John Henry Newman on Conscience and Belief in God

I’m currently at the library where they have a copy of The Philosophical Notebook, vol. 2 of John Henry Newman, edited by Fr. Edward A. Sillem (Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1970). They also have here a copy of J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982). What is interesting here is that, in his philosophical notes, John Henry Newman devotes quite a bit to developing an argument for the existence of God from the experience of the demands of our conscience, and Mackie’s book critiques a more refined version of this argument found in chapter 5 of Newman’s Grammar of Assent. I think considering Mackie’s criticism can be a good introduction to Newman’s philosophy of belief.

Mackie summarizes Newman’s position:

He [Newman] claims that ‘in this special feeling, which follows on the commission of what we call right or wrong, lie the materials for the real apprehension of a Divine Sovereign and Judge.’ Newman distinguishes two aspects of conscience. On the one hand it is a moral sense which supplies us with ‘the elements of morals’, particular judgements about what we must or must not do, ‘such as may be developed by the intellect into an ethical code’. On the other hand it is a sense of duty which enforces these prescriptions. It is on this second aspect, on conscience as ‘a sanction of right conduct’, that Newman relies … someone who recognizes his own conduct as immoral ‘has a lively sense of of responsibility and guilt, though the act be no offence against society,-of distress and apprehension, even though it may be of present service to him,-of compunction and regret, though in itself it be most pleasurable,-of confusion of face, though it may have no witnesses’. Such affections, Newman says, ‘are correlative with persons’. ‘If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear.’ And equally the enjoyment of a good conscience implies a person in whose approval we are happy. ‘These feelings in us are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being.’ Yet there is no earthly person who systematically fills this role. Conscience, therefore, must be related to a supernatural and divine person: ‘and thus the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive, and [are] the creative principle of religion, as the Moral Sense is the principle of ethics’. (pp. 103-104)

This seems like a decent enough summary. Mackie then begins his attack. Mackie understands Newman’s argument as an inference to the best explanation (“God of the gaps”): “The phenomena of conscience to which Newman draws attention could indeed be explained by the hypothesis that there is a supernatural person with the traditional theistic attributes, or some rough approximation to them” (p. 106). But, he says, there are many other ways we account for conscience that are “intrinsically less demanding, less metaphysically improbable” (p. 106). For example, Mackie argues that there is no need to appeal to a supernatural person to explain feelings of guilt when transgressing our conscience’s dictates, since if we believe those dictates to be true, then it is only natural to have feelings of guilt follow upon breaking them.

In response to Mackie, I would like to make two points. First, I don’t think that he has grasped Newman’s argument completely. Mackie says that even without God it makes sense for us to feel guilty when transgressing the laws provided to us by our conscience. This is true, but Newman’s point is that there is a real distinction between the laws our conscience gives us and our desire to fulfill them: “If I practice deceit, or am grossly intemperate, or commit some very selfish act, I have a double feeling – first that I am transgressing a law, secondly that the law says this or that. This latter conviction I may change & yet the former will remain” (The Philosophical Notebook, p. 47). In other words, even when we disagree with what our conscience tells us to be right or wrong, we still may feel we are transgressing a law, or disobeying a loved one – and this is where Newman sees the idea of God the Judge and Father. Of course, Mackie can always respond by saying that, even so, there are equally likely natural explanations of why this is the case (e.g., it is certainly plausible that there is an evolutionary advantage to this, etc.). But I think here we strike at a fundamental divide between Mackie and Newman. Mackie, I believe, sees naturalistic scientific explanation as our best guide to reality. Newman, however, sees reality as starting with conscious experience itself – nothing is prior to this. We may wonder why Newman spends so much time analyzing how we think: it is because he sees human experience as the basis for all other beliefs. As footnote 2 to p. 59 of The Philosophical Notebook says: “The argument is phenomenological, and from an investigation of what Newman calls “the phenomena of conscience”, and not metaphysical in character. It is not an argument from the nature of law, but from man’s experience of himself as a person.”

Related to this is the second point I want to make. It is quite unfair for Mackie to treat Newman’s argument as a mere inference to the best explanation. As Newman makes quite clear in the very passage that Mackie cites, the main point of the argument from conscience is that conscience gives us real apprehension of God. In other words, the point isn’t to get to God as some sort of conclusion, or explanation for why we feel guilty. As Newman says in the Grammar of Assent, nobody has ever died for a conclusion. Rather, the experience of conscience reveals – not an abstract God – but a Personal God, a Father and Judge. Newman is clear that abstract arguments (e.g., like cosmological arguments) have their place, with their logical rigor, but they are worthless if they are not complemented with something that gets us to God concretely. Nobody is convinced on the basis of one argument alone, but on the sum of a mass of arguments, probabilities, and experiences. This is very clear in the Grammar of Assent and it is disappointing that Mackie has ignored it.

I think it would be good to end this post with a quote from The Philosophical Notebook in which Newman quotes a character from one of his novels. I think it also doubles as a good example of how novels can be more appropriate places to convey philosophical arguments than philosophy books:

Callista said, “I feel that God within my heart. I feel myself in His Presence. He says to me, Do this, don’t do that. You may tell me that this dictate is a mere law of my nature, as is to joy or to grieve. I cannot understand this. No, it is the echo of a person speaking to me. Nothing shall persuade me that it does not ultimately proceed from a person external to me. It carries with it its proof of its divine origin. My nature feels toward it as towards a person. When I obey it, I feel a satisfaction; when I disobey, a soreness, – just like that which I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend … the echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear.” (p. 59 of The Philosophical Notebook, from pp. 314-315 of the 1881 edition of Callista)

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