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3/16/2005

Common sense ain't so damn sensible

(With apologies to The Onion.)

Over at Right Reason, the new blog for conservative philosophers, our friend Max Goss complains about what he calls a widespread "disregard -- in some cases a contempt -- for the deliverances of common sense" among intellectual-types:

Suppose one is considering two competing claims, one newfangled, the other expressing a belief common to most people at most times. Suppose further that the old belief allows one to navigate the world successfully and that the newfangled belief, if adopted, would make little difference to how one gets about. Shouldn't one maintain the old belief ... [o]r isn't it at least reasonable that he do so? Man's common stock of wisdom has been tested in ways that one's individual experience has not.

...

[Some philosophers] hold common sense suspect. Like many intellectuals of our time, I suspect they would emphasize the things common sense has gotten wrong -- the shape of the earth, for instance, or the distance of the stars -- while ignoring the many, many things it has gotten right.

...

Philosophers of mind like to speak of folk psychology, the collection of concepts (mind, will, desire, etc.) by which ordinary people explain and predict the behavior of others. We can generalize this point by speaking of folk ontology, the collection of concepts by which ordinary people explain and predict the workings of the natural world. The conservative generally accepts the deliverances of folk ontology -- for instance, the belief in mind-independent physical matter -- unless he has good reason to reject them. Though he acknowledges that the common man's intuitions can lead us astray, he also emphasizes mankind's cognitive successes.

These successes are too numerous to list . . . I simply ask skeptical readers to consider the following question: How could people get about in the world as well as they do if the majority of their received beliefs were false? ... our common sense beliefs, though not unassailable, are a generally reliable guide to our world.


I think Max's confidence in the information delivered to us via "common sense" is misplaced. Time and time again, it has not held up well in the face of increasing scientific knowledge. There are the obvious examples: common sense told us the Earth was flat, that humans were different in origin than other animals, that dead relatives visited us in dreams, etc. And there are the less obvious examples: the belief that matter and objects are continuous, that space and time are distinct, etc. In general, there is no particular reason to suppose that our common sense concepts will survive the transition to a scientific understanding of the phenomena they purport to describe.

Max acknowledges these mistaken common sense beliefs, but asks us to consider the "many successes" of common sense. He poses the question: "How could people get about in the world as well as they do if the majority of their received beliefs were false?" But usefulness is not necessarily a guide to truthfulness. In fact, it is often the case that falsehoods are more useful than truths. The beliefs that help us "get about in the world" do not necessarily have a greater overlap with beliefs that accurately describe the world. Often we are best served by forming beliefs that misdescribe things. (This was a point that Nietzsche often made.)

The idea of a distinct object is foreign to microphysics, yet it is crucial for maneuvering the physical world. This is because humans have evolved a conceptual apparatus that places great emphasis on the separateness of things--presumably because this type of conceptual scheme was beneficial. But we can imagine a creature for which a similar conceptual apparatus would be disastrous, and for which a very different "common sense" will be necessary to get about in the world. Neither creature is justified in supposing that his common sense beliefs--the concepts that are useful for him--are particularly reflective of the actual structure of reality.

Humans and other animals have not been designed to understand "deep" truths about the universe--they are not built to apprehend the true physical and ontological principles that govern the workings of reality. Thus the conservative faith in common sense is ill-advised, for most of the time common sense is, at best, a crude approximation of the way things really are, and at worst a complete misrepresentation.

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