How I Deconverted: It Started With Humean Skepticism

I have written a number of personal posts about what I was like before I deconverted and then how things went for me when I deconverted. There is more to say about both those periods, but it is time to start explaining how I deconverted. And, philosophically, that started with my discovery of David Hume. I will get to how it started emotionally later. For now, here was the key thought that would shape my theology and philosophy throughout college and then my philosophy for years, but no longer, after I initially abandoned theology.

October 1996-August 2008:

David Hume questioned whether or not we could ever know there were any such things as necessary connections between events such that one kind of thing happening could necessitate that another one follow. Hume wanted to be an absolutely strict empiricist. He did not want to accept any dubious metaphysical principles as true. He wanted to tightly tether our knowledge claims to what we could actually perceive. And we cannot directly perceive causal necessities such that one thing happening requires another thing always to happen. I can see my hand and I can see the flame. Those are empirical facts. I can make the factual observation that I am not experiencing any burning sensations in my hand the moment before I put it in the fire. Then I can follow that up with a different factual observation when my hand is placed in the fire, namely, that my hand now feels a burning sensation. From those facts can I infer that the fire caused the burning sensation and that it necessarily did so?

What if the two events are just correlated but not causally connected in this instance. Well how can we ever know with certainty that any two events that we see together are not just correlated but causally connected in a necessary way? The scientific method is, to put it simplistically, to keep testing to see whether under controlled conditions the result is always as the hypothesis of a given necessary connection would predict. But no matter how many times we observe the supposed cause and the supposed effect, we will never with our eyes literally see, as a visual sense datum, something that we could properly call “necessary causation”.

All our eyes (and our other senses) will ever give us will be the particular experiences. It takes an inference of the mind that there is an invisible thing called “necessary causation” that conjoins the two events. To Hume such an invisible thing sounds suspiciously metaphysical. How can we know there are any such invisible necessities and not just patterns that are so extraordinarily common and usual that they make an enormous impression on our human minds—but which are nonetheless not necessary.

Maybe trillions of physical events of kind A are followed by events of kind B, but every now and then they are not. Or maybe in the future they suddenly and simply will stop correlating altogether. How can we know the future must resemble the past? Has the universe made us some kind of promise that this cannot or will not happen? We can only assume tomorrow the regularities we are accustomed to will be the same as today. This is a reasonable assumption. It is a probablistic assumption that any sane person would be shrewd to live her life by. But, according to Hume, it is not knowledge.

This thought cast a powerful spell over me for a long time, beginning when I was a first semester freshman in college, taking my first two philosophy classes, both of which covered David Hume. My philosopher friends and I would try to explain this to non-philosophers. We would take some familiar object and ask them to watch as we dropped it. And point out to them that they could not see that the opening of the hand caused the ball or the penny or the hat to fall.

We would ask how they knew it would have to fall. It was like performing a magic trick:

“Watch very closely. See my hand open. See the ball fall. Did you see any necessary connection? No? The ball fell with no observable causal mechanism! TA-DA! There is no such thing as cause and effect!

“But gravity made it fall!”

“What is gravity? When scientists say gravity they refer to a pattern of relationships among objects by which the ways they have always been observed to act when studied has a certain mathematical regularity. But does that make the mathematical pattern and regularity the cause? Is it a mysterious monolithic force of some kind? Is it a unitary thing in nature that acts on other things? Or is it that objects simply behave and the mathematical pattern of “gravity” is our description of how they act, one which tells us nothing about why they act that way and nor gives us any clue as to whether they somehow must always act that way.”

We could develop the most powerful, world-transforming of sciences, but we could never solve this problem of providing any kind of proof that the future must, as a matter of necessity, resemble the past. No matter how fruitfully, verifiably, and mathematically precisely our best sciences could describe and effectively predict events in the world, no experiment could guarantee for us that we had gotten to the essence of the necessary laws or explain what such causal mechanisms were beyond observations of how they happened to work and be quantifiable.

This is a form of radical, global, philosophical skepticism. It is Humean skepticism. Once I learned this way of looking skeptically at the world, it increasingly dominated how I saw everything philosophically and theologically.

Your Thoughts?

Read what I have to say to to Humeans these days in my post Mostly True, Not Mostly False.

Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • rayndeonx

    Hume’s causal skepticism was proposed earlier in history by al-Ashari in the 10th century and then given a trenchant defense by al-Ghazali around a century later. He argued that the connection between cause and effect was not one of necessity and argued that all observations we make of cause and effect are merely consistent correlation, anticipating Nicolas de Malebranche and Hume: “The continuous habit of their occurrence repeatedly, one time after another, fixes unshakably in our minds the belief in their occurrence according to past habit.” [1] He argued that what we called cause and effect were instead constant correlations maintained by God and could be changed at any time, hence miracles and what not. For more on this, I think the SEP has a good summary: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/al-ghazali/#CauAlGha

    [1] In his “Tahafut al-Falasifa – The Incoherence of the Philosophers

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Neat. I did not know that. It is interesting because Hume has nominalist tendencies and they were also pronounced among Medieval thinkers who wanted every existent thing to be radically created by God and for God not to be constrained by any other eternal laws, including forms, in creating.

    • rayndeonx

      Islamic philosophy in general is pretty interesting and unfortunately, doesn’t have too much attention in broader philosophy. al-Ghazali’s legacy on the outcome of Muslim science has given rise to mixed opinions. Some say he basically ended the intellectual project in the Islamic empire, others argue that he instead wanted to separate what al-Ghazali called the “exact sciences” (mathematics, astronomy, physics, etc) from Aristotelian metaphysics. It’s notable that while philosophy in general died out amongst Sunnis, Shia philosophy continued and still maintains some presence. Whatever al-Ghazali’s political and philosophical influence though, here are a few articles in case you’re interested in his views:

      http://ghazali.org/works/taf-eng.pdf
      http://www.ghazali.org/articles/gz-riker.pdf
      http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ma/works/ma-gz-ps.pdf

      Really, a lot of Muslim philosophy from the 8th to 11th centuries anticipated or informed the opinions of the medievals in the 13th and 14th centuries and thereon.

  • John Morales

    The problem of induction and the relativity of wrong.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Yeah, when i was an undergraduate constant conjuncture (is that the right term?) blew my mind. I haven’t thought about it for quite a while and it still does.

  • Laurence

    Hume is someone that I’ve had to learn mostly on my own because he was really only covered in one of my undergraduate classes. That class was in my last semester, and I was fighting school burnout so I wasn’t particularly attentive (I wish I would have been now). The professor that taught that course was also about to retire and didn’t care that much. I think it’s a real shame that I never got to have any discussions about Hume with my professors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    It’s interesting to me that you read Hume like this. I’m no Hume expert – my knowledge of Hume is pretty much limited to (a) a strange obsession with “Of the Standard of Taste” and (b) anthology excerpts I’ve taught my freshmen – so you’re more likely to understand him correctly than me, certainly.

    However, the way I read Hume was more along these lines: while we cannot have knowledge of things like necessity and the existence of the world when we’re not perceiving it, we can have a rational belief in these things. This isn’t because of pragmatic considerations; it’s human nature to believe that when I blink or even fall asleep, the world is continuous. I cannot know it because I cannot experience it. But it would be deeply irrational (and even IIRC against human nature) to seriously believe something else.

    Which I always read as sort of going in the other direction of where you seem to be taking this. He seemed to be saying we can have appropriate beliefs without being able to prove they are true, in certain contexts. Whether he’s right or not, and whether religious beliefs fall within those contexts, is obviously still a very live question.

    Btw, I can’t recommend the Arab medieval philosophers enough. In many ways, Al-Farabi beat Plantinga and Ayer to the faith-versus-reason debates by many centuries, and did so in a thought-provoking way. Maimonides (Jewish but educated in Arab spain and working in Arab Egypt) was also very good on the limits of theology and science.

  • John M

    Simply breathing in and out is an act of faith in causality; your body will not allow you a contrary point of view. On pain of death, we have absolutely no choice but to continue to know the truth of this regularity of nature. Quite literally the dogs in the street know this is true. I think Hume was having a laugh.

  • http://hic-est-charly.blogspot.com Charly

    I am no philosopher by any stretch of the word, so I might be going full Dunning-Kruger now, but to me it seems really simple.

    Even if we cannot “know” with “absolute” certainity that the cause/effect are really causaly connected, as long as data are consistent, we have no reason to asume otherwise. “Knowledge” is for me therefore not “absolute cerainity” but certainity with very high degree of consistency.

    Probability, that objects fall due to sheer coincidence, consistently around the world and through the eons is so ridiculously small, that it cannot even be calculated. Therefore there is no reason to asume anything else, than common cause for all falling objects.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      No, I think that’s right, Charly. We need to stop using the word knowledge so that it means something impossible.


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