Section 8

Causes of Belief

by David Hume Icon

Beliefs are Strengthened by Impressions

Having explained that belief consists in a lively idea related to a present impression, let us examine:

  • its principles, and
  • what bestows the vivacity on the idea.

I establish it as a general maxim that when any impression becomes present to us, it not only transports the mind to such ideas as are related to it, but likewise communicates to them a share of its force and vivacity.

All the operations of the mind depend greatly on its disposition when it performs them.

The action will always have vigour and vivacity depending on:

  • the elevation of the spirits, and
  • the level of attention.

Therefore, when any object which elevates and enlivens the thought is presented, the mind’s actions will be stronger and more vivid, as long as that disposition continues.

The continuance of the disposition depends entirely on the objects the mind is employed in.

Any new object naturally:

  • gives a new direction to the spirits, and
  • changes the disposition.

On the contrary, the disposition has a much longer duration when the mind:

  • fixes constantly on the same object, or
  • passes easily and insensibly along related objects.

Hence, when the mind is once enlivened by a present impression, it forms a more lively idea of the related objects by a natural transition of the disposition from the one to the other.

The change of the objects is so easy. The mind is not sensible of it. The mind conceives the related idea with all the force and vivacity that the mind acquired from the present impression. I trust experience to prove so material a principle.

We see the picture of an absent friend. Our idea of him is enlivened by the resemblance. Every feeling created by that idea, acquires new force and vigour. A relation and a present impression concurs to produce this effect. If we removed the picture, the idea of him would be weakened by that transition. If the picture does not resemble him, it would never make us think of him. We take a pleasure in viewing the picture of a friend. But when it is removed, we choose to think about him directly in our minds. Both ways are equally distant and obscure. The Roman Catholic ceremonies are experiments of the same nature.

The devotees of that strange superstition usually plead in the rituals that they are scolded with. They feel the good effect of those external motions, postures, and actions, in: enlivening their devotion, and quickening their fervour. These would otherwise decay away, if directed entirely to distant and immaterial objects. They say that they shadow out the objects of their faith in sensible images. They render those objects more present to us by their immediate presence. This would be less possible through an intellectual view and contemplation. Sensible objects always have a greater influence on the fancy than any other.

They readily convey this influence to those related and resembling ideas. From these practices and this reasoning, I infer that the effect of resemblance in enlivening the idea is very common. In every case, a resemblance and present impression must concur. We can do many thought experiments to prove the effects of contiguity and resemblance.

Distance reduces the force of every idea. As we approach any object, we do not sense it. But it operates on the mind with an influence that imitates an immediate impression. The actual presence of an object gives a superior vivacity to the idea of that object when the mind thinks about it.

When I am just a few miles from home, the things that I see can remind me of my home better than the things that I see when I am 100 kilomters away. When I am 100 kilomters away, I can still think of my friends and family. In both cases, my mind can transition between my ideas of them easily. But this transition alone cannot give a superior vivacity to those ideas because they lack the immediate impression. (Footnote 6) Footnote 6

According to Cicero de Finibus, lib. 5:

“When we see those places where notable men spent their time, we are more powerfully affected than when we hear of their exploits. Should I attribute this to instinct or to some illusion? This is just what is happening to me now. Plato was the first to hold discussions here. His nearby gardens do not merely make me remember him. They seem to set Plato himself before my eyes. Speusippus, Xenocrates and his pupil, Polemo were here. That very seat which we view was Polemo’s. The old Senate building of Hostilius was enlarged, which reduced it in my view. When I look at our old Senate building, I used to think of Scipio, Cato, Laelius and my own grandfather. Such is the power of places to evoke associations. So it is with good reason that they are used as a basis for memory training.” Causation has the same influence as the two other relations of resemblance and contiguity.

Superstitious people are fond of the relics of saints and holy men because they seek images to: enliven their devotion, and give them a more intimate and strong conception of those exemplary lives, which they desire to imitate. One of the best relics would be a saint’s handiwork. If his clothes and furniture are ever to be considered in this light, it is because they were: once at his disposal, and moved and affected by him. In this respect, they are to be considered as: imperfect effects, and connected with him by a shorter chain of consequences than any of those, from which we learn the reality of his existence. This phenomenon clearly proves that a present impression with a relation of causation may: enliven any idea, and consequently produce belief according to its definition. Why do we need to prove that a present impression with a relation or transition of the fancy may enliven any idea, when cause and effect are alone enough for that purpose?

We must have an idea of every matter of fact, which we believe. This idea arises only from a relation to a present impression. The belief super-adds nothing to the idea. The belief only: changes how we conceive the idea, and renders the idea more strong and lively. The present conclusion on the influence of relation is the immediate consequence of all these steps.

Every step appears to me sure and infallible. Only a present impression or lively idea, and a relation in the fancy between the impression and idea, enters this operation of the mind, so that there can be no suspicion of mistake. To explain it better, let us consider it as a question in natural philosophy which we must determine by experience. An object is presented from which I: draw a certain conclusion, and create ideas which I believe or assent to. However that object present to my senses, and that other object, whose existence I infer by reasoning, may influence each other by their powers or qualities. But the phenomenon of belief is merely internal. So these powers and qualities are entirely unknown and therefore cannot produce the belief. It is the present impression, which is the true and real cause of: the idea, and the belief which attends it. We must therefore try to discover by experiments the qualities which impressions enable in order to create belief.

  1. I observe, that the present impression does not have this effect:

by its own proper power and efficacy, and when considered alone, as a single perception, limited to the present moment. An impression, from which, I can draw no conclusion on its first appearance, may afterwards become the foundation of belief when I have had experience of its usual consequences.

We must have: observed the same impression in past instances, and found it to be constantly conjoined with some other impression. This is confirmed by many experiments and cannot be doubted. 2. The belief, which attends the present impression and is produced by past impressions and conjunctions, arises immediately without any new operation of the reason or imagination.

I can be certain of this because I: never am conscious of any such operation, and find nothing in the subject, on which it can be founded. We call everything which proceeds from a past repetition as habit, without any new reasoning or conclusion. We may establish it as a truth, that all the belief, which follows any present impression, is derived solely from habit. When we are accustomed to see two impressions conjoined together, the appearance or idea of the one immediately carries us to the idea of the other. Past Experience and Habit Create Our Beliefs 3. Being fully satisfied on this topic, I make a third set of experiments to know, whether anything is needed besides the habitual transition towards the production of belief.

I therefore change the first impression into an idea. I observe, that though the habitual transition to the correlative idea still remains, yet there is in reality no belief nor persuasion. A present impression then, is absolutely requisite to this whole operation. When I compare an impression with an idea and find that their only difference is in their different degrees of force and vivacity, I conclude that belief is a more vivid and intense conception of an idea, proceeding from its relation to a present impression. Thus, all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation.

We must follow our taste and sentiment not solely in poetry and music, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinced of any principle, it is only an idea, which strikes more strongly on me. When I prefer one set of arguments over another, I only decide from my feeling about the superiority of their influence. Objects have no discoverable connection together. Only by habit or custom, operating on the imagination, can we draw any inference from the appearance of one to the existence of another. All our judgments on cause and effect depend past experience.

Past experience may operate on our mind so insensibly as to be never noticed. It may even be unknown to us. A person who stops his journey short upon meeting a river in his way, foresees the consequences of his proceeding forward. His knowledge of these consequences is conveyed to him by past experience. It informs him of the conjunctions of causes and effects. But can we think that he reflects on any past experience and remembers instances he saw or heard of, to discover the water’s effects on animal bodies? Surely no. This is not how he proceeds in his reasoning. The idea of sinking is so closely connected with the idea of water. The idea of suffocating is closely connected with the idea of sinking. The mind makes the transition without the assistance of the memory. The habit operates before we have time for reflection. The objects seem so inseparable that we instantly pass from the one to the other.

This transition proceeds from experience and not from any primary connection between the ideas. We acknowledge that experience may produce a belief and a judgment of causes and effects by a secret operation, without being thought of. This totally removes the principle that our judgments are formed by reason when it connects the instances that we have had no experience of, to those instances resembling them which we have had experienced of. Our understanding or imagination can draw inferences from past experience, without: reflecting on it, and creating any principle about it or reasoning on that principle. In general, the mind never expressly considers any past experience in the most established conjunctions of causes and effects, such as those of gravity, impulse, solidity, etc.

But in other associations of objects more rare and unusual, it may assist the habit and transition of ideas by this reflection. We find in some cases, that the reflection produces the belief without the habit. Or more properly speaking, the reflection produces the habit in an oblique and artificial way. We can know a particular cause merely by one experiment, provided it is: made with judgment, and after a careful removal of all foreign and superfluous circumstances. After an experiment of this kind, the mind, on the appearance of the cause or the effect, can draw an inference on the existence of its correlative.

A habit can never be acquired merely by one instance. In this case, belief cannot be the effect of habit. But this difficulty will vanish if we consider that we have millions of experiments to convince us of this principle: that like objects placed in like circumstances, will always produce like effects. This principle establishes itself by habit. It bestows an evidence and firmness on any opinion, to which it can be applied. The connection of the ideas is not habitual after one experiment. But this connection is comprehended under another principle that is habitual. This principle brings us back to our hypothesis. In all cases we transfer our experience to instances, of which we have no experience expressly or tacitly, directly or indirectly. It is very difficult to talk of the operations of the mind with perfect propriety and exactness.

This is because common language has: seldom made any very nice distinctions among them, and has called by the same term all those that nearly resemble each other. This is a source almost inevitable of obscurity and confusion in the author. It may frequently create doubts and objections in the reader. My general position, that an opinion or belief is nothing but a strong and lively idea derived from a present impression related to it, maybe liable to the following objection because of a little ambiguity in those words ‘strong’ and ’lively’. An impression may give rise to reasoning.

But an idea may also have the same influence, especially upon my principle, that all our ideas are derived from correspondent impressions. If I create an idea but forget the correspondent impression, I am able to conclude from this idea, that such an impression did once exist. This conclusion is attended with belief. Impressions of reflection

Where does the force and vivacity of this belief come from?

I answer very readily: from the present idea. This idea is considered here not as the representation of any absent object. It is considered as a real perception in the mind. This idea must be able to give to whatever is related to it the same quality, whether it be called ‘firmness’, ‘solidity’, ‘force’, or ‘vivacity’, with which the mind reflects on, and is assured of its present existence. The idea here supplies the place of an impression, and is entirely the same. On the same principles, we do not need to be surprised to hear of:

the remembrance of an idea, or of the idea of an idea, and its force and vivacity superior to the imagination’s loose conceptions. When we think of our past thoughts, we:

delineate out the objects we were thinking of, and also conceive the mind’s action in meditating that indefinable quality that everyone can relate to. The ideas from memory may have more vigour and firmness, than our past ideas that we cannot remember as clearly.

After this, anyone will understand how we may: create the idea of an impression and an idea of an idea, and believe the existence of an impression and an idea.

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