How Do I Know Why Things Happen?

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Previously, I discussed David Hume’s problem of induction which concludes that induction can never be a valid process for obtaining knowledge (if you missed part one of this series of posts, click here). This time, I’ll be exploring the implications of this kind of thinking on cause and effect.

The idea of cause and effect underlies the way most people think. When we do things, we assume that those things have specific consequences. I know that when I throw a tennis ball against a brick wall, I will hear a sound because of that collision. Inductive skepticists, however, object to this expectation. I have seen several similar events where objects collide with other objects, and in every single one of those instances, I have heard sounds at the same time. The reason I know the ball will make a sound is that I assume this event will be exactly like all the similar events I have seen. To inductive skepticists, this kind of thinking is nonsensical. As per Hume’s problem of induction, we can’t be sure that things will happen just like they have in the past, so why should the ball hitting the wall make a sound now?

If events don’t mimic other similar events, then nothing can ever necessarily lead to another thing. With this paradigm, we can’t know of the cause of some disease any more than we can know of the cause of the sound when a ball hits a wall. The implications of this are quite startling. Modern science simply ceases to function. The scientific method begins with making observations and predicting outcomes. In the process of research, we gather data through more observations and determine whether our predictions were correct. If our predictions prove correct, we trust those predictions. This is how modern science deals with cause and effect, and this process of inductive knowledge lies at the base of most major scientific discoveries. This process is how we know that when two objects collide, they will necessarily give off some sort of energy (in the form of sound, heat, etc.). That is what we conceive of as cause and effect.

For inductive skeptics, this idea of cause and effect is nothing more than constant conjunction. Specifically, Hume argues that my expectation of a sound when the tennis ball hits the wall is mere habit. I’ve seen this event a large number of times, so I now expect the sound without any reason to. In this view, my observations are insufficient to serve as the basis for valid predictions, so cause and effect cannot be obtained through induction.

Now, we are left with this paradigm that undermines the majority of scientific thought and concludes that we can’t determine cause and effect. If we accept this skeptical conclusion, then we don’t know why things happen. Fortunately, we don’t have to accept this conclusion. Many scholars have tackled this problem of inductive skepticism, reconceptualizing the very way that humans think and reason. One of the most notable of these scholars is, of course, Immanuel Kant, and I’ll be exploring his solution to the problem of induction next.