Newman on universal doubt

Kyle Cupp of Vox Nova, in this post writes the following:

“The faith for which I strive doesn’t give me certainty about the origins of the cosmos or the ultimate destiny of humankind. It doesn’t rid me of doubts, and it doesn’t comfort me.”

Kyle also writes the following in a comment:

“… I have absolute certainty of nothing, not even consciousness. I disagree with Descartes’ “I think; therefore, I am.” At bottom, the assertion “I think” or “I am conscious” is an assertion of faith. All evidence indicates that I do in fact consciously think (how well we’ll put aside), but this evidence actually presupposes that which is seems to prove: consciousness. Now, assuming that consciousness does in fact exist, its study has produced evidence for how it works, and this evidence indicates its unreliability and uncertainty. Is this evidence and conclusion above questioning? Not at all. Like all truth claims, it can and should be questioned. At present, my sense is that consciousness has a double uncertainty: 1) that it exists and 2) that it discloses the world as it really is. In light of this double uncertainty, St. Thomas’s distinction between faith and opinion is much too simplistic and at bottom wrong. Of course, it could be otherwise. Perhaps we can have certainty of consciousness and what is given in consciousness. I’m inclined to think not, but I’ll entertain the arguments.

I was reminded of these statements of Kyle’s when I came across this passage of Cardinal Newman’s:

The right of making assumptions has been disputed; but, when the objections are examined, I think they only go to show that we have no right in argument to make any assumption we please. . . . Here are the materials of a fair dispute; but there are writers who seem to have gone far beyond this reasonable scepticism, laying down as a general proposition that we have no right in philosophy to make any assumption whatever, and that we ought to begin with a universal doubt. This, however, is of all assumptions the greatest, and to forbid them is to forbid it. Doubt itself is a positive state, and implies a definite habit of mind, and thereby necessarily involves a system of principles and doctrines of its own. Again, if nothing is to be assumed, what is our very method of reasoning but an assumption? and what our nature itself? The very sense of pleasure and pain, which is one of the most intimate portions of ourselves, inevitably translates itself into intellectual assumptions.

Of the two, I would rather have to maintain that we ought to begin with believing everything that is offered to our acceptance, than that it is our duty to doubt of everything. This, indeed, seems the true way of learning. In that case, we soon discover and discard what is contradictory; and error having always some portion of truth in it, and the truth having a reality which error has not, we may expect, that when there is an honest purpose and fair talents, we shall somehow make our way forward, the error falling off from the mind, and the truth developing and occupying it.

(“Grammar of Assent,” p. 370.)


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