According to Hume, "All distinct ideas are separable from each other, and as the ideas of cause and effect are evidently distinct, it will be easy for us to conceive any object to be non-existent this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause or productive principle." (Treatise of Human nature, I, 3, 3).

If, according to Hume, the principle of causation can be questioned, does that mean determinism can as well? After all, determinism presupposes causation. Therefore, it sounds like Hume would not deny the possibility of free will or that effects can arise truly independently of previous causes. Nevertheless, I thought Hume was a compatibilist, which means he tried to reconcile free will with determinism. I guess I don't see how determinism, at least for Hume, is an issue if causation itself is subject to skepticism.

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    Please add a citation to the Hume quote. Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 2:31
  • No problem. Done.
    – user27343
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 4:33
  • The principle can be questioned. Though, I'm not sure Hume himself somehow believed the events are independent. if a future event is dependent on a past event, they have a causal relationship. If there is no dependency at all, how does the ordered world exist? (BTW, the only way to look for dependency is statistics, a single example does not show any dependency)
    – rus9384
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 5:05
  • I understand. This is an extension of a previous question I posted. I asked about the constant conjunction of events and whether Hume denied that it's impossible to say whether A causes B or whether Hume questions causation entirely. The answer was that Hume questions causation entirely, which can clearly be read from the above quote. Therefore, I'm now trying to understand his position on determinism in reference to the above quote.
    – user27343
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 5:16
  • Hume does not just question the principle of causality, he dismisses it as groundless. His compatibilism is about compatibility with the "conjunction of objects and the inference of the mind from one object to the other", which is what does, obviously, take place, and which is the real meaning of causal "necessity", according to him. "Free" action is the one "conjoined" with our own willings and desires, and it is compatible with such "necessity", even requires it to make sense, see SEP Hume on Free Will.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 5:58

1 Answer 1


You need to recall that Hume re-analyses causation. Humean causation is not causation as usually understood. The standard idea of causation is that causes necessitate their effects, that given the cause (event A) the effect (event B) cannot but happen. In other words the standard idea runs on a notion of a necessary connexion between causally related events.

Hume has no time for the notion of necessary connexion. In the realm of events we have no experience of necessary connexion. How can you perceive one event necessitating the occurrence of another ? All you actually experience is the perception of one event followed by the perception of another. As an empiricist, Hume takes the position that what is not experienced has no place in epistemology : so necessary connexion, as unexperienced and unexperiencable, has no place.

Hume's reworking of causation goes like this. When A-type events (1) precede B-type events, when A-type events are (2) close in space and time ('contiguous) to B-type events, and when A-type events are (3) 'constantly conjoined', so that there is an unbroken regularity between the two types of event, then we say and are entitled to say that when a particular A type event occurs it causes a particular B-type event.

There is no compulsion or necessity here; causation is just a matter of a specific kind of regularity. Causes do not necessitate their effects; to invoke causal relations is simply to describe what, under the above conditions, happens.

(Tratise of Human Nature, I.3.1-14; I, iv, 7; Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, 4-7.)

If this is so, then if all events are causally determined there is still no threat to free will. If I have free will, my actions (as events) are exempt from causal necessitation since causes, Humeanly analysed, necessitate nothing.

Free will and causal determinism are compatible. How could they possibly come into conflict on Hume's view of causation ?

Hume does recognise that free will can be nullified but his argument here follows a quite different path. For Hume, free will is a matter of my actions expressing my character T II.3.1) or disposition (T II.3.2), or (say) my wants and preferences, unimpededly. If you coerce me or exercise physical power over me, then I do not act freely. My 'liberty of spontaneity' (T II.3.2) is defeated. In the familiar slogan, free will is opposed not to causation but to coercion.

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    Interesting, One way I like to think of Hume's causation is like an iceberg with two tips, one is the cause and the other the effect, that are metaphysically connected and this necessitation can never be broken, as if the two tips always existed all along and form two facets of something that is more fundamental (i.e the iceberg), even though we perceive the cause before the effect. Thank you
    – SmootQ
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 13:22
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    Much food of thought in this comment, thank you. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 13:24
  • Thank you. Are there compatibilists that differ from Hume in that although they believe free actions must be expressions of one's character and disposition, still hold that causes necessitate effects? I'm happy I posted these questions because my understanding of Hume was very different until now. I always thought he questioned causation in particular instances (whether A causes B) as opposed to causation in general. Still, though, classical causation is so ingrained, which makes me wonder if some compatibilist positions still include it.
    – user27343
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 20:58
  • Hi ! Let me think. I have a lead but want to follow it up. It's an article I read as an undergraduate ! Best - Geoffrey.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Feb 10, 2019 at 18:07

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