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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46 thoughts on “Newman vs. Locke on Assent

  1. Welcome back, Vincent.

    Emotion is what you are discussing. It’s powerful; more powerful than reason, perhaps. Trouble is, it can be exploited.

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  2. Alan Fox:
    Glad to hear you are safe. Climate change needs addressing.

    Yes. With his inane biased global warming example, dear sir drew the entire attention away from the main topic. The main topic might have been interesting, but first we must address his irrational, unscientific, partisan, and immoral position on global warming.

    Anyway, glad to have dear sir Torley alive so we can talk about it. And congrats to Cardinal Newman for sainthood.

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  3. 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?

    Let’s be careful not to confuse a compelling case with an airtight case. In law, our standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. But one person might find that doubt to be more reasonable than another, and many cases are built on collections of circumstantial evidence for which one explanation might be more reasonable than another. Dozens of convicts were released from death row on dispositive DNA evidence, but juries unanimously found them guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” nonetheless.

    I think the global warming debate is a good example. Certainly there are many models, and the variation among them is quite wide – to the point where intelligent and informed people hold opinions varying all the way from hoax to immanent doom! And IF the doom people are more nearly correct, serious efforts to head it off must start immediately. IF the hoax people are more nearly correct, we might commit to serious deterioration of our economies and lifestyles out of irrational fear and nothing else.

    There’s an old saying to the effect that we cannot be certain of war until just before the bombs fall. Almost any prophecy can become self-fulfilling.

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  4. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for your kind wishes. And I agree with you that climate change needs addressing.

    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.

    Hi Flint,

    You make a valid point about “airtight” evidence vs. evidence “beyond reasonable doubt.”

    As you correctly point out, intelligent people can and do hold a variety of opinions on the subject of global warming. My own point of view is that we won’t be able to bring man-made CO2 emissions down to zero on a worldwide scale before 2075 at the earliest, for technical reasons. The fact is that we can’t rely on clean energy sources to power our electrical grid. It’s simply not feasible. (We could perhaps do it if people weren’t so alarmed about nuclear power, but the NIMBY factor renders the nuclear solution politically impossible.)

    That being the case, I think the best we can do in the meantime is (a) switch from coal and oil to natural gas, which is the least bad fossil fuel, (b) remove fossil fuel subsidies, (c) plant a trillion extra trees, (d) pay countries like Brazil and Indonesia to quit logging, (e) create tax incentives for people to give up eating beef and owning cars, (f) spend billions more on renewable energy research, which is severely under-funded, as well as efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and/or store it underground, and (g) get ready to pump aerosols into the atmosphere, to delay the rise in global temperatures (and sea levels). These ideas would not cost trillions, so we would still have plenty of money left to fight world poverty, which should take precedence, as it is killing children here and now.

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  5. Personally, I think we are solving the climate problem both expeditiously and relatively cheaply – by simply allowing the human population to expand while supplying this ever-increasing demand with all the fossil fuels we can find. I can’t predict whether the inevitable population implosion will be triggered due to climate issues, pollution, water shortages, war, disease, or “other”. But what happens when ANY species’ population exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment is obvious, universal and unavoidable. Pretending humans are somehow immune hastens the correction, and probably therefore the recovery (without humans, earth should recover within a million years or two).

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  6. This is something I’ve never done before, so any technical, logistical and promotional advice would be greatly appreciated.

    I’m doing something similar since I’m trying to put content up on the web. I’d be glad to help out as best as I can. You can e-mail me. I’m on the USA Eastern time zone. I mention that since it may be helpful for us to communicate realtime through a platform like ZOOM or Skype so I can help you work out some technical details.

    Sal

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  7. I quite agree that Locke’s epistemology isn’t going to work: we do not need certainty for our epistemic projects, nor are we shirking our epistemic duties if we assent without it. (I find that Locke’s project makes much more sense if we read him as a Cartesian rationalist about how to do epistemology but without the crutch of “innate ideas” that Descartes uses to do all the heavy lifting.)

    It is as a Cartesian rationalist that Locke needs certainty for belief, and that it consists only what is intuitive (self-evident) or in what is demonstrated (a deductively valid proof with self-evident claims in the premises). There’s very little room in Locke’s official story for inductive or abductive reasoning.

    So Locke’s epistemology cannot make sense of the kinds of reasoning that we use when we compare scientific hypotheses or figure out the easiest way to the airport.

    The contrast being drawn between Locke and Newman is better addressed, at the epistemological level, in terms of Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” and James’s “The Will to Believe”. Clifford, unlike Locke, is happy to engage in probabilistic reasoning in weighing evidence, and he does not require certainty for assent — though he does think that belief or assent always needs some evidence, and it is irrational (and indeed immoral) to believe without sufficient evidence.

    By contrast James points out that while in some contexts it is reasonable to withhold assent until sufficient evidence has been gathered and evaluated, one cannot live by evidence alone — and it come to the question of whether one is to believe in God or remain an agnostic, there is an existential imperative at work that must be addressed even though there is not sufficient evidence to resolve the question in a fully objective manner.

    If the question of the OP were rephrased in terms of “Clifford vs James” then I would say that they are both right, in different respects. For me it turns on the following: will the actions guided by the belief in question affect the lives of those who do not share that belief?

    If yes, then one owes them the sufficient evidence that would convince them why you are correct, and one should follow the path of Clifford — if not, then it doesn’t matter whether there’s sufficient evidence or not and one is permitted to follow the path of James.

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  8. All projections of population predict a decline starting within the next few decades. The prediction is based on existing demographic trends, and not draconian culling of the herd. Family size decreases when most children survive, and women are educated. Both trends are happening, even in the poorest countries.

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  9. I just got around to reading your OP today. I originally postponed reading because of its length.

    This all seems very artificial to me.

    I’ll comment only in first person, because I cannot read other people’s minds. But I suspect that my experience is fairly common.

    I never give assent to propositions. I will often give tentative assent for the purpose of discussion. But that tentative assent disappears once the discussion is over. If I say “I believe P”, I am expressing doubt rather than assent.

    I do, at times, give assent to actions. In the global warming example, the issue about assent to actions that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In deciding whether to give assent to actions, I attempt to weigh the benefits against the costs. In mathematical term (from mathematical statistics), we should be looking at expected values rather than at probabilities.

    For the young girl in the movie, as described, I would guess that she also attempted to weigh benefits against the costs.

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  10. I’m not sure whether the OP is about how we do assess evidence and make decisions to act or how we should do so. It seems to switch back and forth without commenting on the difference (although I may have missed where VJT does make this distinction amongst all the other verbiage).

    Psychologically-informed appeals to human emotion will cause more people to act. This is well known to people who advocate for charities and political positions. For example, it is more effective to rely on anecdotal examples of specific people’s suffering, rather than on general statistics, when appealing for charitable contributions. Religious proselytizers know this psychology too, I imagine.

    Paul Bloom wrote a book, Against Empathy, pointing out the dangers is relying solely on emotional reactions.
    https://www.amazon.com/Against-Empathy-Case-Rational-Compassion/dp/0062339338

    In Juno, after the girl chooses not to have an abortion, she decides to pick the best couple for closed adoption, and sticks to her rational decision despite reconciling with the baby’s father and despite some changes in the target couples marriage. I understood her as acting in the best interests of the child, as she judged them.

    And for those who prefer more succinct posts, here is Shallit on a related topic:
    http://recursed.blogspot.com/2019/10/robert-george-on-mill-and-newman.html

    ETA: Clarity (I hope)

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  11. Neil:

    I never give assent to propositions.

    A couple of recent counterexamples, off the top of my head:

    From the Hoffman thread:

    I fully agree that there is a reality independent of us. And I agree that there are things that we call physical structures that exist independently of us.

    From the circularity thread:

    keiths:

    It’s plainly circular.

    Neil:

    Yes, I agree.

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  12. keiths: I never give assent to propositions.

    BruceS: Psychologically-informed appeals to human emotion will cause more people to act

    As I said. It is normal and human to feel and respond to emotions.

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  13. Neil Rickert: I do, at times, give assent to actions. In the global warming example, the issue about assent to actions that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In deciding whether to give assent to actions, I attempt to weigh the benefits against the costs. In mathematical term (from mathematical statistics), we should be looking at expected values rather than at probabilities.

    No! Listen to your emotions telling you Climate Change is BAD!!!

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  14. BruceS: Not even to mathematical propositions which have universally accepted proofs?

    That’s conditional assent, conditional on the assumed axioms.

    The important distinction here, though, is that mathematics is separate from reality. Our ideas about logic, truth, etc work well in that abstract world. But reality is different. And I take vjtorley to be concerned with beliefs about reality.

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  15. keiths: A couple of recent counterexamples, off the top of my head:

    From the Hoffman thread:

    Those are more about social conventions than beliefs about reality.

    From the circularity thread:

    Very much tentative. Whether we see circularity depends on what we take to be Eric’s intentions. And we might be mistaken about that.

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  16. Alan Fox: Listen to your emotions telling you Climate Change is BAD!!!

    What do emotions have to do with it?

    Climate change will be very costly. The attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will be less costly, particularly if people around the world cooperate. So when you work out the expected value, it comes out strongly in favor of acting — provided that we can get world wide cooperation.

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  17. Neil Rickert: That’s conditional assent, conditional on the assumed axioms.

    The important distinction here, though, is that mathematics is separate from reality.Our ideas about logic, truth, etc work well in that abstract world.But reality is different.And I take vjtorley to be concerned with beliefs about reality.

    I understand this as saying norms of justification for even limited assent depend on the domain of inquiry. I would agree with that. It’s another point unaddressed in OP: ie sometimes the OP speaks of religion, other times of science, perhaps other times of math. We can add philosophy and practical morality as other domains of inquiry.

    There is no a priori reason to believe we should apply the same epistemic standards (ie what we should assent to) in all domains of inquiry.

    Similarly, we should look to the relevant science to describe and understand how people do assent to claims in the various domains of inquiry.

    On another note, I think conditional assent differs form tentative assent.

    Conditional assent depends on axioms and other a priori conditions on the domain of inquiry. Tentative refers to taking an attitude of fallibilism, which I think we can apply even to mathematical claims, since all proofs are subject to human checking (or human programming of automated proof checking).

    However, I admit to feeling unsure about that application of tentative to math claims.

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  18. Alan Fox: It is normal and human to feel and respond to emotions

    You missed my point: the distinction between should and do, which the OP fails to address as far as I can see.

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  19. BruceS: However, I admit to feeling unsure about that application of tentative to math claims.

    When I first learn a new area in mathematics, it is all very tentative.

    Mathematics, as a field of knowledge, has to do with methods rather than beliefs. The tentativity is to allow me to master the methods.

    Once I have mastered the methods, it becomes knowledge rather than belief. And it is really knowledge of the methods rather than belief of propositions.

    That is part of why I am hugely skeptical about epistemology.

    “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
    All the kings horses and all the kings men
    couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

    There are three propositions. They are false, though one might argue about the last. I do not believe them. Yet I know them. They are part of my knowledge.

    Knowledge and belief are very different things. And epistemology confuses them.

    Epistemology treats belief as binary — either you believe or you don’t. But there can be degrees of belief and there can be degrees of justification.

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  20. Neil Rickert: Epistemology treats belief as binary — either you believe or you don’t.

    A huge error. I blame computers. Did we always fall into the binary trap?

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  21. Neil Rickert: What do emotions have to do with it?

    “We all need to cooperate to do something about climate change or we’ll die!” Emotional but true?

    Climate change will be very costly.The attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will be less costly, particularly if people around the world cooperate.So when you work out the expected value, it comes out strongly in favor of acting — provided that we can get world wide cooperation.

    Well, sure! Let’s do something folks, or we’re all gonna die!

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  22. Neil,

    That’s conditional assent, conditional on the assumed axioms.

    Conditional assent is still assent to a proposition. It’s just a different proposition than in the unconditional case.

    Those are more about social conventions than beliefs about reality.

    Social conventions are part of reality, so beliefs about social conventions are beliefs about reality.

    Very much tentative.

    Tentative assent is still assent.

    There are three propositions [in the Humpty Dumpty rhyme]. They are false…

    Which means you are assenting to the proposition “‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’ is false.”

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  23. Neil,

    Epistemology treats belief as binary — either you believe or you don’t.”

    Apparently you haven’t heard of Bayesian epistemology.

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  24. BruceS: I’m not sure whether the OP is about how we do assess evidence and make decisions to act or how we should do so. It seems to switch back and forth without commenting on the difference (although I may have missed where VJT does make this distinction amongst all the other verbiage).

    I don’t think that Torley makes this distinction — certainly Newman doesn’t, and neither does Locke.

    On Rorty’s reading of the history of epistemology (in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) this was the Achilles’s heel in the entire modernist project: they didn’t distinguish between epistemology (how we ought to form beliefs and psychology (how we actually form beliefs). Kant made this point the centerpiece of his criticism of Locke and Hume, and in the early 20th century the rejection of “psychologism” gave rise to analytic philosophy (with Frege and Russell) and to phenomenology (with Husserl).

    In any event I think you’re right that Locke and Newman don’t distinguish between how we actually reason and how we ought to reason, and in particular they don’t raise the issue of what role emotions ought to play in our reasoning, esp in our moral reasoning.

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  25. Thanks for this, Vincent.

    Bishop Barron asserts,

    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.

    The occurrences of “should be” at the beginning of this are ambiguous. They could mean “ought to be” in the sense of what can be morally justified, or they could mean “can be expected to be.”

    I note that the arguments against Locke here utilize the second interpretation. I have no idea if that’s what Locke meant, however. If he used the terms that Barron uses, but intended the first interpretation, Newman’s argument–at least as here explicated–is confused.

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  26. Bruce S.: I’m not sure whether the OP is about how we do assess evidence and make decisions to act or how we should do so. It seems to switch back and forth without commenting on the difference (although I may have missed where VJT does make this distinction amongst all the other verbiage).

    Exactly right.

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  27. Neil Rickert: They are part of my knowledg

    My point was about whether fallibility could apply to mathematical claims based on a proof universally accepted by math community. I am taking fallibilism as allowing a community of inquiries to claim knowledge without certainty. So the issue for me is whether universally accepted math proof constitutes certainty, or whether the direct or indirect need for human verification means certainty is impossible, even in math.

    But I am not clear on how or if fallibilism applies to your view of the nature of claims of knowledge since I don’t know if truth is part of your view of what knowledge is (although I can guess….).

    For that matter, I don’t know what you mean by saying belief is not binary.

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  28. walto: The occurrences of “should be” at the beginning of this are ambiguous. They could mean “ought to be” in the sense of what can be morally justified, or they could mean “can be expected to be.”

    I note that the arguments against Locke here utilize the second interpretation. I have no idea if that’s what Locke meant, however. If he used the terms that Barron uses, but intended the first interpretation, Newman’s argument–at least as here explicated–is confused.

    One of Locke’s chief concerns was developing the epistemology that modern experimental science would need — defending that epistemology against Aristotelians and Cartesians but also against skeptics.

    (Interestingly, I just learned that Locke agreed with the Aristotelians that scientia was reserved for the necessary knowledge of real essences — which meant that for Locke, natural philosophy could not be a science, whereas geometry and morality could be! I did know that it was William Whewell who coined the English word “scientist” for natural philosophers, so the word “science” must have undergone some pretty drastic shifts in the scant hundred years from Locke to Whewell.)

    Taking “sensitive knowledge” (observation and generalization) as the best that non-immortal knowers could manage with regard to the natural world, Locke is pretty clearly concerned with the epistemic ideal for beings with our cognitive capacities and incapacities. In other words Locke is doing naturalized epistemology long before Quine and others gave it a name. And that is why it is not so easy to distinguish from psychology — in fact I’m not sure there’s a difference that makes a difference between naturalized epistemology and the psychology of reasoning!

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  29. Kantian Naturalist: in particular they don’t raise the issue of what role emotions ought to play in our reasoning, esp in our moral reasoning.

    Perhaps that’s why Rorty valued poetry.

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  30. petrushka:
    All projections of population predict a decline starting within the next few decades. The prediction is based on existing demographic trends, and not draconian culling of the herd. Family size decreases when most children survive, and women are educated. Both trends are happening, even in the poorest countries.

    Everybody knows the dice are loaded/
    Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/
    Everybody knows the war is over/
    Everybody knows the good guys lost.

    –Leonard Cohen

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  31. BruceS: I don’t know what you mean by saying belief is not binary.

    Not to speak for Neil but “binary” is not, in my view, how reality is. Maybe it’s innate in humans to think in such terms, Zoroastrianism, yin and yang, good and evil, right and wrong. There’s more nuance in reality.

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  32. Kantian Naturalist: In any event I think you’re right that Locke and Newman don’t distinguish between how we actually reason and how we ought to reason, and in particular they don’t raise the issue of what role emotions ought to play in our reasoning, esp in our moral reasoning.

    Seems to me that figuring out how precedes ought.

    It’s a bit like understand how perception and illusions work before deciding what to do when confronted with images.

    Probably off topic, but I just read an article on the performance of automobile automatic braking. Driving decisions (reasoning) would be more reliable if there were some easy way to determine what the system is seeing.

    Bottom line with AI in cars: don’t bet your life on it.

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  33. Alan Fox: “binary” is not, in my view, how reality is.

    Well, OK, but I was talking about truth. That is usually taken to be a property of propositions (or sometimes of sentences which make assertions). So the binary claim is that a proposition is either true or it is not, period.

    That then relates to knowledge through the usual starting view of knowledge as justified true belief, where belief is a psychological attitude towards a proposition

    (I believe that this is not Neil’s view of belief).

    So claiming truth s binary depends on one’s theory of truth. Can there be approximate truth? Is truth better thought of as accuracy which somehow takes on a continuum of values?

    Hmm. Seems I have hard that accuracy idea for truth somewhere before….

    ETA: there is more to be said about truth and its application to scientific representation. ‘Nuff said for now, though.

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  34. BruceS: My point was about whether fallibility could apply to mathematical claims based on a proof universally accepted by math community. I am taking fallibilism as allowing a community of inquiries to claim knowledge without certainty.

    I don’t see that as fitting with mathematics.

    I can be uncertain whether a theorem is true. But the solution to that is for me to study the proof and decide for myself.

    Of course, the proof could be wrong but the claimed result still true. We usually look for counter-examples to deal with that, but such counter examples are not always available.

    The normal practice in mathematics is to not depend on theorems unless you are certain of them.

    But I am not clear on how or if fallibilism applies to your view of the nature of claims of knowledge since I don’t know if truth is part of your view of what knowledge is (although I can guess….).

    Claims of knowledge are to be taken with a grain of salt.

    I see knowledge in terms of abilities. Knowledge is not limited to humans. Other non-verbal animals can have their own knowledge.

    I judge the knowledge of a plumber by his ability to fix the pipes, not by his eloquence in talking about pipes. But epistemology is mostly about the latter.

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  35. BruceS: Well, OK, but I was talking about truth.

    I see truth as binary. I do not see belief as binary.

    …, where belief is a psychological attitude towards a proposition

    In a way, that’s the point. A psychological attitude is not binary.

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  36. Neil Rickert: I see knowledge in terms of abilities. Knowledge is not limited to humans. Other non-verbal animals can have their own knowledge.

    I agree that animals know all sorts of things even if we deny that they have beliefs, if beliefs require language. But this is hardly a revolution in epistemology — the Churchlands have been making that exact point since the early 1980s, as have many others.

    I judge the knowledge of a plumber by his ability to fix the pipes, not by his eloquence in talking about pipes. But epistemology is mostly about the latter.

    It is true that epistemology has tended to give more attention to knowing how and less attention to knowing that, but epistemologists have been working more and more on knowing how in the past few decades. So it’s not quite right to say that epistemology now is mostly about linguistic articulation and little about practical ability.

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  37. Neil:

    Oh, I have [heard of Bayesian epistemology]. And I think it is mostly BS.

    Its very existence falsifies your claim:

    Epistemology treats belief as binary — either you believe or you don’t.

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  38. Neil Rickert: I can be uncertain whether a theorem is true. But the solution to that is for me to study the proof and decide for myself.

    I am curious how you reconcile that with the need for communities of inquirers in science and math. Are you saying that each individual can claim knowledge in math, regardless of any checking through some process in a community?

    The stuff in my post to Alan about belief etc was introductory lecture material for Phil 101. There is more even in Phil 101, eg Dennett’s and Churchland’s versions of anti-realism about folk psychological entities, but for more detailed discussion I’d want to augment the philosophy with models of belief from the cognitive sciences.

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  39. BruceS: I am curious how you reconcile that with the need for communities of inquirers in science and math. Are you saying that each individual can claim knowledge in math, regardless of any checking through some process in a community?

    I’m not really sure what you are asking there.

    I don’t understand this “claim knowledge” part. In my experience, people do not go around claiming knowledge (which I take to be a form of boasting). Rather, they are recognized by the community as being knowledgable.

    If I am studying some area of mathematics, it is up to me to judge how well I understand it. I might discuss it with others in the community, and the feedback might be part of how I judge my own understanding. But that judgement of what I understand ultimately has to come from me. Others in the community might judge how well I understand, but that is independent of my own understanding. We are, our should be, our own harshest judges. And that ability at self-judgement is an important part of cognition.

    What mainly comes from the community are the new ideas, new sets of axioms, etc. And if I were to come up with a new set of axioms, I would need the feedback from the community on how they see those axioms. So developing axioms is a community affair. Developing proofs is often an individual thing, though it can help to know about attempts by others in the community.

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  40. Neil Rickert: I don’t understand this “claim knowledge”

    “Claiming” knowledge is just my weasel words to avoid saying “having” knowledge, since for me knowledge requires truth and we can never be sure about that for synthetic claims.

    Possibly even for for analytic claims if those include math, since I see fallible proof checking to be part of the proof process. This does assume that, for math proposition, proofs yield truth.

    I see the process of a community evaluating and accepting a proof as part of what enables us to claim knowledge. I think one can separate human knowledge in general from what particular people know. For example, we know a lot about solid state physics, even though I personally do not know anything about it.

    Do you think think that Mochizuki has justification for claiming knowledge that the ABC conjecture is true, given that essentially no one else understands his proof well enough to evaluate it?

    http://thescienceexplorer.com/universe/mathematician-solved-nearly-impossible-maths-problem

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  41. BruceS: …, since for me knowledge requires truth …

    I think that rules out any possibility that a non-linguistic animal can have knowledge. And I strongly disagree with that.

    Possibly even for for analytic claims if those include math, since I see fallible proof checking to be part of the proof process.

    I agree that proof checking is fallible.

    This does assume that, for math proposition, proofs yield truth.

    It only yields relative truth — truth relative to the assumed axioms or premises.

    Do you think think that Mochizuki has justification for claiming knowledge that the ABC conjecture is true, given that essentially no one else understands his proof well enough to evaluate it?

    I would think that the justification that matters is justification that is accepted by the community.

    The history of Fermat’s last theorem illustrates that point.

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