Newman vs. Locke on Assent

Greetings from Japan! For those who may have been wondering, super-typhoon Hagibis caused no damage to my home, and my family is safe and sound. Around Japan, however, over 430,000 households are currently without electricity, including 148,000 in my prefecture. But tomorrow is another day, and Japan is an amazingly resilient country. People who’d like to know more are welcome to check out this Website.

Today’s post relates to an excellent one-hour movie on John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the Catholic Church’s newest saint (his canonization ceremony is on Sunday, October 13). The movie was created by Catholic theologian and author Bishop Robert Barron, founder of the Catholic ministerial organization Word on Fire. The movie, titled St. John Henry Newman: The Convert, may be viewed online here, but only until October 31. It is very professionally put together: the brilliant cinematography, combined with the uplifting music and Bishop Barron’s erudite narration, makes for thoroughly enjoyable viewing. The first half-hour deals with Newman’s life. at 30:54, Bishop Barron discusses Newman’s classic work, The Development of Christian Doctrine, elucidating its insights with limpid clarity in a segment which is well worth watching. At 40:00, the discussion switches to another work of Newman’s: The Idea of a University.

It has been a long time since my last post on this site. One reason for that is that I’ve been proofreading a forthcoming book (not by me), about which I shall say no more for now. Another reason is that I’ve been planning a talk which I hope to put up on Youtube next year. This is something I’ve never done before, so any technical, logistical and promotional advice would be greatly appreciated.

But the most interesting part for visitors to The Skeptical Zone, begins at 47:15, and relates to Newman’s masterpiece, The Grammar of Assent. In this work, Newman criticized the fixation philosophers have with the idea of certitude. Certitude, he argued, is the wrong starting point; the right starting point is assent. Bishop Barron, in his commentary, carefully explains the distinction Newman drew between the notional assent we give to abstract propositions (the example Barron gives is the proposition that slavery is wrong), and the real assent we give to concrete things (for example, that the reality of slavery, which I see here before me, is evil). Real assent affects the way we act and behave. Newman maintained that the ground of real assent in matters of religion is conscience, which he defined as “a certain keen sensibility, pleasant or painful … attendant on certain of our actions, which in consequence we call right or wrong”. Newman was struck by the fact that conscience is often likened to a voice. Through it we know that we please or offend a Person by our acts – in Newman’s words, “a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing.” The next segment, starting at 51:32 and lasting about four minutes, is the subject of this post: it relates to the assent which we give to a proposition. From here on, I’ll quote Bishop Barron’s own words, which I have transcribed below.

The section of The Grammar of Assent that’s the most technical and the most influential is the one in which Newman takes on the thought of John Locke, the great English philosopher. Locke had said the quality of one’s assent should be tightly correlated to the quality of the inferential support that one can muster for it. In other words, if the inferential support is slight, then the assent should be slight. If the argument is stronger, then the assent should be stronger. If the argument is clinching, then the assent should be absolute. But Newman saw that in fact, we often give total assent to propositions for which there is far less than clinching inferential support. In his famous example, no-one hesitates even slightly in affirming that Britain is an island, though there is no absolute logical justification for that claim. Rather the assent is based upon a whole congeries of hunches, intuitions, testimonies, perceptions, hints, none of which by itself would constitute a proof, but all of which, taken together, move the mind to assent. The upshot of all this is that assent, pace Locke, is not reducible to inference. That we live on a global planet covered with tracts of land and sea, that we have parents, that we cannot live without food, that one day we will die: none of that is known with apodictic certitude. But all of it is assented to without hesitation. We come to assent through an extremely subtle, indeed invisible, or largely unconscious process of weighing converging probabilities. Newman invented a term for this feel, this intuition: he called it the illative sense. Angels don’t require an illative sense, but human beings do.

Why does all this matter? Well, if you want to draw people to accept the truth of the Christian religion, if you want in a word to evangelize, you have to use both formal and informal logic. You have to construct syllogisms, yes, but you also have to bear witness. You have to make arguments, yes, but you also have to stir up people’s emotions. You have to appeal, in a word, to both notional and real assent.

Interviewer: So, can you give me some examples of using both notional and real?

Barron: I’ll give you an example. A movie came out a few years ago called Juno. It’s about a young girl who becomes pregnant, and she’s wrestling with the decision whether to abort the child, and she’s come to the conclusion: yes, she will. And she goes to the abortion clinic, and there are a few protesters outside. They’re shouting slogans, and so on. As she goes past them, one of the protesters says: “Your baby has fingernails!” Then she goes inside the clinic and she sits down to wait, and while she’s there, she sees all these people drumming their fingernails on the chairs and so on. And then she gets up and she leaves, and she does not have the abortion; she has the child. And that scene always struck me as very Newmanesque. That young girl, I’m sure, had heard a lot of the arguments about abortion. She’d heard pro-life arguments. But what convinced her not to have the abortion was not an argument. It was this very real appeal, this visceral connection that the baby I’m carrying has fingernails. That’s what moved her finally to say: “No, I’m going to have this child.” My guess, following Newman, is that it was some combination of both notional and real, that led her to that decision.


Here are some questions I’d like readers to discuss and ponder:

  1. Was Locke right in maintaining that the quality of one’s assent should always be proportional to the quality of the inferential support one can muster for it, or do you agree with Newman that we are sometimes justified in giving total assent to propositions for which we are unable to marshal a compelling case? While mulling over this question, it occurred to me that Locke would be right, if the cost to oneself of withholding assent to a proposition were zero. But when the question is a live one, on which agnosticism is not an option, especially one where we feel our very survival is at stake, we frequently make a total commitment to beliefs for which the evidence is far from compelling, because we feel we need to act, now. Having made such a commitment, we tend to be sharply critical of people who point out the logical gaps in the evidence for the belief in question: we feel that such people are doing the devil’s work, by using sophistical arguments to deflect us from doing what urgently needs to be done. The case I have in mind here is the view, popularized by the group Extinction Rebellion, that global warming is not only real and man-made, but also catastrophic, and that we have only a few years left to clean up the planet. The evidence cited for Extinction Rebellion’s alarmist claims was skillfully dismantled by BBC presenter Andrew Neil here, in a recent interview with spokeswoman Zion Lights, but what is remarkable is that even after the holes in her case were exposed, the spokeswoman adamantly refused to back down. Was she being irrational? Or was she right in declaring that the time to act is now? We may think that while the spokeswoman’s position was rather extreme, it is surely prudent to respect the scientific consensus that global warming is a man-made problem that needs to be stopped before the Earth heats up by another half a degree Celsius, but we should not be so smug: as climate scientist Dr. Mototaka Nakamura has argued in a recent book, there are massive uncertainties in scientists’ climate models, and we simply do not know how the climate will change in the future. And yet, even though our belief that global warming poses a real threat is based on evidence that’s far from certain, we feel justified in giving our total assent to this belief. It appears to me that Newman’s account of how we assess evidence explains cases like these far better than a purely evidentialist account like Locke’s. The same applies in the field of religion, where people are confronted with questions relating to their eternal destiny. Here, it seems entirely inappropriate to ask people to weigh up the issues in a totally dispassionate manner, as a Lockean would have us do. Why should they be dispassionate, when so much is at stake?
  2. Were he alive today, what would Thomas Bayes think of Newman’s account of the way we assess evidence? On the one hand, Newman speaks of converging probabilities, which sounds quite Bayesian, but he also regards the process of giving assent as a partly subconscious one, in which emotion plays a role as well as reason, which sounds very un-Bayesian. Readers might like to think of the matter this way. Imagine a future in which we have delegated all of the major decisions affecting our well-being to a very advanced computer, whose data-crunching and logical abilities far outstrip our own. The computer is fully capable of Bayesian reasoning, but it is also totally devoid of emotions: it cannot experience anxiety about the future – or eager anticipation, for that matter. Here’s the question: should we only give our assent to statements about future risks which the computer deems probable, or should we set aside the computer’s well-informed judgments and rely on our own intuitions, in at least some cases?
  3. What do you think of Bishop Barron’s example of the young girl in the movie Juno? Do you think it illustrates Newman’s distinction between notional and real assent? And do you think the girl was epistemically justified in allowing herself to be swayed by the fact that her baby had fingernails?

I’ll stop there. And now, over to you. I hope Bishop Barron won’t mind if I embed his latest movie, which is available on Youtube until the end of the month.

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60 thoughts on “Newman vs. Locke on Assent

  1. Neil Rickert,

    I had a detached retina years ago. Surgery to correct worked for a while but my sight was distorted by the retina not having been placed in its original position. I wondered whether I’d be able to adapt by “relearning” connections from the retinal nerves well enough to reread the information from the distorted visual field. Unfortunately, the retina did not heal and I don’t know the answer.

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  2. Neil Rickert: You express the animals knowledge in terms of your own beliefs, with no way of knowing whether the animal actually has such beliefs.

    OK Neil.
    Almost everything you express there seems to be variations of things I have read in science and in philosophy. But since you never describe your work in terms of how it differs from the work of scientists and philosophers who publish their work for peer feedback, I think it is impossible to tell what new ideas you have.

    For example, the material on the nature of animal cognition seems to be a variation of the concerns with anthropomorphism by scientists studying animals. Some current scientists think that concern has been overdone and they claim we are justified in attributing scientifically-defined versions of concepts, emotions, consciousness, perhaps even culture to some animals (I think the de Waal stuff Alan F has cited is in that vein).

    Regarding truth in science: for me, that is just the scientific realism/anti-realism debate. Many would claim that science does not yield truth, which is how I read you.

    So I don’t know where you have expressed something new, and where you are just saying something well known. The reason I cannot tell is that you do not seem to engage with contemporary work, which would allow you to express how you differ from it by using the vocabulary of that work.

    ETA: clarity

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  3. BruceS: But since you never describe your work in terms of how it differs from the work of scientists and philosophers who publish their work for peer feedback, I think it is impossible to tell what new ideas you have.

    I describe that often. But you seem to miss it. I guess it is one of those “hidden in plain view” things.

    For example, the material on the nature of animal cognition seems to be a variation of the concerns with anthropomorphism by scientists studying animals.

    Not really. My concern is with what you are missing in regard to human cognition. And when I bring up animal cognition, that’s just an attempt to illustrate the point.

    We are animals. Understanding animal cognition is very important if we want to understand human cognition.

    Some current scientists think that concern has been overdone and they claim we are justified in attributing scientifically-defined versions of concepts, emotions, consciousness, perhaps even culture to some animals (I think the de Waal stuff Alan F has cited is in that vein).

    I don’t have an opinion on whether concern is overdone. But I mostly agree with the rest of that.

    When I express doubt as to whether animals have beliefs, I am specifically talking about the kind of belief that is used within philosophy. And, in all honesty, I am also skeptical on whether humans have that kind of belief.

    Yes animals, including humans, can have dispositions to behave. But dispositions to behave are neither true nor false, they are neither justified nor unjustified.

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  4. BruceS: Some current scientists think that concern has been overdone and they claim we are justified in attributing scientifically-defined versions of concepts, emotions, consciousness, perhaps even culture to some animals (I think the de Waal stuff Alan F has cited is in that vein).

    It’s epitomised in the career-long differences between Frans de Waal and Michael Tomasello.

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  5. vjtorley: Hi Erik,

    Frankly, I have no idea why you regard my position on global warming as “irrational, unscientific, partisan, and immoral,” when I was not even attempting to put forward my own point of view on the subject, in the post which I wrote. Rather, I was simply describing how people come to give their assent to the beliefs that they hold about global warming.

    Of course you were putting forward your own point of view on the subject of global warming as soon as you made an example of it as something people give assent to. The way you present the example immediately betrays to what kind of position you have given your own assent to.

    Global warming is a sufficiently hot and complicated topic so that you cannot pretend to be neutral about it, particularly after you have put your own bias out on display. If you wanted to stay neutral, detached, and calmly analytical, you should have picked a simple uncontroversial example. Instead you picked an explosive example.

    It is an explosive example because global warming is not just a matter of belief or assent. It is a matter of choice of action, of the legacy that we are about to leave to future generations. On this topic, we are not just arguing about what to believe, but about what to do. In pressing need people do things regardless of beliefs In a maze of wildly contrary evidence (since you happen to believe there is contrary evidence to global warming) the choice hardly depends on the evidence; it rather depends on how pressing the issue seems to be and who or what is putting on the pressure. If your point was to merely discuss assent to beliefs, global warming is a very ill-chosen example.

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  6. Erik: So you are saying humans are animals. But are animals human?

    Are animals human? Only some of them. Only those of species homo sapiens, though some would extend the use of “human” to neanderthals and earlier ancestors. I don’t have an opinion on those attempts at extending. But I think “human” is more a cultural category than a biological category.

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