Sunday, February 18, 2007

Investigation of Common Sense by Someone Who Has Very Little

My wife claims I have no common sense… Okay, I just asked her and she clarified that I have “very little” common sense.

I asked her, secondly, if she had common sense and she casually nodded and said, “Yes.”

My final question for her was to ask how she defines common sense. She replied that common sense is “doing normal everyday things without thinking much about it.”

Then she saw me typing these things up and asked, “You’re not going to make fun of me, are you?”

Well, certainly not intentionally. Of course I have “very little” common sense, so who knows? She never reads my blogs, so she’ll never know. She did ask me how I define common sense. My initial formulation was, “An intuitive approach to applying one’s worldview to situational responses.” It’s rough and bears refinement. Perhaps I thought too much about it.

The Houghton Mifflin Dictionary defines common sense as “Sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment.” It looks like my wife was not too far off base. Perhaps the simplest consideration based on this definition is that those who have more specialized knowledge or understanding than is found in relevant populations of people in general would necessarily lack common sense. They would have, rather, “uncommon” sense.

However, what I was trying to say with my definition is more in keeping with Wikipedia’s treatment of the concept:

One meaning of common sense (or, when used attributively as an adjective, commonsense, common-sense or commonsensical), based on a strict deconstruction of the term, is what people in common would agree: that which they "sense" in common as their common natural understanding. Some use the phrase to refer to beliefs or propositions that in their opinion they consider would in most people's experience be prudent and of sound judgment, without dependence upon esoteric knowledge or study or research, but based upon what is believed to be knowledge held by people "in common". The knowledge and experience most people have, or are believed to have by the person using the term.

Whatever definition is considered apt, identifying particular items of knowledge that are "common sense" is more difficult. Philosophers may choose to avoid using the phrase where precise language is required. Common sense is a perennial topic in epistemology and widely used or referred to by many philosophers. Some related concepts include intuitions, pre-theoretic belief, ordinary language, the frame problem, foundational beliefs, endoxa, and axioms.

Common sense ideas tend to relate to events within human experience, and thus commensurate with human scale. Thus there is no commonsense intuition of, for example, the behavior of the universe at subatomic distances or speeds approaching that of light.

The Wikipedia article goes on from there into a discussion of historical philosophical considerations related to “common sense”.

Another term for knowledge “held by people ‘in common’” is knowledge that has been “normalized”. Such knowledge may be fundamentally flawed. For example, it was common sense for centuries in Europe that bathing washed away that healthy layer of grime from the outside of one’s body exposing one to certain ill. Of course, this was perhaps based on the observation that when one bathed in the winter especially, one died of pneumonia. Of course, we know better than this today. Right? Actually, how certain can we be of what we know? If people in Europe could be so commonly deluded then, what common delusions could we be subject to today?

In this respect, common sense could be used to manipulate groups of people through deception. To understand how this works, it helps to understand how principles and worldviews work. Worldviews are made up of sets of principles. As an individual encounters situations, these principles are applied to produce responses that are appropriate according to the worldview.

In truth, there is only one valid worldview. In a fallen world, we tend to possess flawed and conflicted (or conflicting) worldviews manifested as competing inclinations to produce responses to the various situations that we encounter. We are born with a basic worldview of utter dependence and develop a worldview as we mature. This development is learned through three venues: genetic predisposition, experience and observation, and revelation.

Genetic predisposition. We each are predisposed to have certain temperaments and levels of drives. As fallen beings we typically spend our lives trying to overcome the sinful tendency to overindulge these temperaments and drives.

Experience and observation. With only six senses (including balance), this is perhaps the broadest category. On one end of the spectrum, stressful or traumatic events can affect our genetic predispositions. On the other end of the spectrum, vicarious experience through education may modify our worldview with apparent self-intent. Most commonly, our worldview is informed through experience and observation by the normalization of quasi-philosophical sentiments reinforced through repetition in various media and socialization. It’s this aspect that at once contributes to common sense (and common delusion). More on this in a moment.

While some may deny revelation, they cannot deny creativity. Creativity is one aspect of revelation. Visions and dreams are another. Revelation uses what we know and creates new information from it. Revelation also involves evaluation in that information we receive must be assigned a value. For those of us who are Christian, we heard the gospel (experience), saw the effects of the gospel in the lives of others (observation), the Holy Spirit revealed it as truth by causing us to recognize ourselves in the equation. We subsequently assigned great value to the information and we reanalyzed our lives (previous experiences, observations and predispositions) in light of the new worldview created by this revelation. Thus, revelation is the most powerful venue for worldview development. This is why many deny it.

Within this framework, as I stated earlier, common sense can be understood to be a way to “manipulate groups of people through deception.” Who would do such a thing? Power brokers following the lead of the Deceiver himself. Examples abound. Hitler’s propaganda is an obvious one.

As my earlier example of bathing in Europe illustrates, common sense can also be simply wrong. Entire societies have flourished and are flourishing while holding things to be true that aren’t. Sometimes it’s the odd bird that challenges common sense in search of the truth that is otherwise kept at a proverbial arms distance by the rest of society unwilling to test the veracity of commonly held beliefs. Sometimes these odd birds are venerated.

Sometimes these odd birds are sought out for destruction for bearing the truth to a people who are being fed lies intentionally. Such is the danger of bearing the gospel in fulfillment of the Great Commission. So, Christians have thought about it and we are called to challenge the status quo in favor of the gospel. We have particular knowledge. Too often we Christians exhibit too much “common sense” theology and end up with such beliefs as fitting for semi-pelagianism. We are therefore called to think not once, but continually, about whom God is and seek ever to know Him more clearly. We are called to uncommon sense.

Perhaps I don’t have much common sense. But I think I’ll be just fine without it.

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