and how it worked, what was ultimate source of morality, what is meant by ‘the soul’ and how human beings are defined by it, and so on. These thinkers based their claims on two things: that the author of the universe has communicated these things to them and that they knew what the author meant, and that the elaborate arguments they constructed were all based on irrefutable logic and careful reasoning. Or some combination of these.
 
Yet these philosophers and theologians were in violent disagreement all the time, sometimes with the such disastrous results as a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for silencing, oppressing, even killing those with different opinions. This was so for even such highly abstruse arguments as to whether there were one or three persons in God, or what was the nature of the invisible force that made the planets go around the sun.
 
How do we account for such disagreements, when they originated from such seemingly perfect sources, revelation and logic? 
 
That’s because, Hume said, they got this wrong: that there’s such a thing as perfect human knowledge or understanding, or even that there is any mind at all that exists that knows all there is to know about everything. The honest thinker is the one that understands that a mind is a limited, fallible thing, and that the one way to know the most we can know is to carefully observe the world then only accept those ideas as true which observation can support. ‘The wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence.’ That’s another thing they got wrong: they tried to go so far with their logic, that the evidence they founded it on was so far removed, or so slight, I’d liken it to building a pyramid of elephants on a ball in a cartoon circus. Better to have a pretty solid foundation before you try such a thing.
 
Hume’s ‘New Scene of Thought’ helped make philosophy a reinvigorated, attractive scene for the curious and the thoughtful. Philosophy, at the time, referred to all areas of study whose project was to discover and understand as much as could be known about the universe. 
 
Funnily enough, it’s the attitude that human beings are fallible in our perceptions and our thinking, that enabled us to learn out as much as we have so far about so many areas of life, and that made the scientific process not only sucessful, but possible. That means when we observe something, or think something, we can’t just run out and proclaim our discoveries, just like that. We have to talk to each other compare notes, patiently test our theories again and again, and even if we’ve done all that, be able to say, humbly, ‘I was wrong’ if a better explanation comes along. This doesn’t mean we can’t believe in anything. It means that belief is always on a spectrum, is stronger or weaker depending on the support we have for it: whether it’s supported by observation and evidence, whether it consistently leads us to make successful predictions and form quality explanatory theories, and so on. But it should never be absolute. We should always be open to finding out more, and always suspicious if someone tells us they have the final, absolute answer.
 
It took this optimistic, friendly (Hume was well known to be a kind and genial person), and careful thinker, of great integrity, to form such a beautifully honest philosophy. Always having his nose in a book, he was well-read, and understood that there was an incredibly wide range of human thought and experience to draw from, much of it contradicting each other. And his reaction was not that we should resolve these contradictions by finding some orthodoxy and sticking to it, or saying at all that is not strictly logical in some abstract, perfect sense is valueless. He was able to take it all at face value for what it was: the natural outcome of what it means to have a human mind. The human mind is not just a reasoner, or a believer: it also perceives, dreams, thinks, feels, hallucinates. It’s variable, and it’s fascinating, and it all needs to be taken into account, if you want to pursue understanding to the utmost that you can. 
 
If you don’t yet have the answer, you must always be ready to say, honestly, ‘I don’t know’. That leaves you able and ready to say the next best sentence in the quest for knowledge: ‘Let’s find out.’
 
And this is only his epistemology (the study of knowledge) and his answer to metaphysics (the study of the fundamental nature of reality). Don’t get me started on his moral philosophy, which is even more awesome….. ’cause that will be the topic for another essay.
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Sources and inspiration:
 
Hume, David. ‘Letter to a Physician‘, 1734. 

Hume, David. My Own Life, 1776. 

Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.