Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hume on drugs

I haven't tried relating many topics in the history of philosophy to current affairs with my students, but perhaps I should. Anyone who teaches Hume on causation might want to look at this article by Jonah Lehrer on biomedical research, for instance. Here's the conclusion:
For too long, we’ve pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we’ll still be telling stories about why it happened. It’s mystery all the way down.
I don't love Lehrer's account of what Hume says ("a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts"), and other objections are raised in the comments at the end of the article, but he might help students see some ways that philosophy could be relevant to the real world. He also suggests ways that a naive view of science can be misleading (see the comments again for discussion of whether he attacks a strawman--even if he does, I'm sure there are plenty of non-scientists who are that naive). And then there's the nice metaphysical/ethical claim at the very end, that it's "mystery all the way down." It isn't easy reading, but it might provide some good discussion material or examples to make the abstract seem less distant.

There is interesting material also here, here, and here (if you read one it's worth reading all three) about practical difficulties relating to causation and correlation in mental illness and its treatment. If I ever teach philosophy of mind/psychology again I might try bringing stuff like this in and see how it goes. Watch this space.  

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