Hume's Problem of Causation


Hume's problem of causation is a central issue in the philosophy of science and epistemology. It explores the nature of cause-and-effect relationships and the limits of human knowledge in determining them. Scottish philosopher David Hume famously articulated this problem, leading to critical analyses and refinements by philosophers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill.

Hume's Analysis

David Hume argued that our understanding of cause and effect is not derived from reason or direct observation. Instead, it stems from repeatedly observed sequences of events, referred to as "constant conjunction." The connection between objects or events that we call "cause and effect" – the inherent necessity or power that produces effects – is not something we can actually perceive.

This means that we observe changes in the location, shape, or appearance of objects or events (spatio-temporal relations), but not the force that underpins the causal link itself. While regular repetitions may lead us to expect similar outcomes ("habit of the mind"), there's no way to absolutely prove that these causal relationships will always hold true in every instance. Our inferences about the future resembling the past rely on generalizations drawn from past experiences, rather than demonstrable logic.

Criticism and Impact

Hume's argument poses a challenge to our beliefs about the external world and the predictability of events. This analysis highlights the limitations of inductive reasoning, where conclusions about general principles are derived from a limited set of observations. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant responded by exploring notions of synthetic a priori truths, a type of knowledge independent of direct experience. Later, John Stuart Mill provided methods for experimental study designed to more securely identify cause and effect.

Natural Belief

Hume ultimately deemed cause and effect a "natural belief" essential for human thought and behavior. Although not logically provable, this belief allows us to predict and manipulate our environment. Hume was therefore skeptical about cause and effect, but he didn't want us to completely discard the concept.


Hume's problem of causation remains an influential topic in contemporary philosophy. It highlights the relationship between reason, experience, and our fundamental understanding of the world around us.