Hume on necessity and Augustine on time

Happy Easter! We’ve had a busy few weeks since I last wrote, and school sort of faded into the background of Holy Week and Easter celebrations. But, I’m back in the thick of Hume, Augustine, and Plato this week. I suppose I will address Hume first.

I find Hume to be a very eloquent and clear writer, and perhaps for this reason find some ideas he expresses most compellingly to be quite disturbing; especially taken to their full extent, I think that they are ugly ideas cloaked in beautiful words. As I commented to my brother Leon yesterday, Hume seems so confident that his theories are true to reality, and so, once recognized by everyone else as the truth (as they inevitably will because of the obviousness of them), will have little moral implications. Let me take a specific example. Last night in class we discussed his explanation of liberty and necessity—we could say free will and determinism. In his account of human action, every thing we say and do, think, desire, is pre-determined by something inside of us. So your normally cheerful friend is brusque and rude, but he had an empty stomach. A truly criminal person must have similar reasons within his own character (conditioned by ingrained nature and experience) for acting in ways society would call immoral. Thus it is really the character of the person that we hate, not the crime. Liberty or free will is merely the state of being physically unfettered so as to carry out whatever you want (hence prisoners are without liberty in this sense). Our internal sense of freely choosing or of others having free will is merely an illusion. What Hume does not address is why we would have this illusion in the first place, a fact which seems contrary to his concern with basing his ideas in the common sense of how things really are.

Doesn’t this determinist view of human action seem like it would have very different implications than one that emphasized free choice? If we really believed this, how would we raise children? How would we treat people who did not behave according to our accepted conventions? Would we begin to weed out those who showed inclinations toward criminality before they even did anything? In some ways our culture already manifests many of these implications to some extent or another. There seems to be a great anxiety and fear, for example, about creating a “perfect” environment and experience for children; from infancy onwards, what they eat, drink, wear, read, learn, listen to, play and do is carefully chosen and “curated” (as one friend puts it) by the parents but little attention is given to actually teaching them how to control themselves and their impulses. The will is neglected. The development of character is merely a matter of getting all the correct and desired inputs into the child at the right moments and avoiding the wrong ones.


Baby Joe is skeptical of Hume's skepticism.
Baby Joe is skeptical of Hume’s skepticism.


Anyway, I could go on and on about this, but time is of the essence when both children are sleeping. Our reading of Augustine’s Confessions wrapped up last night with the remaining few chapters. In these are contained some marvelously interesting reflections on memory and time. My classmates were wondering how these fit within the context of his autobiographical writings. It seemed to me that throughout the narrative of the book, he often dwelt upon the philosophical questions that were most preoccupying him at each given stage, and the contemplation of memory and the experience of time were foremost in his mind at the time he was writing his confession—now a middle-aged man, looking back over his life and his memories, the time that has gone by and that which he has left.

He relies on our experience of poetic recitation and of songs to give an image of his three senses of time. Rather than past, present and future, he says there is a present of things past (memory), a present of things present (immediate awareness), and a present of things to come (expectation). When in the midst of singing a song we know by heart, we hold in our minds the words which we have just sung, those we are now singing, and those that will come next. This, he claims, is analogous to our experience of time in the whole of life. We dwelt upon this musical image for quite a while, and were curious as to whether that is the essence of at least Western music: memory, immediate awareness, and expectation.

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