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He thus laid the way open for the view, which we adopt, that every assertion of a particular causal connexion involves the assertion of a causal law, and that every general proposition of the form ‘C causes E’ is equivalent to a proposition of the form ‘whenever C, then E’, where the symbol ‘whenever’ must be taken to refer, not to a finite number of actual instances of C, but to the infinite number of possible instances. He himself defines a cause as ‘an object, followed by another, and where all the objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second’, or, alternatively, as ‘an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other’;5 but neither of these definitions is acceptable as it stands. For, even if it is true that we should not, according to our standards of rationality, have good reason to believe that an event C was the cause of an event E unless we had observed a constant conjunction of events like C with events like E, still there is no self-contradiction involved in asserting the proposition ‘C is the cause of E’ and at the same time denying that any events like C or like E ever have been observed; and this would be self-contradictory if the first of the definitions quoted was correct. Nor is it inconceivable, as the second definition implies, that there should be causal laws which have never yet been thought of. But although we are obliged, for these reasons, to reject Hume’s actual definitions of a cause, our view of the nature of causation remains substantially the same as his.

This quote seems kinda hard for me. Because it's ambiguous in here:

For, even if it is true that we should not, according to our standards of rationality, have good reason to believe that an event C was the cause of an event E unless we had observed a constant conjunction of events like C with events like E, still there is no self-contradiction involved in asserting the proposition ‘C is the cause of E’ and at the same time denying that any events like C or like E ever have been observed; and this would be self-contradictory if the first of the definitions quoted was correct.

I have two ways of understanding. Please comment each one of them.

1: Hume's definition allows us to maintain "C is the cause of E" and "Neither C nor E was ever observed". And that's why it's not satisfying for Ayer.

2: Hume's definition DOESN'T allow us to maintain "C is the cause of E" and "Neither C nor E was ever observed". But Ayer thinks that it has to allow us to maintain this. And because it doesn't, it's wrong.

Comment 1 and 2, please. Explain why either of them is true or false. And give some short explanation about Ayer's denying of the second Hume's causation definition.

I'm not native speaker, btw. And maybe that's the cause of my problem.

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  • 1
    Please give the precise reference for Ayer's quote, which paper/book, which section? Thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 24 at 19:44
  • Language, Truth and Logic. Section 2. Jan 24 at 19:46

2 Answers 2

1

The context is that Hume is a skeptic about the entire notion of causation, and Ayer wants to challenge this. In fact, while he makes a show of being largely in agreement with Hume, he has very different commitments.

Hume's claim is that "causation" isn't something we can actually observe. All we can observe is "constant conjunction," (two things C, and E, always occurring together) and we make up this idea of "causation" to characterize it. So, for Hume, when you say "C causes E," what you really mean is "every time we see C, E follows it." So it doesn't make sense to say "C causes E" if we've never seen C or E.

Ayer is basically just denying this. There's a bit of moving the goalposts because he says that it's not a "self-contradiction" to say that "C causes E" if we've never seen C or E. That accords with most people's intuitions of causality, but not with Hume's idea of it. We're still changing Hume's definition and pretending that we aren't. Ayer also claims that there can be unknown causal laws. This is again a contradiction of Hume's idea of causality as nothing more than a pseudonym for a certain class of empirical observations.

In essence, Ayer is substituting a much more robust notion of causality, as something that exists, independent of our observations of it, but trying to claim it is consonant with Hume's much more impoverished version of the concept (essentially your "Comment 2" interpretation).

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  • So Ayer thinks that definition should allow us to make such a conjunction ('C causes E' and 'C and E have never been observed')? And Hume's definition does not allow that. So that's why Ayer dislikes it? Right? Jan 24 at 20:12
  • Yes, Ayer wants to preserve the ability to make a statement like that, although Hume denies it. Basically your "Comment 2" interpretation. Jan 24 at 20:13
  • But would not such a statement be correct just because it can be transformed into C -> E? And because C is false, the whole statement will be true. I don't see how Hume's definition could get in our way here. Am I fundamentally wrong somewhere? Jan 24 at 20:17
  • @ЕгорГалыкин That's a different topic. You're using the notation of the logical if-then relationship, and that's not what either Hume or Ayer is talking about in this passage. Jan 24 at 20:21
  • okay, I understand so far. But isn't what Ayer wants the possibility to say (that conjunction) a logical proposition? And If I'm right, then how did Hume's definition interfere? Jan 24 at 20:34
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Ayer rejects Hume’s two definitions of the concept of “cause”.

  1. Comments:

    • To definition 1: For two objects, C and E following C, the
      object C is named the cause of E when always objects similar to C are followed by objects similar to E. The definition captures the regular temporal succession of two kinds of objects. Causality is an observed regular succession. It is a kind of habit – not more.

    • To definition 2: For two objects, C and E, the object C is named the cause of E when the appearance of C always stimulates the conception of E. It is not necessary that E actually happens, it is enough that one always has the association of E, due to the human capability of association.

  2. Ayer emphasizes that we can have good reasons to name C the cause of E, even when the sequence C and E has never been observed. The concept of cause and effect can be a relation between the two, which is independent from observation (Definition 1) or association (Definition 2).

  3. A definition cannot be right or wrong, because we are free in our choice - like in giving a name to a newborn child. But a definition is useful only when it captures and expresses explicitly our intuition about a state of affairs. Then it may serve as a tool to find an explanation.
    Ayer like nearly all philosophers after Hume rejects the idea that causality is only a human habit. According to his intuition, the relation between cause and relation is independent from observation. It depends only on the two kinds of objects, not on the observer.

    Unfortunately, in this passage Ayer does not propose a better definition of causality. IMO, also today it is open which internal link is considered a satisfying definition of causality.

Aside: I would formulate the whole discussion not in the language of “objects” but in the language of “events”.

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