Hume shows that experience, when looked at rigorously, gives us no information about cause & effect. At most he permits only that two events are simultaneous. Is this reflected in our best scientific theories? Does his argument apply to all possible scientific theories, i.e. any empirical procedure?

Does he go further than Kant's dictum that time is a necessary condition for experience, by saying additionally that cause & effect are also necessary conditions?


2 Answers 2


Causality is a notoriously thorny topic, but the short version is: no one has yet provided an adequate refutation to Hume, nor is it evident that such a refutation is possible.

To turn your questions back on themselves: what kind of scientific theory could provide evidence for or against Hume? What possible empirical procedure could be immune?

I don't read Hume as saying that cause and effect are a necessary condition for experience; rather, that appeals to cause and effect are only based on observed regularities, and we have no rigorous way of demonstrating the existence of any cause whatsoever, properly speaking.

  • The problem of time is a difficult one in physics. I'd say Newtonian Mechanics verifies Humes assertion, actually Einstein doesn't escape it either. Is the direction of time part of causality? In which case statistical physics provides an argument based on probability. Commented Jun 23, 2012 at 13:51

In an absolute logical sense, it is not clear that Hume can be disproved. However, in a statistical sense almost every manipulation anywhere yielding a predictable result is a counterexample of a sort. Put another way, you don't really care whether you label something a "cause" and something else an "effect" as long as when you observe X happening (or make it happen), Y also happens (perhaps some time later).

In this way I view it much like Descartes' demon: apparently logically unassailable, and yet the distinctions it brings up are profoundly unhelpful for any practical endeavor (including making sense of our experiences).

It's a good lesson in not being too sure of ourselves, but in an acausal world generated by an evil demon that was otherwise identical to ours, we would still use the same methods to understand our experiences and to shape them the way we wanted.

  • Sure, but knowing for example that every thing is made of atoms on an everyday level has no practical importance, but it has a great deal of importance both philosophically and scientifically. If Hume can't be argued against, we should examine what that could mean at the level he's talking about. Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 16:30
  • @MoziburUllah - I think pretty much every materials scientist and chemist would disagree that knowing everything is made of atoms is of "no practical importance". Almost everything you touch these days has benefited from these disciplines. This is not the case with Hume's strictly-speaking-you-can't-infer-a-cause-from-an-observation.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 17:47
  • @Kerr: Of course :), I should have qualified my statement a bit more: you don't need to know anything about atoms to benefit from the practical uses other people have put them to, and most people are in that position. Further, the idea of atoms first appeared over 2 millenia ago, there was no conceivable benefit then to that idea, and nor for a very long time afterwards. Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 18:13
  • @MoziburUllah - If I am right there is no conceivable application of the evil demon or no-proved-causes ideas. This is different from atoms, where you can merely not imagine an application at the time. The former two can make no difference by construction.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 18:23

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