The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Friday, January 20, 2006

Of Probability and Passion

We might read Hume as saying that the two are one. I don't often agree with Hume, so I want to note this. In his Treatise of Human Nature he says this:

Belief is thus "more an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of
our natures", so that "all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of

I'll come at this from an etymological angle. I'm going from memory, so if I get something a little
wrong you can't heap too much blame on me. "Passion" comes from the Latin
deponent verb "patior" from which we get the English "patient" which conveys,
essentiallu, the idea of being "passive", which is itself, obviously, a cognate
of the same word. Thus Christ's passion is his suffering and death on the
Cross. We think of passion in much more erotic terms today, so I wanted to
clear that up. The idea behind Hume's dictum here is that our beliefs are
*impressed upon us* by the way the world is, in conjunction with our
psychological make up. This fits nicely with the term "convinced" which is
from the Latin "con" + "vincere" the root of the third word in the famous "Veni,
vidi, vici" or "I came, I saw, I conquered." Thus to be convinced is to be
completely conquered by our experience, the contents of which constitute our

I used to criticize and mock people who said things like "I feel that thus-and-such is so," but I gave that up when I realized the truth that Hume here puts so poignantly (and yes, I do mean "poignantly" for I found it distressing). I think Aristotle would have agreed with this even if, like me, he would have bristled at the forthright presentation, for he said often that demonstrative reasoning begins with premises that are gathered from experience, including intuition.

It's to Euclid, though, that I'll go for the best illustration. Consider the transitive property of equality: If A=B and B=C then A=C (the Greek runs literally something like this: "equals of equals are equal"). What could be more rational than that? However, it rests upon a mere feeling doesn't it. How would you defend the principle? True, there are no counterexamples, but it's quite controversial to convert that into positive evidence (and the argument depends heavily on a *much* more complicated set of theorems than the transitive property itself). When you consider the transtive property, it just feels right: you either see it or you don't.


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