David Hume, the anthropologist, born May 7, 1711

David Hume, described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the most important philosopher ever to write in English,” was born 300 years ago. All anthropologists should celebrate one of the greatest Founding Fathers of the discipline (but will they?), and we at the Cognition and Culture Institute are particularly inclined to do so since Hume commonly sought to explain human ideas, practices and institutions by articulating psychological and sociological considerations. I propose to our members and readers to contribute to this commemoration by selecting quotes from Hume of particular cognition-and-culture relevance and adding them to this post as comments. I begin with a longish quote from his section “On miracles” in the Enquiry on Human Understanding, which is relevant to what is now called ‘social epistemology’ and in particular to the study of epistemic vigilance [1] and of course to the study of religious beliefs. Before this, just a little anecdote that should ring a bell for many young scholars who pay a serious career price for going against orthodoxies. In 1744, Hume, who had already published his Treatise of Human Nature and a collection of moral and political essays, applied for the ‘Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy’ at the University of Edinburgh. However, the position was given to one William Cleghorn because of Hume’s unorthodox views on religion.

Hume: ‘On Miracles’

“A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

88. To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about a word. It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other. Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree, had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: Were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villany, has no manner of authority with us.

And as the evidence, derived from witnesses and human testimony, is founded on past experience, so it varies with the experience, and is regarded either as a proof or a probability, according as the conjunction between any particular kind of report and any kind of object has been found to be constant or variable. There are a number of circumstances to be taken into consideration in all judgements of this kind; and the ultimate standard, by which we determine all disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always derived from experience and observation. Where this experience is not entirely uniform on any side, it is attended with an unavoidable contrariety in our judgements, and with the same opposition and mutual destruction of argument as in every other kind of evidence. We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist.

89. This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual. The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains. The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradition there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato, was a proverbial saying in Rome, even during the lifetime of that philosophical patriot.20 The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed, might invalidate so great an authority.

The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience. Though they were not contrary to his experience, they were not conformable to it.21

90. But in order to encrease the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. 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. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.22

91. The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘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; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

92. In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.

93. Secondly. We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have, in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resembles those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.

With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgement to canvass his evidence: what judgement they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: or if they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations. Their credulity increases his impudence: and his impudence overpowers their credulity.

Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding. Happily, this pitch it seldom attains. But what a Tully or a Demosthenes could scarcely effect over a Roman or Athenian audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can perform over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by touching such gross and vulgar passions.

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events. For instance: There is no kind of report which rises so easily, and spreads so quickly, especially in country places and provincial towns, as those concerning marriages; insomuch that two young persons of equal condition never see each other twice, but the whole neighbourhood immediately join them together. The pleasure of telling a piece of news so interesting, of propagating it, and of being the first reporters of it, spreads the intelligence. And this is so well known, that no man of sense gives attention to these reports, till he find them confirmed by some greater evidence. Do not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report, with the greatest vehemence and assurance, all religious miracles?”

[1] EpistemicVigilance


  • comment-avatar
    Hugo Viciana 8 May 2011 (08:57)

    “Two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other. Nor is the rule concerning the stability of possession the less deriv’d from human conventions, that it arises gradually, and acquires force by a slow progression, and by our repeated experience of the inconveniences of transgressing it. … In like manner are languages gradually establish’d by human conventions without any promise. In like manner do gold and silver become the common measures of exchange, and are esteem’d sufficient payment for what is of a hundred times their value” David Hume (1740, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Of Morals)

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    Helen De Cruz 8 May 2011 (13:41)

    Hume’s position differs from that of his comtemporary, the commonsense philosopher Thomas Reid, who argues that people are prone to believe what they hear through testimony: “It
scale” (Inquiry into the human mind, 1764). Clearly, Reid does allow for some degree of epistemic vigilance, for he argues that our reliance of testimony holds where there is nothing put in the opposite scale. But I think that Reid is more right than Hume in that he thinks that reliance on testimony is the default position. What then, next to considerations of sincerity or motives of the speaker, constitutes stuff for the ‘opposite scale’? From a psychological point of view, the counterintuitive nature of miracles, their poor fit with common sense, does not constitute a necessary or sufficient reason to doubt them. We are indeed quite willing to believe things that go radically against our intuitive beliefs, such as the idea that objects are mostly composed of empty space, on the basis of the testimony of scientific experts. Harris found that young children are willing to accept testimony about objects they cannot see, such as germs and oxygen. Yet, Harris found that those children were less confident about the testimony their received about counterintuitive agents, such as Santa or the Tooth Fairy. I also seem to remember a story, told by Pascal Boyer about his work with the Fang, where a person who claimed that when he stuck his finger in the earth, it would come out miles further. His claims were met with incredulity and laughter. There seems to be something about miracles that makes them implausible, something additional to their counterintuitiveness.

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    Olivier Morin 8 May 2011 (18:04)

    In his essay [i]On the rise and progress of the arts and sciences[/i], Hume applies the law of large numbers to social behaviour, and to cultural transmission in particular. [i]The distinguishing between chance and causes must depend upon every particular man’s sagacity, in considering every particular incident. But, if I were to assign any general rule to help us in applying this distinction, it would be the following, [/i]What depends upon a few persons is, in a great measure, to be ascribed to chance, or secret and unknown causes: What arises from a great number, may often be accounted for by determinate and known causes. I.XIV.3 [i]Two natural reasons may be assigned for this rule. First, If you suppose a dye to have any biass, however small, to a particular side, this biass, though, perhaps, it may not appear in a few throws, will certainly prevail in a great number, and will cast the balance entirely to that side. In like manner, when any causes beget a particular inclination or passion, at a certain time, and among a certain people; though many individuals may escape the contagion, and be ruled by passions peculiar to themselves; yet the multitude will certainly be seized by the common affection, and be governed by it in all their actions. I.XIV.4 Secondly, Those principles or causes, which are fitted to operate on a multitude, are always of a grosser and more stubborn nature, less subject to accidents, and less influenced by whim and private fancy, than those which operate on a few only. The latter are commonly so delicate and refined, that the smallest incident in the health, education, or fortune of a particular person, is sufficient to divert their course, and retard their operation; nor is it possible to reduce them to any general maxims or observations. Their influence at one time will never assure us concerning their influence at another; even though all the general circumstances should be the same in both cases. [/i] A great idea, underexploited (my own humble attempt at exploiting it is [url=http://sites.google.com/site/sitedoliviermorin/presentation/publications/Morin_v6.pdf?attredirects=0]here[/url]; but first, of course, read Hume if you haven’t).

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    Ophelia Deroy 9 May 2011 (01:20)

    Agreed – Hume is an amazingly inspiring thinker, both content and method wise. Hard to pick a favorite quote, but I would choose two paragraphs from On the standard of taste, where he makes room both for variations and universals. “As this variety of taste is obvious to the most careless enquirer; so will it be found, on examination, to be still greater in reality than in appearance. The sentiments of men often differ with regard to beauty and deformity of all kinds, even while their general discourse is the same. There are certain terms in every language, which import blame, and others praise; and all men, who use the same tongue, must agree in their application of them. Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian,° affectation, coldness, and a false brilliancy: But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions. In all matters of opinion and science, the case is opposite: The difference among men is there oftener found to lie in generals than in particulars; and to be less in reality than in appearance. An explanation of the terms commonly ends the controversy; and the disputants are surprized to find, that they had been quarrelling, while at bottom they agreed in their judgment. (…) It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.”

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    Nicolas Baumard 9 May 2011 (21:41)

    When it comes to morality, one often thinks about Hume’s ideas about the role of emotions (and sympathy in particular). But Hume also paved the way for the ‘game theory’ kind of analysis of the evolution of morality. As Rawls notes, Hume clearly defined the circumstances of morality as follow: 1) moderate scarcity and 2) mutual disinterest (individuals not talking any interest in one another’s interests). Let’s quote [url=http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/An_Enquiry_Concerning_the_Principles_of_Morals]The inquiry concerning the principles of morals[/url]: [quote] ‘Thus, the rules of equity or justice depend entirely on the particular state and condition in which men are placed, and owe their origin and existence to that utility, which results to the public from their strict and regular observance. Reverse, in any considerable circumstance, the condition of men: Produce extreme abundance or extreme necessity: Implant in the human breast perfect moderation and humanity, or perfect rapaciousness and malice: By rendering justice totally USELESS, you thereby totally destroy its essence, and suspend its obligation upon mankind. The common situation of society is a medium amidst all these extremes. We are naturally partial to ourselves, and to our friends; but are capable of learning the advantage resulting from a more equitable conduct. Few enjoyments are given us from the open and liberal hand of nature; but by art, labour, and industry, we can extract them in great abundance. Hence the ideas of property become necessary in all civil society: Hence justice derives its usefulness to the public: And hence alone arises its merit and moral obligation.'[/quote] Two hundred years later, this leads to one of the most quoted sentences in moral philosophy: [quote]’Although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual interest, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interest. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share.’ (p. 126)[/quote] Rawls adds modestly: ‘Hume’s account is especially perspicuous and the preceding summary adds nothing essential to his much fuller discussion.’ [url=https://sites.google.com/site/nicolasbaumard/Publications/Baumard_Andr%C3%A9_ Sperber_A_mutualistic_theory_of_cooperation.pdf?attredirects=0]Here[/url]is my (even more modest) contribution to this line of research. Note also an excellent [url=http://http://www.jstor.org/stable/2184777]article[/url]by Gauthier on Hume a precursor of a contractualist and rational choice theory of morality?

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    Maurice Bloch 18 May 2011 (16:38)

    Reading Hume is always a delight and he convinces me I should not believe in miracles.. but this may not be hard as I did’nt anyway. However, I am a kind of anthropologist who studies human beings as they exist in the world and many of these seem to subscribe to miracles and let them affect their lives. For example, I know people who spend a lot of money to go to Lourdes to get healed. In what way do Hume’s refelctions help me to understand what they are up to since they do not go in for this sort of reasoning and wheighting of evidence?

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    Helen De Cruz 31 May 2011 (12:52)

    Wow, Ryan what a beautiful quote. I agree that philosophers tend to be a bit too unqualified in their enthusiasm for Hume, and that at least in the case of testimony, Reid was more in line with what cognitive scientists today believe about testimony (i.e., people are epistemically vigilant, but trust remains the default stance). The passage from Hume’s natural history of religion can be read as a precursor to the byproduct account of religious belief, similar to accounts advocated today by, e.g., Barrett, Boyer or Bloom (God as an evolutionary accident). Do you know of any literature that assesses Hume’s natural history of religion in the light of the current cognitive science of religion literature?

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    Hugo Mercier 3 June 2011 (22:38)

    A detail: “Reid was more in line with what cognitive scientists today believe about testimony (i.e., people are epistemically vigilant, but trust remains the default stance).” That is really far from clear, see for instance: http://www.dan.sperber.fr/wp-content/uploads/EpistemicVigilance.pdf

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    Helen De Cruz 4 June 2011 (12:59)

    Ok, Hugo, I should have said that Reid is more in line with what some cognitive scientists today believe about testimony. It is as yet an unsettled debate, and I know your position in this!