Was David Hume Enlightened?!

Hume needed all that fat to fuel his ginormous brain.

So, I’ve been sitting meditation for a long while.  It’s an interesting pursuit – the more one tries to just stay with whatever is here now, the more strange things seem to pop up.  Anyway, I was thinking about Hume today because of something that made itself so blindingly obvious during my meditation practice that I couldn’t help but make the connection.  Basically, whenever you have a sensory input (say, a fly passes through your field of vision), that input will be followed extremely shortly thereafter by an involuntary mental reproduction of that sight-event.  This comes almost immediately after the original sensory input and is noticeably different in ‘feel’ than a memory of the same event after the fact.

Now, you can’t force yourself to notice this – indeed, trying to force it will either entirely prevent it from occurring or will cause too much mental noise to allow you to notice it (I’m not sure which it is) – but it definitely happens.  And now I think I understand where Hume got his notion about ideas.  Or at least I think I do – my suspicion is that he was up to some sort of what today would be recognized to be meditation (granted, he probably didn’t sit full-lotus).  Which makes me wonder – where in God’s name did he get the idea to do that from?  For goodness sake, he even appears to have figured out anatta!

And so I’m seriously freaked – was David Hume… enlightened?

Essay: On the Impression of Time

David Hume

What you will find below is one of the short papers written for the Hume seminar I took last year.  I think it safe to finally start posting essays without danger of being kicked out of school.  So without further comment:

 On the Impression of Time

In this paper I shall investigate the explanation Hume gives in A Treatise of Human Nature of how the human mind comes to perceive, in the changing series of its perception, a flowing of time, as discussed in “Of the other qualities of our ideas of space and time” (1.2.3.6 – 1.2.3.10).  I will provide reasons for believing that this view is untenable as it stands.  I will also argue that his account of time cannot be rescued, for the best available means of doing so would have significant knock-on effects on his general understanding of perception, effects which are contrary to experience.  Interestingly, revision to his account of the perception of time will also have effects upon his understanding of perception.

For Hume, “[t]he idea of time, [is]… deriv’d from the succession of our perceptions of every kind, ideas as well as impressions,” and that without this “succession of ideas and impressions… [it would not be] possible for time alone ever to make its appearance” (1.2.3.6 – 1.2.3.7).  There are several reasons to suppose this plausible.  Firstly, Hume points out that for a man who is asleep there is no experience of time, nor is there for one who is “strongly occpy’d with one thought,” though in this latter case he actually means that “according as his perceptions succeed each other the greater or less rapidity, the same duration appears longer or shorter to his imagination…”  Further, Hume illustrates with an example of how when we spin a burning coal, we are able only to perceive a ring of fire as a static object and perceive no change in it and therefore no ‘time’ (1.2.3.7).

Hume hastens to point out, however, that “[t]he idea of time is not deriv’d from a particular impression mix’d up with the others, and plainly distinguishable from them; but arises altogether from the manner, in which impressions appear to the mind, without making one of the number (1.2.3.10).  Our experience of time is not something over and above our experience of the impressions (and ideas of these impressions) themselves, but is rather the collection of these that furnish the experience of time.  He illustrates this by using the example of five notes played in succession on a flute; the notes are played and they are perceived (as impressions and ideas) and there is no sixth idea or impression of reflection that constitutes the experience of time.  The only thing of importance here is, as Hume emphasizes, the manner in which they arise: “here it only takes note of the manner [emphasis original], in which the different sounds make their appearance…” (1.2.3.10).

Is this a satisfactory account of how we come to have the impression (and idea) of time?  In its broadest outlines this account certainly seems to accord with how humans experience the world: I have never known a feeling of time while in a deep (i.e. dreamless) sleep and everyone has experienced the ‘timelessness’ of a wandering mind.  But any explanation of human temporal perception must account for these common observations, and to do so is a low hurdle to overcome, while there are difficulties for Hume in the technical aspects of his theory.  Since Hume is building upon the account of perception that he provided at the beginning of the Treatise, the perception of time must be consonant with that account.  So first I shall grant his claim that without a continually changing series of perceptions, whether of impressions or ideas, there could be no experience of time, since this seems a plausible point.

The objection is as follows.  Hume is insistent that there is no idea or impression over and above the series of perceptions that may be identified as a separate impression of time.  If this point holds then, when hearing the five notes of the flute, I can only perceive a particular impression of a note (or the idea of that impression) at any given instant.  If this is true, then would it not appear to my perceptual faculty that, at any given instant, whatever it is that is being perceived would appear to be an unchanging object?  A reason to think this might be the case is that while perceiving that impression I am denied, by Hume’s account, any impression of reflection combining the ideas of a previously heard note with the idea of the present one.  If this is the case, I can have no recollection or knowledge of any previous impression(s) or idea(s) to indicate that the current impression has not always been.  Without such an impression of reflection it seems to me that change could not be perceived; that in the next instant there would be the perception of a different idea or impression does not resolve the matter, since that too would have the appearance of an unchanging object for the same reasons as given above.  And since, for Hume, the perception of time is a function of the perception of change, then without any change being perceptible, time must also be unable to appear to us.

If anyone should wish to rescue Hume’s account from this difficulty, she would necessarily be confined to the use of our original ideas and impressions of the notes, since the impressions of reflection have been ruled out due to their derivation from our ideas (1.1.2).  How might such a defense me made?  A possible solution might be to allow a ‘piling-up’ of our impressions and ideas, such that their durations overlap and are perceived simultaneously, so that there would be awareness of change without requiring any impressions of reflection.  Although Hume does not address the issue of whether our perceptions have the characteristic of persisting for durations or whether they may be so layered, it is plain that if this attempt to save his account of temporal perception is successful, it will be so by virtue of how it emends his account of basic perception.  If the manoeuvre fails, then it will be precisely because humans are not in actuality such inveterate multi-taskers.

While some would no doubt disagree, upon careful self-reflection, I cannot find any evidence that I am capable of simultaneous perception – it appears to me that I can only perceive one thing at a time (although what is perceived changes extremely quickly).  Since it seems that I am not actually able to perceive more than one idea or impression at a time, I must conclude that this method of layering perceptions cannot be a valid means of rescuing Hume’s position.  Consequently, I believe that his account requires revision.

It would be a simple matter to make his theory of the perception of time consonant with his general theory of perception and our lived experience, but it requires the affirmation of just that which he denies – that is, that the perception of time is a species of impression of reflection.  On this view, it is the case that the perception of time is a complex idea that compares current impressions with the ideas of previous impressions and notes the relative vivacity of each and their progressive diminishment in vivacity as new impressions arise.  Thus, the perception of time does not arise simply from an experience of the manner in which perceptions arise, without remainder.  Happily, this hypothesis actually helps explain how it is that one who is lost in thought experiences time more slowly than otherwise – the sustained focus upon the thought reduces the number of other impressions crowding upon the mind, meaning the vivacity of the idea of the thought competes with fewer other ideas and therefore appears stronger than it otherwise would.  Therefore, it would appear to change more slowly and consequently time would appear slower as well.  Unhappily, however, even this view would have impacts upon Hume’s basic understanding of perception.  Specifically, since it does appear that we only perceive the impressions of the flute notes and their ideas, our perceptual apparatus must operate much more quickly than we typically take for granted!

Although it is presumptuous in the extreme, I have here outlined Hume’s account of how we come to perceive time and the reasons why I find it untenable.  An exploration of possible resolutions to it were explored and I found in favour of the revision of the account he gave to one that classifies the perception of time as an impression of reflection.  I did so because to believe otherwise would require the acceptance of a state of affairs about human perception (namely, simultaneity) that I do not believe obtains.  Consequently, I asserted that the impression of time must be an impression of reflection, contrary to Hume’s position.