Truths, Beliefs, and Common Sense

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The term “common sense” is often used in political discourse as if it represented the truth. On the contrary, common sense cannot be anything more than a belief. Moreover, citing common sense doesn’t help but rather hurts our chances of convincing others—if that is what we are attempting to do.

The universe is infinitely complex; yet, human intellectual capacity is limited. So no matter how hard we try, there are always aspects of things that are beyond our ability to know or understand; hence those are unknowable to humans. Consider why we sense, to various degrees, that what goes around, comes around, though we cannot pinpoint the causality. This suggests that we are connected with one another in a dimension incomprehensible to us. Unknown connections are even more noticeable in science. When scientists cannot expect or specifically explain the causality of certain variables, they use statistical correlation to make observations. Furthermore, they realize that the more answers they find out, the more questions there will be. Therefore, if everyone and everything in the universe is connected and we can comprehend only part of the infinitely complex reality, then we don’t really know the whole truth about, for example, the economy, environment, origin of life, existence of extraterrestrials, or where we go after death.

Humans have to act to survive or to improve their lives. In doing so we are not just driven by instincts; our consciousness longs for guidance for our thoughts and actions, and wants to be guided by nothing but the truth—not half-truth, but the whole truth. Thus we have a problem, for even the most intelligent, studious, open minds among us can only grasp simplified man-made concepts and partial data (sensory as well as second-handed) for the reality. This is where beliefs come in. We do not have the entire truth, yet we can believe the doctrines which we are attached to and are conceived by other human beings provide the truth for us.

With the illusion of having a handle on truth, we start to form views on some practical matters based upon the assumed truth. After meeting some kindred spirits who share these same views, we deem those views qualified to be common sense. Our egos take pride in our common sense and we further build concepts based on our commonsense views. Soon so much has been built on our common sense that it becomes part of our identity and, for fear of loss of sense of identity, we avoid scrutinizing our commonsense views. In addition, when making an argument, we emphasize it is grounded on common sense, thus implicitly or explicitly dismissing the opposing side for lacking common sense. This emphasis is commonplace in debates between believers of supply side and demand side economics, for instance. Whereas one side insists tax cuts increase tax revenues for the government by promoting economic growth, the other side claims arithmetic dictates tax hikes increase tax revenues. Not only do both sides have quite intuitive theories behind their respective opinions, they also have data to back them up. What often ends up happening in our political system, however, is a compromise: a smaller than initially desired tax cut or tax hike is implemented. Then, when the result proves unsatisfactory, one side asserts that is evidence that the other side’s idea didn’t work and thus the course should be reversed, and at the same time the other side maintains that what has been allowed to be implemented wasn’t substantial enough and thus more needs to be added. In a contentious impasse such as this, we have all heard or even said “Our idea is just common sense!” or “They have no common sense!” Indeed, what these emotionally charged words convey is a lack of empathy for people who disagree with us. Changing the minds of those who hold opposing views is extremely difficult; a lack of empathy makes that virtually impossible. Moreover, to spectators who have no emotional attachment to either side of the debate and whose support is contended for by both sides, the claims of common sense are just nonsense.

Let it be known that I don’t pretend to know what really works in a political debate, but it is pretty obvious that citing common sense isn’t helpful. By the way, what I have said is only my belief; I do not claim it is actually the truth, and nor do I call it “common sense.”

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  1. Rhonda Dames

    So when we do not agree with someone else’s opinion, we can tell him or her “so we agree to disagree.” Then we can still be friends or cordial to that person and not resent them!

  2. alan hawk

    Common Sense = someone who agrees with you.

    • Eric (Shepherd) Mao

      Yes, Alan, plain and simple!

  3. Amerigo M. Cimino

    When and where have you witnessed the use of common sense?

    • Eric (Shepherd) Mao

      Amerigo,

      I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to common sense.

  4. Stephen Spencer

    At its best, “common sense” is in opposition to ideology. I would describe ideology as an intellectual construct (at least partly) detached from reality. “Common sense” suggests that we do not have to accept something just because we may not be able to articulate–or even fully understand–the wisdom worked out over the centuries.

    We are always seeing fads rise quickly and fall just as quickly: the wisdom of the age is often very unwise indeed. “Common sense” can be an antidote.

    Alas, it is not always so simple. To lemmings rushing into the sea, it all seems just common sense to do so. As always, life is a struggle and a balance.

  5. Jose Calabro

    Hi Eric.

    I read your blog entry. I think that here’s a lot of room on a continuum beginning with behaviors and reactions derived from pure instinct and ending with how velocity vector addition works or how time “flows” in a strong gravitational well. I think that somewhere on that continuum rests “common sense” and it is indeed “common” and not the domain of “belief”. There’s a set of “correct” “computations” that our brain performs, that is common to us all and can be called truly shared, except in the case of a malfunctioning organ. If you can’t carry 10 bricks at once you won’t be able to carry 20. If jumping from a 20 feet tall ledge hurts once, it will hurt when you do it again, and doing so from a 100 foot one will hurt at least as much. Reaching for the bird on top of the tree 300 feet way with your hand won’t get you dinner that night. 20 ant bites are worse than one bite. The addition of small integers seems “common sense”, though I might be wrong there. Suspending a hammock to spider web will get you bump on the head. A linear relationship between a dependent and independent variable seems common sense, i.e. two cows will give me twice the milk, two dogs will guard me against twice as many wolves, etc. I don’t think those things are beliefs, I think they are “common sense” derived from an interpretation that our brain makes of nature and its laws by virtue of its ability to do math outside a formal context.

    I agree with you that when applied to complex situations it can often fail (i.e. do our brains have a “feel” on exponential or factorial growth, there is more than one type of infinity [aleph-naught, aleph-one, etc], life or crystal growth are not anti-entropic), but we shouldn’t dismiss it altogether, even in politics. More taxes means less money in my pocket, a lower minimum wage means lower wages for a minimum wage worker, no job for me means less money for me, no healthcare for me means more pain and possibly worse, in a world of finite resources some will run out at some point in time, etc.

  6. Tom King

    Commonsense makes no more sense than politically correct does. It changes in time as the winds blow new wisdoms.

    Such is the reason our Founders gave us representative government instead of a true democracy. Imagine the worsening of our worries had that been the case.

    What we need is uncommon sense, a rare commodity in a nation of PC-driven lemmings.

  7. Benjamin Quiñones

    Common sense has been and today still is the rule to follow by human beings in making tough and serious decisions when a solution is hard to reach regardless of the law. King Solomon’s wisdom is a perfect example of applying common sense. Even judges put aside the law and engage in common sense decisions. To me, common sense go side by side with psychology.

  8. Bob Dyson

    I had a philosophy professor many years ago who refused to use the phrase “common sense”. Instead, he called it “received wisdom”. The point being that most of the things we believe, and that are in the realm of non-provable facts, are referred to as “common sense”. Most of the things that Jose refers to could be called statements of fact (although 2 cows will only give you twice as much milk as one if both cows are in fact lactating). But what people refer to as common sense usually rely on at least one non-provable belief.

    Another way to look at the notion of “common sense” is that for most people most of the time, the ideas we put in that category are those that we will not allow to be disproven. Not to get into a religious argument, but devout Catholics believe firmly in the Holy Trinity. They didn’t dream this up themselves: people who they hold in deep respect TOLD them this Trinity exists, and it has been part of their belief system so long that it takes on the form of reality. But to anyone not raised in that tradition, this notion is laughable. Both sides lean on common sense to bolster their arguments. Both sides can’t be right, yet they hold onto their opposing views as “common sense”.

    There must be people who think it is “common sense” to force people to take off their shoes before boarding an airplane because ONE person tried to bring a bomb aboard that way (or else why has it gone on this long?). Then there are those of us who are inclined to believe the entire effort is based on rubbish thinking. Both sides rely on un-provable “common sense”.

    • Eric (Shepherd) Mao

      Bob,

      I guess that makes three (you, your professor and me) who don’t use the term “common sense.” Great comment!

    • Benjamin Quiñones

      This is a great debate and I like to add my two cents for what it is worth. To me, common sense is like predicting the future and using good judgement. For example, we warn our 3 years old son to stay away from an open window (good judgement), at the same time we close out that window (common sense). Why?. Simply to prevent an accident. In other words, we foresee what might happen to the kid if the window is left open. On the other hand, some times arbitrators are force to use common sense to solve a labor dispute, instead of ruling arbitrarily against or in favor of one of the parties involved. Common sense is used every day of our lives in order to preserve friendships, keep a job, save a marriage, raise children, even in the battlefield it is common sense to dig fox holes in the expectation of incoming fire. The truth is people can not rely strictly on common sense to solve their problems, but the proper use of it and when and how to apply it is very effective.

      • Eric (Shepherd) Mao

        Benjamin,

        Makes sense. I agree.

        I will use my common sense without saying it out loud because people in the political discourse have ruined it for us.

  9. Eric (Shepherd) Mao

    I’ve just caught this quote of Albert Einstein: “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

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