I'm currently reading through Hume's An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and I'm having trouble understanding one of his big arguments in the section entitled "Skeptical Doubts Concerning the Operation of the Understanding: Part 1". After arguing that so-called "Matters of Fact" can only be known via experience, and that such understanding rests on cause and effect reasoning, Hume goes on to argue the following:

Hence we may discover the reason why no philosopher, who is rational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe. It is confessed, that the utmost effort of human reason is to reduce the principles, productive of natural phenomena, to a greater simplicity, and to resolve the many particular effects into a few general causes, by means of reasonings from analogy, experience, and observation. But as to the causes of these general causes, we should in vain attempt their discovery; nor shall we ever be able to satisfy ourselves, by any particular explication of them. These ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry

My questions are multiple. Firstly, what (if anything) is the difference for Hume between an "ultimate" and a "general" cause? Are they interchangeable, or does "ultimate" cause mean something more akin to an uncaused cause?

Secondly (this is my central confusion), why exactly is it the case according to Hume that ultimate causes cannot be ascertained, given what he's argued so far in the essay? Hume has so far said that causes and effects can't be known simply through a priori reason alone, an argument I follow. However, is it not possible that causes and effects, and certain general "laws" that follow from them (e.g. laws of physics) which have been learned from experience, can be applied to situations where a cause and effect relationship is not yet known, i.e. in the investigation of some "ultimate" (or "general", depending on the answer to the first question) cause? For instance (and my lack of knowledge of physics and cosmology shows here), is the theory of the Big Bang not such a deduction? Have scientists not extrapolated from existing theories (themselves learned from experience) and deduced the necessity of the Big Bang? Is the Big Bang the kind of "ultimate" cause Hume is referring to? Obviously the theory wasn't known to Hume, but is it the kind of cause he was referring to?

Finally, when Hume says that we will never "be able to satisfy ourselves" with justifications of matters of fact, is this because such justifications must always either, 1) end with an uncaused cause (which may be unsatisfying) or, 2) must involve an infinite regress (which may also be unsatisfying)? Thanks in advance for any insights into these questions!

  • 1
    "Ultimate causes" is an allusion to God, his argument, in part, is the pessimistic induction. Indeed, not even theists professed to know God and his designs. Big Bang is not even a general cause, those are natural laws, it is a postulated contingent event, a guess that fits well enough (for now). We will never satisfy ourselves with justifications of matters of fact because empirical induction can never produce anything "ultimate", after all, even causality is, for Hume, just mental association of observed pairs of events.
    – Conifold
    Apr 1, 2019 at 3:42
  • @Conifold Ok. So if my understanding is correct, is the essential point then just that we can never satisfy ourselves with justifications of maters of fact because they always involve induction, which will never be "complete"? That is, it is not a contradiction to imagine some counter-example arising in the future? And an "ultimate cause" is essentially a natural law which certifies that no such counter example will be found in some instance, but since we can't "prove" that no counter example will be found we can't know ultimate causes?
    – kjakeb
    Apr 2, 2019 at 18:04
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    More or less. I am not sure we can know "ultimate causes" even in conjecture, so to speak. It is unclear that we even have, or can have, the right vocabulary for expressing them. To use Kant's later terms, we only have access to appearances, and "ultimate causes" are something inexpressible and unknowable, unlike the natural laws.
    – Conifold
    Apr 2, 2019 at 18:21

1 Answer 1


There is, I think, a certain ambiguity in Hume's text, with regard to the word 'cause', and this might indeed cause (...) some confusion. Aristotle famously distinguished four kinds of "causes" (material, formal, efficient and final) which correspond to four kinds of explanation. In modern philosophy, and in Hume in particular, the word "cause" is often supposed to denotes only what Aristotle called efficient (triggering) cause. Actually, sometimes it refers to other types of explanation. When Hume claims that "ultimate causes" cannot be known, what he means by "ultimate cause" is an ultimate explanation i.e. an explanation that is final, that needs no further explanation. And when does an explanation not need further explanation? Only when the explanation is necessary and apriori. (Note, then, that if a cause is uncaused, yet not provably necessary, it will not be an ultimate cause)

In order to circumvent the terminological confusion, I will use, in what follows, the expression "efficient cause" for the first sense of "cause", and "explanation" for the second sense of "cause" in Hume's text. Using this terminology, Hume's argument can be rendered like this:

  1. An explanation in terms of efficient causes is never an ultimate explanation, because an efficient causal connection is never necessary or apriori. Its negation is always conceivable.

  2. Scientific progress results in more general statements about efficient causality, that is statements that cover more and more different particular cases. A general statements can be like, for example:
    When an inelastic body of mass m1 and velocity v1 collides with another inelastic body ...
    However, despite the high level of generality of such statements, they are still statements about efficient causality. And as such, they are never necessary or apriori. And therefore, they never express ultimate explanations. In Hume's words, they cannot express ultimate causes.

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