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The Argument from Conscience

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 22, 2009

In his Grammar of Assent, John Henry Cardinal Newman attempts to explain how human persons come to assent to both ideas and realities, including both the idea and the reality of God. In the course of his study he persuasively explains the significance of the faculty we call “conscience”, and in so doing articulates an important argument which has largely fallen into disuse.

Newman points out that the operations of the conscience point strongly to the existence of a supreme judge, that is, to the existence of God. While all human faculties can be more or less developed depending on personality and circumstances, Newman rightly notices that it is the overwhelming experience of human persons to feel a strong sense of right and wrong, and to be thrown into various emotional and psychological states depending on whether they have acted rightly or wrongly. Newman sees this at work beginning in very young children, though he acknowledges that this sense of right and wrong, and its corresponding emotions, can be strengthened or weakened based on circumstances, including habitual virtues or vices.

A second point Newman observes about the emotional or psychological states which accompany our acting rightly or wrongly (that is, acting in conformity with or contrary to the dictates of our consciences) is that these feelings and attitudes are such as we ordinarily associate with persons. Nearly everyone, regardless of upbringing or early religious training, experiences what we call a good conscience or a bad conscience. We feel restless, discontented, agitated, guilty, ill at ease, worthless, sad or perhaps even despairing when we are under the attack of a bad conscience. We feel light-hearted, serene, peaceful, content and relaxed when we are in possession of a good conscience, meaning we are at one with the dictates of our own inner sense of right and wrong.

From these things, which tend to be confirmed even by their rare exceptions, Newman rightly observes that we instinctively sense the existence not only of a supreme law but of a supreme law giver or judge. It is not only that we have a sense of right and wrong; in addition, the emotions we feel when our conscience is good or bad are precisely the kinds of emotions we feel when, in other relationships, we have either pleased or offended some other person. We do not feel these emotions, these resulting attitudes or dispositions, when we trip over a rock. Though various objects may attract or repel us, objects do not excite us in this particular way. The feelings associated with a good or bad conscience are specifically relational in nature.

Thus, from a very early age, the vast majority of persons almost instinctively assent to the existence of both a supreme law and a supreme judge, that is, to the existence of God. Moreover, if the operations of the faculty of conscience are analyzed in this way, they provide reasons in support of this assent, which is nonetheless initially an assent to a reality, not to a notion, and which is initially based purely on our own experience, and not on argument. In other words, we initially assent to the reality of God through what is, in effect, a real, active, providential imprint of His presence on our very nature.

Later, with the aid of Revelation and the cultivation of virtue, we can bring ourselves to a deeper, richer and more precise assent to God or, through various kinds of intellectual rebellion and evil habits, we can diminish and weaken this assent, bury it deeply, or deny it altogether. Whatever the outcome, it seems clear that the very existence of conscience, and also even its relatively unformed operations, show from the first that each person instinctively understands himself to be subject to an ultimate judge who has made a deep imprint on his very nature. Thus each person instinctively understands himself, however dimly and imperfectly, to live and act in the presence of God.

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