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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Common Sense and Science

We all practice and value common sense. Those who do not we call immature, nutty, foolish, weird. Like the kid who brings a hunting knife to school, the guy on the corner talking loudly to himself (unless he has earphones?), the man who darts out in the street without looking (unless he is in DC or SF?), the motorist who tries to beat a fast train to the crossing, the persons who take off all their clothes in public (Bay to Breakers runners excepted).

Common sense is what is commonly held to be true. It is what wise elders tell their children. It is expressed in our ordinary language. It guides our behavior in our everyday world.

Everyone knows that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, that things don't move unless they are pushed or pulled, that if you find a complex object in the woods like a clock that someone must have made it, that sex is between male and female, that people act in their self interest, that something cannot come from nothing, that the strong will overcome the weak, that work makes people strong, that love is a many splendored thing. How do they know? By just looking with their eyes, hearing with their language, and accepting the symbols, judgments, and values of the community they have inherited.

Common sense is self evident to anyone who will just stop, look, and listen. Just take an objective viewpoint and reject bias and you will know what is common sense and how to act with common sense. Of course, it is common sense to realize that there really is no objective viewpoint and that everybody has a bias.

And, yes, common sense formulas are inconsistent. But that's because common sense sayings belong to the particular situation in which you find yourself. Take a look at all these common sense sayings that we often use. We call them truisms, but notice how they contradict each other.

Caution/patience or Boldness/risk
better safe than sorry
discretion is the better part of valor
opportunity only knocks once
everything come to him who waits
fortune favors the bold
he who hesitates is lost
if it ain't broke don't fix it
best to be on the safe side
if you play with fire, you get burned
let sleeping dogs lie
look before you leap
make hay while the sun shines
strike while the iron is hot

Money and Riches
money talks
money isn't everything
money is the root of all evil
money is a good servant but a bad master
money makes money
money doesn't grow on trees
the best things in life are free
nothing ventured, nothing gained
you can't take it with you
a penny saved is a penny earned
carpe diem! eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die

Appearances and Reality
what you see is what you get
appearances can be deceiving
you can't tell a book by its cover
seeing is believing
all that glitters is not gold
all clouds bring not rain
Still waters run deep
garbage in, garbage out
look before you leap

Also common sense is relative not only to particular situations, but also to history and culture. While we use the language of the sun setting and rising, we now are pretty attuned that the earth is going around the sun. Most of us are getting used to emerging complexity in nature without any outside or spiritual agency.  Indeed we think people are not being sensible if they deny these truths. And so we see that scientific discovery has impinged on common sense.

"We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Thomas Paine would call that common sense along with his assertion that the rule of many surpasses the rule of kings. But did the founders by "all men" mean white males or would they also include women and people of color? Did they mean by their "Creator" Nature or God; and if they meant God, as in God bless America, did they mean Spinoza's God, which is Nature, or Society, or the Super Agent in the sky? Of course we know that some meant one thing and others meant other things. Yet all were speaking common sense.

Common sense includes real things and substances like books, rocks, people, souls, water, bodies, clouds, things and substances. It also includes force, agency, energy, time and space. Then science comes along with minute particles that act like waves, mass which is energy, invisible strings, eleven dimensions, big bangs and singularities, and force fields to explain those common sense things and substances, agencies and energies, space and time and maybe take the place of them even in our common sense knowledge. Science often contradicts and supplants the common sense of yesterday--or at least adds to it. 

What science shares with common sense is its communal character. As we know, science demands evidence that can falsify or verify its hypotheses through experiments that many can replicate. Communality through professional exchange and peer review that leads to a trans-tribal, trans-cultural or universal viewpoint is both the foundation and sublimation of common sense.

We all know of the eccentric professor or mad scientist who has lost his or her common sense. But in fact science starts with common sense and goes on from there.

As the wise man said: "the one thing about common sense is that it isn't common." And sometimes it doesn't make sense.

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