Happy Birthday David Hume | Cosmic Variance

07 May

David Hume, famous scolder of those who would derive “ought” from “is,” was born 300 years ago today. In point of fact Hume, while not enjoying the name recognition of Plato/Aristotle/Descartes/Kant, is certainly in the running for greatest philosopher of all time. He was a careful thinker, resistant to dogmatic answers, and a relatively sprightly writer as philosophers go. An empiricist who was as persuasive about the temptations of radical epistemological skepticism as anyone, but was still able to resist them. His tercentenary is well worth celebrating.

Dan Sperber, via Henry Farrell, suggests that we celebrate by posting quotes from Hume. When I first encountered him as a college freshman, it was in the context of a theology course where we were reading Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. I was intrigued when our professor pointed out a passage that seemed to prefigure Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which wasn’t going to appear until 82 years later. My dog-eared copy seems to have gone missing, but I found the quote at The Rough Guide to Evolution.

“And this very consideration too, continued PHILO, which we have stumbled on in the course of the argument, suggests a new hypothesis of cosmogony, that is not absolutely absurd and improbable. Is there a system, an order, an economy of things, by which matter can preserve that perpetual agitation which seems essential to it, and yet maintain a constancy in the forms which it produces? There certainly is such an economy; for this is actually the case with the present world. The continual motion of matter, therefore, in less than infinite transpositions, must produce this economy or order; and by its very nature, that order, when once established, supports itself, for many ages, if not to eternity.

But wherever matter is so poised, arranged, and adjusted, as to continue in perpetual motion, and yet preserve a constancy in the forms, its situation must, of necessity, have all the same appearance of art and contrivance which we observe at present. All the parts of each form must have a relation to each other, and to the whole; and the whole itself must have a relation to the other parts of the universe; to the element in which the form subsists; to the materials with which it repairs its waste and decay; and to every other form which is hostile or friendly. A defect in any of these particulars destroys the form; and the matter of which it is composed is again set loose, and is thrown into irregular motions and fermentations, till it unite itself to some other regular form.”

To me now, it looks like something of a cross between Darwin — successful forms persevering among the chaos — and the Lucretius/Boltzmann scenario of the universe coming into existence through the random motion of atoms. (What makes Lucretius and Hume brilliant thinkers but Boltzmann and Darwin influential scientists is that the latter grappled closely with data, not just with ideas.)

The common thread among all these thinkers: trying to explain the origins of order in the absence of teleology. The fact that we can do that successfully in biology, and are hot on the trail in cosmology, is a milestone achievement in the history of human thought.