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Mike Mackus
April 16th, 2009
Professor Bolton
Phil 297

Time and Trans-Temporal Identity in Treatise

In his science of man Hume holds that there is no rational way to justify the belief that objects, when

unperceived by the senses, continue to exist; and likewise, there is no way to justify the belief that objects have

an existence independent of the mind that perceives them. The proof of each is rather straightforward: the

former is simply unscientific in the sense that it is not falsifiable (the proposition that Object x exists even when

unperceived cannot be verified empirically); and the latter belief turns Hume’s empiricism on its head (that is, it

undermines the basic principle that the mind only has impressions and ideas and that we do not have direct

access to the physical world, thus not enabling us to separate our mind from the impressions and ideas that

occupy it). Hume contends that these two beliefs are necessary consequences of one another such that if and

only if an object exists when it is not present to the senses then the object has an existence independent from the

mind: iff an object has continued existence then it has a distinct existence. While Hume, as a philosopher, rejects

the claim that we can justify our beliefs in continued and distinct bodies, he realizes that one does so only after

sincere, reflective thinking, thinking that takes one out of a normal frame of mind; the fact remains that humans

appear to have a natural inclination to believe that bodies are continued and distinct and this is what is of

importance to Hume: regardless of what can be rationally justified, humans hold these beliefs and thus Hume

must investigate what causes induce these beliefs in the mind.

Given the relation between the idea of a continued body and the idea of a distinct body, i.e. that they are

necessary consequences of one another, Hume states that if we can identify the source of the one belief then we

can also account for the other as well. He proposes three candidates as the possible source of our (vulgar)

opinions: the senses, reason, and the imagination. Hume quickly dismisses the senses as the source, arguing,

“When the mind looks farther than what immediately appears to it, its conclusions can never be put to the

account of the senses” (T 189). To say that the senses can account for the belief in a continued body is simply a

contradiction in the role of the senses: it is as if we would be saying that the senses are continuing to operate and

give us information about an external object even when the external object is not presenting the mind with an

impression. Likewise with the belief of a distinct body, the object provides the mind with an impression and thus

the existence of that impression is contingent on the existence of mind holding it. The senses do not have direct

access to the physical world, hence we cannot argue for a double existence, the existence of a distinct body and

of an impression, from just the fact that there is an impression presented to the mind.

Moving onto reason as a possible source of the (vulgar) belief in continued and distinct bodies, Hume

dismisses this on similar grounds as the senses. As we have already observed, the natural beliefs that Hume

wants to account for are likely to be rationally unjustifiable so it is easy to see why reason would not be the

source of unreasonable ideas. Concluding that it is reason that provides us with beliefs of continued and distinct

bodies undermines the main tenets of Hume’s philosophy, namely his concept empiricism: reason tells us, Hume

would argue, that the only things in the mind are impressions and ideas and thus there is no way to draw

conclusion about continued/distinct bodies from perceptions of broken and interrupted perceptions. So then it is

only the imagination that is left as a source for these conclusions. While the imagination seems like a rather

vague term, that Hume might be using it to just dodge the question, he provides an account that makes the

imagination a functional part of the mind: given certain inputs it will spit out certain outputs according to

general patterns and principles. In this case, the general principles are those of constancy and coherence.

According to Hume’s principle of constancy, objects that we attribute a continued existence to have constancy

that makes the mind distinguish between the impression and the object. For example, each and every time I walk

up to my house it is the same color, size, shape, etc., as it was the last time I perceived it; this constancy of the

impression acts as a repetitive input in the mind, leading to the output that this house is the same house that I

entered the day before; thus, despite the gaps in time, I form the belief that each impression of my house is the

result of the same distinct, external body being presented to my senses. But humans also are naturally inclined to

hold the belief that two impressions presented to the mind at different times may still be caused by the same

individual object even though there may be a difference, say, in color, shape, etc. Hence, Hume argues that the

principle of coherence takes into account the changes in a body’s characteristics: the mind receives the

repetitive inputs of an object at various times but each impression, while maintaining a general resemblance,

continues to change in a way that becomes almost predictable; that is, the change in an object is coherent. For

example, as I approach my house, for the most part, the impression maintains a constancy with the impression I

had yesterday; but, through the course of the fall, if no one rakes or cleans up the front yard each succeeding

impression of my house will be one with more litter and leaves across the lawn. The change is a coherent one for

(since no one in my house likes raking) each day the change will be one I have come to expect, i.e. there is more

leaves and litter on the front lawn. Rather than the difference convincing me that this is not the same house I

walked up to yesterday, the constancy and coherence provide me with the belief that this is my home, the same

one I’ve lived in for years.

The functional operations of the imagination, however, only supply Hume with the basis of

understanding the natural human beliefs in continued and distinct bodies. The constancy and coherence of

perceptions leads to the inference of continued existence and thus distinct existence; yet, simply stating the

functional operations of the imagination (i.e. noticing the outputs generated by given inputs) does not explain

why the mind is inclined to make the inference: there is a jump from constancy/coherence of perceptions to

continued/distinct existence of bodies. It cannot be a simple case of cause and effect because, though it may look

that way, the mind moves from sensory information- the image of an impression/idea- to assuming information

about external bodies that it does not have access to: “Any degree, therefore, of regularity in our perceptions,

can never be a foundation for us to infer a greater degree of regularity in some objects which are not perceived”

(T 197). Then in order to justify his account of our natural belief in trans-temporal identity Hume must address

two specific moves implicit within the mind’s inference from broken perceptions to continued bodies: first,

explain what is really meant by identity and where such an idea could be derived from; and secondly, explain

how the mind moves from this idea of identity to a belief in the continued existence of bodies. Hume’s

empiricism and his theory of time lead to an interesting puzzle about identity. It is not the traditional Fregean

puzzle of reference where two different lexical items refer back to the same thing but each item has different

truth-conditions for assertion; rather, Hume’s puzzle is a little simpler in the sense that it asks what is meant by

the proposition Object x is identical with itself. Formulating it this way, Hume shows that uttering an identity

statement is essentially meaningless when in regards to only a single object: Object x is identical with itself

contains no additional predicates or subjects aside from x and thus it is only a statement of unity. Yet we can

easily see, just as Hume argues, that a multiplicity of objects does equally as poor of a job of supplying an idea

of identity because these perceptions ought to be thought of as separable.

Hume’s insight into a solution is intriguing: if identity is not compatible with the idea of unity or the

idea of number, he argues that there must be a “medium” between the two. Reintroducing his theory of time,

Hume argues that the idea of identity follows from the conjunction of two impressions: the idea of time passing

which arises from the impression of succeeding perceptions (i.e. changing perceptions, such as a man walking

by) combined with the uninterrupted and unvarying impression of another object. This scenario leads the mind

to believe that the unaltered object is also moving through this duration (of time) and thus we would want to say

that the present unchanging perception is identical with the unchanging perception from a moment ago.

However, for Hume, this identity is only a fiction created by the mind believing that the unchanging object is

also going through a supposed change in time. Moreover, although we recognize the conjunction of time and

unchanging object as the correspondent impression to the idea of identity, this does not explain our inclination to

hold particular metaphysical beliefs. But, as I agree, our understanding of identity seems to be not far from and

closely related to the belief in continued and distinct bodies. Our perceptions are constantly interrupted: to use

Hume’s example, one might close his eyes in the room that he is presently in, cutting off any visual sensory

stimuli, but upon reopening them perceives the room exactly as it was the moment before. These broken

perceptions are associated by what is, Hume argues, the strongest relation, that of resemblance; the strength of

this relationship between the various perceptions leads the mind to connect these broken perceptions as if they

had one single identity, for it appears that they are unchanging through time. The mind now arrives at a

contradiction: “The smooth passage of the imagination along the ideas of the resembling perceptions makes us

ascribe to them a perfect identity. The interrupted manner of their appearance makes us consider them so many

resembling, but still distinct beings, which appear after certain intervals” (T 205). Hume holds that such an inner

contradiction can only be solved by choosing one side over the other and thus, given the strength of the relation

of resemblance between what appears to be a smooth flow of perceptions, we attribute to the objects of our

perceptions a continued existence.


The interesting part about Hume’s theory is the fact that it is not a metaphysical account of existence

and trans-temporal identity; rather, Hume’s empiricism disregards any possibility of justifying the beliefs that

objects have continued and distinct existence. However, for Hume as a scientist investigating the cognitive

architecture of the human mind he must be able to account for why humans seem predisposed towards certain

metaphysical beliefs about objects and identity. On the other hand, a metaphysician viewing Hume’s explanation

of natural human belief would have little concern for what those beliefs are and why they are held. For the

metaphysician there must be a separation from the way one is naturally inclined to perceive the world, rerouting

the focus to ask what is the actual ontological status of identity. Immediately evident is the fact that this is

incompatible with Hume’s concept empiricism: the only things present to the mind are perceptions and these

perceptions do not provide us with direct access to the external world; the metaphysician, according to Hume, is

speaking improperly any time he speaks of objects in the world when not really meaning perceptions. Since

Hume is skeptical of any metaphysical reasoning, his explanation of man’s inclination towards particular

metaphysical beliefs is greatly contrasted with accounts of identity that try to rationalize our intuitions about

trans-temporal identity. More simply, Hume shows the inconsistency in our beliefs while a metaphysician takes

the conclusions of our beliefs as accurate and then begins to formulate a theory that can rationally justify them.

For example, we might look at the theory of temporal parts as outlined by Theodore Sider. Generally, Sider’s

theory argues that time is like space in the respect that it has parts; just as my body can be spatially divided into

pieces, likewise I can be divided temporally along the lines of my instantaneous temporal parts. This proposes a

new way to think of identity: my identity is not my current temporal part but rather the summation of all my

instantaneous temporal parts; my being, then, is not really an object, but rather it is more like an event with a

beginning, middle and end. This is a simple overview of Sider’s theory but we already see that this is not the

way identity is naturally thought of in the human mind. It appears artificial and slightly ad-hoc because it is: the

theory of temporal parts is designed in response to the problems of defining identity such as temporary intrinsics

and paradoxes of material constitution. The difference between Hume and Sider is really just the simple fact that

they are concerned with different problems: Hume sees no rational way to justify the belief in continued and

distinct bodies so he must find a way to explain why humans still hold these beliefs; and Sider sees no way to

accurately ascribe identity to an object through time so he must formulate a theory that rids itself of difficulties

and paradoxical conclusions.

This simple contrast between Hume and Sider, however, directs attention to a much bigger point of

contention between the two: the former holds that trans-temporal identity is a fiction of the imagination while

the latter believes that trans-temporal identity ought to be accurately defined and understood. I believe that this

disagreement is rooted, for the most part, in the contrasting theories of time that each respectively holds. Sider’s

temporal parts theory is founded partly on eternalism; this holds that every moment in time is equally real and

that temporally distant objects are equally as real as ones that are near. Additionally, Sider holds that time is

relative in the sense that words like “now” are indexical and the meaning is contingent on the temporal location

of the speaker. The eternalist in him argues that all moments in time are equally real which consequently

requires him to say that time is relative: a temporal part of myself five years ago says “now” and means April

2004 while the present temporal part of me says “now” and means April 2009. So, for Sider, time is both

absolute and relative: there is a definitive timeline of events throughout the history of time but each event is

relative to observers at different locations in time. This may seem okay at first but we are left entirely clueless

on the question of what exactly time is: where is this master clock that defines the timeline of the universe; and

then what clock determines the accuracy of the first clock? Hume’s theory of time is rather ahead of itself in the

sense that Hume defines time as contingent upon the perception of an observer and closely related to and

determined by the motion of objects. Thus Hume’s idea of time is relative in a different sense, i.e. that time is

entirely in the eye of the beholder, not absolute like Sider’s timeline of history.

Nonetheless, we can still draw a connection between Sider’s and Hume’s theories: Sider understands

identity as a summation of temporal parts and Hume, likewise, understands identity to be a fiction of the mind

that connects spatiotemporally extended objects with one another. That is, both theories take the idea of identity

to be a relationship that bounds together a number of separate and distinct objects: an idea that is somewhere

between unity (a single object) and number (a multiplicity of unrelated objects). But, even if just for a moment,

we assume that Hume doesn’t think of identity as a fiction of the mind, his theory of time is problematic for the

practice of tracing: since time is an abstraction from a succession of perceptions, tracing must always take place

relative to another object that is not being traced; however, the perception of time is contingent upon the

observer and what he chooses to use as his “clock”; thus it seems that there are as many ways to trace identity as

there are tracers. Two points come to mind here: first, one might be inclined to argue that Sider is okay with this

because he believes all tracing scenarios have targets; but such is in support of a different argument for Sider

would not want to say that two people can trace, say, the same statue differently (which is possible according to

Hume’s theory of time because I might be seeing a constant, unchanging statue if my “clock” stops moving,

while you might see a number of different instantaneous temporal parts because your “clock” is moving). And

secondly, this sort of tracing leads to an idea of identity that is contradictory to our intuitions: that is, we would

want our tracing of the same objects to yield the same results.

There is an incompatibility between tracing, which figures in largely in Sider’s definition of identity,

and Hume’s theory of time. While Hume’s theory of time does seem somewhat awkward, Sider does not give us

any means by which to understand time within his framework of temporal parts which is obviously problematic:

if we are not given a way to understand this absolute timeline then how does Sider expect us to agree on what is

actually a temporal part and what is not? There are obvious differences that separate Hume’s account of natural

human inclinations towards particular metaphysical beliefs from Sider’s theory of temporal parts (such as

Hume’s commitment to the human mind and empiricism), but at a deeper level it appears that Hume’s theory of

time, which appears more accurate (both to our intuitions and our understanding of post-Newtonian physics),

neatly undermines Sider’s solutions to problems of defining trans-temporal identity.