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Common Sense vs Scientific Knowledge & the Quest for "Truth"

The philosopher William James (brother of novelist Henry James) had a theory about how our most basic knowledge, what we may call our ‘common sense understanding of the world’, came to be formed. His idea was this:

…our fundamental ways of thinking about things are discoveries of exceedingly remote ancestors, which have been able to preserve themselves throughout the experience of all subsequent time. They form one great stage of equilibrium in the human mind’s development, the stage of common sense. Other stages have grafted themselves upon this stage, but have never succeeded in displacing it.

This at first certainly sounds like quite an outlandish claim, but let us look at his justification for this, and then we will compare this mode of ‘common sense thought’ with the much more recent (and wildly successful) mode of scientific thought. Is one necessarily more ‘true’ than the other? We are tempted to think of scientific thought as more fundamental than common sense, and with good reason, since with our use of scientific theories and abstract objects like electrons and fields, we have been mightily successful in harnessing the natural world, but can this mode of thinking really claim to describe a higher level of truth than our basic common sense? In this article we will investigate both modes of thought and how each relates to the abstract notion of truth.

Let us begin with common sense and William James’s statement about where it may have arisen from in our minds and those of our ancestors. Like most philosophers, James starts from analyzing our sense experiences, a motley bunch of visual, audio and other sensations. He argues that these impressions do not come “ticketed and labelled”, but it is up to our minds to unify them into some coherent whole.

The way we “keep tabs” on the impressions that present themselves, he says, is by framing some system of categories and then to use this as a kind of tally by which we can categorize each impression as it occurs. When each impression is categorized in its proper place it is then said to be ”understood”. This he describes as the common sense way of rationalizing our impressions, and in this way of thinking, the most important of the categories we have for framing our experiences are as follows:

· Thing

· Sameness/Difference

· Kinds

· Minds

· Bodies

· Time

· Space

· Subjects & Attributes

· Causal Influences

· The Real

· The Possible

· The Imagined

James argues that each of these categories was in a sense invented as a stage of thought by individual brilliant minds in our ancestral line, and has stood the test of time due to their utility in helping us navigate the chaotic sensible world of our experiences. As he puts it:

Permanent “things”… the “same” thing and its various “appearances” and “alterations”, the different “kinds” of thing of which the “kind” used finally as a “predicate” of which the thing remains the “subject” – what a straightening of the tangle of our experience’s immediate flux and sensible variety does this list of terms suggest! . . . Out of them, all our lowest ancestors probably used only the notion of “the same again.” But then even if you had asked them whether the same were a “thing” that had endured throughout the unseen interval they would probably have been at a loss and would have said that they have never asked that question, or considered things in that light.

James puts forward that there have been geniuses of antiquity, whose names have long since been forgotten to time, who discovered these categories that seem so intuitive and natural to us today. In a similar way to the successes of Darwin, Newton and Einstein with their scientific breakthroughs, these categories were initially verified by the facts of experience which they first fitted, and then from fact to fact and from person to person they spread, until eventually all language was built upon and rested on them, and we are now incapable of thinking naturally in any other terms.

But is this list of categories something fundamental? Something representative of ‘the world in itself’ as we might say? Or is it instead a useful fiction, designed to help us as active beings navigating the world but not an ontological statement of the universe as it actually exists? For example, is the “possible”, as something less than the actual but more than the wholly unreal, something that is actually existent? Deterministic science has no room for the possible in reality as it is in itself, but criticize it as we may it is a concept which certainly persists. As James puts it when investigating the reality of these categories:

“Things,” what are they? Is a constellation properly a thing? Or an army?... or is space or justice a “thing”? Is a knife whose handle and blade are changed the “same”?... The moment you pass from a practical use of these categories to a merely curious or speculative way of thinking you find it impossible to say within just what limits of fact any one of them shall apply.

It is for these reasons that all serious scientific (and the majority of philosophical) thinkers have found it impossible to treat these common-sense categories as ultimately real. Instead, science extrapolates its world of primary qualities: its particles, fields, and laws for example, beyond the common-sense world. The “things” are now invisible, impalpable, abstract objects with no analogues in the world of our experiences; and the old common-sense categories are supposed to result from the mixture of these invisibles. As James beautifully puts it:

With critical philosophy, havoc is made of everything. The common-sense categories one and all cease to represent anything in the way of “being”, they are but sublime tricks of human thought, our ways of escaping bewilderment in the midst of sensation’s irredeemable flow.

What science has achieved by these means is truly astounding, opening up completely unexpected ranges of practical utility and ways of harnessing and influencing the world around us, and in this way science is certainly verifiable by our senses and makes a strong claim for its “truth”. After all, the scope of the practical control of nature put into our hands by the scientific ways of thinking far outweighs the old control we had just with common-sense.

In this way we must surely be guided in thinking that the objects of science are more “true” than those of common-sense, but if this is the case then why is it that these entities of which science treats are treated with the utmost criticism and ontological skepticism by the scientific community? If you were to ask the scientists working in their respective fields, 99% or more would tell you that these entities, however definitely conceived, should only be treated as if they exist “but in reality they are like co-ordinates or logarithms: only artificial short cuts for taking us from one part to another of experience’s flux.”

As another way of thinking about this: modern physics is made up of a multitude of different physical theories and the same property or entity is conceptually completely different in each of these different theories within Physics. The concept mass for example has wildly different conceptions in its uses in Newtonian mechanics, General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory. In each case it is an entirely different concept, within an entirely different framework of understanding the universe. Each of these theories, within their domains of applicability, are tremendously successful in making predictions about the world and our future experiences of the world. However, none are complete and there is no reason to think a more fundamental picture of the world will not emerge at some point (perhaps even the holy grail of undiscovered physical theories: the Grand Unified Theory which has as its domain the entire universe at every scale) which will supersede our current conceptions of all of these entities. But even then, the question will remain: do these entities exist or is it just as if they exist? Science after all is fundamentally a framework of making predictions about our future experiences, and so there must necessarily always be a gap between this and making ontological statements about what actually, literally exists.

So what is left to conclude? We have seen that common-sense, over science, is the more consolidated stage of thought, simply because it got in there first and made all language into its ally. Yet we have seen reason to doubt it, despite its universal usage and the fact that it is built into the structure of language. Its categories may be simply extremely successful hypotheses which have been “historically discovered or invented by single men, but gradually communicated and used by everybody, by which our forefathers have from time immemorial unified and straightened the discontinuity of their immediate experiences”. That is the first conclusion: retain this suspicion about common sense.

Nevertheless all our scientific ways of thinking about the world are at heart instrumental, in that they are “mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world enigma”. Thus, it seems we cannot turn to science for ultimate truth either, and so with neither common sense nor science able to conclusively expel the other, I leave you with the closing words of William James:

May there not after all be a possible ambiguity in truth?


Director of Witherow Brooke


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