Thursday, 9 August 2012

Natural belief - makes my mind bend...

"Critically discuss Hume's notion of natural belief. What are we to think when we find our natural beliefs undermined by philosophical reflection?"

So…What is natural belief?

David Hume’s notion of natural belief is the phenomenon of people naturally holding common assumptions through habit without necessarily examining why they are believed to be true. Hume considers natural belief inescapable in the interpretation of our world. When we find our beliefs undermined by philosophical reflection, we must examine the roots of our beliefs meticulously to find out whether these foundations are valid.

Hume was one of the most famous empiricist philosophers of the seventeenth century, and his ideas still influence our modern thought on matters such as religion and existence. Empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence in the formation of ideas over the notion of innate ideas and traditions.
In this course of this essay, I will explore Hume’s ideas about natural belief and the impact of natural beliefs on our human understanding.

One of the main topics Hume discusses in his “An enquiry concerning human understanding” is the derivation of knowledge and belief from the world. What is the difference between knowing something and believing something? Where does the concept of natural belief fit into different epistemological ideas?

Belief: Ideas, Impressions and Hume’s Fork.

Hume begins his enquiry with a distinction among our mental contents. His two categories are impressions, the direct, vivid products of immediate experience, and ideas, weak memory copies of these original impressions. For example, the black colour of the text I am reading right now is an impression, whereas the memory of the colour of my cat is merely an idea. Since every idea must be derived from an antecedent impression, Hume says, it makes sense to inquire into the origins of our ideas by looking at their original impressions. Through this process, we can examine the origins of our natural beliefs.

A second distinction Hume makes in his enquiry is that of Hume’s fork; the distinction of objects of human reason into relations of idea or matters of fact. He defines relations of ideas as intuitively certain propositions, such that we could deduce their truth simply by the definitions of the words in the sentences.

An example of a relation of ideas would be a mathematical proposition; ““7 x 6 = 42” or “a hexagon has six sides”. Non-mathematical propositions also work: “All mothers are females.” They are “self-evident” and abstract.

Matters of fact are not intuitively certain, nor “self-evident”. They are propositions deduced from logical inference by observing the world around us, and so assert the existence of non-abstract entities. Hume’s favourite example of a matter of fact, presented in his enquiry, is “the sun will rise tomorrow”.
It is always logically possible that any “matter of fact” statement about the world is false, hence the contrary of a matter of fact is always logically possible, for example it is always logically possible that the sun will not rise tomorrow. This is not so for relations of ideas.

Often, when inquiring into the origins of our ideas, we find there are many “natural beliefs” or commonly held, unjustifiable beliefs at the root of our ideas. The matter of fact that the sun will rise tomorrow is an example of a natural belief. As philosophers, we need to know about the foundations of our ideas and the extent to which “natural belief” can be considered true knowledge. This brings us to the problem of induction, an important philosophical problem of the modern world.

Hume’s problem of induction

The problem of induction is the philosophical questioning of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge. Inductive reasoning is making “natural” assumptions about what will happen, from what has already happened, such as in the case of the rising of the sun. Sometimes, our assumptions can be misleading, and can lead us to the wrong conclusions.

A real-life example of the problem of induction would be “all swans that we have seen are white, therefore all swans are white.” before the discovery of black swans. However, it would be illogical and impossible to predict black swans without any evidence of them.

A more valid statement than “all swans are white” would be “all swans I have seen are white”, but we tend to use the former statement when coming to a conclusion based on empirical evidence. Is this rational?
The problem of induction is highly relevant to our philosophical problems of the modern world; and is the strongest argument against the validity of natural belief.

It considers that we cannot know anything for certain from repeated experience, but only as accurate an assumption as our logic limits. Our knowledge from empirical evidence is also subject to sensory flaws and perceptive errors.

When we find our natural assumptions undermined by philosophical reflection, we can only improve upon these beliefs through common experience.

Natural assumptions are essential in our “trial and error” understanding of the world around us. Through the process of induction we are at least able to improve our accuracy of understanding, even if we cannot reach any absolute certainty. Hume’s stance is that we should accept our limitations of knowledge, and seek to question the foundations of each of our beliefs analytically to produce greater accuracy of understanding. He thinks that the most important thing for an idea to be valid is that it must have a corresponding impression.

Is there a God? Is God the ultimate cause?

Hume’s writings on religion are some of the most influential writings on the topic. He advances a skeptical critique on religion, which may have contributed to the decline of religious belief in the aftermath of the Enlightenment.

The main problem was that Hume’s empiricism was incompatible with the idea of there being a God. The deist beliefs of the seventeenth century brought with them contradictions; the idea of there being a clockwork God as the essential root of any system appeared to contradict the rise of modern science. This is because the laws of Newtonian physics gave rise to new ideas such as that of cause and effect.
Hume believes that we can only form ideas based on our impressions of the external world. There is no solid impression of a God from the external world and therefore God does not exist. Because of this, he argues that it is not rational to assume existence of a God, even though this was a widely held natural belief of the time.

Hume advocated the theory of cause and effect; the fact that everything that happens in the world has a necessary cause. However, he recognizes flaws in the theory.

A belief in causal action is a natural belief, says Hume, because it is through habit that we naturally suppose these ideas. Having observed the way in which events repeat themselves, we come to naturally expect the same effect from the similar cause. He says in his passage on “connexion” in his enquiry that connections between cause and effect are not derived from impressions; and therefore we must make an assumption of the link between the cause and the effect.

He says these patterns formed are always a result of habit, as we form associations in our mind based on observations of the external world; and not from any impression of the relations between external objects. There is no self-evident relation between cause and effect as each idea is distinct and separable. This natural belief we must take to be true in order to explain many scientific phenomena. Yet, we cannot prove it with absolute certainty.

A popular counter-argument to Hume’s writings is that there must be a necessary cause that begins the chain of cause and effect. This necessary ultimate cause is God. However, in the example of cause and effect with the billiard balls, we can see the impression of the cause, the first billiard ball hitting the second, we can see the impression of the effect, the other billiard ball moving. We cannot see the impression of God as our initial cause. Is it irrational to assume existence of a God? Hume would say it is.

Does the external world exist?

What are we to think when we find our belief of an external world undermined by philosophical reflection?
Another example of a natural belief would be belief in the external world beyond our mind. The external world is apparent to us from sense-experience. We naturally assume its existence as we carry out our day to day activities. The argument for an external world is that something must be causing this “impression” of a world on my mind. If there is nothing, how could there be an impression?

The problem is the same as that of our belief in the sun rising tomorrow. Our natural belief in the reality of an external world is based entirely on inductive reasoning. When we believe the sun will rise tomorrow we base this belief on our sense-experience of the past; when we believe that there is an external world we base this belief on our sense-experience of the past.

There exists an impression of the world in my mind. My belief of this external world depends upon the way things appear to me and an assumption that the way things appear to me is a reliable indication of the way things are. Again we must take this natural belief to be true, otherwise the essence of our scientific understanding disintegrates.

There are evident philosophical flaws in the assumption of an external world. But, it is instinctive and necessary to assume existence of the external world. Therefore, we should assume existence of an external world.

Do we know that we exist? The ultimate epistemological question…

Belief in the body is a natural belief. It is part of the human instinct to suppose existence of the body. However, upon philosophical reflection, we find again that this is natural assumption with no concrete basis of absolute certainty.

Descartes and Hume both agree that though we assume existence, there is no proof.

Descartes’ Cartesian dualism reasons that the mind and body are distinct from each other. He thinks that the only thing we can be certain of is that we exist, so if the mind and body are distinct from each other, we cannot possibly “know” that we have a body, but only the existence of thinking.

Hume thinks that we can only ascertain existence from our sense impressions. He argues that though it is natural to assume existence, we do not have an impression of the self. His question is “from what antecedent impression is our idea of the self derived?” His answer is that there is no antecedent impression, we are never directly aware of “I”; the closest we can get is a succession of separate ideas.

He concludes that the self is just a bundle of perceptions, and we have no proof for the idea of a persistent self, despite the fact that belief in our own reality is natural. I would argue that we must pursue the natural idea of a persistent self despite the lack of evidence in favour of this, because our entire human experience, science and habit, seems to base itself upon the idea that we exist, we existed in the past and we will continue to exist in the future.


In conclusion, Hume supposes our natural beliefs are not rational. The examples I explored in this essay of natural belief in a God and natural belief in an external world cannot be supported as relation of ideas or as matters of fact.

According to Hume, what we call definite is nothing more than a measure of the strength of conviction produced in us by our experience of regularity. But habit and instinct are the foundations of all natural science and belief.

His conclusion is that the most reasonable position is to accept the limitations of human knowledge, while pursuing logical mathematical and scientific aims to interpret our world as best we can. Without delving into the philosophical foundations of the derivation of natural belief, we will naturally assume things in everyday life no matter how lacking in rational justification. I conclude in agreement with Hume’s position, because of the unavoidable nature of natural belief and that in many cases we do not have any basis of belief apart from of what is assumed naturally.

Every idea has an antecedent impression so we must look to its impression to see whether the idea is valid. As long as we pursue this reasoning as far as is humanly possible, we have not left anything out in our pursuit of knowledge.

  • Many discussions in CafĂ© Nero Manchester
  • A couple of three hour train rides
  • My friend Tom
  • An Enquiry into Human Understanding
  • Spark Notes
  • Wikipedia

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