Saturday, May 10, 2014

Did Hume deny the Physical Necessity of Laws of Nature?

For a long time, Hume was thought to have denied that causation or laws of nature have a physical or natural necessity, and he was held to have been an advocate of the “regularity” theory of natural laws, which shuns the necessitarian view.

Bertrand Russell, for example, held this reading of Hume, and passed it on to the logical positivists, as A. J. Ayer explains in the video clip below.

However, recent Hume scholars have disputed this view:
“More recent scholarship refutes this earlier ‘standard’ reconstruction of Hume. … What Hume denied was that there was any empirical evidence for necessity. His so-called skepticism concerned our finding out that physical laws are nomological. But his skepticism about our ability to find evidence did not carry over to a skepticism about the existence of such necessity. He had a belief in such necessity; his problem was to justify that belief rationally and he found it difficult to do so.” (Swartz 1995: 82).
Amongst these recent scholars are Wright (1983) and Strawson (1989). There is also a good summary of the new reading of Hume here.

Whether Hume really ascribed to this view or not, it does have a certain merit in carefully distinguishing the (1) ontological from (2) epistemological necessity of laws of nature.

We cannot prove by deductive argument that the laws of nature have a physical necessity. We can, however, propose inductive arguments and use inference to the best explanation to infer that it is probable that certain fundamental regularities as described in physics have a physical/natural necessity in our universe.

But the epistemological issue is that inductive argument does not yield certainty, and, paradoxically, the idea that laws of nature have physical necessity remains an empirical hypothesis/theory that is fallible in that it could be wrong, though we would need empirical evidence to prove this too.

Strawson, Galen. 1989. The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David Hume. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Swartz, Norman. 1995. “The Neo-Humean Perspective: Laws as Regularities,” in Friedel Weinert (ed.), Laws of Nature: Essays on the Philosophical, Scientific and Historical Dimensions. Walter De Gruyter, Berlin. 67–91.

Wright, John P. 1983. The Sceptical Realism of David Hume.Manchester University Press, Manchester.

1 comment:

  1. It's a theological issue. You see this in Hume's statement somewhere that Nature guarantees regularity (Nature being synonymous, as Spinoza showed, with an Pantheist conception of God). The question is one of belief. You see similar arguments in the likes of Pascal and Descartes. These philosophers were, I think, far more honest than more modern philosophers in this regard.