Tag Archives: empiricism

Commit it then to the flames

David Hume

David Hume, 300th birthday today.

We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have, in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resemble those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others. (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

As a (William) Jamesian, Hume was the precedent. Called the greatest philosopher “who wrote in English,” to me, he was the foremost “proto modern philosopher,” and the philosopher, besides, James, I’ve spent the most time with. From my perspective, skepticism as empirical approach, is what allows for one to see the many, albeit partial, sides of a problem, viewpoint, ideology. Also, as approach and attitude, it’s related to systems awareness in our modern sense, thus, for example, this moves us to regard all the factors of influence and inflection, especially the human subjective factors, in any description, explanation, prediction, or idealization of a system, or systems of systems.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change: nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented, or of the materials of which it is composed. (A Treatise On Human Nature)

Robert Bell David Hume’s Fables of Identity

The Humean Assault


David Hume’s Birthday at Crooked Timber

David Hume’s Birthday at Cognition and Culture

The Hume Society

article by Yumiko Inukai, University of Pennsylvania The historical Buddha (Gotama), Hume, and James on the self: Comparisons and evaluations

We are inclined to believe that we are persisting, unified subjects that undergo experience, whether or not we believe in souls or substantial entities of some sort that are often posited as persisting subjects. Where does this belief come from? To deal with this question, I examine David Hume’s and William James’ accounts of the self, both of whom attempt to provide the empirical basis for such a belief. In the Appendix to A Treatise of Human Nature , Hume acknowledges that his account of our belief in a persisting self offered earlier in that work involves a profound problem that he has no hope to solve. Contrary to the common interpretation that puts Hume’s newly-found problem in his very account of the idea of the self, I suggest that it arises from his presupposition throughout Book One of the Treatise that perceptions are initially bundled together. I argue that Hume’s theoretical commitment to the radical independence of perceptions does not allow him to maintain the initial unity of perceptions (i.e., a unified self). Nor is he able to explain the formation of it. I call this the Bundling problem. In contrast, James improves upon Hume by developing more detailed descriptions of experience and simply avoids the Bundling problem by rejecting Hume’s atomistic theory of experience, affirming that experience is fundamentally unitary and continuous, which he calls “the stream of consciousness.” A rigorous analysis of experience enables James to account for our belief of a persisting subject on empirical grounds. Consideration of James’ accounts sheds a great light on Hume’s fundamental problem. I argue that Hume’s atomistic theory of experience–which proves to be the source of the Bundling problem–is a metaphysical theory, which is in conflict with his own professed empiricist methodology. The Bundling problem is not, therefore, inherent in his empiricism itself. Hence, there still is hope for an empiricist account of our belief in a persisting self, and this hope is found in James.

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Gray Swans?

One way to while-away the time during my short commute, and, errands, is to listen to unabridged audiobooks. If the experience proves worthwhile as a moment of learning, I’m next compelled to work against my learning style (aural-kinesthetic) and read the verbal-visual edition, so-to-speak.

Now I’m driving through Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s The Black Swan. It provides a gripping journey for a Jamesian fallibilist such as myself. Also, Taleb’s so-called skeptical empiricism circles around my own current central concern that is also strongly skeptical about, as Taleb terms it, narrativity.  The interesting difference is I’m looking at ubiquitous hidden chance events, (in ordinary human development,) whereas Taleb deals with rare hidden chance eventsin large-scale domains. I too am similarly fascinated by how linear narratives clothe non-linear events as a matter of post-hoc rationalization, but, again the domain I’m interested in is different than those of Taleb.

There is a funny moment in the book where Taleb blows off a causal assertion about this domain I’m interested in. I’ll return to this after I finish the book.

As a collector of dichotomies, the following is of great interest. Via Nassim Nicholas Taleb, purloined from his notes page at the web site for his book Fooled By Randomness. (Excellent review of The Black Swan by Dan Hill @cityofsound)

116- Fooled by Rationalism; Lecturing Birds How to Fly [From Tinkering]

The greatest problem in knowledge is the “lecturing birds how to fly” effect.

Let us call it the error of rationalism. In Fat Tony’s language, it would be what makes us the suckers of all suckers. Consider two types of knowledge. The first type is not exactly “knowledge”; its ambiguous character prevents us from calling it exactly knowledge. It a way of doing thing that we cannot really express in clear language, but that we do nevertheless, and do well. The second type is more like what we call “knowledge”; it is what you acquire in school, can get grades for, can codify, what can be explainable, academizable, rationalizable, formalizable, theoretizable, codifiable, Sovietizable, bureaucratizable, Harvardifiable, provable, etc.

To make things simple, just look at the second type of knowledge as something so stripped of ambiguity that an autistic person (a high functioning autistic person, that is) can easily understand it.

The error of rationalism is, simply, overestimating the role and necessity of the second type, the academic knowledge, in human affairs. It is a severe error because not only much of our knowledge is not explainable, academizable, rationalizable, formalizable, theoretizable, codifiable, Sovietizable, bureaucratizable, Harvardifiable, etc., but, further, that such knowledge plays such a minor life that it is not even funny.
We are very likely to believe that skills and ideas that we actually acquired by doing, or that came naturally to us (as we already knew by our innate biological instinct) came from books, ideas, and reasoning. We get blinded by it; there may even be something in our brains that makes us suckers for the point. Let us see how.





Know how

Know what

Fat Tony wisdom, Aristotelian phronesis

Aristotelian logic

Implicit , Tacit


Nondemonstrative knowledge

Demonstrative knowledge



Experiential knowledge

Epistemic base


Propositional knowledge




Directed research


Targeted activity







Tinkering, stochastic tinkering

Directed search

Epilogism (Menodotus of Nicomedia and the school of empirical medicine)

Inductive knowledge

Historia a sensate cognitio

Causative historiography



Austrian economics

Neoclassical economics

Bottom up libertarianism

Central Planner

Spirit of the Law

Letter of the Law



Brooklyn, Amioun

Cambridge, MA, and UK

Accident, trial and error






Ecological uncertainty, not tractable in textbook

Ludic probability, statistics textbooks



Parallel processing

Serial processing


On-model, model based

Side effect of a drug

National Institute of Health




My intentionally idiosyncratic interpretation of Taleb’s usage of the term ludic, is: it names the error found when people believe that their management of known simple fixed probabilities is identical to management of complex dynamic uncertainty. The latter is, of course, impossible to actually manage.

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Filed under adult learning