David Hume, Paradigms, and the Debate on Psi | George Williams

Some skeptics of the psi data have considered David Hume’s argument in his essay On Miracles as a potent weapon against the psi evidence. Following their interpretation of Hume, they typically argue that, because the findings on psi must be viewed as violations of the laws of nature, the most likely interpretation is the presence of questionable research methods or fraud. For a number of reasons, I argue that the psi critics who use Hume in this way have misunderstood his arguments and that his famous chapter concerning miracles does not offer the resources to dismiss the psi data.  First, the target of Hume’s essay was miracles of religious nature, not reports of anomalous findings under laboratory conditions.  Second, I discuss that Hume’s arguments on the nature of causality, from other areas of his work, do not support the sorts of “laws” that psi skeptics have in mind.  Essentially, Hume’s arguments show that we cannot characterize causal relationships as deterministic or mathematical “laws.”  Instead, Hume argues that the world’s causal relationships must be described only in terms of regularities.  Another key problem for psi critics is that their core arguments generally hinge on establishing principles from a particular domain of inquiry in order to constrain or limit allowable findings in different domain that may have different characteristics and properties.  However, Hume’s analysis of causality does not allow us to establish such limiting principles that can be used to a priori dismiss evidence gathered under different conditions from such principles. In addition, I argue that, apart from Hume’s thinking, we should be wary of such limiting principles, given the context dependency of many causal relationships.  After showing that Hume’s arguments do not possess the resources to dismiss the psi data, I argue that it is extremely unlikely that the psi data could be the result of some combination of fraud and questionable research methods and thus merit serious attention.

Further, I also consider how Hume’s arguments linking our understanding of the world’s causal nature with custom and sentiment support a more institutional understanding of science than what is commonly understood, where habits of thought and emotion likely play a large role.  This more institutional view of science fits Thomas Kuhn’s framework that describes scientific practice in terms of paradigms. I then turn to how we might understand the debate around psi might be characterized through Kuhn’s notion of paradigms and Hume’s emphasis on habitual thought and sentiment.

George Williams works as an economist at the Federal Communications Commission.  However, as an independent scholar, he is focused on the implications of the psi literature on the philosophy of mind and philosophy of physics.Join this channel to get access to perks:

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Published on January 2, 2024