Hume speaks Of the Origin of Ideas

Hume’s take on the relationship between sensations and ideas is true to his usual style: clear and bold yet careful. His prose leads you step by cautious step up through an argument as though it were the most familiar route ever. Only on occasion does he spin you round and you realise with a jolt how far you’ve climbed; how distant is your starting point.

Section II of Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding offers no such surprises, although there is an uncharacteristic stumble that Hume seems to assume will go unnoticed. He sets off steadily with the claim that immediate perceptions (impressions) are more vivd than even the most vibrant of ideas; recalling the sensation of pain is nothing compared with having a smouldering cigarette end stabbed into your arm (my example, not Hume’s).

Ideas are nothing but the recollection and recombination of impressions. Our ability to shuffle impressions into combinations other than those in which they were first produced gives us an incredibly advanced faculty of imagination. New worlds are opened up: “the thought can in an instant transport us into the most distant regions of the universe; or even beyond the universe, into the unbounded chaos, where nature is supposed to lie in total confusion.”

The one counterexample Hume considers is dismissed as insignificant. It seems that we are able to form ideas of colour-shades that have not yet been impressed upon us. Having seen only two blue objects – one light blue and one dark blue – we can easily imagine a shade between the two. This also applies – Hume tells us – to pitches of sound, and presumably also to intensities of pain and maybe taste.

In fact Hume doesn’t use the phrase ‘intensities of …’. If he had thought in these terms, he might well have escaped his own counter-example by dividing the simple notion of a ‘shade’ into the notion of combined colour and intensity of light. The idea of an unperceived shade is formed by the re-combination of colour-impression and intensity-impression. (As distinct from the idea of an unperceived hue formed by the combination of one colour-sensation and another.)

Interestingly, the earliest use of ‘intensity’ in this sense cited in the OED is attributed to James Hutton in 1794, eighteen years after Hume’s death. Perhaps Hume had in mind the right idea, but science had not yet provided the tools allowing its communication. This might be why he chose to take so little notice of such a stark – if accurate – counterexample.

That our ideas are restricted by past experience is for me the most striking thought. Maybe it should prompt us to rethink how we educate children; how we develop their capacity to entertain abstract concepts. Hands-on learning has for a long time been a buzz-phrase, but Hume gives fresh importance to this style of education. Not only does a broader range of perceptions give us access to more ideas, but a greater experience-base of emotions does too.

The selfish heart, unable to “easily conceive of the heights of friendship and generosity”, will have a hard time coping in a world where others base their relationships on these sentiments. Emotional enlightenment should be given thought along with every other form of education if we are to end up with capable, well-rounded members of society.


Violence is Never the Answer

Isn’t it? I saw Steven Spielberg’s Munich the other day, and it got me thinking. (I liked the film because it got me thinking, regardless of any heavy-handed- or crass-ness). It provoked me to question a belief on which I’ve acted for the whole of my life; a belief that I would count amongst my most deeply-held convictions. Violence is never the best solution.

It’s not that I condone Israel’s vengeance for the murder of eleven members of its 1972 Olympic team – far from it. In this case, I can’t see how the assassination of the perpetrators got anyone anywhere. But I have noticed that my belief in the categorical wrongness of violence stands on pretty shaky ground. Whether I like it or not, I have little justification for condemning violence in every conceivable circumstance. Perhaps it sometimes is the right course of action to take.

Suppose there is a tyrannical dictator whose oppressive regime has so far led to millions of brutal executions. There is no sign of regime change, nor of the situation improving. Sanctions have failed, serving only to further disadvantage the population. Negotiation is not an option. Do we sit back and keep our hands clean or take military action?

If I were in charge, I’d be inclined to hold back. Perhaps things will change: maybe the people will rise up and establish democracy; maybe the regime will go soft in its old age and stop the executions; maybe pigs will fly in and sort it all out. There’s always hope.

But hope isn’t always founded on reason. I probably wouldn’t take any action because I’m a coward. I recognise that. If things went wrong, I wouldn’t want to take the blame, nor would I much enjoy the criticism of those telling me that one more year might have solved everything without recourse to violence. I don’t want to run the risk of people telling me that my decision was morally wrong. I would want to keep my hands clean.

This attitude comes down to an imbalance between our views of action and inaction. I’m not as likely to be held morally responsible for failing to take any action, since there is always someone else more directly responsible than me; the dictator. Any letters of complaint should be addressed to him, not me. But people will blame me for taking positive action, as I then put myself in the position of direct responsibility for any civilian deaths as a result of the war. Which is more admirable: choosing worse consequences and avoiding blame, or better consequences and putting oneself in the line of fire? I know which answer I’d give, but I also know very well that I’m not courageous enough to practice what I preach.

As a rule of thumb, violence is rarely the answer. But a categorical, non-revisable belief that it is never the best option seems to be founded partly on cowardice rather than reason. The courage it takes to make the right decision may be beyond most of us. But it’s worth being courageous enough at least to re-examine our own convictions. That way, when someone does make the right decision, they suffer less for having done better than we ever would have.

A Clash of Liberties

The row over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad has me confused. It’s one of many ideological clashes that have hit the headlines in the last few years, all of which have left me unsure which side to take. Perhaps taking sides isn’t what’s important – I’m not the one charged with resolving the dispute after all. But some day I might have to. It’s just not good enough to hold judgement at arm’s length while you can; some day it’ll smack you in the face and then you’ll have to deal with it. Better start learning.

Here’s the situation. Last September the Danish Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of Muhammad, one of which showed him wearing a bomb-shaped headdress; the others equally offensive. Unsurprisingly, this offended quite a few Muslims. The decision by other European papers – seven in all – to reprint the drawings has just as unsurprisingly been ill-received by Muslims everywhere. But should we intervene to stop this kind of thing?

The difficulty seems to arise because these cases involve a clash of liberties. We don’t feel entitled to place one person’s liberty above another, so whose position do we protect? What’s it to be: the freedom of the press held up as a symbol of democratic, western society, or the freedom of Muslims to practise their religion as they wish? Obviously, neither one can be given unlimited scope, since this would leave the other with no breathing space whatsoever. Give the press too much freedom, and you may legitimise the deliberate incitement to religious hatred. Give Muslims too much freedom and the press effectively become gagged when it comes to publishing anything they might find offensive.

Borders have always been disputed, and the border between these two liberties is no exception. Have newspapers like France Soir and Die Welt strayed too far into religious territory? To reach an answer, we have to weigh up the cost to each side of shifting the border backwards.

Arguably, all the press would lose is the satisfaction of riling the Muslim world. This seems to be what certain high-profile Muslim representatives think, in any case. But is there not more to it than that? Surely the press must be allowed to comment on aspects of religion they believe to promote the infringement of others’ rights, like the right not to be blown up by a suicide bomber. If we’re barred from communicating about what we believe to be the root causes of other violations of liberty, perhaps these causes will go unaddressed.

True enough. But banning a caricature that makes no pretensions to subtlety or sensitivity does not amount to a bar on religious commentary. It could hardly be claimed that cartoons like this communicate ideas better than, say, a well-argued article given the same prominence in the same publications. So we certainly have no reason to believe that the controversial drawings would have gone any further to protecting the liberties of those affected by Muslim fundamentalism than would similar views presented in a less extreme form.

On the other hand, what do the cartoons cost the Muslims in terms of liberty? An increased threat of violence from non-Muslims? I doubt it; anyone informed enough to understand the caricatures understands that they are precisely that: nothing but caricatures. Interference in the practise of their religion? Not really. Offence? Probably, but this is isn’t exactly an infringement on liberty; it puts no barriers in place preventing Muslims from living as they wish.

So what would I do if it were my job to legislate on the issue? Where would I draw the border? Well I wouldn’t. My (considered) reaction is that both sides are being unreasonable in their claims to liberty. The cost to each camp of conceding the disputed territory is so negligible that it really doesn’t matter where exactly we draw the border, so long as its rough position is determined. Things start to get silly when there is a call for liberties to be so precisely cordoned-off that we’re always infringing each others’ boundaries. Better for us all to live with the slight discomfort of fuzzy borders than run the risk of being strung up for stepping over the line.

Still, giving others discomfort by deliberately entering the disputed territory for the sake of doing so should be condemned. As we’ve seen, the press defend no liberties by doing so, and run the risk of losing their precious freedom by persisting in this childish brinkmanship.

Shifting with the sands

What if it’s all a dream? What if my some of my most strongly-held beliefs are based on unreliable evidence? Descartes provides the questions in his First Meditation; here are two possible responses.

One option is to shrug off the scepticism. So what if we can be certain of very little? Certain or not, the beliefs Descartes has us doubt are pretty essential to everyday life; we’re hardly going to ditch them just because of some crazy notion that we may be dreaming. Stop believing you have a body and you might well end up dead. More the stuff of nightmares. Even if this is all a dream, for most of us it’s a damn good one. Let’s just get on with it and leave Descartes to wile away his life in an armchair for fear of entertaining unfounded beliefs.

Sensible as that may be, the second option gives me more comfort. Having read a bit of philosophy, most of us are comfortable to distance ourselves from the unsettling arguments we come across. This works out fine most of the time, but if you’re like me – and Descartes – the shadows are too persistent to be kept constantly at bay. They linger at the back of your mind, clouding forward when there’s space. Idle moments start to fill with niggling thoughts.

The sands may be shifting, but if we’re dreaming we’re shifting with them; from our perspective, they’re flat and solid. They can give us stability relative to their movement; certainty relative to their uncertainty. Dreaming too. When I ask if I have two hands, I’m not asking some deep question involving their existence in four-dimensional space, or whatever. All I want to know is whether there are hands – lumps of flesh and bone with five protrusions – attached to my body; the ‘are’ in the question needn’t have any heavy ontological import. Dream or not, if there are hands attached to what I nomally take to be my body, I’m happy. Believing that there is a desk in front of me just means that I have a bunch of other conditional beliefs, like that if I slam my fist down on top of it, I’ll get hurt while the desk won’t.

Since the belief that we might be dreaming isn’t usually at the forefront of our mind, the content of our other beliefs remains predominantly unaffected. Our belief that there’s a fire in the grate can be true even if we are dreaming it; all we standardly mean by our belief is that there’s something burning over there in that metal enclosure. It’s only when we begin considering the possibility that we’re dreaming that the very meaning of our belief alters. ‘Is’ starts to get all deep on us.

So long as we keep shifting with the sands, there is no obstacle to stability. We can have much more faith in our beliefs than Descartes supposes, since the majority of these beliefs are nothing more than claims relative to whatever situation God might have thrust us into. Only when we start to worry that the sand we’re on might be shifting do the claims stop being relative to our position and start being relative to another, hypothesised yet inaccessible vantage point. If you want certainty, shift with the sands and the rest will follow.