The Great Diminishers (1) Locke.
Scientists, and indeed all of us, usually think within pre-conceived thought worlds, that although we may not always realize it were originally the thoughts of the great philosophers, truisms, or so we assume, that we have come to take for granted. I want to argue that the starting points of all these thought worlds are imaginary assumptions that cannot themselves be proved by reason (see post 16). To take one background thought world, usually the one in which we were brought up, as the only intellectual climate available and as unassailably true is always misleading. But the most misleading of all is that which takes itself as certainly true because it is based on science and logic. It takes the facts of science to be as certainly true as the meanings it bestows upon them. But facts are certainly true, meanings never are. (see post 3) Logic is only logical within limited conditions, as quantum physics shows us (see post 10). I want to argue further, that if you accept that you are going to have to inhabit some sort of limiting philosophical thought world, because we have universal minds trapped in limited circumstances, then the one that most humanists and materialists usually inhabit, that emanating originally from Locke and Hume, is a particularly dismal and unhelpful one. In this post, I want to set out my reasons for finding Locke exceptionally misleading. In the next, Hume
Locke’s first concern is to help us to discern the truth of what we know by considering how we know it
(1 ) How Do We Know?
He begins by dismissing the theory that the mind knows because it builds on fundamental ideas that are innate. He has in mind such concepts as ‘Whatever is, is’ and ‘A cannot be both A and not-A at the same time’. People sometimes think that such ideas are innate because they command universal agreement. Locke points out that even if they did command such general assent, this does not show that they are innate. And in any case, they don’t, for ‘first, ‘tis evident, that all children and idiots have not the least thought or apprehension of them’. Moreover, how can such rational truths be innate when reason ‘is nothing else but the faculty of deducing unknown truths from principles or propositions that are already known’? If such innate truths had been deduced from previously known ones, these in turn would have had to be deduced from yet prior known ones and so ad infinitum, which is absurd. How, then, do we come to know such basic truths? There is only one other candidate, Locke argues, and that is experience. ‘Go to the fountain’, he says. Before it has been furnished with experiences the mind is a blank sheet of paper, a tabula rasa. All our knowledge comes to us from impressions that reach us through our senses. It is sensation that is the foundation of certainty. Sensations impress ideas onto our minds, he tells us, as a signet ring leaves an impression in wax. ‘The child certainly knows that the nurse that feeds it is neither the cat it plays with nor the blackamoor it is afraid of; that the wormseed or mustard it refuses is not the apple or sugar it cries for; this it is certainly and undoubtedly assured of; but will anyone say, it is by virtue of this principle ‘that it is impossible for the same thing both to be and not to be’ that it so firmly assents to these and other parts of its knowledge?’ The principle is deduced from seeing the blackamoor and the apple, not the other way round. It is by reflection on sensation that we reach universal truths, and these are generally not in the thoughts of most men but only of philosophers: ‘such kinds of general propositions are seldom mentioned in the huts of Indians’.
What do these sensations consist of? When we look at a forest, is our most fundamental impression that of a forest? Locke thinks not, for otherwise we would not be able to distinguish the wood from the trees. Nor can it be a single tree, for we distinguish trunks from branches. Locke thinks that the most basic units of sensation are what he calls simple ideas. We see a patch of red, we feel a sensation of hardness. Our experience of a tree can be broken down into these more primitive sensations, but these can not themselves be further broken down. Sensation delivers a stream of such irreducible basic impressions into our minds, and we associate these simple ideas within our minds to form complex ones. When I look out over Paris I see a multitude of red patches and, quick as thought,. I associate them in my mind into a unified experience of looking out over Paris. But here Locke’s thought takes an unexpected turn. It turns out that these simple ideas, seeing separate patches of colour and feeling that something is hard or tasting are subjective sensations of sweetness and hearing, a stream of single sounds moulded into impressions by the ear, not touchstones of certainty after all. For the whole project of Galileo’s science had been to show that these sensations do not deliver to us basic truths about the world. To ordinary sight it is obvious that the feather falls more slowly from the leaning tower of Pisa than the cannonball. Galileo has been able to show, and not only show but prove irrefutably, that this is not the case. To eyesight, the moon is a bright light climbing up the sky. Galileo has shown that it is in fact a circulating stone ball. Colour, it turns out, is only what we think it is. It is really light waves (as we would put it), that our senses translate into psychological experiences. But if this is so, what becomes of “go to the fountain of experience?
- Primary and Secondary qualitites
Locke is aware of the apparent contradiction but he believes he has solved it by distinguishing primary from secondary qualites. The sensations which often appear most immediate to us are those which inflame our senses: warmth, sweetness, sourness, both harmonious and harsh sounds and so on. But these, science now shows us, are not in the bodies that we are experiencing at all. ‘..the ideas produced in us by these secondary qualities have no resemblance of (the bodies themselves) at all. There is nothing like our ideas existing in the bodies themselves. They are not in the bodies, we denominate from them only a power to produce those sensations in us: and what is sweet, blue or warm in idea, is but the certain bulk, figure and motion of the insensible parts in the bodies themselves, which we call so’. This is shown, for example, by our experiences of heat. A man standing at a short distance from a fire will experience pleasant sensations of warmth. But as he draws closer to the fire his experiences of pleasure turn into those of pain. Yet the fire has not changed. It shows, therefore, that the sensations of warmth are not in the fire but in the man. On the other hand, the qualities that Locke calls primary really are in the bodies themselves, and our ideas of primary qualities are true ‘resemblances of them’. These qualities are those that belong to extension: bulk, figure, texture and motion.
The great achievement of seventeenth century science, in Locke’s view, had been the separation of secondary from primary qualities. While showing that the first are fictitious, it had also demonstrated that our experiences of the second are entirely reliable. Here at last was a sure foundation for our knowledge, and a reliable touchstone for distinguishing truth from nonsense. The real and true realm of reality is the abstract one of extension, figure and motion that is studied by physics, or natural philosophy as Locke would have called it.
What makes things to be the different kinds of things that they are? Aristotle had taught that it is because they are a mixture of intelligible immaterial forms, which make them what they are, and unintelligible matter, which extends the immaterial forms into space. This piece of matter is a leg because it has the form of a leg and this an arm because it has the form of an arm. But in these two cases arms and legs are only meaningful in so far as they are parts of a greater whole. They essentially belong to something. But this is not the case with the body to which they belong. This does not need a greater whole to give it meaning. It is a kind of stand alone, a greater encompassing form that includes all the subordinate forms that make it up, but not itself part of a yet more inclusive form. These kind of superforms Aristotle called substantial forms, or substances (literally that which ‘stands under’ all the lesser forms that make it up). Since, according to Aristotle, the forms are immaterial, we can know them because the immaterial mind can abstract these ideological entities from the matter in which they are embedded. We have an immediate and direct intuition of substances, which we know not as a multiplication of parts but as single undivided entities. To Locke, with his foundation principle that all our knowledge comes from atomized sense impressions, such a concept was anathema. Having been taught a particularly debased form of Aristotelianism when he was an undergraduate at Oxford, he was, indeed, on something of a campaign against just this kind of scholastic gobbledygook
My over-riding purpose in this first volume is to argue against the idea that science and only science tells us truth because truth can only be accessed through validating experiment and logical deduction. What were once seen as mysteries explained by the immaterial myths of religion are now seen to have rational and material explanations, and so many have now been accumulated there is no case for belief in religion at all. I regard Locke as important because I think this misleading view began with him. In fact, science is now revealing to us impenetrable wonders far farther beyond our ordinary understanding than ever the myths of religion were. I hope to take this theme further in a later post. Locke is constantly regarding assumptions as proven facts. Is it so obvious that no ideas are innate? You might argue that Chomsky tells us we have an innate faculty for learning language. But then again, might that not be a genetic inheritance that is rooted in the experience of early men who talked to each other, and has only become internalized through genetic processes? My point is not that Locke is necessarily wrong but how do we know, or even how can we know how mental processes inherited through genes began? Science always solves one mystery by revealing an even greater one previously not even suspected. Not understanding this is Locke’s fundamental error. Consider finding two stones and putting two more next to them and concluding that there are now four stones. Was the mathematical addition intrinsically in the stones? Or did we impose it on what in itself was just a heap? The problem becomes more obvious of you think of a rubble of stones at the bottom of a ravine. You could count them just as you did the four, although far more laboriously, let’s say there are 529. But were there 529 before you started counting them? Or was it just a meaningless rubble? The problem arises because out there are material objects that we can only know through mental processes and ideas are quite different from things. Kant saw this problem and Locke didn’t. One aspect of Locke’s philosophy contradicts another. If we imposed the mathematics on the stones then there are innate ideas. If we didn’t then the mathematical addition is intrinsic to the stones and Locke’s entirely materialist account of things in the world is inadequate. In the light of Hume’s scepticism, Kant saw there are no physical proofs that causality and logic exist out there in the world. You can’t find them through microscopes and telescopes. But if you don’t assume that they are more than a fantasy then the whole of science, which is totally dependent on causality, falls to the ground. Kant thought that there could never be certainty but it was a reasonable belief to think that the world corresponds to the way we think it is. ‘The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve’ wrote Eugene Wigner. My case against Locke isn’t that he is necessarily wrong, but he takes for rational certainties irrational assumptions to which we do not know and possibly can never know the answers. I hope I can persuade you that so much atheist thinking that stems from Locke, especially now that science is advancing into areas that are not only beyond the ordinary logical processes of most of us but even those of the scientists themselves, is the most unreasonable of beliefs. There are no ultimate certainties at the boundaries of thought but only myths
Perhaps we always ought to begin our enquiries with asking the question what are things, because there are so many of them surrounding us. Aristotle thought that things are ultimately indivisible wholes held together by immaterial forms that over-ride the separate parts that compose them. Locke thought this was all scholastic gobbledygook. The impression we have that there are whole things – there’s a tree we say glibly – is an illusion, as are that they are coloured green and are beautiful, suggested to us by our brains. Who was right? In Locke’s view a tree is only a collection of a trunk, branches and leaves that are themselves only collections of atoms and molecules. Again, Locke’s position is irrational. It depends on the belief that the only true things are the primary qualities that science investigates. But how does Locke know this? Because science only investigates material realities, if there were immaterial ones science would not by definition find them., although it might point us towards them as I believe it is increasingly doing. Think of water. Science tells us it is composed of two atoms of hydrogen joined to one of oxygen. Quantum physics tells us that electrons are arranged in shells round a nucleus in an atom, and they cannot glide but only jump from one shell to another. When an atom loses an electron as they frequently do then all the electrons that are left jump one ring down towards the nucleus leaving a gap in the outer shell. Because atoms don’t like this they are always looking to capture an electron from another atom, and since other atoms sometimes have too many electrons in their outer shells, marriages made in heaven easily occur. Oxygen and hydrogen are frequently encountered cases of such suitors, which is why there is so much water around. But is this enough to explain water? On one level clearly it is. But how does it come about that the interiors of atoms are so precisely and serendipidously organized? The ingenuity is mind blowing. The explanation that this is just the way it is, atoms happen to be the way they are just as the rubble of stones happens to be at the bottom of the ravine is an explanation, or rather lack of it, that leaves me completely dissatisfied. And with his usual facility for contradiction it left Locke dissatisfied too. Despite his materialism he believes in the existence of God solely on the basis of belief in the scriptures. It is all so wonderfully organized because God organized it. Hume, rigorously logical, soon took Locke’s ideas to their bleak logical conclusion.
In fact, at every level on the ladder of the world, we find parts joining together to compose higher unities that cannot be fully explained in terms of the parts themselves. Are we really to believe that water is nothing but collections of hydrogen atoms joined to oxygen ones? Why does water look so different and behave in ways heaps of molecules never could? Why don’t we just find ourselves surrounded by conjugations of congregated molecules? Locke answers the contradictions his philosophy implies by making baseless assumptions and treating them, as he did the scriptures, as if they are holy writ. Science cannot tell us if there is more to water than hydrogen and oxygen because its only remit is to look for material parts, and it cannot tell us whether there is more to it or not. Likewise, the idea that secondary qualities as Locke calls them are entirely subjective is based on the underlying assumption that only primary qualities are real. How does Locke know? It makes sense in terms of his particular belief box, but only inside it. If you only look for primary qualities, not surprisingly all you find are primary qualities. Quantum physics tells us that the apple the child craves for is not the blackamoor it fears precisely because things can both be and not be. (see post 7). Locke is full of contradictions. Only the findings of science are to be trusted and science can find no proof of God’s existence yet it is God who established the truths of science. Locke was the first philosopher of human rights, yet as President of the Board of Trade oversaw slavery and indeed owned slaves himself. Only sensations – look in the fountain – are to be trusted yet sensations are subjective fictions dreamt up by our brains. He thinks the basic truths of logic can’t be innate because idiots don’t apprehend them, failing to see that that is precisely why they are idiots. Why can’t the faculty of deducing unknown truths from known ones start from innate ideas just as well as from physical experiences? He thinks Aristotle’s substance is a ‘don’t know what” but then knows on that basis it is nonsense. A man feeling pain because he is too near the fire does not show us that sensations are fictions dreamt up by the brain but that he is too near the fire. He quotes Galileo but understands him in a completely different context of thought from Galileo’s own. The one thing science cannot tell us is whether only science can be trusted. Do contemporary investigations of the brain shed light on these matters? I believe they do (see post ?)
Yet we are accustomed to see patterns of sense impressions regularly occurring, we find the same ideas of just this shade of red, just this sweet scent and just this pretty old English rose shape always together when we look at a particular rose. Locke admits that it is logical to surmise that there must be something that holds together the scent and the colour and shape, for, after all, they don’t just go floating off into space. ‘Not imagining how these simple ideas can subsist by themselves, we accustom ourselves to suppose some substratum wherein they do subsist and from which they do result; which therefore we call substance’. We imagine an ‘I don’t know what’. Or again, substance is ‘nothing but the supposed but unknown support of those qualities we find existing, which we imagine cannot subsist sine re substante, without something to support them (and) we call that support substantia, which, in accordance with the true import of the word, is, in plain English “standing under” or “upholding”.’ As often in Locke, despite the fact that his essay is supposed to be enquiring into understanding, it is difficult to discern exactly what he means. Is his ‘I don’t know what’ a kind of jeering sarcasm poking fun at the whole idea that things need some kind of a substratum to hold them together? Or does he mean that there is an as yet unknown physical ground quality in things, perhaps one day to be discovered by science, a kind of glue that holds things together? Perhaps Locke can be forgiven for these ambiguities, for his whole importance is that he was inaugurating a quite new way of thinking, to be clarified and ironed out by Hume, so it is not surprising that he did not always have clear answers to the questions that his new way of looking at things threw up. But one thing he is clear about . We do not see single substances when we look at things in the world. We imbibe clusters of completely separate sense impressions and we associate them together in our minds, which give us the illusion that we are looking at single unified things. We have no direct impression of the ‘I don’t know what’. But then we have no direct impression of gravity either. Yet reflection on sensation has gradually led to clear proofs of its existence. So perhaps there are real physical ‘I don’t know whats’ still to be discovered by science or perhaps there are not. In Locke’s view the jury of philosophers was still out. But not in Hume’s.
David Hume is often regarded as a kind of atheist patron saint, and rightly so, for his independence of mind, his resolute spirit of enquiry, his cheerful temper, his benevolence and his equanimity in the face of imminent death, which so impressed Boswell, place him along with Socrates – though without the irritation that Socrates’s infuriating reasonableness still arouses today (well it certainly does in me) as it must have done amongst those who felt so infuriated they invited him to drink the hemlock – these virtues surely place Hume amongst the most personally admirable of philosophers. Yet it is not always easy to know whether his scepticism and his atheism were as complete as they are often taken to be. His most celebrated work, The Treatise of Human Nature, was written whilst he was still a very young man, but, as he lamented, it fell dead born from the press and aroused hardly ‘a murmur amongst the zealots’. Later he published a rather toned down version of the same views in his Enquiry, and, many years later, urged his friend Gilbert Elliott not to read The Treatise, on the grounds that he had been misled by ‘the Heat of Youth to publish too precipitately’ and had repented ‘his haste a Hundred and a Hundred times’. Yet it is the issues first aroused by The Treatise that have engaged the attentions of philosophers ever since. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the views of the atheistically inclined Philo are in general undoubtedly reflective of Hume’s own. Yet at the end of the book Hume does not seem to give an unqualified assent to atheism. He seems to be opposed more to the fanatical forms that religion often takes – the zealots who have been murmuring about Hume pretty loudly ever since – rather than to religion itself. The virtue of philosophy, he wrote, is that it is ‘mild and moderate’ and its opinions ‘seldom go so far as to interrupt our natural propensities……Generally speaking the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous’.
- The Mind
In the Introduction to The Treatise Hume tells us that his aim is to establish ‘a science of human nature’, that would be as reliable in its predictions and as certain in its laws as those of physics. His approach will be that of the experimental method of Newton and Boyle. He realises that is hardly possible to subject human nature to the kind of experimentation to which Newton had subjected light. Instead, Hume sometimes observes other peoples’ behaviour and draws general conclusions from it, sometimes engages in thought experiments, as when he considers different family situations in order to discern the nature and origin of family pride, and sometimes looks within his own mind to observe what is going on, as in the celebrated passage where he looks within himself and finds no evidence of a self. What he does find is evidence of different faculties in the mind, such as understanding, reason, passion, memory and imagination. Understanding and reason are quite different for Hume. Understanding is a faculty of what he called probable inference. We use it to reason from cause to effect, for reasoning about facts and for inferring truths from experience. Reason, on the other hand, is the faculty that we use in pure deduction, as when we reason mathematically. It is crucial in understanding Hume to grasp this distinction. The conclusions we reach using reason may sometimes, as in mathematics, be absolutely certain, but those we come to through the use of understanding never are. It is really Hume who introduced into philosophy the distinction that has subsequently plagued it. Ideas that spring from within the mind and remain within the circle of the mind – notably mathematics – are absolutely certain but not real. Ideas that emanate from experiences outside the mind are real, as are the experiences they emanate from, but not certain. When he talks about the senses Hume, following Locke, means those channels through which we assimilate information about the world. As with Locke, he thinks that sense impressions are the sole origin of our ideas. It is through the understanding that we put together the deliverances of our sense impressions to form a picture in our minds that corresponds to what we are seeing in the world. The imagination, on the other hand, can also put together the different deliverances of sense, but to make something that is not present in the world. This is
is a source of many illusions and errors.
- How do We Know?
Hume’s term for conscious mental states is ‘perceptions’. By this he means any mental activity, a sensation, a thought or a memory. Like Locke, Hume thinks that everything in our minds comes first through our senses, or impressions as he calls these sensed experiences. An idea is a copy of an impression. Hume demonstrates this by pointing out that I can give somebody an idea of an apple by getting him to taste one, but I cannot give him an experience of tasting one by explaining the idea of an apple. I would have no idea of what cherries tasted like if I had not tasted one. Hume does wonder whether there could be an exception to this. Suppose, he surmises, I had had experiences of all shades of blue except one that, it so happened, I have never seen. Would I be able to form an idea of it from my knowledge of its most immediately related hues? Possibly, he thinks, but this is such a rare exception it hardly affects the general argument. In fact, this was one of the considerations that led Wittgenstein to propose a completely different account altogether of how we know, in which the surmised shade of blue is not an exception but a paradigm case. Locke is always ambivalent about the relation between sensations and ideas. He thinks in general that the mind is a completely different kind of thing from matter. Yet at the same time he was the first philosopher to introduce the revolutionary concept that perhaps matter can think. Nor does he ever deal with, or even appear to be aware of, the problem that when you know a table there must be some sense in which the table has got inside your head. But how can a material object become an immaterial idea? Hume is a much more thoroughgoing materialist and at least brings consistency to empiricist epistemology.
His distinction is not so much between sensations and ideas, as between more and less lively perceptions. A sense impression is a lively perception, an idea a kind of paler shadow of it. Impressions are the ‘sensations, passions and emotions as they make their first appearance in the soul’ – how many people would attribute a belief in the soul to Hume, and how often does he surprise us? – and ideas are ‘the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning. There is thus a kind of hierarchy of liveliness. Some impressions enter the mind with ‘great force and violence’, others less forcefully, less forceful still are ideas, and even less forceful our memories of those ideas. Yet, consistent as this thoroughly materialist explanation of mental processes is, it is not always clear what Hume means by liveliness. Some impressions are ‘so faint and low we cannot distinguish them from our ideas’. On the other hand, he seems to think that belief, which is an idea and not an impression by any criterion, can raise ideas to the kind of vivacity that impressions have. It is ‘a more vivid and intense conception of an idea, proceeding from its relation to a present impression’. This would seem to imply that if I see a cat and believe it to be really there, my idea of it is just as vivid as my first impression. More important is Hume’s redefinition of the mind not as an identifiable unity but as an associated succession of perceptions. Even if beliefs are as vivacious as impressions, memories of beliefs, in Hume’s account of mental processes, are not. A triggers B that triggers C that triggers D getting ever fainter as they become distanced from the original experience.
Hume distinguishes between original and secondary impressions. Original impressions are those that arise from immediate sensation. Secondary ones are those emotions and passions aroused in us by ideas which are copies of original ones. If I see a dog that once bit me, fear is aroused in me by the very idea of the dog. Direct secondary impressions are those that proceed immediately from our initial experiences of pain and pleasure, as in the case of thinking about the dog, indirect ones are the more settled states such emotions get into. They include pride and humility, love and hatred. I mix my impression of, say, my Rolls Royce with pleasure, and feel pride, I mix my impression of my brother’s Rolls Royce with pain and feel envy. Hume distinguishes memory from imagination, but only, in line with his general criteria of explanation, in terms of liveliness. When we remember something that actually happened it has a kind of forceful assertiveness in the mind that imagined things do not. ‘They are only distinguished by the different feeling of the ideas they represent.’ Real memories just feel more real than imaginary ones. In both cases they are the product of the association of ideas. I remember a chair in my grandmother’s house which provokes another memory of my grandmother. I think of a pink rose and this leads on to imagining a pink elephant. Contiguity, one separate idea bit leading onto another, is of the essence of mental processes. But our thoughts are not, nevertheless, entirely random. Custom is of immense importance. When we remember or imagine one thing it arouses a set of other ideas which we have become accustomed to perceive along with it. When we think of a photocopier we think of the office in which it is, because we are used to seeing photocopiers in offices. Contiguity is generally marshalled into a kind of customary order because ‘the senses, in changing their objects, are necessitated to change them regularly, and take them as they lie contiguous to one another’, and ‘the imagination must by long custom acquire the same method of thinking’. When we think of angels we think of long white nightgowns and feathery wings because these images are associated in our minds, just as we think about offices when we think about photocopiers, even though photocopiers actually exist and angels do not. Thus mental processes are causal in Hume’s rather specialized use of the term. One idea causes another which causes another. It is a kind of snooker idea of causality. Red ball strikes green which strikes pink which strikes brown which…t is crucial to appreciate Hume’s understanding of the term when it comes to consideration of his assessment of the role of causality in general.
Before Hume, nobody had ever dreamt of denying that an effect is a necessary result of a cause, the one being implied by the other as necessarily as 4 is the product of adding 2 to 2. Hume, applying his two principles that all knowledge comes from experienced impressions and that the mind forms impressions into imaginary conjunctions just as it configures them into copies of real ones, was the first person to ask what it is that we actually experience when we witness causality. What do we actually see when the cue strikes the billiard ball and causes it to roll along the baize. ‘I find in the first place’ says Hume ‘that whatever objects are consider’d as causes or effects are contiguous’. There is always some kind of physical contact, even if it is the consequence of a long line of previous physical contacts, a striking b striking c striking d and so on. ‘The second relation I shall observe as essential to causes and effects, is ……that of PRIORITY of time in cause before the effect’. No cause ever happens after the effect it has caused. What else do we see? Nothing. ‘Having thus discover’d or suppos’d the two relations of contiguity and succession to be essential to causes and effects, I find I am stopt short’. We don’t actually ever see causality but only constant conjunctions – contiguities and successions – of events. How then do we know that causality is actually part of reality and not imaginary?: Thus Hume, basing his enquiry into human nature on the experimental method that Newton had so successfully applied to physics, undermines the most basic assumption that Newton had made, and therefore, one might think, the very validity of his own enquiry. Doesn’t this contradictory paradox mean that Hume disqualifies his own arguments? I don’t think it necessarily does. But I think that Hume drew the wrong conclusions entirely from his own observations. I’ll come back to that