Tuesday, 3 September 2013

On David Hume As My Kindred Spirit

I am, I believe (at least, I think I do), a natural-born skeptic. I firmly believe that I remember five events from my childhood (all before I hit puberty) that lead me to believe that I came out of the womb a skeptic.
  1. I once vomited while I was in my mother's (Anglican) church, due to some sort of stomach bug. I remember thinking that this involuntary act was proof that God either did not exist or (but perhaps I did not really go this far at the time) that God did not care. God as I understood Him would not let me (or anyone else) vomit in His church. [This event plays a role in my (as-yet unpublished, first-spawned) novel, Red Stockings For Beginners.]
  2. I remember sitting in our kitchen watching a kettle boil and thinking: "It is totally crazy that the difference between boiling and not boiling depends on such a tiny thing as whether or not the kettle is plugged in." I was young, but I had some idea of the science of electricity and of scientific causality, more generally. Nevertheless, I felt that the difference between being plugged in and not plugged in was absurdly small to have such such a large effect. I was dubious that it could really be so. I thought it might be a con.
  3. I used to lie in bed and imagine that I was not actually living my life, but rather listening to a story that my mother was telling me about one way my life might be. The oddest part is that I had a very distinct picture of my mother, a very large-breasted and sweaty lady from the southern United States, who bore little or no relationship in either biography or appearance to (the woman I assume to be) my real mother.
  4. I used to lie in bed at night and consider, in a rather obsessive way, that it was possible that I was the only real person in the world and everyone else might be a robot. I wondered in particular if my parents could be robots. I considered the fact that they bled when they were cut, and decided they might just be the kind of robots that bled when they were cut. I am very proud of my young philosopher self because I eventually decided that the question was undecidable. I decided that I just had to live with not being sure either way.
  5. I nurtured and loved a vivid memory when I was a child, of floating up the stairs without touching them. I looked forward so much to doing it again one day. Now I assume I must have just dreamt it. But I still remember it.

One might take these facts to be simply signs of early mental instability. But I have had no trouble in my life navigating the apparent reality in which we are embedded as if it were really the only reality. For example: I always plug in my kettle when I want boiling water.

When I encountered the skeptic philosopher David Hume (my first skeptic!) in university, I was so delighted to have encountered a kindred spirit! I had never discussed these ideas with anyone. Until I read Hume, I thought I was the only one who had them. After that I began to realize that I belonged to a club that has existed for centuries.

Today, age 50, I drive a car with a vanity license plate: "I D0UBT".

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