Whom to believe?

"In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines." Proverbs 18.17


The intellectual battle between the scepticism of David Hume and the pragmatism of Thomas Reid has had wide reaching consequences in both philosophical and scientific realms. So it has influenced both how we think and how we apply our thinking. While both would approve of the inductive approach to scientific inquiry as being rational, they part company in what they would allow for rational response to that inquiry. For Hume, a healthy scepticism must be maintained because there can be no certainty that what has been observed about the past can be assumed for the future. Reid takes a more ambitious approach, insisting that, even if we cannot predict the future, trusting in the beliefs we have formed through past experience and observation, can allow us to step forward confidently into that future.


Hume's influence has has the upper hand on the European side of the Atlantic and can be traced across the academic spectrum from theology to engineering and is characterised by our instinct for caution and criticism. By contrast America's more gung-ho style betrays its preference for the Reid approach, which has influenced everything from the appliance of science to fundamentalist theology and is characterised by a readiness to act on one's beliefs, without agonising over whether they might be true or not. Generalising like this runs the risk of simplification but sweeping observations can provide valid insights, in the same way that inductive experimentation can reveal general principles.


At the end of the day we have a choice: to proceed cautiously, or step out boldly? We cannot stand still, nor can we know everything. So shall we be hidebound by our limits, or liberated by our opportunities? The sceptic will insist "Wait!", the enthusiast will exclaim "Go for it!" Is there a middle way? Only if we allow both sides to talk to each other...

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