From Sensation to Thought

by admin Feb 13, 2006 Add comment

Filed under: Dharma

“The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation”

I wonder what Archimedes would have said to Hume about the above assumption? It is very puzzling that such a statement would come from a philosopher! Did Hume ever have a “Eureka Moment“, an idea or thought which would have made him want to jump out of his tub and run down the street naked? I wondered more about what made Hume make such a conclusion, as I read–“of the origin of ideas” in Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding“, for this weeks reading session over at 9rules philosophy reading group.

Before I get down and dirty, and start bashing Hume, let me start with what I liked about his thoughts on the origin of ideas. I really liked how he displays the vastness and power of human thought

“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. What never was seen, or heard of, may yet be conceived; nor is any thing beyond the power of thought, except what implies an absolute contradiction.”

And then how he turns around and shows that “though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits

What is wrong with Hume’s proof, is that his assumptions are not on stable footing. Firstly, he assumes that “all thoughts and ideas either mimic or copy perceptions of sensations“. He does not take into consideration new thoughts and ideas, thoughts that are fueled by prior perceptions but are new, never thought of ideas, which can cause sensations that could be better than actual perceptions. Like the way Archimedes felt when he figured out buoyancy, or how Einstein felt when the theories of relativity started to form in his mind, or how Buddha felt when he saw the meaning of life.

Secondly, I feel Hume has made some hasty conclusions to prove his point. Especially in the case of people with disability,

“A blind man can form no notion of colours; a deaf man of sounds. Restore either of them that sense in which he is deficient; by opening this new inlet for his sensations, you also open an inlet for the ideas; and he finds no difficulty in conceiving these objects.”

I am going to give Hume the benefit of the doubt here, for lack of understanding and knowledge related to people with disability, during his time. But I still feel Hume could have avoided making an assumption here, based on his lack of enough knowledge. This kind of thinking by Hume is further reflected in this statement, “A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty; nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity.

Another thing one could easily miss is how Hume deftly tries to push aside a fact, just so that be can prove his maxim. This is evident in his explanation of how a person who has never perceived the color blue could sense it through imagination. This is how he puts it:

“I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can: and this may serve as a proof that the simple ideas are not always, in every instance, derived from the correspondent impressions; though this instance is so singular, that it is scarcely worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.”

And the assumption that trumps everything, is the one where Hume feels that all sensations are exactly determined, and not easy to error or mistake with regard to sensation,

“On the contrary, all impressions, that is, all sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid: the limits between them are more exactly determined: nor is it easy to fall into any error or mistake with regard to them.”

That is too strong an assumption to make of the senses, and it explains why he would end up concluding that–if we can prove what impressions of sensations caused the idea, we can remove the disputes associated with that idea. Makes me wonder if Hume had ever seen an optical illusion or a mirage? His whole “origin of idea” is flawed because of that assumption alone.

Even with all its flawed assumptions and binary logic, Hume does lay the foundation for thought. He is right when it comes to the relationship between thought and our memory of sensations, both new and innate sensations. It made me wonder if ideas from flawed impressions of sensations could lead to new ideas and thought, but then I realized, the world we live in is a result of it? Now I really wonder if I am butterfly dreaming I am a man!

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