May 22, 2011

David Hume - Causation & Habit


Observation of the environment is the primary catalyst to knowledge; reasoning is not really too helpful.

Very elusive, in fact.


An alien from a distant galaxy - who has seen all the parts of the human body, but has never seen or interacted with a human being - can he ever through logic & reasoning figure out what human life is all about?

Can he figure out human indulgences/qualities like laughter, dance, music, money, movies, religion etc.

Ans: Impossible.

The following article on habitual expectation versus the actual flow of events, reminds me of the 'Noah Effect' and the 'Joseph Effect' from page 92-93 of James Gleick's book, Chaos.

"Mandelbrot described both the "Noah effect" (in which sudden discontinuous changes can occur) and the "Joseph effect" (in which persistence of a value can occur for a while, yet suddenly change afterwards." - Wikipedia.


"David Hume - Causation & Habit"
by Marc O'Brien

When David Hume said we do not know anything of the essence of causal relations but rather that we merely develop habits he sort of means that because we utterly fail to see what happens between billiard balls when one hits the other, we merely see one hit the other and describe such abstractions as a conservation of momentum, but we have no way of knowing whether what we see is necessary, we know not why, for example, the second ball doesn't turn into a frog on impact, thus we cannot reason to the results and instead we simply, and quite primitively, develop habitual expectations.

Reason told man for centuries that heavier objects fall faster than light objects. Experiment discovered different. (Although Epicurus seems to have actually known this) But since our post Epicurean experiments we now expect that all masses in a vacuum fall at the same rate of acceleration but we still do not know why - we so far can only describe the way things fall - thus what we expect to happen is only expected by habit of mind and not because we can predict what happens by simply looking first at objects to be dropped and then second at the planet or moon etc nearby.

And because we so far do not have knowledge of any such causal phenomena we cannot know whether it is possible for something to come from nothing.

If we could pick up two billiard balls after having been just come into being - say having just been created - where we so far have no experience of objects of any sort - we could not look at the two billiard balls and simply from their appearance reason to what happens when they collide on a billiard table. If we were able to reason such we would also have been able to reason precisely to what happens if the double split experiments, of all kinds, are carried out.

But instead we are surprised to see what happens when we carry out the double split experiment - but also despite us not understanding why what happens does happen we thereafter the first double split experiment, by pure habit, go onto to expect what happened in the first experiment to go on happening in subsequent experiments. But our expectations are of habit in nature and not of understanding in nature.

When I imagine the double split experiments now, firing one electron at a time at double splits, I fully expect an interference pattern to occur on the wall behind. My mind has so come to expect this that if something different would happen I would be surprised all over again. But without reason to explain why what happens does happen my expectations are nothing but habit.


  1. AnonymousJuly 19, 2011

    what I was looking for, thanks

    1. Vikram MadanJuly 13, 2012

      You're welcome.