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An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Section VII, Part 2

Summary Section VII, Part 2


It would appear, then, that we are incapable of apprehending any kind of necessary connection between events. All we can intelligibly say is that one event follows another. The same holds in body-body interactions, mind-body interactions, and mind-mind interactions. Events may appear conjoined, but never connected. And because there is no simple impression related to necessary connection, it would seem that that term is meaningless, both in philosophy and in common life.

However, Hume does provide some positive response to the skepticism presented in the first part of Section VII. If one event has invariably, in our experience, followed another, we become quite confident in predicting upon the appearance of the first event that the second will follow, and we come to call the first event the "cause" and the second event the "effect." We feel these two events to be connected in the imagination. Thus, when we say that two events are connected, we simply mean that they have acquired a connection in our minds. This conclusion is quite satisfactory to the skepticism Hume has been employing, since the conclusion rests upon a certain weakness in human reason.

The principle of cause and effect is crucial to science and one that we should know if we claim to know anything. Yet we have no experience of any kind of secret power or necessary connection in nature. All we can claim is that some objects or events are constantly conjoined. Thus, Hume provides two possible definitions of cause: the first is "an object, followed by another, and where all the objects similar to the first, are followed by objects similar to the second" and the second is "where, if the object had not been, the second [would] never ha[ve] existed." Drawing on the connection created by our imagination between cause and effect, Hume provides a third definition: "an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other."


The second part of section VII provides us with a positive spin on the skepticism we encountered in the first part regarding necessary connection. Hume by no means suggests that we can rationalize necessary connection, but he does provide some explanation for necessary connection that might give some meaning to the term "cause" in both philosophical and everyday discussions.

The problem we encountered was that we could find no rational foundation to our idea of necessary connection even though we all believe in it. To be able to speak rationally about necessary connection, we needed to identify some simple impression that the idea of necessary connection is built upon. In the absence of such a simple impression, we had to acknowledge that we could not speak rationally about necessary connection.

Hume's rescue effort here is to identify that, though there may be no observable necessary connection in nature, the mind does imagine a necessary connection between two events when it perceives that they are constantly conjoined. We return once more to Hume's discussion of probability in section VI. There he points out that belief is what probability impresses upon the imagination. That is, if a certain event follows from a certain other event with good regularity, that second event impresses itself upon our imagination and leads us to believe that that second event will indeed follow. If that second event invariably follows from the first event, our belief becomes quite strong, and we are led to create a necessary connection in our minds between the first event and the second. Thus, the impression of the first event invariably leads to the idea of the second event in our minds. We begin to speak of the first event as "causing" the second event.

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