Pascal described human beings as ‘thinking reeds’, weak in flesh but magnificent in mind. While it is a poetic image, it is also an ambivalent one and may suggest an inappropriately dualist view of human nature. It is important to realise that not only are we thinking reeds but that we are thinking because we are reeds. In fact, rationality is reed-like itself, very much of a kind with the rest of human nature. It is now more than two and half centuries since David Hume first pointed out the lack of an argument that would fully justify claims about matters of fact. Being neither made evident by our observations nor arising out of the mere considera-tion of relations of ideas, claims such as that the turkey will be fed dinner tomo-rrow – rather than being had for dinner (to use Russell’s famous example) have remained problematic ever since. Many attempts have been made to show that something of the beauty and certainty of reasoning about relations of ideas could be recaptured in our dealings with matters of fact, but all attempts have remained mere shadows of what we tried to grasp. Hume’s argument stands. An infinite being might watch countless sun-sets and yet should witness each new sun-rise with surprise, always withholding its judgement regarding what will follow.
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