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Why everyone should read David Hume.

It would be an understatement to say that the world we live in has become a whole lot more uncertain over the last ten years. A world of certainty and optimism at the end of the last millennium seems to have given way to anxiety, extremes and disruption. The things we thought we could count on seems just that little bit less solid than they once were.

And it isn’t just economic uncertainty and backwash from the global financial crisis; the austerity policies and the extremes of inequality that constitute the repercussions of the events of 2008. The rise of political populism  and the search for easy answers grabs the headlines; it appears there’s always space for politicians who claim to have simple answers to complex problems and speak with the dead certainty of those who haven’t quite grasped the problem in the first place. Underlying it all, of course, is the realisation that the climate crisis will fundamentally change everything. Old assumptions are no longer valid and it’s far too soon to form new ones.

So in the midst of this unprecedented complexity, how do you start to navigate through the mist and fog of misinformation and competing claims? It was famously suggested that people have had enough of experts and whilst it might have been more accurate to say, had enough of economic experts, there’s an underlying implication that it’s becoming harder to work out who to trust and who not to trust. Which in uncertain times, where decisions becomes very important, makes it entirely natural to ask yourself, “can I trust what this person is telling me?”

Being faced with a decision of importance and not knowing who or what to rely on is anxiety-inducing at the best of times. During times of uncertainty, that anxiety is multiplied many times over.

Ironically, it may be the very availability in recent years of huge quantities of information that generates some of that anxiety. If we go back to Antiquity, there wasn’t a lot of information available. You pretty much believed what you were told by the local “person of importance”. Or you didn’t have a choice because you were subject to force. This situation carried on to around the early 1600s, when a small group of people became sufficiently prosperous to spend time finding things out. They gradually learnt more and more, but it was still a relatively manageable amount. That came to an end in the 1900s and then really accelerated with the wide availability of information via the Internet. Suddenly, information was everywhere and no one could tell you what was the good stuff and what wasn’t. You had to work it out yourself. Cue anxiety.

There was probably a golden period of about 100 years when we had just enough information and sufficient education to work it out for yourself. Now we have education, but we have too much data. So what to do?

In a situation like this, it’s worthwhile to cast an eye back to the past. Which is both interesting exercise and the point at which we introduce David Hume. One of the great philosophers of his (or any other) age, Hume thought and wrote deeply about the topic of human understanding. And one of his blindingly obvious but deeply insightful observations was on how to tell if what you’re being told is likely to be true. Hume observed that there were two elements to the process. First, does the person or the source have a track record of telling the truth? If they do, you should be more inclined to believe them. It’s why, in the past, people were extremely keen to maintain an upright reputation. It was, quite literally, a superpower. Once lost, there was little that could be done to win it back.

The second part of the process is to judge the statement itself. Is it largely in line with past experience? Does it seem plausible. This may seem a little odd, but remember that it’s not just in recent times that people had been making fantastic discoveries. in the 18th and 19th century, explorers would come back with stories of amazing new species and places, just as researchers of today talk about amazing scientific discoveries. We have no personal experience of this discoveries, we simply gauge that if MIT or Cambridge University make the announcement, its probably true. In other words, the reputation of the institution makes us more likely to believe.

Hume elaborates upon his ideas, but this very simple trick is a remarkably powerful tool in a modern context. Three hundred years after his birth, it’s possible that for David Hume, one Scotland’s most original thinkers, his time has come.

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