Section 5: Skeptical Solution to these doubts

The passion for philosophy, like that for religion, involves a certain danger.

  • It aims to correct our behaviour and wipe out our vices.
  • If not handled properly, it may merely encourage follow our natural inclinations.
  • We may set out to:
  • achieve philosophical wisdom and firmness, and
  • become satisfied with mental pleasures distinct from bodily pleasures
  • yet reason ourselves out of all virtue as well as all social enjoyment, ending up with a philosophy which (like that of Epictetus and other Stoics) is only a more refined system of selfishness.
  • While we meditate on the vanity of human life, and focus on the empty and transitory nature of riches and honours, perhaps we are really just:
    finding excuses for our idleness
    trying to get reason’s support for our lazy unwillingness to be busy.
    However, the skeptical philosophy runs little risk of this drawback, because it:
 does not join forces with any disorderly passion of the human mind, and
    cannot get mixed up with any of our natural tendencies or inclinations; and that is the sceptical philosophy.

The sceptics always talk of:
doubt and suspending judgment
the danger of deciding too quickly
keeping intellectual enquiries within narrow limits
giving up all theorizing that isn’t in touch with common life and practice.
So their philosophy is opposed to the mind’s:
rash arrogance
grandiose claims, and
superstitious credulity.
This philosophy has a humbling effect on every passion except the love of truth.
that could never be carried too far.
This philosophy is almost always harmless and innocent.
It is surprising that it should so often be criticized and stigmatized as libertine, profane,
and irreligious.
Perhaps the very feature that makes it so innocent also brings hatred and resentment against it. It doesn’t encourage any bad feelings or habits, so it has few supporters.
But it opposes many vices and follies, which is why it has so many enemies!
When it tries to limit our enquiries to common life, this philosophy runs no risk of going too far and undermining the reasonings that we use in common life, pushing its doubts so far as to destroy all action and belief.
Nature will always:
maintain its rights, and
prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever.
That is, we shall continue to think and act in the ways that our human nature dictates—the ways that are natural to us—with no risk of our being deflected from these by philosophical considerations.
For example, I showed in the preceding section that whenever we reason from experience we take a step that isn’t supported by any argument or intellectual considerations.
But these experiential reasonings are the basis for almost all the knowledge we have, and there’s no chance of their being dislodged by the discovery that they can’t be justified by arguments.
If we aren’t led by argument to make inferences from past experience, we must be led by something else that is just as powerful—some other force that will have power in our lives as long as human nature remains the same.
It would be worthwhile to explore what that other force is.
Suppose that a highly intelligent and thoughtful person were suddenly brought into this world; he would immediately observe one event following another, but that is all he could discover.
He wouldn’t be able by any reasoning to reach the idea of cause and effect, because (firstly) the particular powers by which all natural operations are performed are
never perceived through the senses, and (secondly) there is no reason to conclude that one event causes another merely because it precedes it.
Their occurring together may be arbitrary and casual, with no causal connection between them. In short, until such a person had more experience he could never reason about any matter of fact, or be sure of anything beyond what was immediately present to his memory and senses.
Now suppose that our person gains more experience, and lives long enough in the world to observe similar objects or events occurring together constantly;
now what conclusion does he draw from this experience?
He immediately infers the existence of one object from the appearance of the other!
Yet all his experience hasn’t given him any idea or knowledge of the secret power by which one object produces another; nor can any process of reasoning have led him to draw this inference.
But he finds that he can’t help drawing it: and he won’t be swayed from this even if he becomes convinced that there is no intellectual support for the inference.
Something else is at work, compelling him to go through with it.
It is custom or habit.
When we are inclined to behave or think in some way, not because it can be justified by reasoning or some process of the understanding but just because we have behaved or thought like that so often in the past, we always say that this inclination is the effect of ‘custom’. In using that word we don’t claim to give the basic reason for the inclination.
All we are doing is to point out a fundamental feature of human nature which everyone agrees is there, and which is well known by its effects.
Perhaps that is as far as we can go.
Perhaps, that is, we can’t discover the cause of this cause, and must rest content with it as the deepest we can go in explaining our conclusions from experience. Our ability to go that far should satisfy us; if our faculties won’t take us any further,
we oughtn’t to complain about this. We do at least have here a very intelligible proposition and perhaps a true one: After the constant conjunction of two objects—heat and flame, for instance, or weight and solidity—sheer habit makes us expect the one when we experience the other. Indeed, this hypothesis seems to be the only one that could explain why we draw from a thousand instances an inference which we can’t draw from a single one that is exactly like each of the thousand. •Reason isn’t like that. The conclusions it draws from considering one circle are the same as it would form after surveying all the circles in the universe. But no man, having seen only one body move after being pushed by another, could infer that every other body will move after a similar collision. All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom and not of •reasoning.
Writers often distinguish reason from experience, taking
these kinds of argumentation to be entirely different from each other. Reason’s arguments are thought to result purely from our intellectual faculties, which establish principles of science and philosophy by considering a priori the nature of things, examining the effects that must follow from their operation. Arguments from experience are supposed to be derived entirely from sense and observation, through which we •learn what has actually resulted from the operation of particular objects and can •infer from this what their results will be in the future. For example, the limitations and restraints of civil government and a legal constitution may be defended either from reason which—reflecting on the great frailty and corruption of human nature—teaches that no man can safely be trusted with unlimited authority; or from experience and history, which inform us of the enormous abuses that have resulted in every age from an excess of such authority.
The same distinction between reason and experience is maintained in all our discussions about the conduct of life. While the experienced statesman, general, physician, or merchant is trusted and followed, the unpracticed novice, however talented he may be, is neglected and despised. Reason can enable one to make plausible estimates of what will be likely to ensue from x-type conduct in y-type circum- stances, people say, but they regard reason as not good enough unless it gets help from experience. Only experience (they hold) can give stability and certainty to the results that are reached ·by reason· from study and reflection.
However, although this distinction is universally accepted, both in practical life and in intellectual inquiry, I do not hesitate to say that it is basically mistaken, or at least superficial.
If we examine (1) arguments like those I have mentioned, which are supposed to involve nothing but reasoning and reflection, they turn out to be relying on some general principle based solely on observation and experience. The only difference between them and (2) the maxims that are commonly thought to come from pure experience is that (1) can”t be established without some process of thought—some reflection on what we have observed, in order to sort out its details and trace its consequences—whereas in (2) the experienced event is exactly like the one we predict on the new occasion. The fear that if our monarchs were freed from the restraints of laws they would become tyrants might be arrived at (2) through our knowledge of the history of Tiberius or Nero; or (1) through our experience of fraud or cruelty in private life, which with a little thought we can take as evidence of the general corruption of human nature and of the danger of putting too much trust in mankind. In each case the ultimate basis for the fear that we arrive at is experience.
Any man, however young and inexperienced, will have been led by his experience to many general truths about human affairs and the conduct of life; but he will be apt to go wrong in putting them into practice, until time and further experience have broadened the scope of these truths and taught him how to apply them. Talented though he may be, he will be likely to overlook some apparently minor aspects of a situation which are in fact crucial to the conclusions he ought to draw and to how he ought to act. He must of course have had some experience. When we call someone an ‘unexperienced reasoner’, we mean only that he hasn’t had much experience.
Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It alone is what makes our experience useful to us, and makes us expect future sequences of events to be like ones that have appeared in the past. Without the influence of custom, we would be entirely ignorant of every matter of fact beyond what is immediately present to the memory and senses. We would never know what means we should adopt in order to reach our ends; we couldn’t employ our natural powers to produce any desired effect. There would be an end of all action and of most theorizing.
I should point out, however, that although our inferences from experience carry us beyond our memory and senses, and assure us of matters of fact that happened in distant places and at remote times, any such inference must start with a fact that is present to the senses or memory. A man who found in a desert country the remains of magnificent buildings would conclude that the country had long before had civilized inhabitants; but without the initial experience he could never infer this. We learn the events of bygone ages from history; but to do this we must read the books that give the information, and carry out inferences from one
report to another, until finally we arrive at the eye-witnesses and spectators of these distant events. In short, if we didn’t start with some fact that is present to the memory or senses, our reasonings would be merely hypothetical; and however strong the particular links might be, the whole chain of inferences would have nothing to support it, and we couldn’t use it to arrive at knowledge of any real existence. If I ask why you believe any particular matter of fact that you tell me of, you must tell me some reason; and this reason will be some other fact connected with it. But you can’t go on like this for ever: eventually you must end up with some fact that is present to your memory or senses—or else admit that your belief has no foundation at all.
What are we to conclude from all this? Something that is far removed from the common theories of philosophy, yet is very simple:
All beliefs about matters of fact or real existence are derived merely from something that is present to the memory or senses, and a customary association of that with some other thing.
Or in other words: having found in many cases that two kinds of objects—flame and heat, snow and cold—have al- ways gone together, and being presented with a new instance of flame or snow, the mind’s habits lead it to expect heat or cold and to believe that heat or cold exists now and will be experienced if one comes closer. This belief is the inevitable result of placing the mind in such circumstances. That our minds should react in that way in those circumstances is as unavoidable as that we should feel love when we receive benefits, or hatred when we are deliberately harmed. These operations of the soul are a kind of natural instinct, which no reasoning or process of the thought and understanding can either produce or prevent.
At this point we could reasonably allow ourselves to stop
our philosophical researches. In most questions, we can never make a single step further; and in all questions, we must eventually stop, after our most restless and probing enquiries. But still our curiosity will be pardonable, perhaps commendable, if it carries us on to still further researches, and makes us examine more accurately the nature of this belief, and of the customary conjunction from which it is derived. This may bring us to some explanations and analogies that will give satisfaction—at least to those who love the abstract sciences and can enjoy speculations which, however accurate, may still retain a degree of doubt and uncertainty. As to readers whose tastes are different from that: Part 2 of this section is not addressed to them, and can be neglected without harm to their understanding of the rest.
Part 2
Nothing is more free than the imagination of man; and though it is confined to the original stock of ideas provided by the internal and external senses, it has unlimited power to mix, combine, separate and divide these ideas, in all the varieties of fiction and vision [= ‘in every way that can be described or depicted’.] It can invent a sequence of events, with all the appearance of reality, ascribe to them a particular time and place, conceive them as really happening, and depict them to itself with as much detail as it could any historical event which it believes with the greatest certainty to have really happened. What, then, is the difference between such a fiction and belief? It is not this:
There is one special idea that is joined to every propo- sition that we assent to and not to any that we regard as fictional.
The reason why that is a wrong account is that the mind has authority over all its ideas, so that if this ‘one special idea’ existed the mind could voluntarily join it to any fiction, and consequently—according to this account—it would be able to believe anything it chose to believe; and we find by daily experience that it cannot. We can in putting thoughts together join the head of a man to the body of a horse; but we can’t choose to believe that such an animal has ever really existed.
It follows that the difference between fiction and belief lies in some sentiment or feeling that goes with belief and not with fiction—a feeling that doesn’t depend on the will and can’t be commanded at pleasure. It must be caused by nature, like all other sentiments; and must arise from the particular situation that the mind is in at that particular moment. Whenever any object is presented to the memory or to the senses, it immediately leads the imagination—by the force of custom—to conceive the object that is usually conjoined to it; and this conception comes with a feeling or sentiment that is different from ·anything accompanying· the loose daydreams of the imagination. That is all there is to belief. For as there is no matter of fact that we believe so firmly that we can’t conceive the contrary, there would be no difference between the conception assented to and that which is rejected if there weren’t some ·feeling or· sentiment that distinguishes the one from the other. If I see a billiard-ball moving towards another on a smooth table, I can easily conceive it to stop on contact. This conception implies no contradiction; but still it feels very different from the conception by which I represent to myself the collision followed by the passing on of motion from one ball to the other.
If we tried to define this feeling, we might find that hard if not impossible to do, like the difficulty of defining the feeling of cold or the passion of anger to someone who never
had any experience of these sentiments. ‘Belief’ is the true and proper name of this feeling; and everyone knows the meaning of that term because everyone ·has beliefs all the time, and therefore· is at every moment conscious of the feeling represented by it. Still, it may be worthwhile to try to describe this sentiment, in the hope of explaining it better with help from some analogies. In that spirit, I offer this:
Belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object than any that the unaided imagination can ever attain.
This variety of terms—·five of them!·—may seem unphilo- sophical, but it is intended only to express that act of the mind which renders realities—or what we take to be realities—more present to us than ·what we take to be· fictions, causing them to weigh more in the thought and giving them a greater influence on the passions and on the imagination. Provided we agree about the thing, it is needless to dispute about the terms. The imagination has the command over all its ideas, and can join and mix and vary them in every possible way. It can conceive fictitious objects with all the circumstances of place and time. It can set such fictions—in a way—before our eyes, in their true colours, just as they might have existed. But this faculty of imagination can never by itself produce a belief; and that makes it evident that belief doesn’t consists in any special nature or order of ideas ·because the imagination has no limits with respect to those·, but rather in the manner of their conception and in their feeling to the mind. I admit that it’s impossible to explain perfectly this feeling or manner of conception. We can use words that express something near it ·as I have been doing·; but its true and proper name, as we observed before, is ‘belief’—a term that everyone sufficiently understands in common life. And in philosophy we can go no further than to assert that belief is something felt by the
mind that distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination. It
gives them more weight and influence,
makes them appear of greater importance, strengthens them in the mind, and
makes them the governing principle of our actions.
For example: right now I hear the voice of someone whom I know, the sound seeming to come from the next room. This impression of my ·auditory· senses immediately carries my thought to the person in question and to all the objects surrounding him. I depict them to myself as existing right now, with the same qualities and relations that I formerly knew them to have. These ideas take a firmer hold on my mind than would ideas of ·something I know to be fictitious, such as· an enchanted castle. They are very different to the feeling, and have a much greater influence of every kind, either to give pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow.
Let us, then, take in this doctrine in its full scope, and agree that
•the sentiment of belief is nothing but a conception that is more intense and steady than conceptions that are mere fictions of the imagination, and •this manner of conception arises from a customary conjunction of the object with something present to the memory or senses.
It will not be hard, I think, to find other operations of the mind analogous to belief (on this account of it), and to bring these phenomena under still more general principles. [See note on ‘principle’ on page 2.]
I have already remarked that nature has established connections among particular ideas, and that no sooner has one idea occurred to our thoughts than it introduces its correlative—·i.e. the idea that nature has connected with it·—and carries our attention towards it by a gentle
and imperceptible movement. These ·natural· principles of connection or association come down to three ·basic ones·, namely, resemblance, contiguity, and •causation. These three are the only bonds that unite our thoughts together, and generate that regular sequence of thought or talk that takes place among all mankind to a greater or lesser degree. Now a question arises on which the solution of the present difficulty will depend. Does it happen with each of these relations that, when an object is presented to the senses or memory the mind is not only carried to the conception of the correlative, but comes to have ·a belief in it, that is·, a steadier and stronger conception of it than it would it would otherwise have been able to attain? This seems to be what happens when beliefs arise from the relation of cause and effect. If it also holds for the other two relations or principles of association, this will be established as a general law that holds in all the operations of the mind.
As the first relevant experiment, let us notice that when we see the picture of an absent friend, our idea of him is evidently enlivened by the picture’s resemblance to him, and that every feeling that our idea of him produces, whether of joy or sorrow, acquires new force and vigour. This effect is produced by the joint operation of •a relation ·of resem- blance· and •a present impression. If the picture doesn’t resemble him, or at least wasn’t intended to be of him, it doesn’t convey our thought to him at all. And when the picture and the person are both absent from us, though the mind may pass from the thought of the one to that of the other it feels its idea of the person to be weakened rather than strengthened by that transition. We take pleasure in viewing the picture of a friend, when it is set before us; but when it is not in our presence we would prefer considering him directly to considering him through a likeness of him that is both distant and dim.
The ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion can be considered as instances of this phenomenon. When the devotees of that superstition are reproached for the ridicu- lous ceremonies it has them perform, they usually plead in their defence that they feel the good effect of those external motions and postures and actions, in enlivening their de- votion and intensifying their fervour, which would decay if it were directed entirely to distant and immaterial objects ·such as God·. ‘We portray the objects of our faith’, they say, ‘in perceptible pictures and images; and the immediate presence of these pictures makes the objects more present to us than they could be merely through an intellectual view and contemplation.’ Perceptible objects always have a greater influence on the imagination that anything else does, and they readily convey this influence to the ideas to which they are related and which they resemble. All that I shall infer from these practices and this reasoning is that the effect of resemblance in enlivening ideas is very common; and because in every case a resemblance and a present impression must both be at work, we are supplied with plenty of empirical examples that support the truth of the foregoing principle.
We may add force to these examples by others of a different kind, bringing in the effects of contiguity as well as of resemblance. It is certain that distance diminishes the force of every idea, and that as we get nearer to some object—even though our senses don’t show it to us—its influence on the mind comes to be like the influence of an immediate ·sensory· impression.
Thinking about an object readily transports the mind to things that are contiguous to it.
But it’s only the actual presence of an object that transports the mind with a greater liveliness.
When I am a few miles from home, whatever relates to it touches me more nearly than when I am two hundred leagues away, though even at that distance reflecting on anything in the neighbourhood of my friends or family naturally produces an idea of them. But in cases like this, both the objects of the mind—what it is carried from and what it is carried to—are ideas and not the livelier kind of perception that we call ‘impressions’.
Although there is an easy transition between them, that transition alone can’t give either of them a liveliness greater than ideas have; and the reason for that is that in these cases no immediate impression is at work.
No one can doubt that causation has the same influence as the other two relations, resemblance and contiguity.
Superstitious people are fond of the relics of saints and holy men for the same reason that they like to have pictures or images:
to enliven their devotion and
to give them a more intimate and strong conception of those exemplary lives that they desire to imitate.
One of the best relics that a devotee could procure would be something made by a saint.
If his clothes and furniture are ever considered in this light, it is because they were once at his disposal and were moved and affected by him.
This lets us consider them as the saint’s imperfect effects because he did not cause them to exist, but merely caused them to go through various vicissitudes while he had them.
They are connected with him by a shorter chain
Cicero wrote:
‘Is it just a fact about our nature or is it because of some sort of error that we are more moved by seeing places where we have heard that notable people spent time than we are by hearing of their deeds or reading their writings?
I am moved right now.
For I remember Plato, who (we are told) was the first to hold discussions in this place.
These little gardens don’t just conjure up his memory.
They seem to place the man himself before me.
[Then some remarks about the place’s association with other people, whom the speaker names.]
Such is the power of suggestion that places have. It is not without reason that memory-training is based on this.’ Cicero, De Finibus, book 5, section 2.
of consequences than any of the things—human testimony, gravestones, written records, etc.—by which we learn the reality of his existence.
Suppose we encounter the son of a friend of ours who has been long dead or absent; this object (·the son·) would instantly revive its correlative idea (·namely, the idea of our friend·), and recall to our thoughts all our past intimacies and familiarities with the friend, in more lively colours than they would otherwise have appeared to us. This is another phenomenon that seems to prove the above-mentioned principle.

Notice that in each of these phenomena the person believes that the correlative object does or did exist.
Without that the relation could have no effect.
The picture’s influence requires that we believe our friend to have once existed.
Being close to home can never stir up our ideas of home unless we believe that home really exists.
This belief, where it reaches beyond the memory or senses, is of a similar sort.
It arises from similar causes as the transition of thought and liveliness of conception that I have just been explaining.
When I throw dry wood into a fire, my mind is immediately carried to a thought of it as making the flame grow, not as extinguishing it.
This transition of thought from the cause to the effect does not come from reason.
Its sole origin is custom and experience.
It first begins from an object that is present to the senses when I see the dry wood go into the fire.
It makes the idea or conception of flame more strong and lively than it would be in any loose, floating reverie of the imagination.
That idea of the increased flame arises immediately.
The thought moves instantly towards it, and conveys to it all the force of conception that comes from the impression present to the senses.
It might happen by accident that when a glass of wine is presented to me my next ideas are those of wound and pain.
But they will not occur as strongly as they would if I had been presented with a sword levelled at my chest!
But what is there in this whole matter to cause such a strong conception apart from a present object and a customary transition to the idea of another object, which we have been accustomed to conjoin with the former?
This is all that our mind does in all our inferences concerning matters of fact and existence; and it is satisfactory to have found some analogies through which it can be explained.

In every case, the transition from a present object gives strength and solidity to the related idea to which the transition is made·.
It is a kind of pre-established harmony [copied from Leibniz] between the course of nature and the sequence of our ideas.
The powers and forces by which nature is governed are wholly unknown to us.
But the order of our thoughts and conceptions matches the order of events in the other works of nature.
This correspondence has been brought about by custom.
It is so necessary to the survival of our species and to the regulation of our conduct in every circumstance and occurrence of human life.
If it hadn’t been the case that the presence of an object instantly arouses the idea of objects that are commonly conjoined with it, all our knowledge would have been limited to the narrow sphere of our memory and senses;
We would never have been able to suit our means to our ends, or to employ our natural powers in getting good results and avoiding bad ones.
Those who delight in the discovery and contemplation of final causes have here a great deal to admire and wonder at.
Here is a point that further confirms the theory I have offered.
This operation of the mind in which we infer like effects from like causes, and vice versa, is so essential to our survival that it probably couldn’t have been entrusted to the fallacious deductions of our reason.
For reason is slow in its operations; very little of it appears in early infancy; and at best—even in adults—it is extremely liable to error and mistake. It fits better with the ordinary wisdom of nature that such a necessary an act of the mind should be secured by some instinct or automatic tendency, which can be
infallible in its operations,
present when life and thought first appear, and
independent of all the laborious deductions of the understanding.
As nature has taught us the use of our limbs without giving us knowledge of the muscles and nerves by which they are moved, so she has implanted in us an instinct that carries our thought forward along a course corresponding to the course she has established among external objects—though we are ignorant of those powers and forces on which this regular course and succession of objects totally depends.