Dr. Carson at An Examined Life examines Newman’s grammar. It’s worth a look if thinking about thinking doesn’t give you fits.
In [the Grammar of Assent] Newman drew a distinction between two modes of a particular operation of the mind that he called “assent”. One mode he called “real assent”, the other “notional assent”. Notional assent is the form of assent that we give to an abstract inference, whether deductive or inductive. Real assent is the form of assent that we give to concrete realities or the truths of religion independent of any abstract inferences from which they may be derivable. His purpose in drawing this distinction was to move away from what he saw as the overly abstract philosophical theology of his day as he had encountered it in his colleagues, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, but it is essential to see that he did not intend the distinction to be between two kinds of assent, but two modes of a single operation of the mind. The difference lies not in the mental operation itself, but in the object of the operation. In the case of notional assent the object of the operation is the inferential pattern of a theological deduction; in the case of real assent the object of the operation is a truth of religion. Because there are not two different operations of the mind involved, there need be no necessary difference in kind between the truth conditions of the object of notional assent and the truth conditions of the object of real assent.
Even though I’m in agreement with this author about both of his examples, I really do wish he could grasp this argument. It would not change his opinion (it hasn’t changed mine), but it would probably change his condescending attitude towards those whose “real assent” is different. Dawkins’ problem, as ever, is his complete blindness to his own “real assents”. He acknowledges the idea of assent, but it is always assent to measurement and calculation and never assent to a certain kind of metaphysics – which he certainly has.
Dawkin’s stance is like Fukyama’s “End of History” argument, where if the 1990’s didn’t represent the “end” of political discourse, you could see it from there. There is something extremely static – something extremely sick, I might add – about someone thinking that they are standing on a pinnacle like that, and that it is “inevitable” that sooner or later everyone will see where the pinnacle is and move to it. Two problems with that line: 1) Maybe it’s not the pinnacle (dang!), 2) Maybe people will choose something else.
Point two is especially ironic because evolutionists often claim in other circumstances that evolutionary forces don’t sculpt a mind for Truth, they sculpt it for survival and reproduction. Those two circles – Truth and Survival – do not entirely overlap. Supposing that they do requires a religious assent – what Newman called “real” assent.