Several of this blog’s frequent commenters find significant philosophical value in the concept of “common sense,” and find it helpful to refute a claim on the grounds that the claim contradicts “common sense.” These commenters include not only Thill, whom I challenged on the topic several times before, but Jabali108 and Neocarvaka. (See the comments on this post for examples.) So the concept is worth revisiting if those debates are to get anywhere.
Let me start out by noting that I see some philosophical value in appeals to common sense defined in a certain way. This is the sense that I outlined in my first post on the topic: the prejudgements one brings to a given inquiry, especially as they come out of shared assumptions of one’s own society. My commenters seem to have something quite different in mind, however. Thill said so explicitly in his first reply: he understands “common sense” not as socially shared assumptions or presuppositions, but as something else, something one might describe as more objective. His most recent (and probably clearest) statement on the subject contrasts common sense with “special training, e.g., items of scientific, technological, or aesthetic knowledge, scientific, technological, or aesthetic ways of knowing, and scientific, technological, or aesthetic standards of reasonableness,” and also with the paranormal or supernatural; but this ordinary or untrained sense, he claims, still provides us with reliable access to knowledge. (I discuss Thill’s exposition of “common sense” here because he has so far spelled it out more explicitly than the others.)
One must first note that the information that one learns without special training can be wrong. The point is clearest with respect to natural science, for the information one learns with scientific training so often contradicts the information one receives without it. I have returned repeatedly to a key example: untrained inference tell human beings that the sun goes up and comes down in the sky, in a manner similar to a baseball being launched and landing. This is a clear case in which “common sense” as Thill understands it is demonstrably wrong. Thill twice gave a wholly inadequate reply, based around the inarguable point that “Science does not deny that we perceive sunrise and sunset.” But that evades the important issue. The question I asked multiple times in response is: what is it that our supposed common sense tells us about the sun? Does it tell us merely that the sun is perceived to rise and fall (even though it actually doesn’t)? Then we can depend on common sense only to tell us about appearance and not about the truth of the matter; specialized training supersedes common sense when it comes to truth. Or does common sense tell us that the sun really does rise and fall? Then common sense is wrong in this case and can be wrong in other cases too, and we need specialized training to be able to tell when it is wrong and when it is right.
We made some progress in a discussion tangential to a more recent post. Here, as far as I can tell, Thill effectively admitted for the first time that common sense is fallible. It can be wrong; the fact that something is perceptible to the untrained, or widely understood among them, does not automatically make it correct.
This position appears to be a (welcome) change from a previous definition of common sense, as “the stock of Truths pertaining to the world naturally accessible to normal human beings anywhere on this planet and the faculties of the ordinary human mind employed in gaining access to those truths…” Fortunately, Thill is no longer treating common sense as true by definition, as he did in that previous definition. For then it would have been a useless tautology for establishing the truth: if common sense is necessarily true, then it does us no good to say that something is true because it is common sense, for that is merely saying it is true because it is true. To establish that something was common sense, we would need to establish its truth first, or we would not really have established that it was in fact common sense.
Rather, Thill’s admission that common sense is fallible comes in the context of distinguishing the infallible from the reliable. He compares common sense to visual perception: our eyes are fallible, as through optical illusions or hallucinations. But despite the existence of illusions and hallucinations, we can generally rely on our the evidence of our eyes, and we will be right the vast majority of the time.
But what reasons do we have to believe that “common sense” is indeed reliable at all, let alone reliable to the degree that visual perception is reliable? The latter claim is a most extraordinary one – and one for which I have seen precious little evidence or argument proffered. If the world can be known so easily without training, one wonders why one would ever bother with any training at all – including scientific training, which Thill has explicitly included among the kinds of training not necessary for common sense.
Science proves “common sense” wrong in a great many ways; sunrise and sunset are only the most obvious. Common sense tells us that a piece of rock is a continuous, solid whole; science tells us that in fact it is made of separate atoms that do not touch each other but are kept apart by force. Common sense even tells us that something as perfectly suited for its work as the human hand or eye could not have happened merely by random chance: the only non-biological phenomena we see with that degree of adaptation are the products of deliberate intentional design, by humans or other animals (such as a beaver dam or beehive). One can see this point without any specialized training; and when one does so, one is wrong.
But such situations, of course, are exactly what one should expect. People who think and train hard to learn about a given matter for a long period of time learn things about that matter that untrained people do not. It should come as no surprise that scientists know the workings of the natural world better than those with no scientific training, for they have worked long and hard at establishing conclusions that are better than everyday ones. To say that they do not is the lowest form of know-nothing populism. And similarly, though their methods are often different from scientists and though they are often wrong themselves, the views of the great philosophers are nevertheless usually more adequate and more profound than those of untrained “common sense.” Thinking about something longer usually makes you understand it better; if anything should be obvious to the untrained, it’s that point.
I have argued before that this is the great problem with relying too heavily on “intuitions” in ethics as well: there should be no primacy given to untrained knowledge. The whole point of training in something is to do better at it than do the untrained. There is no reason why the burden of proof should be on the trained. Rather, it should be on those who go against common sense in the first sense: the existing assumptions and prejudgements with which a debate implicitly begins.
I fully expect to get debate on the points above; but let me offer one caveat before it begins. You will be wasting your time if you try to refute anything I have said here with a comment like the first one here: “It is a non-sequitur to conclude that something must be good or great on the basis that a few or many have been reading or subscribing to it for a significant number of years. Just take a look at the history of superstition, religion, theology, ethics, and philosophy!” That history is exactly what I have been looking at in considerable depth for many years myself, and it is exactly that study that has convinced me the great thinkers of the past are much smarter than you or me, however many points they might be wrong about. I have little patience for that sort of question begging.
Thanks, Amod, for your discussion. I appreciate your time and effort. It gave me a chance to think again about these issues. Here are some thoughts:
1. The reliability of common sense, of its constitutive faculties, is not an all or nothing issue. As I think I’ve pointed out in earlier post, the fact that common sense turned out not to disclose reality in any given case does not support the conclusion that it never does or that it does not do so in another given case. There are stocks of truth disclosed by common sense, e.g., we need to breathe in order to stay alive, tigers and poisonous snakes are dangerous, rocks are solid, fire produces burns, etc., which are beyond reasonable doubt.
2. Common sense is self-corrective, e.g., the case of the stick which looks bent when it is immersed in water, mirages in the desert, etc. I think I have also pointed this out in an earlier response.
3. Specialized training, e.g., science, is not infallible either! So, you would be required to draw the same conclusions on specialized training! Do you really want to maintain that science is not reliable? That would undermine your criticism of common sense on grounds of science! So, it is best to acknowledge that specialized training is also fallible in just the way common sense is, but it is also self-corrective in just the way common sense is.
4. Specialized training, e.g., science, depends on common sense for arriving at so many of its results, including experimental ones. I think this should be obvious. There isn’t one verified experimental result in science I can think of which did not presuppose the reliability of common sense faculties and truths. Even the much-vaunted Copernican reversal of the common sense perception that the sun goes around the earth presupposes the reliability of (common sense) perception or observation of astronomical data, the common sense truth that the observer is located on the earth, etc.
I am befuddled by the notion that our senses are not reliable. Science and technology would not have been possible without relying on our senses and if our senses were not reliable.
The arts also depend on the reliability of our senses. How could we have music if it did not depend on our auditory powers even as it enhanced them by means of “ear training”? How would painting and photography work and flourish without reliance on the uniformity and veracity of perception?
Mike Gorse said:
The issue, as I see it, is that what we call common sense is a result of a synthesis of our knowledge and perceptions, and such are limited, so it is useful, but, as you write, it is not always reliable. If a researcher concludes something that goes against common sense, then that may or may not be a warning sign that something is wrong, depending on the situation. Also, someone who is trained in a particular area will likely have a different idea of what is or isn’t common sense than someone who is less trained, since it is affected by the knowledge that we believe we have.
I’m reminded of the doubts of mostly non-scientists around global warming / climate change, since its effects are not necessarily obvious to those who have not studied the issue. When I watched Jesus Camp, I remember the pastor appealing to the childrens’ common sense by suggesting that the Earth warming by a degree or so wouldn’t be a large problem, but this was not a scientific argument (although it is also inaccurate in that climate scientists project warming much greater than that). When you get a lot of snow in New England, it might seem at odds with the notion that the Earth is warming, but there are complex factors affecting the climate that wouldn’t be obvious on the surface.
Errors can occur in the process of research. How are these identified and corrected without any recourse to common sense faculties and truths?
“Errors can occur in the process of research. How are these identified and corrected without any recourse to common sense faculties and truths?”
These are identified and correct through the processes of science, of course. One scientist sees another’s conclusion and says, “No, that doesn’t match with my data, or my understanding. Let me either point out the flaw in your reasoning/experiment, or create a new experiment that will resolve the apparent conflict.”
Certainly, the process I just described requires some “common sense” assumptions about the universe’s logical consistency. But of course expertise builds on prior knowledge; that is a truism. But I don’t mean to dismiss something out of hand just because it seems like a truism: what conclusion do you think should be drawn from this fact? It does not seem to argue against the idea that specialized training allows superior knowledge and understanding.
“Certainly, the process I just described requires some “common sense” assumptions about the universe’s logical consistency. But of course expertise builds on prior knowledge; that is a truism.”
Yes, but obviously the common sense “assumptions” (they are in fact truths) include the reliability of our normal powers of observation. And that “prior knowledge” includes a great deal of common sense truths about the relative continuity and stability of objects, etc.
“But I don’t mean to dismiss something out of hand just because it seems like a truism: what conclusion do you think should be drawn from this fact? It does not seem to argue against the idea that specialized training allows superior knowledge and understanding.
I agree it does not and I never denied that. But it also does not undermine the reliability and the necessity of dependence on a great deal of knowledge available to us prior to that training. Even the demonstration of this superior knowledge and understanding requires that mass of knowledge acquired prior to training.
Amod Lele said:
I dispute the existence of such a “mass.” Knowledge acquired through training depends on some knowledge that is not acquired through training. It does not depend on all of it. And such dependence does not establish the category of untrained experience as a reliable source of knowledge.
“Yes, but obviously the common sense “assumptions” (they are in fact truths) include the reliability of our normal powers of observation.”
1) I disagree that common sense knowledge is necessarily true. Calling them truths begs the question. Though perhaps calling them “assumptions” begs the question from the other direction, so I’ll switch to the word “intuition”, which should be more agnostic about who true they might be.
2) The processes of science do not just include our intuitions about the reliability of observation, in a critical way: they also include knowledge about the UNRELIABILITY of observation. They are built upon the very premise that, while observation has some value, we can very easily be misled by those observations if we don’t organize them in a systematic and reproducible way. That’s why scientific studies include large sample sizes, controls, statistics, and so forth: science is not convinced by a single observation, in a resolutely non-common-sense way.
Last one based on another thread, should be obvious which:
3) Evolutionary arguments are very risky. They require a lot of conceptual assumptions about what is selected for, and what is not; what is optimal/evolved, and what is not; what is beneficial, and what is not. Your logic seems to be “it worked for a species, therefore it is extraordinary and acute and reliable.” But this evolutionary logic applies just as well to any trait: dog colorblindness, snake deafness. These are obviously unhelpful traits, but it didn’t matter, because the species had other capabilities that made up for it. Canine evolution did not involve any selection for color vision. The point is, the evolutionary past presence of a trait does not lead to the conclusion that the trait is beneficial, reliable, etc. Presence in an evolutionary timelines does not demonstrate value.
Why don’t you draw the conclusion that science is unreliable? After all, there have been so many falsified theories or hypotheses in the history of science that the alleged “errors” of common sense pale in comparison.
Well, you might say that science is self-corrective. So is common sense! I see a stick bent in water and I take it out or feel it in the water and I know that it only appears to be bent and that it is really not so. Science provides the explanation of why the stick looks bent when immersed in water, but common sense did not have to wait for science to come along and point out that the stick is not really bent in the water.
It’s the same for mirages in the desert. Peoples of the desert have known the distinction between a mirage and a real oasis without benefit of a scientific explanation of what causes mirages. So there is a great deal of knowledge available to humans which is logically prior to scientific explanation.
So many species, including our ape relatives, have survived against heavy odds for millions of years without abstract thought. How do you explain that?
“These are identified and correct through the processes of science, of course.”
And how would you show that those processes of science, i.e., the scientific method, are reliable without appealing to common sense at all?
As I said later in my comment, the processes of science certainly do rely on common-sense understandings, e.g. of a consistent universe. But as I also asked, so what?
Is the only goal here to claim that “common sense contains useful things?” It absolutely does; you’re not going to find many people to argue against that. However, if you intend to claim that common sense has some sort of superior reliability compared to trained knowledge, then I don’t think “trained knowledge builds on common sense” actually argues in that direction. Or if it does, please help me understand…
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Mike, and welcome! I agree with you. The appeal to common sense is very often a form of anti-intellectual populism. It is an irony that the same kind of appeal used by advocates of “religion” against science in Jesus Camp is being used here by advocates of science against “religion.”
“But what reasons do we have to believe that “common sense” is indeed reliable at all, let alone reliable to the degree that visual perception is reliable? The latter claim is a most extraordinary one – and one for which I have seen precious little evidence or argument proffered.”
I am puzzled by this claim. Doesn’t the science of anatomy, of the eye, actually vindicate its reliability in normal conditions? How do we, scientists included, navigate our way around successfully on a daily basis if not by relying on our perceptions? Do we frequently consult some scientific theory in order to that?
How do you think human beings could have survived at all if their visual perceptions were not reliable? The science of evolution will tell you that they couldn’t have done so if their visual apparatus did not have adaptive (i.e., reliable) features! Indeed, no organism could have survived if whatever cognitive apparatus it has did not have adaptive (i.e., reliable) features!
These philosophers who depend on their eyes to get to conference venues and give a lecture, to an audience for the reality of whose existence they depend, again, on the reliability of their own senses, on the unreliability of perception do appear, at the very least, to be doing something very odd!
“If the world can be known so easily without training, one wonders why one would ever bother with any training at all – including scientific training, which Thill has explicitly included among the kinds of training not necessary for common sense.”
Unless you want to unreasonably espouse “scientism”, it should be clear that we do know some things about the world without benefit of scientific training. In this we share features common to at least with other intelligent mammals. Children are not taught science first to enable them to navigate their way around! They are taught the truths of common sense, “Don’t eat sand.”, “Don’t touch fire.”, etc.
Indeed, this pre-scientific knowledge is presupposed by scientific training which has to start, not on a blank state, but on the basis of the stock of truths of common sense. Do you have an example of scientific training which does not presuppose at least some of the pre-scientifc stock of truths disclosed by common sense?
Amod Lele said:
Apparently I was not clear enough in writing that sentence. I agree that visual perception is generally reliable – though, as we noted, not infallible. That is not in dispute. (If one were to argue that the things perceived by one’s senses are ultimately unreal, one would need to argue that the truths of visual perception are superseded, in a manner akin to Newtonian physics being superseded by Einsteinian. But I am not trying to argue for that position at the moment; let us leave it aside so the debate may be more productive.)
The “most extraordinary” claim “for which I have seen precious little evidence or argument proffered” was not the claim that visual perception is reliable, not at all. Rather, it was and is the claim that “common sense” is reliable to the extent that visual perception is reliable. The fact of a claim being “common sense” seems to depend on its being learned without specialized training. Thus the title of my post: lack of training is not reliable.
“The “most extraordinary” claim “for which I have seen precious little evidence or argument proffered” was not the claim that visual perception is reliable, not at all. Rather, it was and is the claim that “common sense” is reliable to the extent that visual perception is reliable. The fact of a claim being “common sense” seems to depend on its being learned without specialized training.”
I have already clarified that common sense includes ordinary ways of knowing such as sense perception and elementary reasoning. At the level of common sense, we do not undergo any specialized training to use our senses. So, common sense includes ways of knowing by means of our senses without benefit of specialized training. Hence, the reliability of common sense does depend on the overall reliability of sense perception, bearing in mind that sense perception can be self-corrective aided by elementary reasoning, e.g., the stick bent in water, mirages in the desert, etc. All common sense judgments about the world depend on the overall reliability of sense perception.
But specialized training also depends on the overall reliability of sense perception. A cursory glance at the history of scientific experiments will prove this. Galileo’s experiments from the leaning tower of Pisa obviously presupposes the reliability of sense perception. So, even science, not to mention technology and the arts, depends on the overall reliability of sense perception.
Given that experimental testing is the touchstone of veracity and reliability in science and technology, and experimental testing presupposes the reliability of sense perception, even science and technology are reliable to the extent that sense perception is reliable on the whole!
Amod Lele said:
Thill, I’m confused. Are you still under the impression that I’m saying sense perception is not reliable? Because that’s what this passage seems to be a response to. I agreed that sense perception is generally reliable. What I dispute is that “common sense” is generally reliable. And nothing here seems to be an argument for its reliability. You say only that common sense as you use it depends on perception. Well yes, but that tells us nothing about its reliability. Arguments for the existence of phlogiston also depended on sense perception. That doesn’t mean they were correct.
Ok, thanks for reiterating that you accept that sense perception is reliable. I take it that this means that we can verify whether a claim is true or false by means of visual perception, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, etc.
What I mean when I say that common sense depends on sense perception is this:
1. The judgments of common sense are arrived at by means of sense perception, e.g., Fire burns.
2. The judgments of common sense are confirmed, i.e., known to be true, by means of sense perception, e.g., Fire burns.
Thanks for giving the example of phlogiston. Yes, the issue of its existence depended on experimental testing, e.g., heating of metals to determine whether they lost weight as a result of the inevitable loss of (an alleged entity) phlogiston, and was resolved on those grounds, e.g., metals gaining weight as a result of heating or oxidation.
And all these forms of experimental testing are reliable only to the extent that sense perception is reliable, i.e., we can use sense perception to determine the truth or falsity of claims.
“lack of (specialized) training is not reliable” is a hasty generalization which ignores counterexamples.
What sort of specialized training do you require to see objects such as trees, people, and tables in daily life?
It would be bizarre to question or dismiss a person’s description of the shops on a street or the food served in a restaurant on the grounds that he or she did not undergo “specialized training” to do so.
“The science of evolution will tell you that they couldn’t have done so if their visual apparatus did not have adaptive (i.e., reliable) features!”
It would seem that there is no need to appeal to the science of anatomy, well-justified as that is. Isn’t it obvious, given the dangers we face in the world, that if our senses were not on the whole reliable, we wouldn’t have survived?
“the great thinkers of the past are much smarter than you or me, however many points they might be wrong about.”
This begs the question of why they are smart not to mention being much smarter than you and me, particularly if their central claims are patently absurd.
The appeal to authority is always a fallacy in the absence of a reasoned rebuttal of a charge of absurdity.
How is it smart to deny the reality of the world? Isn’t it evidently foolish to do so since the denial implies the existence of a denier who is using language and addressing others?
How is it smart to deny the reality of motion or of change?
How is it smart to make a claim which implies that a monkey or a mosquito is identical to an omnipresent being?
How is it smart to believe in demons and that they have sex with women?
How is it smart to believe that an infinite, eternal, and incorporeal being is at the same time a crucified human being?
Amod Lele said:
The appeal to one-line rhetorical questions is always a fallacy in the face of systemic argument.
How is it smart to believe that the Earth is round, in the face of the evidence of our senses which tells us it is flat?
How is it smart to believe the Earth actually revolves around the sun?
How is it smart to believe every solid entity is actually made up of invisible particles that don’t even touch each other?
How is it smart to believe that human beings are the descendants of monkeys?
I think you and I both know that there are answers which could be made to your questions, just as there are to this one. We may disagree on whether those answers are good ones, at least to the questions you ask; but they are out there. Each question of yours can be debated one at a time. Some of them already have been here, and more probably will be, in various posts related to the subject. To assume that, say, denying the reality of change is stupid and place it in a rhetorical question without any further argument is exactly the kind of question-begging that I discouraged in my post.
Here’s a question that isn’t rhetorical. Whom exactly do you expect to convince with a response like this? Anyone who already believes that the major ontological thinkers of the past weren’t just a bunch of easily dismissed stupidheads is probably also open to the possibility that change is in some sense unreal, or that there is some sort of omnipresent entity that is in some respect identical to individual existents.
Smartness or cleverness is consistent with intellectual and moral perversity which expresses itself in (no doubt insincerely and hypocritically) denying what is known to be true and affirming what is known to be false, and declaring that what is known to be good is bad and that what is known to be bad is good.
Amod Lele said:
“Smartness or cleverness is consistent with intellectual and moral perversity” – that is true, and relevant. But on the remaining points one must always ask: “what is known to be true” by whom? “(No doubt insincerely and hypocritically) denying what is known to be true and affirming what is known to be false, and declaring that what is known to be good is bad and that what is known to be bad is good” – this description, verbatim, would have sounded entirely characteristic as a criticism of Darwin in his age.
“Common sense tells us that a piece of rock is a continuous, solid whole; science tells us that in fact it is made of separate atoms that do not touch each other but are kept apart by force.”
Which scientist attempts to walk through a wall of rock because of this theory of what it is at a very fine or micro-level of its composition? Which scientist denies that rocks are solid and impenetrable to other solid objects and human and animal bodies bodies?
“Common sense even tells us that something as perfectly suited for its work as the human hand or eye could not have happened merely by random chance: the only non-biological phenomena we see with that degree of adaptation are the products of deliberate intentional design, by humans or other animals (such as a beaver dam or beehive). One can see this point without any specialized training; and when one does so, one is wrong.”
Common sense also tells us that intelligent beings produce or design complex structures. Yes. But common sense also shows that complex structures can be formed by the consistent action of natural forces, e.g.,by the action of persistent rain, wind, heat, etc.
In any given case of a complex structure, common sense is on the right track in thinking that it can’t be produced merely by random events. Let us not conflate the view that randomness alone cannot produce complexity with the view that an intelligent designer is required to produce complexity.
The science of evolution assuredly does not explain design merely in terms of random events. The consistent operation of natural selection, the laws of heredity, and the law-governed regularities of the environment all contribute to the development of a complex structure.
And this is all consistent with the common sense view that randomness alone cannot account for complexity of structure!
I would suggest that the relationship between common sense and science is mirrored in the relationship between the eye and technology which enhances visual perception, e.g., night-vision goggles, binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, etc.
In just the way these gadgets depend on the powers of the eye even as they enhance it, science depends on common sense even as it enhances the latter.
Ethan Mills said:
This is great, Amod. Here are a few observations.
First, in my own relatively brief interactions with Thill on this point, it occurred to me that I thought he meant “common sense” as a stock of knowledge-claims, but what I think he *really* means (please correct me if I’m wrong) is that “common sense” is a *process* of coming to know things. I said the first noble truth is not common sense because few people in fact agree with it, but what I think he meant is that you need some process of “common sense” to verify it for yourself involving observation and basic logic. That might be right, but then I was also right, because we simply meant different things. Amod and I seem to mean the “results” and Thill et al. mean the “process.”
Second, the use of “intuitions” or “common sense” in a discussion seems to be a sort of Luther-style, “here I stand, I can do no other.” By saying something is “intuitive” or “common sense” the interlocutor is really saying something like, “I believe this, but cannot, should not or will not offer any further reason for it.” Whether this is mere honesty about one’s cognitive state, an attempt to shut down inquiry, a necessary step in any successful inquiry, an attempt at a hubristic trump card, or something else, I’m not sure.
Third, while some unreflective people think common sense is whatever the majority think, whatever reflective people such as Thill, et al. mean by “common sense” it seems to turn out to not be so common, nor to be a sense.
I mean by “common sense” both the ordinary, common ways or processes of knowing things, e.g., sense perception and elementary reasoning, and the large stock of truths and prescriptions these ways or processes of knowing have consistently yielded and confirmed, e.g., fire burns wood, you cannot walk through a wall of rock, if you can’t swim, you will drown in any large or deep body of water, stay away from tigers, grizzly bears, etc.
“I said the first noble truth is not common sense because few people in fact agree with it, but what I think he meant is that you need some process of “common sense” to verify it for yourself involving observation and basic logic.”
Yes, that’s right. I meant to respond to your questions on common sense, but lost track of it. The first noble truth suggests that Dukkha or dissatisfaction, a state of unhappiness, is a universal, or, at least, a predominant feature of the human condition. How on earth can we go about finding out whether this is true or false without recourse to common sense processes or ways of knowing and the truths they have yielded?
“Second, the use of “intuitions” or “common sense” in a discussion seems to be a sort of Luther-style, “here I stand, I can do no other.”…Whether this is mere honesty about one’s cognitive state, an attempt to shut down inquiry, a necessary step in any successful inquiry, an attempt at a hubristic trump card, or something else, I’m not sure.”
As Wittgenstein would put it “My spade is turned.” Because I have hit rock bottom. All inquiry must start with, or presuppose, a stock of known truths. Common sense furnishes this starting point of inquiry. So, even a Kant has to accept at the start of inquiry that the “starry heavens” exist above and that a “moral law” exists within.
Even when one is questioning some of these known truths, one has to accept others. So, I can question whether what I am seeing in a dark backyard is really a snake, but then this presupposes that I have accepted that it is a dark backyard and that I have my eyes open and am seeing something. Wittgenstein’s On certainty makes all these points very clear. Doubt presupposes knowledge.
“whatever reflective people such as Thill, et al. mean by “common sense” it seems to turn out to not be so common, nor to be a sense.”
This is false. People are endowed with the faculties of common sense including the capacity for reflection and elementary reasoning. Don’t forget that even children ask questions.
However, human beings are remarkable in that they can form beliefs for which they not only have no evidence, but for which there clearly exists contrary evidence. I suspect that this has something to do with religion and the rewards of group identity and the perils of non-conformity to one’s group.
But this does not imply a total absence of common sense or its abrogation because even those who believe that a human being can die and come back to life, e.g., Christians, believe that this has happened and can happen only once! So, their common sense kicks in if I tell them that I recently died and was resurrected to be the “Messiah”!
With the exception of madness, I don’t see how anyone can totally suppress or consistently act contrary to common sense. It is essential for survival. Hence, even philosophers who deny the reality of the external world hold on to their pennies!
Ok, contrary to the inevitable appearance of the Sun going around the Earth (inevitable appearance by the very terms of heliocentric theory!), it is the Earth which goes around the Sun. (Thanks to Copernicus! Shame on Luther who wrote this about Copernicus: “The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”)
Now, that the Sun and the Earth exist and that human observers of the Sun and the planets exist on the Earth and not on the Sun is presupposed by Copernican astronomy.
To which science do we owe knowledge of these truths? Or are they among the stock of truths of common sense?
michael reidy said:
At first in this discussion there appeared to be building a false opposition between common sense and common science. That would of course be wrong, there is none, most people use common sense in their day to day activities but at the same time are prepared to be surprised. What Thill has been most consistent in is his championing of common sense over the freaks of ontologists and the purveyors of religious doctrine which flout that supervenient principle. He has been perhaps operating some version of Hume’s dictum.
The problem with this is that Hume as an idealist did not hold that we were in direct contact with the external world. Other casualties of Thill’s World would be Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley etc. Suffice to say the average philosophy course would be down the rabbit hole with Alice.
What of this foundationalist approach? Can common sense establish itself or is it disguised ontology? Even if one accepts the general reliability of common sense that does not mean that one is inoculated against metaphysics thereafter. Advaita Vedanta takes the reliability of perception as a default stance then it gets hairy. Personally I think common sense is General Ontology in civilian clothes.
Yes, you could speak of common sense ontology. And there would be an evolutionary argument for its veridical status.
Here’s a $ 666 billion question for anyone who thinks that common sense is not reliable, etc.
How on earth did the human species survive so many dangers in its environment for millions of years prior to the advent of science?
Think of the sheer numbers of our homo sapiens ancestors, not to mention the common ancestors of the apes from which we diverged, who lived and successfully reproduced prior to the development of science!
How did they navigate their way around environmental threats without science and without benefit of abstract thought, etc?
It must be common sense, the innate extraordinary intelligence of the human organism and its ways of knowing, the acute sensitivity of its sensory organs, and the remarkable powers of resistance of the immune system, which made that survival and successful reproduction over millions of years possible.
Could our entrapment in abstract thought in opposition to, or to the detriment of, our common sense and the intelligence of the body be the cause of our undoing, individually and as a species?
Amod Lele said:
Thill, I think this may be the first actual argument made here for the reliability of common sense. I don’t find it convincing; and I’m not sure you do either.
Let me quote a very distinguished thinker on the beneficial effects of false beliefs:
“After Nietzsche’s critique, which sweeps away at one stroke the cobwebs of many ‘pragmatic’ justifications of religious belief and experience, how anyone can still glibly proffer arguments of the form ‘Belief X has great (promised or hoped for?) benefits. So, belief X is true.’ beats me, but oddly enough many philosophers and theologians are peculiarly more resistant than other folks to the force of counter-argument and criticism once they have espoused a belief or theory!”
If you are now trying to tell us that untrained beliefs must be reliable at discovering truth because they allowed our prehistoric ancestors to survive, then it would appear that you have joined the company of these peculiarly resistant philosophers and theologians.
“the intelligence of the body”
And the philosophers in India had the perverse temerity, contrary to common sense, to consistently describe this marvelous body whose “aliveness”, especially if it is not dulled or atrophied due to addiction to abstraction and entertainment, is so breathtaking, as “Jada” or insentient!
michael reidy said:
There is a difference between a psychological theory and a metaphysical one. The metaphysical theory often takes the form of a transcendental postulate – how things must be fundamentally for things to appear as they do. This jada theory is not counter to a belief in the benefits of yoga, mental training and what have you. What I’m trying to express is that the jada business is not another empirical theory of some kind that is in conflict with psychological facts. In any case the chit-jada granthi (the knot between the conscious and the inert) is not reducible to the simplism that you purport it to be.
This worse than a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. Empirical claims are now metamorphosed into metaphysical claims to insulate them from refutation!
If the claim that the body is jada or insentient, and bereft of consciousness, is not an empirical claim, then I don’t know what is an empirical claim.
I didn’t really think metaphysics could so warp our sensibilities!
It seems to me that the question is not whether we can trust our senses in a subjective sense. The question is whether our perceptions and our common sense conclusions based on our perceptions can be said to be true in any objective sense.
It may be useful to break down the qualities of appearance that common sense relies upon to reach the conclusion that something is objectively true. Preliminarily, I think that these are three — and each of them have flaws that call into question the ability to use common sense to draw universal truths from subjective experience.
1. Consensus. Common sense considers consensus as evidence of objective truth. If I see a pink elephant, common sense says that I am delusional. If some critical mass of others see a pink elephant, the biologists formulate a new genus or species.
Consensus (or lack of consensus) is the basis for traditional Asian analogies of delusion. If a jaundiced person sees a white conch as yellow, we conclude that the perception is not truth because others see the conch as white.
The trouble with consensus is, of course, that consensus may be wrong. Furthermore, when consensus is drawn from a limited subset of all subjective observers (such as all human beings), is it accurate to assume that consensus says anything about objective reality?
2. Functionality. Common sense says that something that functions in a way that is expected is true. In this way, we say that a cubic zirconia is a “fake” diamond — it lacks the hardness and other functional qualities of a diamond.
This characteristic is also illustrated by traditional analogies of illusion. For example, a mirage of a desert oasis is thought of as an illusion and untrue because it lacks the functionality of a desert oasis, it will not satisfy thirst.
The trouble with common sense’s use of functionality as a means of finding objective truth is that functionality is always subjective. Nothing can be functional except in relation to other things. A diamond is hard only in relation to something softer. So, the most that we can say using common sense is that there is relative truth — something in a certain context, observed by a subjective observer functions in a certain way in relation to other things. In another context, perhaps in another solar system where matter is impossibly dense, a diamond is as soft as butter and does not function in the same way.
3. Continuity. Common sense says that something that is durable or consistent over time exists in an objective sense and is true. In this way, we view ephemeral events as untrue.
A traditional Asian illustration of this would be an object perceived in a dream. If we see a diamond in a dream, it seems real at the time. Only when we wake up and see that the object has disappeared does our common sense tell us that the experience was not true. By contrast, our waking world is accepted by common sense as true because it has a large (or at least some) degree of continuity from one day to the next.
There are a couple of problems in extending common sense perception based on continuity to a conclusion that something exists in an objective way. First, our waking experience is not all that continuous. Of course, our experience is not random or haphazard. In a relationship of one thing to another there is cause and effect and we can trace evolution of phenomena. However, over a relatively short period of time, everything changes. This is why our poets are fond of analogies to our life as a dream. Second, in a single moment, continuity does not exist. To experience continuity, we need to compare a present experience with a memory. And memory is a thought — an experience that differs remarkably from the present experience of an object. When we compare past to present, we are comparing two thoughts — a thought of our experience of the present and a memory (thought) of the past. This last point is a relatively subtle point. It is easier to see the lack of continuity over time.
None of this, of course, says that our relative experience is invalid. It is just important to understand that it is true only on a relative level — common sense will not permit conclusions as to the existence of any objective truth.
Anyway, these are a few thoughts. If anyone has thoughts about a different criterion on which to make a conclusion about objective reality based on common sense, I would be interested in hearing it.
Amod, two trains of thought:
1A. Your thesis that “lack of (specialized) training is not reliable.” means that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training are not reliable, i.e., not likely to be justified or true.
B. Let us suppose that this is true. Now, when I claim that I know that I have two legs or that I can distinguish my body from another person’s body, this knowledge-claim is not based on any “specialized training” of the sort required in the sciences, technology, and the arts.
C. So, in terms of your thesis, such knowledge-claims are not reliable.
D. But this is absurd.
Hence, your thesis that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training are not reliable is false.
2. You raise an interesting objection to my argument for the reliability of common sense based on the sheer survival for millions of years of our pre-scientific ancestors. (Well, it was no “specialized training” a la science which helped them to survive. So, it must have been common sense. Do you have an alternative?)
You seem to think that my acceptance of Nietzsche’s rebuttal of appeals to the (belief in) “blessedness” ensuing from espousing Christian beliefs is inconsistent with my argument for the reliability of common sense on the grounds that it explains the survival of our ancestors for millions of years.
There is a vast difference between justifying the espousal of a belief on the grounds that it is a requirement for an alleged or supposed condition of “blessedness” and the justification of common sense on the grounds that it enabled our ancestors to survive for millions of years.
First, the survival and reproduction of our remote pre-scientific ancestors is a fact, not a supposition or speculation.
Second, while “blessedness” or subjective states of peace, or joy, or pleasure, can be, and in many cases are, the products or effects of delusive beliefs, it is highly improbable that survival in a harsh and dangerous physical environment can be or is the result of holding a great deal of unreliable or delusive beliefs about that environment. If you think that that the sabre-toothed tiger you see is going to be friendly to you, you will leave no descendants behind, assuming that you have not done so already!
Third, survival necessarily requires not mere belief, but knowledge of the environment, whereas states of “blessedness”, peace, joy, or pleasure, clearly do not necessarily require knowledge and can be, and often are, products of mere belief, including mere belief about belief!
So, the argument for the reliability of common sense knowledge of the world from the incontrovertible fact of the survival and reproduction of our ancestors, who didn’t have “specialized training” but only common sense, in extremely harsh and dangerous environments for millions of years is in an entirely different ballpark from that of arguments for the reliability of Christian or other religious beliefs on grounds of their alleged or actual effects of leading to states of “blessedness”, joy, peace, pleasure,etc.
Amod, a third train of thought:
Since knowledge-claims arrived at by means of specialized training in the sciences, technology, and the arts presupposes common sense ways of knowing and common sense knowledge-claims based on these ways of knowing and without benefit of specialized training, any claim to the effect that common sense knowledge-claims are not justified or reliable implies that knowledge-claims arrived at by means of specialized training in the sciences, technology, and the arts are also not justified or reliable.
But this absurd.
Hence, it is false that common sense knowledge-claims are not justified or reliable.
What sort of specialized training do I need to know that I am in pain? Obviously, I need no specialized training to know that I am in pain.
So, if your claim that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training are unjustified or unreliable is true, then my claim that I know that I am in pain would be unjustified or unreliable.
But this is absurd.
Hence, your claim that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training are unjustified or unreliable is false.
What sort of specialized training do I need to know that a person is upset or angry or sad? Obviously, I don’t need any specialized training to know that another person is upset, or angry, or sad.
So, if your claim that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training are unjustified or unreliable is true, then my claim that I know that another person, e.g., my wife, is upset or angry or sad would be unjustified or unreliable.
But this is absurd.
Hence, your claim that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training are unjustified or unreliable is false.
Philosophers such as Dennett dismiss folk psychology (common sense psychology)as unreliable. The best response to this was the sarcastic retort by Peter Strawson, philosopher par excellence of our ordinary, common sense conceptual structure:
“folk psychology is the province of such simple folk as Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust and Henry James”.
Amod, another train of thought:
What sort of specialized training do I need to espouse religious beliefs, e.g., belief in God, the Devil, the soul, etc?
Obviously, for most people, indoctrination in childhood is all that is needed for subscribing to religious beliefs. (How else do you explain the fact that a majority of people in Saudi Arabia are Muslims and a majority of people in America are Christians and so on?).
And indoctrination in religion is not even remotely similar to the specialized training in the sciences, technology, and the arts. Hence, religious beliefs are good examples of “untrained beliefs” in your sense.
So, if your thesis that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training, or as you put it, “untrained beliefs”, are unjustified or unreliable is true, then religious beliefs are unjustified or unreliable.
But, I think, you don’t want to accept that religious beliefs are unjustified or unreliable.
So, you must abandon the thesis that knowledge-claims made without benefit of specialized training, or as you put it, “untrained beliefs”, are unjustified or unreliable.
Amod Lele said:
What sort of specialized training do I need to espouse scientific beliefs, e.g., that matter is made of atoms?
Obviously, for most people, indoctrination in childhood is all that is needed for subscribing to scientific beliefs. Ask any man on the street whether matter is made of atoms, and you will get a yes. Ask them why? You will find very few able to recount the experiments that got us to that point! No, the answer given by the untrained about science is the exact same one given by the untrained about “religion”: my teacher told me so.
Do you see the mistake you’re making here? A belief of any kind can be held without understanding the reasoning that led to it. The belief of a trained scientist in scientific beliefs is far more justified than the belief of the untrained layperson who must take that belief on authority, just as there is far more justification behind Thomas Aquinas’s beliefs than there is behind that of the uneducated lay Catholic. Training allows you to see why complex ideas are true, or held to be true. Without the training, things are true by reason of authority.
“The belief of a trained scientist in scientific beliefs is far more justified than the belief of the untrained layperson who must take that belief on authority, just as there is far more justification behind Thomas Aquinas’s beliefs than there is behind that of the uneducated lay Catholic.”
So, “Atoms exist” or “Microbes exist” is true if a physicist or microbiologist affirms but not if a person without scientific training affirms it? This can’t possibly make sense.
So, whether or not a person who is affirming a claim or belief has special training in the field or subject of the belief must be irrelevant to the question of the reliability, plausibility, or truth of the belief.
I think there is a conflation, afflicting the OP, of two different issues: the issue of the competence of a person to determine whether a belief or claim is reliable or plausible and the issue of whether the belief is reliable or plausible.
What the lack of special training, in matters in which such training is relevant and important, implies is not the unreliability of beliefs or claims made (I don’t have to be an atomic physicist to make the true claim that atoms exist.), but just the lack of competence to adjudicate among rival claims and to determine what makes a claim reliable or unreliable.
It is obvious that special training is required in the sciences, technology, and the arts to claim competence in this sense.
It is also obvious that no special training is required to claim competence to determine whether I have pain, whether I am seeing a tree, whether I know that someone is angry, etc. And, of course, the claims are not a whit less reliable for that.
What special training is required to claim competence to determine whether religious claims are reliable or true? What have the people who allegedly have this special training actually determined and how did they do it?
“What special training is required to claim competence to determine whether religious claims are reliable or true? What have the people who allegedly have this special training actually determined and how did they do it?”
The same question applies to metaphysical beliefs or claims.
There’s also another important question: How is the great number of unresolved conflicting claims or beliefs in religion and metaphysics consistent with claim that special training is required to adjudicate among competing claims? Why hasn’t such adjudication been forthcoming?
Amod Lele said:
Thill, are you denying the distinction between justification and truth? (Not a rhetorical question.)
No, I don’t deny that truth-claims need justification. But I don’t need to have the special training required to justify scientific claims in order to believe or affirm them or even justify them. I can justify my belief in the claim that black holes exist by simply appealing to the authority of astrophysicists and I would be justified in doing so since astrophysicists are legitimate authorities on the subject of black holes.
There is no analogy here with religious claims except claims pertaining to the history of religion, scriptures, etc. I can appeal to the authority of experts in the history of Chinese Buddhism on issues of authentic texts, the nature of central debates, etc.
But I cannot reasonably appeal to the authority of experts on Chinese Buddhism to justify the claim that enlightenment actually occurs or that it occurs suddenly, and so on.
While there are definite criteria and well-recognized procedures for determining that someone is an astrophysicist, what are the criteria and procedures for determining that someone is enlightened?
I know that there are many stories in the history of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism claiming that Master so-and-so attested to the enlightenment or “partial enlightenment” of X, Y, or Z, but it is unclear what criteria and procedures the so-called “Masters” used to make that determination, not to mention whether the same ones were used to certify that person as a “Master” in the first place.
“While there are definite criteria and well-recognized procedures for determining that someone is an astrophysicist, what are the criteria and procedures for determining that someone is enlightened?”
I didn’t state it well. It should read:
While there are definite criteria and well-recognized (by astrophysicists) procedures for determining that there are black holes, what are the criteria and well-recognized procedures for determining that someone is enlightened?
“Obviously, for most people, indoctrination in childhood is all that is needed for subscribing to scientific beliefs. Ask any man on the street whether matter is made of atoms, and you will get a yes. Ask them why? You will find very few able to recount the experiments that got us to that point! No, the answer given by the untrained about science is the exact same one given by the untrained about “religion”: my teacher told me so.”
This would seem like a reductio ad absurdum of your own thesis that lack of special training makes the beliefs themselves unreliable. Since I don’t necessarily need any special training to affirm scientific beliefs, and the lack of special training makes beliefs unreliable according to your thesis, we must conclude, absurdly, that scientific beliefs are unreliable.
The alternative of saying that scientific claims or beliefs are true if scientists make them, but untrue or unreliable if non-scientists make them is also absurd.
“Do you see the mistake you’re making here? A belief of any kind can be held without understanding the reasoning that led to it.”
In which case, you can only say that I do not understand the origin or rationale for the belief, but this is perfectly consistent with the fact that the belief is true.
In fact, you can hold true beliefs about X without having any correct explanations, e.g., people have known that the heart is vital to a living human being without having any understanding of how exactly it is vital to life. That requires special training in human anatomy, but the point also proves that special training is not required for all true belief.
michael reidy said:
And then you have the problem of science becoming common science and from there turning into common sense. From the discovery of the mechanisms of evolution such as survival of the fittest and natural selection it only became a matter of time until its vulgar relative, social darwinism declared that it was only common sense that we had to keep an eye on the purity of the stock and ensure that there be no dilution of the blood of the superior races. Should inferior stock be allowed to breed at will? Certainly not, that was just common sense, any animal breeder could tell you that. This was a world wide phenomenon but as we know its particular manifestation in Nazi Germany led to the culling of large numbers of untermenschen. Various versions of that ideology which is based on common sense and the sort of science that every schoolboy knows are still extant in the world.
This seems like a desperate and bizarre attempt to undermine the appeal to common sense, e.g., by tainting it with racism, genocide, eugenics, etc.
In the twentieth century, all these were facilitated by pathological thought, including pseudo-scientific, philosophical and metaphysical thought, masquerading as truth and had nothing to do with common sense.
Common sense, i.e., observation unaided by special training, tells us that individuals and groups have a variety of strengths and weaknesses. So, a group of people may be taller than another group, but the latter may be more nimble, etc.
Common sense also tells us that there is no association between skin color and ability. There are dumb fair-skinned people and smart dark-skinned people and vice-versa. No special training is required to observe this.
Common sense also tells us that there is no association between skin color and character. There are bad fair-skinned people and good dark-skinned people and vice-versa. No special training is required to observe this.
Common sense also tells us that people who are inferior in tasks which require abstract thought may be good at other things which only require concrete thought. X may not be good at math, but he is good at fishing, etc.
Common sense also tells us that all peoples, with the exception of those afflicted by serious disability, have the remarkable faculty of language. No special training is required to observe this.
Nothing in all this lends support to programs of pathological pseudo-scientific, philosophical and metaphysical thought to eliminate the so-called inferior stock. In fact, the notion that an entire group of people is “inferior stock” fit for elimination profoundly contradicts common sense truths.
Amod Lele said:
“Common sense also tells us that there is no association between skin color and ability. There are dumb fair-skinned people and smart dark-skinned people and vice-versa. No special training is required to observe this.
Common sense also tells us that there is no association between skin color and character. There are bad fair-skinned people and good dark-skinned people and vice-versa. No special training is required to observe this.”
Now, perhaps. Though even today, the statistical differences between the intellectual performance of black and white people in the US are quite visible. Based on common sense as you all have defined it – which is necessarily idiosyncratic and anecdotal – one might easily draw the conclusion that this difference is based on innate genetic ability rather than social environment, were it not for the detailed statistical studies that demonstrate the effects of environment.
This was even more the case in days past, when those social distinctions determined a lot more. You will find few greater advocates of empirical observation and common sense than David Hume, whose common-sense observations led him to the following view:
“I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of
men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior
to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other com-
plexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action
or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no
sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the
whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, present TARTARS, still
have something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government,
or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference
could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not
made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to
mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over
EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity;
tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and dis-
tinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk
of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is
admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks
a few words plainly.” David Hume, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (London, 1758),vol. 1, 125n.
Ah, if only we had stayed in the days of common sense, rather than listening to all those abolitionists with their unsupported religious and metaphysical views.
Group differences are common sense knowledge. But the explanation of these group differences is a matter of science and certainly requires special training.
Again, common sense tells us that given any two individuals X and Y, X may be superior to Y in math but Y may be superior to X in music or fishing or what have you. So, any judgment of superiority or inferiority will be relative to the ability in question.
In the passage you quoted, Hume definitely does not claim that it is common sense knowledge, i.e., knowledge uniformly available to humans and gained by ordinary ways of knowing without benefit of special training. He starts out by saying “I suspect”.
In any case, it should be obvious that he was airing those conclusions on the basis of a severely deficient or poor knowledge of the cultures of peoples he believed were inferior to whites.
What has common sense got to do with it? Common sense tells us that we must know enough about a people and their culture to make judgments on them.
Hume certainly departed from common sense in making those comments, not an unusual tendency in most philosophers!
Hume: “There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.”
I am completely nonplussed as to how this can be common sense, or an appeal to common sense, or a consequence of conforming to common sense!
Even a cursory knowledge of the societies or cultures of China or India or Africa would show that it is completely false to claim that they had “No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.”
It has nothing to do with common sense, obviously.
I suspect that the total disregard for evidence or knowledge pertaining to non-white societies displayed in this comment may well be a pathological consequence of Hume’s skepticism!!!
“Ah, if only we had stayed in the days of common sense, rather than listening to all those abolitionists with their unsupported religious and metaphysical views.”
Slavery didn’t have its religious and metaphysical justifications? The Bible was used to justify slavery.
If the Bible was also used to condemn slavery, this tells us something important about the Bible’s coherence, doesn’t it?
“the days of common sense”
I hope there aren’t really any “days without common sense”! What would they be like? Stepping in front of moving cars on the freeway? Walking on fire? Eating poison? Jumping from the Empire State Building to test common sense? Those would be bizarre days indeed and one is unlikely to outlive them.
It may be helpful for Amod to take note of the fact that common sense is reflective and self-corrective, although these features are more developed in the sciences, technology, and the arts. Even children are reflective as shown in the questions they ask.
The notion that common sense is merely a stock of irrational prejudices or biases (there are rational prejudices or biases, e.g., a bias or prejudice against someone who has tried to attack you or steal from you in the past!!!) is a caricature of common sense.
michael reidy said:
In India the fixed ranks and orders of people, the varna or caste system makes absolute sense and not just among the Hindu community. Outside of the land of India it does not have the same vigour, though I am open to correction on that, seemingly it requires the oxygen of Indian common sense.
A certain class of American view it as obvious that social welfare makes people lazy, improvident and shiftless. That’s just horse or common sense.
The British stand to reason. Irish common sense is curiously missing, a great many people thought the property bubble would go on and on and there would be a soft landing whenever it came to an end unlike everywhere else.
My point is that common sense is not a safe form of knowledge or usefully predictive. It needs the additive of salt. Not much, just a grain.
Amod Lele said:
Thill, in order to get any further on this issue, I think we need to hear your definition of “reliable” – something I should have asked for a while ago. (Depending on the answer, I may or may not have to reassess my claim that sense perception is reliable.)
Up here you suggest that “reliable” means “likely to be justified or true.” The term “likely” implies probability. But you are already on record here as saying that the concept of probability does not apply to philosophical positions like skepticism. If that is true, then common sense or any other faculty cannot be “reliable” in denying skepticism, for it makes no sense (on your account) to say that an affirmation or denial of skepticism is likely to be true.
Note also that likeliness admits degrees. If it is 20% probable that the glass in my hand contains a deadly poison, then it is not likely that the glass contains poison. That still doesn’t mean I should drink it. And similarly, the fact of something being reliable in this sense does not necessarily mean we should be certain its conclusions are true. An argument of the form “You say X, but not-X is common sense” may reasonably give us some pause in claiming X, but it should not be sufficient to convince us that X is false.
And I should perhaps note the converse case: if reliability does not imply probability or anything like it, then it seems that you have collapsed it back into the infallibility you tried to avoid earlier. And I think we have established pretty clearly that common sense is not infallible.
Since you have advanced the thesis that “lack of training is not reliable”, the onus is on you to clarify what you mean by “lack of training” and “not reliable”.
“Reliable” can mean different things depending on what we are ascribing it to. If we say that a process of training is reliable, then we are saying that it can deliver or bring about the effects or results we want, e.g., knowledge.
I now think that it produces unnecessary confusion to talk of beliefs being reliable or unreliable. Beliefs are either true or false or plausible or implausible.
In the case of plausibility, probability enters the picture but applies to the content of the belief, what it pertains to, rather than the belief itself.
Since it is indeed highly probable that there will be sunrise tomorrow (the high probability of the event), my belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is plausible. It is likely to be true only because its content or what it pertains to, sunrise tomorrow, is highly probable.
In a post on my blog “The Baloney Detective” I’ve explained the lack of necessary connection between belief on the one hand and and truth and certainty on the other hand , and the necessary connection between knowledge on the one hand and truth and certainty on the other hand.
I have also shown that classical global skepticism is incoherent. This doesn’t mean that local skepticism, e.g., skepticism about moral claims or religious claims, is incoherent.
A great deal of confusion has stemmed from not having a clear and distinct conception of common sense. So, let us go back to that concept.
Here is how I conceive of it now:
1. “Common Sense” is a complex concept.
2. It includes basic, universal human ways of knowing (not merely believing) such as immediate sensory awareness, spontaneous knowledge of one’s own sensations, thoughts, etc., and elementary forms of induction and deduction.
3. It also includes a basic, universal stock of truths or knowledge and plausible beliefs humans have about the world or nature and about themselves, e.g., the existence of trees, rocks, animals etc., and their basic properties, based on (2).
4. It also includes basic prescriptions on how to behave in the world toward other humans, animals, natural phenomena such as fire, falling rocks, etc., based on (3).
5. From 2 – 4, it follows that common sense is indispensable for everyday functioning, e.g., survival, no loss of limbs, etc.
Since common sense includes various items of knowledge and some plausible beliefs, it follows that to say that a claim is common sense is to imply either that it is an item of knowledge or that it is a plausible belief.
Since knowledge entails truth and certainty, those items of knowledge which form a part of common sense entail truth and certainty, e.g., fire burns, we will die if we can’t breathe, etc.
However, those parts of common sense which consist of plausible beliefs, e.g, that the sun will rise tomorrow, entail only a high degree of probability of the event to which the belief pertains.
So, if you mean by reliable something like “knowledge” or “plausible belief”, then common sense is, by definition, reliable.
Now this doesn’t all make the claim that something is common sense a vacuous claim in just the way that the claim that something is known through scientific or musical training is not vacuous.
Of course, as you have done, one can challenge the definition of common sense by asking how our belief in sunrise and sunset can count as common sense, as it should, when indeed it is false.
But what is actually false here? Surely, it is not false that we perceive sunrise and sunset in just the way it is not false that we perceive a bent stick when it is immersed in water!
When we perceive X, we don’t automatically know the explanation of X. In many cases, we need special training and inquiry to determine the explanation of X.
So, I don’t think that common sense must necessarily yield the explanation “We perceive sunrise and sunset because the sun really goes around the earth.” There are examples of apparent motion available to common sense. Indeed, the distinction between appearance and reality, e.g., the case of the stick bent in water, is actually common sense knowledge.
Amod Lele said:
Actually, Thill, it is you who introduced the concept of reliability to the discussion, here – as my post makes clear above. The concept of reliability had so far been the only way you have got around the agreed fact that “commonsense” claims can be false. The point of the post was to refute your already made claim that common sense is reliable. Therefore the onus for defining reliability is on you. If you now wish to dispense with your own claim, made before mine, that common sense is reliable – however “reliable” is defined – then I am happy to be done with it and take the discussion in a different direction, leaving that word out of it. But if so, do not try to tell me that common sense is reliable again!
As I have made clear a couple of times, it is a mistake to think that all of common sense is infallible or none of it is. Some of it is infallible, e.g., fire burns unprotected human skin. Some of it is plausible belief, e.g., there will be sunrise tomorrow.
Plausibility, is of course, consistent with fallibility. It is plausible to believe that there will be sunrise tomorrow, but it is a fallible belief.
Fallibility does not entail what you call “unreliability”. If it did, we would have the absurd consequence that scientific theories are unreliable.
Reflection on what appears to be the case is not alien to common sense and such reflection aided by perception and reasoning has led to many items of common sense knowledge.
We have a more developed form of the same process in science and technology.
It does not seem to me that common sense, as you have defined it, is a complex concept. Rather, it is a determination to take our experience of the natural world at face value. That is fine, I suppose, as far as it goes.
My problem is that common sense is invoked in these discussions as one would, with the wave of a hand, dismiss an argument.
I tried earlier in this thread to open a discussion of what is meant when we use common sense to say that something is true (based on consensus, functionality or continuity over time). I think that might be part of a fruitful discussion of how we understand our world.
However, just to say it’s “common sense” and “I am true” and “a rock is true” without any inquiry is superficial. It may work for an investment banker or a carpenter or a taxi driver looking to make it through their day — or for the men chained in Plato’s cave looking at shadows — but it is a way of closing your eyes. It is not philosophy.
A complex concept is a concept which is constituted by two or more concepts. As I have clarified it, “common sense” is a complex concept in this sense.
Apparently, you have not reflected sufficiently on your own stock of common sense knowledge to see that it is not only a complex concept, but also extremely complex in its operations. It is commonplace in science that what we do so naturally, e.g., perceive a color, has astonishing complexity when examined scientifically.
You misunderstand the nature of inquiry. You seem to miss the fact that all inquiry has a starting point which consists of some indubitable knowledge.
It is a total delusion to think that you can do philosophy without presupposing some indubitable knowledge drawn from common sense knowledge. Even a skeptic can’t coherently deny that he knows that he is using language to make skeptical claims!
Such delusions may have their source in the vanity of philosophers, that they are superior to the ordinary person. The plain truth of the matter is that although some of them have a greater degree of the powers of reflection possessed by the ordinary person, for their philosophical reflections to make any sense these philosophers have to draw from the stock of truths which form common sense knowledge. You can see how often this happens in philosophical debates when examples and counterexamples are proffered. Even the scientist who makes real contributions to the advancement of our knowledge, unlike squabbling philosophers, does so.
I challenge you to give me one example of a philosophical claim whose justification does not involve at some level or the other an appeal to some truth or other which is common sense knowledge.
The appeal to common sense knowledge has been employed by several distinguished philosophers, e.g., many figures in the Scottish Enlightenment including the great philosopher Thomas Reid, Moore, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin, and Peter Strawson, to reject bizarre claims (objects are just ideas in the mind, time is unreal, nothing exists, etc) in philosophy.
It is also a serious misunderstanding to think that the only kind of philosophy taking seriously is the one which makes bizarre or weird claims, claims contrary to common sense. The work of Reid, Moore, Wittgenstein, Austin, and Strawson clearly disproves this strange notion.
I suppose you are also familiar with the work of realist philosophers in India and China who appela to common sense. The Carvaka philosophers were common sense realists. Their rejection of Vedic rituals clearly shows that they appealed to common sense, e.g., their objection that if the food offered by means of a Vedic ritual can travel to the other world and appease the hunger of the departed spirits of dead family members and friends, those rituals should also be efficacious in appeasing the hunger of family members or friends who are away from home traveling to another city or town.
There were also realist Buddhist philosophers in the early history of Buddhism before they were, much to the detriment of the course of Buddhist philosophy, submerged by the deluge of Madhyamika and other Mahayana metaphysics.
I’ll just note that you have declined my invitation to answer the question what is meant when it is said that common sense can be used to answer a question as to what is true.
For example, to say that something — a rock, a flower exists.
Instead, you respond that a rock or flower exists because it is common sense — and common sense is the baseline assumption on which you choose to ground your philosophy.
Effectively, what you are saying is “it is true because it is true.” This unwillingness to look and to contemplate any deeper than the surface level of our lives is what I mean when I say that your eyes are closed.
One already puts one’s sanity or sincerity in question by asking “What does it mean to say that a rock or flower exists?”!
Obviously, anyone who is familiar with a rock or flower knows what this means:
1. The rock or flower exists in space-time.
2. If you touch the rock, it will feel solid.
3. If you kick the rock, you will hurt yourself.
4. If you smell the flower, you will smell a strong or faint aroma.
5. If you touch the flower, it will feel soft.
Why in the name of the pure land are we wasting our precious time and pretending that these sorts of questions are “profound” or even sensible to ask of everyday objects????
OK. So what are the qualities of existence in space-time? What does existence in space-time mean?
Is impermanence one of the qualities of existence in space-time? It seems so to me.
If impermanence is a quality of existence, it seems to me that is another way of saying that existence and non-existence are mutually dependent. Something does not exist unless it is subject to decay and destruction. Decay is a defining quality of existence.
Already we are getting away from a common sense (I mean here unthinking) view of what it means to say that something exists. Maybe a rock is a bad example because we don’t have much attachment to it. But if we take something else — maybe our wife or our child — and apply this slightly more subtle view of what existence means, it begins to change how we live our lives.
We see that our experience of that person — the softness of a touch or the sound of their voice — is poignant and transient. Just seeing that much changes how we live our lives.
That is why to just say that something exists is a little blind. To say that it exists in space-time is better.
“Already we are getting away from a common sense (I mean here unthinking) view of what it means to say that something exists.”
All this is really messy thinking, Jim. How do you know that decay occurs? How do you know that there is impermanence? What does it mean to say that they occur or exist?
I bet you can only say that it’s common sense knowledge that they occur or exist! And your criteria for the reality of decay or impermanence is not going to be different from any based on common sense knowledge. What else do you have?
Why do you keep equating common sense knowledge with “unthinking” when I have said ad nauseam that reflection and correction are also part of common sense processes of knowledge, e.g., “Are you sure it’s a cat in the bushes? Look again!”, etc.
So, we have from you two statements that you say are common sense: (i) a flower exists, and (ii) a flower is impermanent and decays. And you are also willing to reflect on these statements.
So, if you will indulge me a little more — how do you reconcile the two? Specifically, what does existence mean in the context of change? How do you define existence to include change? On what ephemeral attribute of a flower do you rely when you say that it exists?
Jim, if you will indulge me a little more, how do you identify impermanence? Is there any way you can do it without identifying something which is impermanent or something which undergoes change?
“Effectively, what you are saying is “it is true because it is true.” This unwillingness to look and to contemplate any deeper than the surface level of our lives is what I mean when I say that your eyes are closed.”
I am doing nothing of that kind at all. I’ve just explained what it means to say that the existence of a rock or flower is common sense knowledge and I am 100% certain that despite giving a misleading or bizarre impression to the contrary you are also going by the same criteria of common sense knowledge in your everyday life.
How do you know that your wallet exists? How do you know that your car exists? Life is too short to spend it on such inane questions. To ask the question itself is symptomatic of a metaphysics-induced dissimulation of lack of knowledge.
Since you seem to have contemplated the depth beyond the surface, do be kind enough to share with us ordinary folks what you have discovered there!
It is better to keep our eyes closed than to see what is not there!
“It may work for an investment banker or a carpenter or a taxi driver looking to make it through their day — or for the men chained in Plato’s cave looking at shadows — but it is a way of closing your eyes.”
As if philosophers possess some other form of knowledge to make it through their dull and drab days!(Goethe: “Gray is all theory, green is the tree of life” or something like that.) What vanity!
Perhaps, the men chained in Plato’s cave are all philosophers and the shadows but the “ideas” projected by their minds? LOL
Are there any takers for the $ 666 billion question?
How did our remote answers survive and reproduce in an extremely dangerous environment for millions of years without science, without abstract thought?
Sorry for the typo. It’s “ancestors” not “answers”!
Are there any takers for the $ 666 billion question?
How did our remote ancestors survive and reproduce in an extremely dangerous environment for millions of years without science, without abstract thought?
Amod Lele said:
The same way that other animals did, of course. Including moths that approach artificial lights because they resemble the moon, dogs that try to hunt cars, insects that enter Venus fly traps which smell like the flowers they feed on. Obviously every species that evolved did so because its instincts lead it to perceive the truth.
Again, the same pattern of erroneous inference of unreliability from errors or accidents! I really don’t know what it would take to convince you that the fact that organisms make mistakes, succumb to accidents, etc., that instinctive knowledge is not perfect (Thought is not perfect and error-free either. Hardly.), doesn’t mean that it is not functional for survival.
If instinctive knowledge doesn’t explain the survival of animals including the ape-like ancestors of homo sapiens(a truly bizarre claim for any biologist!), what on earth does explain it?
The ape-like ancestors of the human species could not have had any supernatural beliefs. That’s a peculiar characteristic of homo sapiens as it developed the capacity for abstract thought. Take a look at the Chimpanzees, Orangutans, and Gorillas or any other animal for proof.
Amod Lele said:
(Also, Jabali, you had another copy of the “answers” comment that was waiting to be moderated. I generally avoided deleting comments, but I deleted that one since it seems it had already been replaced.)
Amod Lele said:
This question is $666 billion in counterfeit money. It is a red herring for two major reasons:
1. First, as Ben pointed out above, the fact that a trait survived through evolution does not necessarily mean it is a superior adaptation at all. If a species survived, that means it got along okay with that trait; that doesn’t mean a different trait would have done it better. As we see with moths consumed by flame, some traits which survived evolution are not even effective in different environments.
2. Second, and more fundamentally, truth is not reducible to effectiveness. As I noted above, Thill himself acknowledged this general point of the distinction between truth and effectiveness when the effectiveness of “religious” claims at issue. He later conveniently tried to dodge this point by denying the effectiveness of “religious” claims. But that won’t do. Whatever sort of claims we are speaking of, the question at issue is whether we are equipped in all circumstances to say “what’s true is what works.” Thill earlier has stated unequivocally that he is not a pragmatist, and does not define truth in terms of workability. Thus even if we were to presume that the knowledge gained by our ancestors was effective, that effectiveness is still insufficient to declare it truth.
Jabali, I understand that Thill does not speak for you (or Neocarvaka or Ramachandra1008), and you are free to declare yourselves pragmatists if you wish. (With this comment, Ramachandra suggests he might be going there.) If you do, the argument has a bit more force, as defeating it would involve establishing the case against pragmatism, which would require a lot more doing. But if you think truth is not reducible to workability, then evolutionary success does not equal truth even if we (likely falsely) assume that all our traits are superior adaptations.
For that matter, everything we know about the earliest human beings shows that they believed in phenomena we would now call supernatural. If a belief is true because it survived evolution, then we must accept supernaturalism!
Amod: “Thus even if we were to presume that the knowledge gained by our ancestors was effective, that effectiveness is still insufficient to declare it truth.”
Knowledge implies truth. If you know how a TV works, this implies that your claims about how it works are true. So, “knowledge gained by our ancestors” implies that we must declare it truth!This has to do with the semantics and logic of “knowledge”.
Let’s clear up a major confusion first. This is your confusion that my denial of the pragmatist conception of truth is inconsistent with my appeal to effectiveness as evidence for truth.
1. To deny the pragmatist conception of truth is to deny that “truth” is identical to “what works” or “what is effective”. This is because the concept of truth has primacy over the concept of what works or what is effective. It has primacy because we explain why it is that a theory or belief works, or is effective, in terms of its truth! It works because it is true. So, if we have to explain workability in terms of truth, then truth cannot be identical to workability.
2. All this is perfectly consistent with the claim that workability or effectiveness is evidence of truth. Further, it follows that workability or effectiveness implies truth! If a theory T works because it is true, then this is not only consistent with the claim that the workability of T is evidence for its truth, but actually implies that the workability of T is evidence for its truth!
Thus, if the theory that depression can be treated with medication actually works, e.g., leads us to successfully treat depression by means of anti-depressants, then this workability or effectiveness is evidence for the truth of the theory that depression can be treated with medication.
If the effectiveness of a theory, say in terms of leading to correct predictions or to correct solutions to problems, is evidence of its truth, then would this not also imply that the effectiveness of a religious theory or belief is evidence for its truth?
To have some effect or other is not identical to effectiveness. Effectiveness means success in solving a problem or bringing about the desired outcome. And this is evidence that the problem or the outcome and its means of attainment have been understood. Thus, effectiveness is evidence that the truth of the matter to which the effectiveness pertains has been understood.
The belief that Jesus saves us from eternal damnation may have its effects, but this does show that it is effective. Effective for what? How is that proved? That was the sort of question Nietzsche asked. Following him, we could say that the mere belief that Jesus saves us from eternal damnation, regardless of any psychological effects this belief may have, is not proof that the belief is effective in doing so. And in the absence of such proof, the belief has not been shown to be effective. Hence, there is also no evidence for its truth.
“The belief that Jesus saves us from eternal damnation may have its effects, but this does show that it is effective.”
This is missing the crucial “not” and should read:
“The belief that Jesus saves us from eternal damnation may have its effects, but this does NOT show that it is effective.”
I am also going to propose that common sense knowledge includes an instinctive form of knowledge, e.g., manifested in the well-known “flight response”, recoil from bad smells or odors, lightning, thunder, fire, smoke, predators, strangers, etc possessed by the human organism or living body. I think all living organisms have this instinctive knowledge in various forms depending on the structure of the organism.
I am also going to propose that abstract thought and its conclusions must be rejected if they are inconsistent with, or interfere with, the operations of this instinctive knowledge all human organisms possess.
Perhaps, allowing this instinctive knowledge to blossom and function freely without the distortions of thought is itself a form of yoga worth pursuing?
How do we identify and distinguish this instinctive knowledge of the human organism from the other parts of common sense knowledge based on perception and reasoning?
Are you saying that all abstract thought distorts or interferes with the operations of this instinctive knowledge of the human organism or that only some of it is?
What about concrete thought or what Piaget has called “concrete operational thought”? Is that part of the instinctive knowledge of the human organism? If it is different, how does it relate to that instinctive knowledge? Can concrete operational thought also become inconsistent with or distort the instinctive knowledge of the human organism?
This yoga of allowing instinctive knowledge to blossom without the distortions of abstract thought: Does this mean we learn to function with a silent mind if thought, concrete or abstract, is not necessary for functioning in given context? Do we learn to switch thought off and on as needed? Is that feasible?
“instinctive form of knowledge, e.g., manifested in the well-known “flight response”, recoil from bad smells or odors, lightning, thunder, fire, smoke, predators, strangers”
I understand recoil from the other things, but how on earth are you going to go out and shop for your necessities if you allow your body to keep recoiling from strangers? LOL Public locations and transportation are full of strangers!
Or do we sublimate any instinctive recoil here and simply maintain a wary or cautious attitude? If so, this implies that we are using thought to regulate the operations of the instinctive knowledge rather than allow the instinctive knowledge to function unhampered by thought!
“Recoil” is probably too strong although it does happen sometimes. “Wariness” or “caution” would be a better choice to express the instinctive response to a stranger.
I need to think more on the other questions. Food for more abstract thought! In the meanwhile, brother body continues nonchalantly with its dumbfounding complex operations which enable its survival from one second to another oblivious to the machinations of my abstract thought! :)
Is capitalism consistent with common sense knowledge?
This depends on what you mean by “capitalism” and what its constitutive principles are.
If the money sequence, the sequence of investing money to accumulate more money in order to invest more money to accumulate even more money, the accumulation of money as an end-in-itself, and money-value as the touchstone of all value, are constitutive of capitalism, then it is clearly contrary to common sense knowledge.
Common sense knowledge tells us that money is a source of value only if it can fulfill needs and wants. So, if money is accumulated for its own sake, then this process has gone off the rails of common sense and gone really pathological.
Common sense knowledge also tells us that many things in everyday life are resistant to money-value. What is the money-value of trust or love or respect or joy? Clean air and water have the value they do because of their importance to a functioning body. What is their money-value? And what is the money-value of a maximally functioning body, its exquisite sensitivity and pwers?
“Common sense knowledge also tells us that many things in everyday life are resistant to money-value.”
Rather, I should say that common sense knowledge also tells us that many things in everyday life are resistant to money-value ascriptions.
michael reidy said:
We are now getting down to actual philosophers who espoused Common Sense or are purported by Thill to have so done. Common Sense now seems to be restricted to a sort of realism, a trusting of the deliverance of the senses under optimum conditions. There doesn’t seem to be any distinction drawn here between a sort of crude empiricism and metaphysical theory. Questions such as what is consciousness or is there really such a thing as consciousness, are there minds, other sort or any sort etc. These sorts of questions are not really immediately apparent and resolveable into the content of a sensory experience so it seems that they are outside the realm of the grand unified theory of common sense.
Jabali would extend perhaps the remit of common sense to the blocking, in the teaching profession,of those who promulgated the Inquisition and witch trials. I would have to agree, dead people should not be allowed to compete with the living who could do a better job. It amounts to unfair discrimination and there’s far too much of it.
“is there really such a thing as consciousness,”
I am sure Thill and Neocarvaka will join the chorus and object that this is an absurd question to ask since to ask the question is to prove that there is consciousness. Consciousness is a necessary condition for asking questions or of programming something to ask questions!
michael reidy said:
The question; does consciousness exist, is like the ground bait that anglers throw out to attract fish to the general area of their hook. But it’s not a rhetorical, not even a merely rhetorical question. The genuine barbed hook that is not easy to wriggle loose from is: Is consciousness thinkable as a free standing element or is it an aspect of some primitive entity. Are we, when we take ourselves to be conscious, merely talking into our own ears? If you consider reincarnation to be a plausible idea then you must be able to account for the vehicle of transmission of this ‘consciousness’ when a body is no longer in question. This, I suggest, is a little past the domain of that intellectual swiss penknife, common sense. Daniel Dennett a great materialist and atheist does not believe that there is such a thing as consciousness. His master in lineage terms was the great Ryle whose book The Concept of Mind is a good read that made the waters boil in its day.
There is certainly a conflation here between two different questions:
a) “Does consciousness exist?” = “Are there conscious beings?”
To ask this question is to answer it!
b)”Is consciousness a function or process of the brain?”
Since it is obviously asinine to deny that there are conscious beings (the very denial proves that there are conscious beings), it follows that anyone who denies that there is consciousness possesses that flattering property.
Anyone examining the relationship between consciousness and the brain would have to start from “folk psychology” or our common sense knowledge of consciousness, i.e., our common sense understanding of our own minds and other minds, and take it from there.
Brain science has discovered a great deal about the structure of the brain, but I am not really sure what it has really added to our stock of common sense knowledge of consciousness. Do you?
The differences in early childhood between twins raised in the same environment and the astonishing and recurrent phenomena of child prodigies have not received the depth of scientific scrutiny they deserve. I believe that there is a great opportunity here to understand something possibly revolutionary about the nature of consciousness. What is at stake here is the very foundation of naturalism.
Suppose that the reincarnation hypothesis offers the best explanation of the above-mentioned facts pertaining to twins and child prodigies. What then? I suspect that it would be beyond the scope of not just our common sense, but also our science which is naturalistic to its core, to account for the mechanism and specific aspects of the process of reincarnation. How could we possibly figure out how exactly reincarnation works?
It would be a “mystery” in Chomsky’s sense:
“Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.”
— Noam Chomsky
michael reidy said:
If to quote my response to Jabali I proposed as valid questions: Is consciousness thinkable as a free standing element or is it an aspect of some primitive entity; then clearly I am operating from the standpoint of someone who accepts that there is such a thing as consciousness.
It’s interesting that you are prepared to leave common sense and science behind in this case. Could this be a matter of cultural conditioning? For myself when I read things like ‘O great master save me, I am tired of the endless round of transmigration’ it means very little to me, I do not feel transmigration as a great burden, it doesn’t strike me as a terrible fate. That must be because I wasn’t brought up to have that sort of attitude. What I mean is that I can conceive reincarnation as a possibility under a certain view of consciousness and identity but at the same time even granting it as a reality I feel no dismay. Obviously you as well as perhaps having a basic belief would point to data which seems to support that belief. With sceptical caution I ask whether having the belief enables you to ‘find’ the data.
Back in the day when one life plus a single afterlife was believed to be the ration, ghosts and table turning buoyed up this belief. A different theory of identity was offered as metaphysical underpinning. Different data.
“It’s interesting that you are prepared to leave common sense and science behind in this case.”
It’s common sense knowledge that neither common sense nor science has made us, or can ever make us, omniscient.
Ethan Mills said:
Something to consider: Why would “common sense” philosophy be interesting or yield answers to philosophical questions?
I’ve always found philosophy most interesting when it *challenges* my assumptions about things. Idealism, skepticism, radical feminism, etc. may be wrong, but such ideas are profoundly challenging to common sense in the sense of a common stock of beliefs (most modern scientific theories challenge common beliefs, too – quantum physics, string theory, etc.!). Presumably you could use common sense as a methods to sort out these ideas, but then common sense methods are merely reactionary philosophy. Quite frankly, I have little idea what a constructive common sense philosophy would look like aside from a banal table-thumping insistence on naive realism in epistemology and metaphysics or a kind of “philosophical grammar” of common concepts without ever challenging those concepts. I personally don’t find either of those activities to be philosophically interesting.
Also, presumably common sense as a capacity evolved to help us find food, water, mates, etc. and avoid danger and whatnot. But capacities generally don’t evolve much more than they need to perform basic functions. I would find it astonishing if that same capacity could answer philosophical questions about the best kind of life for human beings, the nature of consciousness, the extent of human knowledge, the fundamental nature of reality, etc. I suspect, for instance, that Colin McGinn is right when he suggests that our consciousness just did not evolve the capability to answer our questions about the nature of consciousness. If we can find answers to such questions, we need to look beyond common sense. If we can’t find these answers (as I suspect), we can’t use common sense to tell us that either. Common sense can get you through life and do wonderful things, but I don’t think it’s either interesting or particularly useful when it comes to philosophy.
June 27th, 2011 on 9:12 pm
“What sort of specialized training do I need to know that I am in pain? Obviously, I need no specialized training to know that I am in pain. ”
Thill, are you saying that you can know your pain by common sense only with no need for specialized training?
If so, do you need specialized training to tell me about your pain?
Remember, “specialized training” refers to the sort of rigorous training one undergoes to gain knowledge in science, technology, and the arts.
This sort to training is obviously not required for knowing that one is in pain.
Now, to tell you that I feel pain in my left arm, I only need to know a language.
Learning a language does involve some sort of training, but there is a huge difference between the way we all learn our mother tongue and the way we learn a second language. The process of learning the latter is more akin to specialized training than the process of learning the former.
Thill,Thanks for your time.
Now you have sensory knowledge of the pain in your arm.
Which is not the same as scientific knowledge that takes special training.
And which is also different from another type of knowledge which is the knowledge of a language.
So what is the difference between the “specialized” training needed for knowledge of science and the “non special” training needed to gain knowledge of a language?
“knowledge of science”? Are you talking about scientific knowledge or knowledge of science? I can know something about quantum physics without having any of the specialized knowledge quantum physicists have.
you were talking about different “kinds” of knowledge and the different “kinds” of training needed to acquire these various types of “knowledge”.
For you to be aware of a the same kind of scientific knowledge that quantum phyiscists know, you would have to have an understanding at least of the basics of the same “kind” of knowledge that the physicist has, but not necessarily to the same degree.
so the question remains..
So what is the difference between the “specialized” training needed for knowledge of science and the “non special” training needed to gain knowledge of a language?
It seems that the distinction between knowing that scientists know that P and having the specialized knowledge that they have about P is not clear to you.
Let me repeat. I can know that scientists know how to split the atom without necessarily having the specialized knowledge they have which enables them to do so.
So, your question should be: “What is the difference between the “specialized” training needed for scientific knowledge and the “non special” training needed to gain knowledge of a language?”
Which language? The native tongue or the second language?
The second language is learned typically by taking courses which teach it. I suppose you know the routine if you have learned a second language.
The native tongue is not learned in that way. It is not taught in the manner of a course on a language. Parents don’t necessarily follow a method or system in teaching their language to a child. They don’t decide to first teach this or that element of grammar and then the next and so on.
In fact, the early teaching of a language does not involve any explicit teaching of rules of grammar at all. Any kind of linguistic “training” of the child is unsystematic and involves all sorts of unanticipated contexts and ways of using words to deal with those contexts.
But all the specialists who have studied the phenomenon of first language acquisition agree that the output of the child is far richer in comparison to any input or “training” it may have received.
This has led Chomsky, for one, to argue that there is an innate language-acquisition module in the brain which also includes elements or rules of universal grammar.
In other words, we are born with the ability to acquire our first language with relative ease if there are no disabilities or damage to the relevant parts of the brain and the speech system.
But if you want to become a physicist or a doctor, obviously you have to undergo systematic training which takes you from one level of competence to another.
Such training presupposes mastery of concepts which constitute common sense knowledge, but nobody thinks that we have any kind of innate ability to learn physics or medical science.
In contrast to the acquisition of the first language by children, typically the output of the learner is either commensurate with the level of training or even somewhat poor compared to it! In other words, unlike the case of first language acquisition by children, “fluency” or facility in science is hard to come by despite the training.
These are some of the differences between the process of first language acquisition and specialized training in science. I am sure there are others. Why don’t you point out them out?
“Obviously, I need no specialized training to know that I am in pain.”
“Now, to tell you that I feel pain in my left arm, I only need to know a language.”
“Learning a language does involve some sort of training”
“… our first language is taught by ones parents.”
“.. all humans have a natural ability to learn languages.”
Who taught our parents?
Are you implying that the idea of a finite regress to a time prior to the coining of the first word, by our proto-parents, that this would suggest a time when humans existed prior to having a language?
Am I to understand that, the ability to learn language and our 5 common senses are natural aspects of our situation, but that language is man made?
And that, prior to our invention of language, humans would still have their natural ability to see, hear, smell, touch/feel and taste the natural world, and on the whole they would share these abilities with all other humans.
Are you saying, our 5 natural common senses do not need any ‘training” for us to use them, but somehow our natural ability of “learning language” has to have “some sort of training” for it to become evident, for us to actually use language?
Am I getting this right? Or am I reading too much into this?
Thanks again for your time.
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