What is assent? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is to “agree to something especially after thoughtful consideration.”1 This doesn’t quite encapsulate what assent is, from a philosophical position. In general, to assent to an idea/belief, specifically, means to accept such an idea based on logical and rational reasoning – not simply “thinking hard”. Since, as it is probably clear to say, there is no way to completely, once and for all, prove something as a fact, assent is a constant factor in human life. Every day, human beings assent to certain beliefs without conscious knowledge through our various faculties. How does one explain such an odd phenomenon?
Philosophers and theologians have attempted to deal with this issue, especially in reference to religious beliefs. John Locke and John Henry Newman are the two most prominent philosophers who directly discussed “assent.” Each has a thorough examination of why persons accept certain beliefs, however logical or “illogical” these might appear. However, as befitting an empiricist like Locke and a cardinal like Newman, their definitions are dry and technical, depriving such decisions of their basic and integral humanity.The reduction of assent to a scientific formula reduces its meaning and complexity, rendering it an empty shell.
I have nothing against either of these gentlemen, let it be noted. Locke’s poltical philosophy set the table for the American republic to feast, while John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Grammar of Assent have come to be essential parts in my own thought. In effect, though, their thought can sometimes lock man’s gaze away from the heavens into technical dalliances, and that’s my issue.
To see this particular problem, Locke’s more thorough system must be explicated as he forms the building blocks for the discussion. Locke defines probability as
…the appearance of such an agreement or disagreement by the intervention of proofs whose connection is not constant and immutable, or at least is not perceived to be so, but is, or appears for the most part to be so, and is enough to induce the mind to judge the proposition to be true or false, rather than the contrary2
He basically states that knowledge provides a certain craving in human beings. Humans cannot have indubitable knowledge of the truth – anyone who purports to have such knowledge cannot be taken seriously. However, this particular epistemic problem does not prevent a person from believing anything at all; in fact, the brain seemingly accepts most notions, regardless of how probable that idea may be. Some of this knowledge border near certain, so the mind assents and treat them as certain. Most probability works in several ways – conformity with already obtained knowledge, observation, experience, and the testimony of others.3 From here, there is a weighing of probabilities that allows a person to make decisions based on these factors.
Locke defines assent as
…the admitting or receiving any proposition for true upon arguments or proofs that are found to persuade us to receive it as true, without certain knowledge that it is so.4
Probability and assent, though related in Locke’s view, are not the same. For the former, there is a logical connection, or correlation, between two ideas; this does not necessarily imply causation, by any means, but the brain tends to fill that gap – hence, for the latter, assent, there is no logical or necessary connection. That which makes a person believe is something extraneous to the belief. Locke believes that assent must be regulated by probability, however, as otherwise memory is all that is required for a belief.5 In layman’s terms, this would mean “just believing what you always believed without any reasons for that belief,” and this constitutes intellectual laziness to the highest degree.
Probability, thus, deals with two kinds of assurances that approach knowledge: namely, matters of fact and speculation.6 The former is, obviously, the one Locke prefers. The highest degrees of probability comes from a general consensus among all persons and all times as to the validity of a position – for example, the knowledge of a human being’s own existence is a fact of nature.7 Every human being knows that they exist, and as such this belief has reached general consensus. Because of this, there is an incredibly high probability that it is true. This knowledge is not certain, but since the belief accords with experience, to doubt that idea seems disingenuous to natural human faculties.
Experience leads to probability, which leads to certainty and then to assurance.8 Such beliefs are so close to certainty that most persons do not question them. As for others people’s experience, this can only rise to a level of certainty that Locke calls “confidence.” Historical accounts that accord with each other, or even events that are indifferently observed by different persons and corroborated with each other can fit into this category.
However, there are times, like the Resurrection, where the witness of testimony brings humans against their experience. Although the listings above work for common situations, they still do not explain religious belief in any reasonable degree. Experience and testimony can clash. Testimonies can become more unreliable over time the further removed discussion moves from the “original truth”.9
So, versus observation and testimony, there is the idea of analogy. Concepts such as spiritual dimensions and laws of nature are given analogy because the senses cannot perceive them.10 Humans describe them in terms of ideas known from the other sources; that does not mean they exist any less than the others, but it is probable. Where rationality starts and irrationality begins, for Locke, is a problem, but who is to say which is which? However, Locke makes an exception for miracles, which are so beyond ordinary testimony that they are very probable.11 Locke does not explain how this conclusion comes about – he merely states this as a fact and carries on with the discourse.
Revelation, for Locke, exists as the highest certainty because God, creator of knowledge, gives it. As long as a person makes sure that the call came from God, the knowledge can be certain. How this can be ascertained, as with previous ideas, is not explained by Locke in any meaningful fashion. Considering all of Locke’s writing towards certainty, he still does not present the line that marks assent to a belief. For Locke, it is simply a summation of probabilities, which apparently can be found by rational and irrational means in equal measure. Locke’s theory is merely descriptive – he does not answer the questions or solve any epistemic limitations, but merely describes certain aspects of assent. Locke’s explanation, while setting the terms and definitions, is insufficient for understanding assent.
1 Merriam-Webster, “Assent,” Merriam-Webster OnLine, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assent.
2 John Locke, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” in Reading in Modern Philosophy Volume II: Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Associated Texts, ed. Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000), 108.
3 Ibid, 109.
4 Ibid, 109.
5 Ibid, 110.
6 Ibid, 111.
7 Ibid, 111.
8 Ibid, 111.
9 Ibid, 112.
10 Ibid, 112-13.
11 Ibid, 113.