Friday, November 05, 2010

Mental and political sanity

Well, I am bound to say that the result of elections makes me, as patriot of a certain Europe present in America, happy.

As a friend of mine from Scituate Mass. wrote me: "it was a good night for America – but here in Massachusetts the results were dismal – we remain a backwater of extreme liberalism – fortunately the rest of the country (excluding California) seem to be heading on the right track toward political sanity."

The only reservation which, in the face of any victory of the party I favor, leaves me with a somewhat sour mouth is: it was a party victory.

I ask myself: shall we ever be able to move toward an overcoming of the creeping civil war that plagues Europe and America? My friend speaks of "political sanity", and I agree with him. But what way do we have to define what "sanity " is?

In these days I have been reading and writing about the Grammar of Assent of the blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. He indicates there a way toward an answer. Which can confirm us in our positions, with just the wish that the opposing party would take time to read him and to answer to what he says.

He distinguishes two kinds of assents we can give to statements: a notional one and a real one. Ha calls notional all kinds of assents which stay in the realm of generality, from simple acceptance of current opinions to scientific theories based on probability. Only real is the assent we give to the concrete, the individual instance that touches us intimately.

I remember, to illustrate what he means, an observation for an uncle of mine, great university professor of hydraulics. Speaking of another nephew of his, also professor in the same field, he said of him as of his generation of scientists: "They want to be scientific, and to study rivers build mathematical models based on statistics (i.e., on probability), expecting them to behave accordingly, feeling almost outraged if rivers dare not to conform to what they say. No, if you want to know about rivers, you must have spent many an hour with your feet in them."

Here you have it: mental sanity is not to take one's models for reality. The way to reach a firm, certain understanding of reality, is to avoid confusing them: to recognize that ordinary knowledge, more or less tamed in science, works as a law action, according to the logic of circumstantial evidence. Each item of evidence, however probable, is incapable of engendering certainty by itself. But if all evidence points consistently in the same direction, one can finally come to a sentence of how things are in the concrete case to be judged, being sure of it.

Taking one's models for reality means at the same time to misrepresent to oneself what one is really assenting to: i.e., the political motivations behind the preference for those models. Recognizing them is the first step toward political sanity.

Which is my great wish for the future. My daily prayer.

HP