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Epistemology

Epistemology

Ethics of Theism

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It has been said by a great mind, that confusion is worse than error.1 Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat.

John Stuart Mill on Heretics and Freedom of Thought

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But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtile and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.

John Stuart Mill on Fallibility and Free Speech

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We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility…

On the Causes of Our Errors

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Truth is as much the first want as it is the first good of mankind: yes, truth in religion, which by giving us high and pure ideas of the Divinity, teaches us that our homage ought to be worthy of it; truth in morality, which without rigour, as without weak indulgence, traces out to men in all situations their respective duties; truth in policy, which by rendering authority more just, and subjects more submissive, protects governments from the passions of the multitude, and the multitude from the tyranny of governments; truth in our tribunals, which makes vice afraid, reassures and comforts the innocent, and conduces to the triumph of justice; truth in education, which by rendering conduct accordant with doctrine, makes teachers to be the models, as well as the masters of infancy and youth; truth in literature and in the arts, which preserves them from the contagion of bad taste, from false ornaments, and from false thoughts; truth in the commerce of life, which by banishing fraud and imposture, warrants the common safety; truth in every thing, truth before every thing, this is that which the whole human race from its inmost soul is ever seeking, so thoroughly convinced are all men that truth is useful and falsehood hurtful.

On Truth

Go Frayssinous, a French academic and preacher of the highest stature under Louis XVIII, begins his defense of Christianity with an ode to truth. Along with happiness, it is our greatest need and longing. But not only are we "made for truth", we are, accordingly, equipped with faculties to discover it. Against skepticism, Frayssinous advances a particularist epistemology, arguing that some beliefs arise in us in such a way that they serve as anchor points by which we can considerably extend our knowledge. These moorings are marked by several qualities, namely: "perspicuity, antiquity, universality, and immutability". For example, propositions that are immutable "resist ignorance, prejudice, and passion". We can no more make it so that "there should be effects without causes, than to appoint that for the future men should live without food". Our abilities to discern these basic truths "serve us as guides and torches". "We are compelled to admit the existence of primary truths, felt and perceived as soon as announced, incapable of proof, because they themselves are the proof of every thing, primary in their existence, they precede the experienced use of reason, as the seed precedes the plant." Conceding that his principles for establishing such truths avails only a meager handful of knowledge, Fraysinnous argues that by these lights much can be inferred. "If then the chain of our reasonings are suspended on any one of these primary and immutable principles; if they are united together like the links of that chain, the last held by the one preceding, until they reach the fixed point which sustains the whole, then will the very last consequence be inseparably united to its principle." Finally, Frayssinous addresses the inevitable objection that, if these faculties are so wonderfully veracious, why then the persistence of such disagreement and so many erroneous beliefs. He continues his abbreviated response here in his second discourse, "On the Causes of Our Errors". Disposed as I am to well-qualified particularism, Frayssinous' brief but artful defense is a welcome alternative to his less epistemically sanguine countrymen, such as Foucalt and Derrida. ~ Afterall

John Stuart Mill on Teachability and a Slowness to Condemn

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We desiderate in it somewhat more of what becomes all men, but, most of all, a young man, to whom the struggles of life are only in their commencement, and whose spirt cannot yet have been wounded, or his temper embittered by hostile collision with the world, but which, in young men especially, is apt to be wanting — a slowness to condemn. A man must now learn, by experience, what once came almost by nature to those who had any faculty of seeing; to look upon all things with a benevolent, but upon great men and their works with a reverential spirit; rather to seek in them for what he may learn from them, than for opportunities of showing what they might have learned from him; to give such men the benefit of every possibility of their having spoken with a rational meaning; not easily or hastily to persuade himself that men like Plato, and Locke, and Rousseau, and Bentham, gave themselves a world of trouble in running after something which they thought was a reality, but which he Mr. A. B. can clearly see to be an unsubstantial phantom; to exhaust every other hypothesis, before supposing himself wiser than they; and even then to examine, with good will and without prejudice, if their error do not contain some germ of truth…

Samuel Drew on Thomas Paine’s Rhetoric

Go Upon what peculiar excellency, the popularity of your book is founded, I will not presume to determine; but, in the perusal of its pages, I could plainly discover, that, in many places, you had substituted ridicule in the room of argument; while epithets of abuse were introduced, to dazzle the mind with their superficial glare; as though your design were rather to excite contempt than to produce conviction. Instead of meeting with demonstrative evidence, I have seen idle declamation, calculated rather to delude than to inform; I have met with premises of your own creation, which you have assumed, and from which you have argued conclusively: while in many places, from premises which would not be disputed, your reasonings are inconclusive, and your inferences unjust. You have blended together, in one common mass, the Heathen mythology, Mahometanisrn, Christianity, Popery, and Priestcraft, with all the errors, and all the vices, all the dissensions, and all the cruelties, which, by a departure from the pure principles ot Christianity, have disgraced the human character; and, with an effrontery hardly to be paralleled, have thrown the whole on Revelation. Is this fair? You have made comparisons, which are as invidious as they are unjust; but it will be only in those, who are disposed to place in the scurrility of your language, that confidence, which nothing but legitimate proof has a right to claim, that those effects will be produced, for which your book seems calculated. To yourself you seem to have arrogated the exclusive appropriation of rationality; and, in the excess of triumph, you appear to tell the world, that the barbarism and mental shackles, in which it had been held for ages, have been reserved, to be torn away by the superior genius of Thomas Paine. From this mode of procedure, it is easy to infer, in what estimation you hold the intellectual discernment, and the reasoning powers of others.

Samuel Drew on History as Trusting Testimony

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Let us suppose the case of a man who was born blind. He can have nothing but oral testimony of such things as are visible to others. Does it therefore follow, that, to him, the luminaries of heaven do not exist, and, consequently, demonstrate nothing of the power and wisdom of God? No: the demonstration still exists, by an intellectual communication from others; and this, to him, is a revelation. What is history, but a revelation of facts, though man is the recorder, the witness, the auditor, and oftentimes the cause? View your premises however I may, they are demonstrably false; and, consequently, what you draw from them must fall to the ground. … You further tell us, that "the whole account is traditionary." The truth of this assertion, will depend, in no small degree, upon the definition of the term. But, if what you assert, were granted, I cannot perceive, how this would falsify the account. If the supposed facts contained in the Bible, be traditionary, and are, therefore, false, there is no historical account in existence, that will not be implicated in the common charge; and, if this be admitted, all moral and historical certainty, must, at one stroke, be banished from the world.

Alexander Pope on the Paradox of Man

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Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, ¶ The proper study of mankind is Man. ¶ Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, ¶ A being darkly wise, and rudely great: ¶ With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, ¶ With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; ¶ In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast; ¶ In doubt his mind or body to prefer; ¶ Born but to die; and reas’ning but to err: ¶ Alike in ignorance, his reason such, ¶ Whether he thinks too little or too much; ¶ Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d; ¶ Still by himself abus’d or disabus’d; ¶ Created half to rise and half to fall; ¶ Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; ¶ Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; ¶ The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Thomas Paine on Revelation and Redemption

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The dogma of the redemption is the fable of priest-craft invented since the time the New Testament was compiled, and the agreeable delusion of it suited with the depravity of immoral livers. When men are taught to ascribe all their crimes and vices to the temptations of the Devil, and to believe that Jesus by his death rubs all off, and pays their passage to heaven gratis, they become as careless in morals as a spendthrift would be of money, were he told that his father had engaged to pay off all his scores. It is a doctrine not only dangerous to morals in this world, but to our happiness in the next world, because it holds out such a cheap, easy, and lazy way of getting to heaven, as has a tendency to induce men to hug the delusion of it to their own injury. ¶ But there are times when men have serious thoughts, and it is at such times, when they begin to think, that they begin to doubt the truth of the Christian Religion; and well they may, for it is too fanciful and too full of conjecture, inconsistency, improbability, and irrationality, to afford consolation to the thoughtful man. His reason revolts against his creed. He sees that none of its articles are proved, or can be proved. He may believe that such a person as is called Jesus (for Christ was not his name) was born and grew to be a man, because it is no more than a natural and probable case. But who is to prove he is the son of God, that he was  begotten by the Holy Ghost? Of these things there can be no proof; and that which admits not of proof, and is against the laws of probability and the order of nature, which God himself has established, is not an object for belief. God has not given man reason to embarrass him, but to prevent his being imposed upon.

Thomas Reid on Rationalism and Empiricism in the Philosophy of Mind

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There is such proneness in men of genius to invent hypotheses, and in others to acquiesce in them as the utmost which the human faculties can attain in philosophy, that it is of the last consequence to the progress of real knowledge, that men should have a clear and distinct understanding of the nature of hypotheses in philosophy, and of the regard that is due to them. ¶ Although some conjectures may have a considerable degree of probability, yet it is evidently in the nature of conjecture to be uncertain. In every case, the assent ought to be proportioned to the evidence; for to believe firmly what has but a small degree of probability, is a manifest abuse of our understanding. Now, though we may, in many cases, form very probable conjectures concerning the works of men, every conjecture we can form with regard to the works of God has as little probability as the conjectures of a child with regard to the works of a man.

Thomas Jefferson on Reason, Tribunal and Oracle

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Shake off all fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are severely crouched. Fix Reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible then as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example in the Book of Joshua we are told that the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you will feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you will be a vast additional incitement: if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven; and you are answerable, not for the rightness but for the uprightness of the decision.

George Herne on the Ease of Objections

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Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject. And as people in general, for one reason or another, like short objections better than long answers, in this mode of disputation (if it can be styled such) the odds must ever be against us; and we must be content with those for our friends who have honesty and erudition, candor and patience, to study both sides of the question — Be it so.

Thomas Reid on Induction and Hume’s Skepticism

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CHAP. III.

Of probable Reasoning.

The field of demonstration, as has been observed, is necessary truth; the field of probable reasoning is contingent truth, not what necessarily must be at all times, but what is, or was, or shall be.

No contingent truth is capable of strict demonstration; but necessary truths may sometimes have probable evidence.

Dr Wallis discovered many important mathematical truths, by that kind of induction which draws a general conclusion from particular premises. This is not strict demonstration, but, in some cases, gives as full conviction as demonstration itself; and a man may be certain, that a truth is demonstrable before it ever has been demonstrated. In other cases, a mathematical proposition may have such probable evidence from induction or analogy, as encourages the Mathematician to investigate its demonstration. But still the reasoning proper to mathematical and other necessary truths, is demonstration; and that which is proper to contingent truths, is probable reasoning.

These two kinds of reasoning differ in other respects. In demonstrative reasoning, one argument is as good as a thousand. One demonstration may be more elegant than another; it may be more easily comprehended, or it may be more subservient to some purpose beyond the present. On any of these accounts it may deserve a preference: But then it is sufficient by itself; it needs no aid from another; it can receive none. To add more demonstrations of the fame conclusion, would be a kind of tautology in reasoning; because one demonstration, clearly comprehended, gives all the evidence we are capable of receiving.

The strength of probable reasoning, for the most part, depends not upon any one argument, but upon many, which unite their force, and lead to the fame conclusion. Any one of them by itself would be insufficient to convince; but the whole taken together may have a force that is irresistible, so that to desire more evidence would be absurd. Would any man seek new arguments to prove that there were such persons as King Charles the First, or Oliver Cromwell?

Such evidence may be compared to a rope made up of many slender filaments twisted together. The rope has strength more than sufficient to bear the stress laid upon it, though no one of the filaments of which it w composed would be sufficient for that purpose.

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It is a common observation, that it is unreasonable to require demonstration for things which do not admit of it. It is no less unreasonable to require reasoning of any kind for things which are known without reasoning. All reasoning must be grounded upon truths which are known without reasoning. In every branch of real knowledge there must be first principles whose truth is known intuitively, without reasoning, either probable or demonstrative. They are not grounded on reasoning, but all reasoning is grounded on them. It has been shown, that there are first principles of necessary truths, and first principles of contingent truths. Demonstrative reasoning is grounded upon the former, and probable reasoning upon the latter.

That we may not be embarrassed by the ambiguity of words, it is proper to observe, that there is a popular meaning of probable evidence, which ought not to be confounded with the philosophical meaning, above explained.

In common language, probable evidence is considered as an inferior degree of evidence, and is opposed to certainty: So that what is certain is more than probable, and what is only probable is not certain. Philosophers consider probable evidence, not as a degree, but as a species of evidence which is opposed, not to certainty, but to another species of evidence called demonstration.

Demonstrative evidence has no degrees; but probable evidence, taken in the philosophical sense, has all degrees, from the very least, to the greatest which we call certainty.

That there is such a city as Rome, I am as certain as of any proposition in Euclid ; but the evidence is not demonstrative, but of that kind which Philosophers call probable. Yet, in common language, it would found oddly to fay, it is probable there is such a city as Rome, because it would imply some degree of doubt or uncertainty.

Taking probable evidence, therefore, in the philosophical sense, as it is opposed to demonstrative, it may have any degrees of evidence, from the least to the greatest.

I think, in most cafes, we measure the degrees of evidence by the effect they have upon a found understanding, when comprehended clearly and without prejudice. Every degree of evidence perceived by the mind, produces a proportioned degree of assent or belief. The judgment may be in perfect suspense between two contradictory opinions, when there is no evidence for either, or equal evidence for both. The least preponderancy on one side inclines the judgment in proportion. Belief is mixed with doubt, more or less, until we come to the highest degree of evidence, when all doubt vanishes, and the belief is firm and immoveable. This degree of evidence, the highest the human faculties can attain, we call certainty.

Chap. in. but js itself of different kinds. The chief of these, I shall mention., without pretending to make a complete enumeration.

The first kind is that of human testimony, upon which the greatest part of human knowledge is built.

The faith of history depends upon it, as well as the judgment of solemn tribunals, with regard to mens acquired rights, and with regard to their guilt or innocence when they are charged with, crimes. A great part of the business of the Judge, of Counsel at the bar, of the Historian, the Critic, and the Antiquarian, is to canvass and weigh this kind of evidence ; and no man can act with common prudence in the ordinary occurrences of life, who has not some competent judgment of it.

The belief we give to testimony in many cases is not solely grounded upon the veracity of the testifier. In a single testimony, we consider the motives.a man might have to falsify. If there be no appearance of any such motive, much more if there be motives on the other side, his testimony has weight independent of his moral character. If the/ testimony be circumstantial, we consider how far the circumstances agree together, and with things that are known. It is so very difficult to fabricate a story, which cannot be detected by a judicious examination of the circumstances, that it acquires evidence, by being able to bear such a trial. There is an art in detecting false evidence in judicial proceedings, well known to able judges and barristers; so that I believe few false witnesses leave the bar without suspicion of their guilt..

When there is an agreement of many witnesses, in a great variety of circumstances, without the possibility of a previous con^ cert, the evidence may be equal to that of demonstration*

A second kind of probable evidence, is the authority of those who are good judges of the point in question. The supreme court

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of judicature of the British nation, is often determined by the opinion of lawyers in a point of law, of physicians in a point of medicine, and of other artists, in what relates to their several professions. And, in the common affairs of life, we frequently rely upon the judgment of others, in points of, which we are not proper judges ourselves.

A third kind of probable evidence, is that by which we recognise the identity of things, and persons of our acquaintance: That two swords, two horses, or two persons, may be so perfectly alike, as not to be distinguishable by those to whom they are best known, cannot be shown to be impossible. But we learn either from nature, or from experience, that it never happens; or so, very rarely, that a person or thing, well known to us, is immediately recognised without any doubt, when we perceive the marks or signs by which we were in use to distinguish it from all other individuals of the kind..

This evidence we rely upon in the most important affairs of life; and, by this evidence, the identity, both of things and of persons, is determined in courts of judicature.

A fourth kind of probable evidence, is that which we have of mens future actions and conduct, from the general principles of action in man, or from our knowledge of the individuals..

CHAP. III.

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Notwithstanding the folly and vice that is to be found among men, there is a certain degree of prudence and probity which we rely upon in every man that is not insane. If it were not so, no man would be safe in the company of another, and there could be no society among mankind. If men were, as much disposed to • hurt as to do good, to lie as to speak truth, they could not live together; they would keep at as great distance from one another as possible, and the race would soon perish.

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We expect that men will take some care of themselves, of their family, friends, and reputation: That they will not injure others without some temptation: That they will have some gratitude for good offices, and some resentment of injuries.

Such maxims with regard to human conduct are the foundation of all political reasoning, and of common prudence in the conduct of life. Hardly can a man form any project in public or in private life, which does not depend upon the conduct of other men, as well as his own, and which does not go upon the supposition that men will act such a part in such circumstances. This evidence may be probable in a very high degree, but can never be demonstrative. The best concerted project may fail, and wife counsels may be frustrated, because some individual acted a part which it would have been against all reason to expect.

Another kind of probable evidence, the counterpart of the last, is that by which we collect mens characters and designs from their actions, speech, and other external signs.

We fee not mens hearts, nor the principles by which they are actuated ; but there are external signs of their principles and dispositions, which, though not certain, may sometimes be more trusted than their professions; and it is from external signs that we must draw all the knowledge we can attain of “men’s characters.

The next kind of probable evidence I mention, is that which Mathematicians call the probability of chances.

We attribute some events to chance, because we know only the remote cause which must produce some one event of a number; but know not the more immediate cause which determines a particular event of that number in preference to the others.

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I think all the chances about which we reason in mathematics CHAP. Hi. are of this kind. Thus, in throwing a just die upon a table, we fay it is an equal chance which of the six sides shall be turned up; because neither the person who throws, nor the bystanders know the precise measure of force and direction necessary to turn up any one side rather than another. There are here therefore six events, one of which must happen; and as all are supposed to have equal probability, the probability of any one side being turned up, the ace, for instance, is as one to the remaining number five.

The probability of turning up two aces with two dice is as one to thirty-five; because here there are thirty-six events, each of which has equal probability.

Upon such principles as these, the doctrine of chances has furnished a field of demonstrative reasoning of great extent, although the events about which this reasoning is employed be not necessary, but contingent, and be not certain, but probable.

This may seem to contradict a principle before advanced, that contingent truths are not capable of demonstration; but it does not: For, in the mathematical reasonings about chance, the conclusion demonstrated, is not, that such an event shall happen, but that the probability of its happening bears such a ratio to the probability of its failing; and this conclusion is necessary upon the suppositions on which it is grounded.

The last kind of probable evidence I shall mention, is that by which the known laws of Nature have been discovered, and the effects which have been produced by them in former ages, or which may be expected in time to come.

The laws of Nature are the rules by which the Supreme Being governs the world. We deduce them only from facts that fall within our own observation, or are properly attested by those who have observed them.

The knowledge of some of the laws of Nature is necessary to all men in the conduct of life. These are soon discovered even by savages. They know that fire burns, that water drowns, that bodies gravitate towards the earth. They know that day and night, summer and winter, regularly succeed each other. As far back as their experience and information reach, they know that these have happened regularly; and, upon this ground, they are led, by the constitution of human nature, to expect that they will happen in time to come, in like circumstances.

The knowledge which the Philosopher attains of the laws of Nature differs from that of the vulgar, not in the first principles on which it is grounded, but in its extent and accuracy. He collects with care the phenomena that lead to the fame conclusion, and compares them with those that seem to contradict or to limit’ it. He observes the circumstances on which every phenomenon depends, and distinguishes them carefully from those that are accidentally conjoined with it. He puts natural bodies in various situations, and applies them to one another in various ways, oh purpose to observe the effect; and thus acquires from his fenses a more extensive knowledge of the course of Nature in a short time, than could be collected by casual observation in many ages.

But what is the result of his laborious researches? It is, that, as far as he has been able to observe, such things have always happened in such circumstances, and such bodies have always been found to have such properties. These are matters of fact, attested by fense, memory and testimony, just as the few facts which the vulgar know are attested to them.

And what conclusions does the Philosopher draw from the facts he has collected? They are, that like events have happened in former times in like circumstances, and will happen in time to come; and these conclusions are built on the very fame ground on which the simple rustic concludes that the fun will rife to-morrow.

CHAP, Hi

Facts reduced to general rules, and the consequences of those general rules, are all that we really know of the material world. And the evidence that such general rules have no exceptions, as well as the evidence that they will be the fame in time to come as they have been in time past, can never be demonstrative. It is only that species of evidence which Philosophers call probable. General rules may have exceptions or limitations which no man ever had occasion to observe. The laws of Nature may be changed by him who established them. But we are led by our constitution to rely upon their continuance with as little doubt as if it was demonstrable.

I pretend not to have made a complete enumeration of all the kinds of probable evidence; but those I have mentioned are sufficient to show, that the far greatest part, and the most interesting part of our knowledge, must rest upon evidence of this kind; and that many things are certain for which we have only that kind of evidence which Philosophers call probable.

Immanuel Kant on Unanswerable Questions

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Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

David Hume on Human Conceptions of God

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The universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp, which the divine workman has set upon his work; and nothing surely can more dignify mankind, than to be thus selected from all other parts of the creation, and to bear the image or impression of the universal Creator. But consult this image, as it appears in the popular religions of the world. How is the deity disfigured in our representations of him! What caprice, absurdity, and immorality are attributed to him! How much is he degraded even below the character, which we should naturally, in common life, ascribe to a man of sense and virtue!

David Hume on Hard Reality vs. Faith

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We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

David Hume on the Limits of Reason

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Though the chain of arguments … were ever so logical, there must arise a strong suspicion, if not an absolute assurance, that it has carried us quite beyond the reach of our faculties, when it leads to conclusions so extraordinary, and so remote from common life and experience. We are got into fairy land, long ere we have reached the last steps of our theory; and there we have no reason to trust our common methods of argument, or to think that our usual analogies and probabilities have any authority. Our line is too short to fathom such abysses.

David Hume on Esoteric Philosophy

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Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

David Hume on the Greater Miracle

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When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

David Hume on Empathy and the Bandwagon Effect

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No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. This is not only conspicuous in children, who implicitly embrace every opinion propos’d to them; but also in men of the greatest judgment and understanding, who find it very difficult to follow their own reason or inclination, in opposition to that of their friends and daily companions. To this principle we ought to ascribe the great uniformity we may observe in the humours and turn of thinking of those of the same nation; and ’tis much more probable, that this resemblance arises from sympathy, than from any influence of the soil and climate, which, tho’ they continue invariably the same, are not able to preserve the character of a nation the same for a century together. A good-natur’d man finds himself in an instant of the same humour with his company; and even the proudest and most surly take a tincture from their countrymen and acquaintance. A chearful countenance infuses a sensible complacency and serenity into my mind; as an angry or sorrowful one throws a sudden dump upon me. Hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth and melancholy; all these passions I feel more from communication than from my own natural temper and disposition. So remarkable a phaenomenon merits our attention, and must be trac’d up to its first principles.

David Hume on Cause and Effect

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This deficiency in our ideas is not, indeed, perceived in common life, nor are we sensible, that in the most usual conjunctions of cause and effect we are as ignorant of the ultimate principle, which binds them together, as in the most unusual and extraordinary. But this proceeds merely from an illusion of the imagination; and the question is, how far we ought to yield to these illusions. This question is very difficult, and reduces us to a very dangerous dilemma, whichever way we answer it. For if we assent to every trivial suggestion of the fancy; beside that these suggestions are often contrary to each other; they lead us into such errors, absurdities, and obscurities, that we must at last become asham’d of our credulity. Nothing is more dangerous to reason than the flights of the imagination, and nothing has been the occasion of more mistakes among philosophers. Men of bright fancies may in this respect be compar’d to those angels, whom the scripture represents as covering their eyes with their wings. This has already appear’d in so many instances, that we may spare ourselves the trouble of enlarging upon it any farther.

David Hume on the Difficulty of Ethical Reflection

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There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning, that it may silence, without convincing an antagonist, and requires the same intense study to make us sensible of its force, that was at first requisite for its invention. When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and ’tis difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attain’d with difficulty.

David Hume on the Incomprehensibility of God

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All the sentiments of the human mind, gratitude, resentment, love, friendship, approbation, blame, pity, emulation, envy, have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence, and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances. It seems therefore unreasonable to transfer such sentiments to a supreme existence, or to suppose him actuated by them ; and the phenomena, besides, of the universe will not support us in such a theory. All our ideas, derived from the senses’ are confusedly false and illusive ; and cannot, therefore, be supposed to have place in a supreme intelligence: And as the ideas of internal sentiment, added to those of the external senses, compose the whole furniture of human understanding, we may conclude, that none of the materials of thought are in any respect similar in the human and in the divine intelligence. Now, as to the manner of thinking; how can we make any comparison between them, or suppose them anywise resembling? Our thought is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded; and were we to remove these circumstances, we absolutely annihilate its essence, and it would, in such a case, be an abuse of terms to apply to it the name of thought or reason. At least, if it appear more pious and respectful (as it really is) still to retain these terms, when we mention the Supreme Being, we ought to acknowledge, that their meaning, in that case, is totally incomprehensible; and that the infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas, which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the divine attributes.