Monday, 9 August 2010

I Believe in Pavements

He is everywhere. I wear him like perfume! At breakfast with my tea, the TLS on my lap, there he is wafting down, unsettling the pages.

Which pages? you ask.

Oh, its Anthony Kenny’s review of a new Cardinal Newman biography, by John Cornwell (TLS 30/07/2010).

It’s where he quotes Newman, showing how he demolishes a particular argument of Locke’s. His view that to love truth is not to take anything for granted; but to test it rigorously, until you are certain of its foundations. For without this certainty, without this level of evidence, Locke says, you ‘loves not the truth for truth-sake, but for some other by-end.’ Newman, as it happens, quite easily dismisses this:

We laugh to scorn the idea that we had no parents though we have no memory of our birth; that we shall never depart this life, though we can have no experience of the future; that we are able to live without food, though we have never tried; that a world of men did not live before our time, or that that world has no history.

For Newman wanted to show that there were grounds for a belief in God, even though they appeared empirically weak. This argument appears to give some support to this idea.

It seems to me that both Locke and Newman are wrong. If Locke is quoted correctly and in context he reduces all knowledge to a single standard; and conflates this standard with morality. However, there is our workaday world and our intellectual life; the latter much more vigorous and exact. Imagine walking down the road and before each step you required the level of proof needed to substantiate Boyle’s Law. Would you ever leave the house? For in our ordinary lives we live off habit and custom, which are really semi-conscious beliefs.

Newman, if he has not taken Locke out of context, has avoided this distinction between scientific knowledge and our common sense understanding, and he ignores the special quality of the former, which Locke, I assume, wanted to capture: that its foundation is sound reason, based on hard empirical fact (there is, after all, something odd about science). Newman’s favourite argument against Locke, according to Kenny, was that we believe Great Britain is an island on the flimsiest evidence. A layman yes; but a cartographer?

Newman and Locke are almost certainly talking about different kinds of knowledge and insight, where the levels of evidence and argumentation required are substantially different. It is at the serious level of enquiry, of scientific and historical understanding, that the belief in God and Christianity was weakening. If Newman wanted to protect belief at this level he had to counter their arguments and evidence; not use our common sense notions; often wrong and ill-informed. By conflating the two he wins the rhetorical argument, but not the intellectual one. And surely enough later in the review Kenny shows how Newman, in the end, could only successfully appeal to those who already believed.

Yes, yes. But who do you wear like a rich scent? Oh, Mr David Hume.

No comments:

Post a Comment