Though it is dark outside now in the middle of the night, I believe that the sun will rise in about four hours. It will look like a bright yellow marble and it will appear on the eastern horizon and make its way up in an arc overhead. How do I know that? The sun has risen every day I have been alive, and every day any person has ever experienced, so I am sure it will rise again tomorrow.
PHI 203, Introduction to Epistemology and Metaphysics, recently read Hume’s “Skeptical Doubts Concerning the Operations of the Understanding.” “That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition,” Hume writes. He means that there are conceivable alternatives to the sun rising tomorrow morning, that my only reason for believing it will is based on my experience. And what is my justification for trusting my experience? To what logical principle do I adhere when I draw conclusions about the future from the past? I try answering: the sun will rise. That’s how it works. It always has. I have no reason to assume anything will be different. But that’s not strictly logical. Empirical evidence does not provide a logic for why I believe what I do. I am frustrated. I am sure that it will rise, I just search for a way to prove my assurance.
When I wake at six, the edges of my shade are, in fact, brightening. For the first time in a long time, I pay attention. Outside I meet the clean chill of early hours. I find that the sky is still a gray blue, but the baby clouds look like they are on fire. The delicate coming of morning. The sun rises, as I insisted it would. A nearby star appears and is changing the color of the sky, and feeding plants, and casting shadows, and warming the pavement.
Hume calls our propensity for reasoning from past experience a “Custom or Habit”: We are psychologically programmed to assume the uniformity of nature, such as the rising of the sun. We are generalizing creatures because of the biological machinery that makes us believe that the future will resemble the past. And as a general rule, we must learn from experience, to exist in our world. We do not justify our reasoning about the future from the past from a logical point of view, we simply infer certain things because we have to. Experience must inform our actions (if we drop something, we should assume it will fall) and our interactions (kindness engenders kindness in return; lying breeds distrust). These are good, important experiences to rely on and inform our future actions, regardless of how logically justified our reliance is.
Yet we did not always have this habit of inferring general law from particular circumstance. Most of us once believed groundlessly in dragons and mermaids and Narnia. Then we learned how to infer, adopted the process into our reasoning, and thus, with age, became desensitized to magic. This, too, is an important lesson: the world is not as beautiful as we would like it to be.
But looking at this sunrise, I realized I had missed the magic of so many past ones with my expectation. I had known they would happen, and so I did not see the beauty in the light that had filled my visible world like hot water would a teacup. As children, we don’t know that the world is usually plain, sometimes ugly, and only occasionally beautiful, so, optimistically, we give beautiful things more than their fair share of our imagination. We believed in those beautiful creatures and places in the first place because it is good for us to believe in them, it is good for us to fill in our own grace where it is hard to come by. We give up that habit, but we don’t we stop needing that beauty. I don’t want to justify my belief in the sunrise; I wish I hadn’t had any belief at all. How much lovelier would this morning have been—the leaves starting to change, the sky paling—if I had not been so jaded as to be sure it would happen?
I think I should start believing in magic again. I think moments like these should be a surprise to me, an astonishment, a reason to be thankful. Hume’s skepticism asks how I am justified in believing anything about the future. What if the problem is my certitude in the first place? Forget what my experience might tell me I know. Let me attribute the sunrise, at the very least, to breathtaking serendipity.