In a society raised on the understanding that a study of past events can inform the understanding of future events, the view that the “best predictor of future behavior is past behavior” is not surprising.
A part from the obvious objection dating back to Hume regarding the problem of causation, you might want to object on different grounds. But first let’s attend to Hume who pretty much changed the course of philosophy, as a result of devastating arguments that would place the acquisition of human knowledge beyond the grasp of any empiricist. Well at least until Kant. But that story for another day.
The empiricist claims that all ideas are ultimately derived from sensory perception. If this is true then all ideas must be traceable to some such experience. Causation is basically the idea that an antecedent event is the cause of another observed event that follows it. You jump into a pool full of water and the next thing you know you’re wet. The cause? Jumping into a pool full of water. So, you don’t want to do that with your clothes on. We go to bed at night, and so long as you’re not in the Arctic in the summertime, you “know” the sun will have set, and in the morning it will have risen again. The problem is: how could anyone know that? Can you perceive causation? Actually you can’t. All we perceive is the sequence of events, and through association call the preceding event the cause of the latter. Of course, this is invalid, and Hume has been coined a skeptic, opting that mostly we are creatures of habit, who adopt certain patterns of thinking that cannot be substantiated by reason. The example of causation is a case in point. What we actually observe are two independent events: jumping into a pool and being wet. Causation is an idea that we extrapolate from these two distinct observations. But if we are to take the basic empiricist premise seriously, we must be able to trace the idea of causation to some experience. Yet, this is impossible. Pointing out the regularity of events – namely that event a is always followed by event b – cannot help since this would again presume that this regularity can speak to a fundamental law of nature that goes way beyond human observation which is always particular and always my own. Our so-called knowledge claims are invalid, and hence reflect nothing of note, speaking instead to habituated patterns of thinking. I have learned to think that touching a hot stove causes burning as a result of experiencing the regularity with which these successive events follow: touching a hot stove and burning my hand.
Now let’s take the case of human behavior. Hume also has much to say about this. Again he notes the regularity or consistency of human behavior as we do in the natural world. Namely, the observation of the constant conjunction of distinct events, or the regularity of such observations, such that the observation of an antecedent event, would produce the expectation that its consequent would follow. The form of the argument he offers is the same as previously: suppositions commonly associated with the predictability of human behavior are mere associations, and these fall short of establishing causation. He then goes on to make an interesting argument for human liberty. Necessary or predictable outcomes, whether with regards to objects or human behavior, rest not in the objects themselves but in the imagination of the observer. Human liberty then can only be founded in the context of this “imagination”, and not with the relationship of extrinsic events to human behavior. Human liberty resides in the determination of one’s will. The absence of liberty would then be understood as the inability to obey one’s will. I will take this thread of argument up in a following post. For now let us consider corollary arguments.
Unlike humankind, events and nonhuman beings don’t possess agency. It is true, however, that as physical objects we are subject to the same laws of nature that all objects are subject to. The law of gravity affects us the same way it does any other material object out there. The biological laws inherent in living organisms, however more complex in humans, are also determinant of physical outcomes that can often be “predicated” as well. However, knowing all this, and knowing that we know all this is precisely what distinguishes our behavioral patterns from other species. Hume’s self-conscious address of his own arguments is testimony to this. Though we cannot make any claims to how and why the world operates as it does according to Hume, we can and do make explicit claims to ourselves concerning the impossibility of making such claims. We are, therefore, also aware or experience ourselves as subjects that are consciously aware of the implications of such claims as well as the subsequent rendering of our own self-understanding; that it is determinant of how we perceive the world from our own subjectively informed manner of experiencing. We may not on Humean grounds, necessarily be able to make claims that x events out there will cause y events in us, or that y-events in us will cause x-events out there, we can certainly “imagine” the organization of mental events as they are exegetically presented to one’s own mind and thereby determine our subjectively experienced orientation in the world.
That being said, where we can tap in to our subjective experience of our own understandings, we can alter habituated patterns of thinking. Doing so does not change the world out there (at least not according to this Humean perspective), but it certain can and does change the way we subjectively experience our own understanding of it. If that is the case, then I consider it no small feat to be able to make someone cognizant of internally inconsistent ideas, and undifferentiated meanings and thereby placate their anxiety about certain experienced events regarding oneself or others.
Are past behaviors the best predictors of future behaviors then? So long as we remain firmly affixed to habituated forms of thinking, and acting, this will be so. However, if at the very least we can lay claims to the human will, and take charge of the subjective experience of self-understanding, this is less likely to be the case.