Aristotle, Nāgārjuna, nondualism, nonhuman animals, race, Robin Horton, Śaṅkara, T.R. (Thill) Raghunath
Last time, I accepted that there were two reasonable ways to define “common sense.” One can identify it with prejudices, as I did the first time around, so that common sense is what is held to be common and taken for granted by a given group of people (usually one’s own). Alternately, one can identify common sense with Robin Horton’s “primary theory”: the kind of description or explanation of human experience that is basic enough to be mostly universal, such as plants requiring water to grow. Primary theory is opposed to more complex “secondary theory” like witchcraft or subatomic physics, referring to unseen phenomena, which explains events anomalous to primary theory and is not at all universal.
Now if common sense is defined as primary theory, what then is its philosophical significance? Far less, I would argue, than is often claimed for “common sense.” The problems with primary theory are twofold: first, it is relatively limited in scope; and second, it is often wrong. Both of these problems can already be seen from the demarcation I laid out in the previous post – the point that common sense (thus defined) does not include the hard-won conclusions of natural science. Common sense can tell us that people who eat raspberries will be healthy and those who eat mistletoe berries will sicken; it doesn’t tell us why this is the case. That requires an accumulation of specialized knowledge gained through more systematic investigation. Similarly, common sense tells us that the sun goes up and goes down, as does a baseball – moving in the sky around a fixed earth – when in fact this is not the case at all, we are the ones who are moving.
Likewise, contra Thill’s comment, common sense does nothing to prevent racism, and historically has done much to support it. Thill claims “Common sense tells us that all humans have the same biology, i.e., a Jew is subject to the same biological processes an ‘Aryan’ or an Arab is subject to.” But to the extent that primary theory tells us this, it tells us the same about other primates, which are killed and nourished by more or less the same things that humans are. Humans outside our in-group, by contrast, can look just as alien as chimpanzees do, with their unintelligible languages and their strange tools or dress. And so indeed many tribes call themselves by a name that translates as “the people” – the common sense of everyday experience has told them that others were something not quite human. A more advanced secondary theory, a departure from common sense, was required to teach people the truth that we share a common humanity.
And so it is no strike against a philosophy that it denies common sense, in either sense of the term. I explained before why our understanding should be able to depart from prevalent ordinary beliefs. But if we aim at truth, we should also be ready to depart from primary theory. It is far removed from common sense to say that the earth revolves around the sun, or that apparently solid pieces of matter are mere collections of atoms; yet these claims are nevertheless true. And, to take us back to earlier discussions, the same can be said of Madhyamaka philosophies like Nāgārjuna’s that claim the world as we experience it is ultimately unreal. If one’s secondary theory did not at times and on some level contradict the primary theory, one could probably just stick with the primary theory and call it a day. But if one seeks genuine truth, one needs to do better than that.
Now it is reasonable to demand, as Aristotle does, that philosophy “save the appearances” to some extent: if one says that common sense – in either sense – is wrong, one must then go on to explain why it’s so common. One needs a theory of error. Some counterintuitive philosophies have a hard time providing this. Śaṅkara tries to tell us that truth is really one, indivisible; he grants that we perceive plurality, and argues that this perception is ignorance and error. But if everything is one and indivisible, how can there be ignorance? In order to be ignorance, wouldn’t it have to be a second thing, divisible from truth? One might argue Śaṅkara has ways of answering such an objection, but there’s no denying that it’s a thorny problem for him, comparable to the Abrahamic problem of suffering. If a philosophical system cannot adequately explain the existence and prevalence commonsense views (again, either in the sense of prevalent ordinary beliefs or the sense of primary theory), then that is a genuine strike against it. But the bare fact that it diverges from common sense is not in itself a problem.
Science does not deny that we perceive sunrise and sunset. It only provides an explanation of this fact and an explanation countenanced by commonsense in light of available examples of apparent motion. Hence, there is no incompatibility between science and commonsense in this context. Even if they were incompatible in this context, it would not follow by any stretch of logic that science and commonsense are incompatible.
You seem to completely ignore the fact of the interdependence of science and commonsense in the overwhelming majority of cases. Take evolution. The diversity of species is commonsense in the sense of “knowledge of obvious facts of nature”. The science of evolution starts with and accepts commonsense truth concerning the diversity of species. Consider also how much of commonsense has gone into the Darwinian explanation of this diversity of species! Most, if not all, of the key premises of the Darwinian explanation of diversity of species affirm commonsense.
Think of Newton’s laws of gravitation. Is there anything in them which is “counterintuitive” or unintelligible to commonsense? Not at all!
The fact that we have successful “popularizing” (translation into terms intelligible in ordinary language and to commonsense) of relativity and even quantum theory shows that commonsense and ordinary language are expansive or inclusive enough in their scope or range.
However, the metaphysical views you mention make no sense in terms of either common sense or science.
“Śaṅkara…grants that we perceive plurality, and argues that this perception is ignorance and error.”
If you perceive something, you can’t be “ignorant” of it. Nor can you be in “error” in perceiving something. You can only go wrong in your inferences or judgments pertaining to your perceptions.
Would Sankara also “argue” that our perception of the plurality of words in his babblings is “ignorance and error”? In that case, we can’t be sure we understand his claims! Nor can he be sure that he is making any sense in advancing those claims! And to whom is he making his claims if all plurality is an illusion? Isn’t that like wanting to convert a barren woman’s son to Advaita?
“the same can be said of Madhyamaka philosophies like Nāgārjuna’s that claim the world as we experience it is ultimately unreal.”
What a curious spectacle! An unreal entity named “Nagarjuna” is trying to convince, by means of an unreal language, other unreal entities that they are all unreal!
michael reidy said:
It’s a matter of metaphysics, of how things must fundamentally be so that they may appear as they do. That may run counter to straightforward appearance. It’s more complicated than the contradiction that you claim and as I think you probably know. ‘This game is played’ Wittgenstein.
Just because in some cases reality diverges from appearance, it does not follow that it must always do so. If reality always diverged from appearance, we would not be around.
All known cases of reality diverging from appearance are cases accessible to commonsense and/or science.
Revisionary metaphysics, i.e., metaphysics which seeks to revise commonsense ideas on reality, hasn’t offered us a single confirmed claim on the divergence of reality from appearance!
Thill, Nagarjuna would say that perception is not a single event. It is a complex interaction or composite of sense organ, object and consciousness. Because perception is dependently arising, Najarjuna says that it is empty (i.e. that neither self nor other has independent existence).
I think Nagarjuna would also agree with you that you “can . . . go wrong with your inferences and judgments pertaining to your perceptions.” Where he might differ with you is the level of detail with which you each approach your analysis of perception.
If I can speak for you, you view perception as something of a solid event that is evaluated by the conscious mind and accepted as “true” or rejected as “false” based on broad common sense comparisons. For example — to take one of the Buddhist “common sense” parameters that I outlined in another reply (and to use a traditional Buddhist analogy) — you might view a jaundiced person’s perception of color is “false” based on a consensus that includes non-jaundiced persons.
Nagarjuna, based on Buddhist abhidharma would view perception as a chain of events. These events would include an initial conceptual split of the perceived world into “self” and “other” and then a series of events following from that as “self” establishes a “relationship” with “other”. The initial dualistic split that underlies perception is avidya — or basic ignorance.
Interestingly, a couple of scientific studies of perception widely published in 2007 or so found that a multi-sensory illusion can be created where our mind integrates our senses of sight and touch in such a way that the subject perceives an “out of body” experience. The scientists, of course, view this as a multi-sensory “illusion” and our normal perception of a self existing in a body as “real”. I don’t know how Nagarguna would view it. I found the studies provocative.
“The initial dualistic split that underlies perception is avidya — or basic ignorance.”
Jim, you really must have more respect for language and commonsense and abandon these bizarre Buddhist metaphysical fantasies which seem to be taking their toll on your capacity to reason cogently! LOL
In plain words, you are saying that the obvious perceiver-perceived distinction, e.g., the distinction between you the perceiver and these sentences you are perceiving, is “ignorance”.
First, you are misusing the word “ignorance”. Ignorance, or knowledge, can only be ascribed to entities which are capable of cognition. Thus a distinction, such as the subject-object distinction or the perceiver-perceived distinction, cannot strictly be called “ignorance”. You can claim that the distinction is false or that the distinction ignores some fact, but the distinction itself cannot be “ignorance”.
Second, consider the absurdity of claiming that the subject-object distinction, or the perceiver-perceived distinction, is false given the fact that you typed that sentence and perceived it on your monitor!!! The sentences on this blog are also perceptual objects and your responses to them prove that you are different from them!
Thill, the point is that the sentences on this blog and I arise together and are mutually dependent. The sentences don’t exist without a reader and the reader is dependent upon the sentences.
Now, of course, you will say that is ridiculous — that a reader exists independently from the words on a page. But to say that you are positing the existence of another object or world of objects that the reader exists in relation to. The fact is that there is no “self” without “other” — and sometimes the other that creates from one fraction of a moment to the next that transitory, centerless thing that we call a self might be a set of words on a page.
The fact that you say that “perceptual objects and my responses to them prove that I am different from them” shows that you and I essentially agree! To be different, I need a perceptual object to be different from. My existence is dependent on other. And because we arise from moment to moment in relation to our world, our sense of our existence is very tenuous and everything is constantly changing. If we are attached to ourselves — as most of us are — it is terrifying, like falling from a plane without a parachute. The only good news is that there is no ground.
“the sentences on this blog and I arise together and are mutually dependent.”
Oh, really? So, when you are not reading them, they don’t exist? Now how is it that they remain the same sentences when you access this blog again given that you are changing from moment to moment? How is it that others can read them when you, their author, isn’t looking at them? How is it that when you and others are reading them at the same time they remain the same English sentences you wrote earlier? Do you seriously think that the sentences will vanish from cyberspace if you cease to exist now?
This idealist gobbledygook must cease quickly!
Do you and the stars also arise together when you look at them? Are the stars dependent on you for their existence? If you answer in the affirmative, I would be tempted to suggest way more than an astronomy refresher! LOL
All this Buddhist and other forms of idealism seem like anthropocentrism gone raving mad!
“The fact that you say that “perceptual objects and my responses to them prove that I am different from them” shows that you and I essentially agree!”
You are confusing the evidence for the distinction between perceiver and perceived with the evidence for the dependence of the perceiver on the perceived!
The fact that you are running away from snake proves that you are distinct from the snake, but this does not mean that the existence of the snake depends on you or that you are dependent on the snake!
There is a simple confusion underlying your bizarre claims. We need contrast cases for conceptual intelligibility, but this doesn’t imply that the referents of the contrasting concepts are “mutually dependent” for their existence!
The concept of “tall” needs the contrasting concept of “short”, but it would be absurd to conclude from this that tall people depend for their existence on short people!
Thus the concepts of “perceiver” and “perceived” are mutually dependent, but it would be absurd to conclude from this that a given perceiver and perceived object depend on each other for their existence.
The motion of the earth around the sun is not perceived by us. “Idealist gobbledygook” would then lead us to conclude that it is not real or true that the earth goes around the sun!
“Think of Newton’s laws of gravitation. Is there anything in them which is “counterintuitive” or unintelligible to commonsense? Not at all!”
I take this claim back. “Action at a distance” is counter-intuitive as Newton himself acknowledged.
This is an appropriate context to clarify that what I espouse is a version of “critical common-sensism” (C.S. Peirce’s terminology – see his essay on “Critical Common-sensism”), a synthesis of the Scottish school of commonsense and some of Peirce’s ideas. Peirce was keen on distinguishing his “critical common-sensism” from the Scottish school represented by Reid and Dugald Stewart.
An important feature of critical common-sensism is the view that commonsense evolves and is not a static structure. But I think that the “onion model” of commonsense may be plausible. There is a core of universal truths and then there are layers around it which are modified or even discarded in light of experience and scientific research.
“It is far removed from common sense to say that the earth revolves around the sun, or that apparently solid pieces of matter are mere collections of atoms; yet these claims are nevertheless true.”
Neither of these scientific claims are “far removed” from commonsense. Apparent motion is accessible to commonsense. The idea that objects ultimately break down into smaller constituents is also accessible or intelligible to commonsense.
There is really no inconsistency or contradiction between “We perceive sunrise and sunset.” and “Sunrise and sunset are caused not by the motion of the sun, but by the motion of earth.” Contradiction or inconsistency obtains only if the claims in question have the respective forms “P” and “Not P” and the claims I mentioned do not have that form.
In the same way, there is no contradiction between “We perceive solid objects.” and “Atoms are the ultimate constituents of the solid objects we perceive.”
In its very nature, commonsense does not require the burden of proof! This is the thrust of Wittgenstein’s reflections in On Certainty. Rather, if a philosophical claim contradicts commonsense, then it is an extraordinary claim. And as Carl Sagan put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The extraordinary philosophical claim may be true, but the considerable onus or burden of proof is on the proponent of that claim to demonstrate its plausibility.
Amod Lele said:
Thill, here and in the previous post, you have yet to answer my question about which statement counts as common sense: “We perceive the sun to go up and down” or “The sun actually does go up and down.” (The same can be applied to any number of other sets of claims: e.g. “We perceive that humans cannot walk on the moon” vs. “Humans cannot walk on the moon.”) If the latter, common sense is simply wrong on this point, and we should expect that it can be proven wrong on many other points too; to say that a point is common sense does little to indicate its truth. If the former, well, many Buddhist thinkers who deny a self will happily affirm that we perceive a self; common sense is basically just a matter of affirming the fact that we have perceptions which are often false, and few deny that. In neither case does the concept do the philosophical work that you wish it to do. Let us be done with it.