Hume, Newton and Malebranche on Causation

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DOI: 10.4236/ojpp.2017.73018    738 Downloads   1,302 Views
John H. Dreher


University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA.


Hume, Newton and Malebranche have been made out to be an odd couple, united in the belief that prior Aristotelian and Cartesian analyses of causation are inadequate; yet differing in the correctives they offer to relieve those earlier misconceptions. Malebranche famously appeals to God to validate his occasionalist account of causation. Newton appeals to God to explain forces like gravity which is revealed by necessary laws like the Law of Universal Gravitation. Hume, on the other hand, seeks to explain causation as a natural phenomenon that can be explained by his theory of belief formation. This paper argues that the difference between Malebranche and Hume runs much deeper than their substantive analyses of causation; they also differ about experimental reasoning and natural philosophy in which Newton makes room for God as an integral part of natural philosophy but not experimental science whereas Malebranche thinks of God as an essential part of experimental science. More specifically, this paper hopes to make original contributions by arguing 1) that although Hume does not think of the grand laws of nature (from Galileo and Newton) as necessities but rather as mere universal regularities, like “the sun will rise tomorrow” and “all men must dye”, he carefully makes room for a unique place for the grand laws of physics by distinguishing quotidian regularities from those grand laws by virtue of their specificity and comprehensiveness. This paper also argues 2) that Hume conceived of the grand laws of nature as operating in ideal circumstances, which explains why it is that apparent exceptions to those laws do not undermine them. The paper argues in conclusion that 3) Hume is not “Malebranche minus God”, that 4) Newton is not in a better position than Hume to contemplate nature’s twists and turns and finally that 5) to imagine a time at which the sun does not rise or a man who simply does not ever die is not to imagine a weird and inexplicable anomaly but rather to imagine that the entire course of nature has changed.


Hume, Malebranche, Newton, Experimental Reasoning, God, Occasionalism

Cite this paper

Dreher, J. (2017) Hume, Newton and Malebranche on Causation. Open Journal of Philosophy, 7, 329-352. doi: 10.4236/ojpp.2017.73018.
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