On David Hume and Animal Husbandry

IMG_0914hume-bust(See the resemblance?)

Although, I’ve always tended to gravitate towards what I consider more “practical philosophy” like applied ethics, I must admit to having a soft spot for some of the more esoteric debates in the modern period. Begrudgingly, I should also admit that mentally I’ve allowed a false binary to creep into my thinking about Philosophy as a field. On one hand, you have “practical” subjects (moral philosophy, applied ethics, political philosophy, and bits of philosophy of science) and on the other you have more theoretical subjects (metaphysics, philosophy of religion, epistemology). The former are useful in that I’d like to think they can affect the real world, while the latter are those subjects my community college students pointed to as evidence philosophy has no bearing on the “real world.” That binary was shattered for me this week, when for the first time my goats and guard dogs attempted to escape.


…let me explain.

David Hume, one of my personal philosophical heroes and a great Scotsman (if there are any other sorts of Scots), is famous for a type of skepticism equally applauded by philosophy students and hated by students taking philosophy classes to satisfy a Gen Ed requirement. I’ll try not to get too far into the underpinnings of his philosophy, but Hume was skeptical of our general understanding of causation. That’s right, Hume doubted whether we really could say that much about cause and effect after all. I’ll explain this briefly, but for more info I recommend the following website, http://www.iep.utm.edu/hume-cau/ or simply ‘Googling’ “the Problem of Induction.”


But what does it mean to doubt cause and effect? Hume, as an Empiricist, thought all knowledge comes from experience. That is, there are no ideas that are innate (God given, prewired into our brain, etc…however, you want to think about ideas being innate). Everything we know about the world around us comes from our experiences that we have in the world with those things. As such, when we say that one act or event causes another, we are standing on shaky ground (as I may be with those of you who wanted to see pictures of our cute animals and not read a philosophy paper). All we really know, Hume says, is that in our experience we may note that one event tends to follow another event. We become “psychologically certain” that one event will follow another, but we don’t have any real reason to say that one event “necessarily” follows another. As a former professor of mine would describe it:


I feel like I know that if I drop a pen it will land on the desk because every time I drop a pen that’s what it does. However, I don’t know that my dropping the pen causes its falling on the desk. When I drop the pen it could very well just float around the room. I can’t know for certain that one causes the other (I can’t see the moment of causation as its an idea rather than something that really exists); I just expect it from experience.


What the hell does this have to do with farming? Let me tell you. I submit to the philosophical record that David Hume must have had experience with livestock. With goats and pigs especially, it is easy to think you understand how things work (ignoring for a second I’m relying on a Cartesian view of animals as mechanistic that I don’t actually believe in- I promise I won’t write that blog post next). Every morning I go out to my goats and their guardian dogs to move them from one section of pasture to another. Every morning, I show them that I have their grain (cause A) and lead them unceremoniously to the portable electric fence (effect B). I can do this all day long, week after week, and get the same results. But don’t for a second think this relationship is causal. As with most of my experience with animals thus far, it only works until it doesn’t. On a particularly stressful Monday morning this week, Crystal and Misty reminded me of Hume’s skepticism of cause and effect by going wherever they felt like, thank you very much. I met their (and the dogs’) escape attempt with much the same frustration, but begrudging admiration with which I first met Mr. Hume’s philosophy about 7 years ago.

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