Hume On Why Some People REASON Better Than Others


Every healthy human being, Hume contends, thinks Reasonably; logical thinking is innate. Nevertheless, experience makes it obvious that different people think Reasonably to different degrees. Why?

The simple answer is that the Reasoning ability with which we are all born can be improved. This is done, in the main, by provisioning the brain with more patterns to choose from.

When the brain is doing what we call “Reasoning,” it is seeking previously experienced Patterns, stored as memories, which may be applied to the situation presently under consideration. Direct experience is the typical and mainline route of increasing the brain’s storehouse of Patterns for future use. But also, reading and conversation— that is, the co-opting OTHER people’s experiences— are also both excellent ways to improve the Pattern-arsenal.

Of course, some people possess better memories than others.  And some folks have greater powers of attention and observation.  The power of one’s Reasoning will be directly affected by these advantages or relative lack thereof.

Says Hume… as “we reason from analogies, the man who has the greater experience and the greater promptitude of suggesting analogies, will be the better reasoner.”

Another skill that superior Reasoners possess is that they are good at separating what is relevant to the current problem from what is “foreign and extrinsic,” thus allowing the correct Patterns to EMERGE from all the noise of competing memories clamoring-about in the brain.

When problem-solving, the thinking brain roams through its memory base in search of patterns analogous to those at hand. Some analogies are more appropriate– are better fits— than others. The superior Reasoner discards the fuzzy or inappropriate analogies and focuses on the most exactly matching analogies. Again, this is where the enlargement of experience (direct or indirect) is important.

Many people fall into the trap of forming what Hume calls “general maxims”— but then misapplying their maxims, often due to a “haste or narrowness of mind which sees not all sides.” Different people are differently afflicted by this handicap. Hume observes that “biases from prejudice, education, passion, party, etc., hang more upon one mind than another.”

Furthermore, the superior Reasoners also possesses the ability to hold in the mind at one time a large number of related or connected events, a talent we might call “breadth of mind.”  Breadth of mind comes in handy in complex situations, such as when a statesman must weigh the repercussions of a certain policy decision across the globe. Or when a scientist is trying to determine the contributing factors to certain medical condition.

Relatedly, superior Reasoners have the more linear talent of being able to hold together a long chain of cause-and-effect, as when one attempts to think several chess moves ahead.  Some people are gifted, as Hume observes, with the ability to “carry on a chain of consequences to greater length than another.”

To sum-up… Superior Reasoning capability proves to be largely (1) a matter of ENLARGING the scope or domain of the MORE RELEVANT associations which can be made while (2) simultaneously REDUCING connections to the LESS RELEVANT memories, taken together with (3) the breadth of mind to consider many events at once, and (4), the ability to foresee (or “backsee”) a long chain of cause-n-effect.


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