There is No Such Thing as "Common Sense"
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
"Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before you reach eighteen."
Common sense does not exist, or at least not in the way that people practically think of it. Disdainfully we observe the actions and behaviors of others and lament the lack of common sense; the failure of folks to have the “basic ability to perceive, understand and judge that which is shared by nearly all people.”
How could people be so stupid? How could people be so blind? The incredulousness of it all, the absurdity and the schadenfreude of our inner monologues when witnessing the abasement of that which is as simple as common sense. We have constructed an entire language of this incredulity in our online discourse. The interplay of Memes, comments and reaction gifs characterized by mockery, sarcasm and outright hostility. And we ask ourselves, is this not deserved by those who do not even have the most basic capability of perception and judgement, common sense? Do they not deserve to wear the dunce cap.
If common sense is so common though how is it that we have such a diversity of opinions. How is it that the wide range of experiences, perceptions and personal baggage one brings to the table do not combine to create the same conclusions amongst each and every one of us? Put in these terms it seems fairly obvious that common sense is only assumed to be common as one has to consider how the imperfect nature of perception must combine with memories, experiences and beliefs for each individual. Sense is not common but individual.
Furthermore, the appeal to common sense itself is a mental shortcut. An appeal to common sense is an appeal to that which is so obvious that everyone would make the same judgement. That the judgements are so fundamental that minute differences shouldn’t affect its conclusions. Possibly that one may as well be born with it. We know this is not the case. Even consensus on something as rudimentary as “what color is the reddit upvote button” is a topic of debate and far from an agreement required by common sense.
No one is born with a sensibility or judgement, even that which appears most automatic and obvious to functional adults in a complex social world. That which is the most basic to our animal brains must oftentimes be learned through experience and interpretation and would fail to be considered “common sense” which is intrinsic. We all can recall burning the roof of our mouth on hot pizza or coffee for the umpteenth time or for the simple example that we have to watch babies lest they put objects in their mouth and choke to death. It would appear that which is even as basic as the avoidance of pain and death is only common insofar that it is learned.
“Tell people there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.”
― George Carlin
If common sense then is only common because it is learned then why does it seem so obvious and inherently true? This is because the perception of “common sense” is a mental shortcut which we utilize to function in a complex world. It is a method of intuitive thinking and analysis which allows us to quickly process information and be able to act upon it. It is a shortcut which allows us to rapidly identify elements of the world around us, compare it to a pre-existing image we hold of the world and act accordingly. It is a heuristic that is rooted in assumption and not necessarily fact which allows us to benefit from the rapid processing power it provides.
The implication in this is that often when individuals refer to common sense as something matter of fact or a priori that they may mistake an assumption for that which actually is matter of fact. There is a blind spot to those assumptions which we have developed over time through the flow of personal experience (such as touching hot stoves and hot things) and that which we seem to understand intrinsically (such as how to breath using our lungs). In many cases of our complex lives these can seem functionally equivalent however there is risk to exercising solely the muscles which interchange between assumption and fact freely. It is not a far cry to see that perhaps we have made a translation error in our assumption of the definition. That “common” refers not to its frequency among people but instead refers to its other definitions, how base or vulgar it can be.
Shortcut to Short Circuit
Intuitive methods of processing information and stimuli are ancient and hardwired into our psyche. They are powerful methods of integrating constantly changing stimuli into actionable and reactionable packets of data for our conscious minds at speeds and efficiencies that even modern computers have yet to mimic effectively. In order to achieve this speed and efficiency, the intuitive mind must compare stimuli to pre-existing constructions of data (forms) within the mind to make snap judgements about their relationship. Thus, intuitive thinking compares perception with worldview. The limitation of this becomes the inability to integrate divergent or antithetical information. The system is not built to develop new assumptions but to process against assumptions quickly.
“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
We are in luck however as that is precisely what our logical faculties have been developed to do. To break apart our assumptions into smaller constituent parts and reform them taking into account incongruous experiences and stimuli; to mold or remold our internal forms to accommodate a constantly changing external environment. In order to do so, one must put themself in the mindframe to think critically and furthermore, must be open to the reality which we assume as simple truth to operate in our daily life is in actuality an assumption with which we have the power to mold.
The intuitive forms of thinking actually become inhibitors of personal growth when we fail to recognize and allow for the interplay between our intuitive and critical informational processing systems. The necessity of assumption as the basis of ego consciousness is the natural function of the intuitive thinking process and allows us to act within a world of imperfect perception and information. It allows us to hold belief as a surrogate for fact and this equivocation provides the bedrock to shortcut the processing of information. Reflexively making this equivocation without the reminder that these assumed truths are actually assumptions short circuits the interrelationship between intuitive and critical thinking and may lead to a total breakdown between the systems in which an individual becomes incapable of recognizing the constructed nature of their own assumptions that form the basis of their thought processes.
“The light obtained by setting straw men on fire is not what we mean by illumination.”
― Adam Gopnik
Assumptions themselves assumed to be truth (rather than a stand in for truth) in a closed system further reinforce the perception of that assumption as truth. This is the short circuit. Human beings have always been susceptible to this hotwiring of our intellectual circuitry however there is a natural social resistor through dialogue. The assumption of matter of fact truth naturally breaks down in critical conversation as that which is most easily assumed, the definition of words, must often be clarified in effective communication. Even the “common sense” of a word having a specific meaning in context is loosely defined through the consensus and experiences of the participation and through dialogue we are forced to challenge even the most presumed definitions when communicating complex information.
Digital conversation in many ways has only given us the illusion of dialogue. Digital communication creates a Strawman masquerading as dialogue which bleeds into our actual interactions as we practice the inability to differentiate what we have assumed and what we perceive.
The lack of imminence of interaction through digital information means that even content produced by another is only read through the definitions and assumptions presupposed by the reader. Lost are the perceptive queues of gesture, emotion, tone and even interruption which provide the framework to demand a clarification of definitions and challenge assumptions. People read arguments that contradict their worldview only through the lens of their own previously assumed viewpoint and go on to re-butt these arguments (in their head) without consideration of what other meanings are possible in the content. The perception of common sense is a straw man which allows one to refute a position without every having actually understood or considered it. Why would one need to when the common sense of a word’s meaning is already known and people's intent is so obvious?
“When somebody summarizes an argument thoughtfully before offering a counterargument, the resulting debate tends to be more meaningful and productive. Much of what passes for argument in our society consists of people badly misrepresenting each other's arguments and responding to points that another person is not making. This inevitably leads to frustration and anger and a feeling of being rhetorically manipulated instead of honestly challenged. Correctly paraphrasing somebody's position makes it much harder to misrepresent that position while trying to argue against it.”
― Michael Austin, We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition
We then walk through a world of individuals arguing with themselves but having no way to speak to one another. People refute arguments of their own making without checking to see that anyone has actually made the assertion they have refuted. Our civic discourse has become a psychiatric ward of schizophrenia. Of people arguing with themselves. A constellation of planets, each one spinning isolated in its own orbit and asserting the universe revolves around it without calibrating its relative position. In doing so, we have closed ourselves off to the world and have abdicated the power of our individuality and creativity to constructs (of our own design) which we label as fundamental truths. They have become automata which can predict our actions, behavior and thoughts without requiring our consent.
Partition of the Self
“You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.”
― Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
The atrophied balance between logical and intuitive modes of thinking is not a permanent situation and the ego reinforcing short circuit can be repaired. The luxury of social isolation enjoyed by the ego consciousness which masquerades as interaction and provides the easiest path for intuitive short circuiting can be defended against. One must create a partition of the self in which a portion of the consciousness is separated from that which is allowed to participate in the energy flows of living systems.
That portion need not be large but must be consciously separated and given the task of asking the questions which challenge assumptions underlying the flows of action and thought we participate in. A form of induced schizophrenia in which the voices we hear are whispering critical skeptics rather than the dreadful demands of gods and demons that command us through the assumptions we mistake for truths.
Why do I think/feel/believe this?
What makes up these thoughts/feelings/beliefs?
Can I imagine information which would make these thoughts/feelings/beliefs untrue?
What are the definitions of the words I am using and what are alternate definitions that others may be using and must be synchronized for dialogue to exist?
One must create in that partition of the self a form of natural data validation as we enter a world immersed in information but with less and less opportunity for the social validation of ideas that had existed in the past through dialogue and interaction. One must consciously attempt to pick apart one’s own arguments and worldview, not to leave everything deconstructed and broken upon the ground but to empower the individual in understanding their agency and autonomy over their own belief systems. To do anything else is to abdicate one’s agency, one’s development and one’s growth to forces outside of one’s control. It is to become a character in a narrative rather than the author of a story.
It is through the development of this intellectual and intuitive flexibility, openness and humility that one is equipped with power over the eldritch and tectonic forces of the unconscious; the power of aggregate group think or of “common” sense. One’s actualization is not determined by the external forces they ascribe to but by the creative force to invent and reinvent an image of one’s self in the face of a roiling universe.
One need not be afraid of death. Life is a series of psychic deaths. The death of childhood, the death of bachelorhood, the death of materialistic ambition with physical death only the last known death. When a parent dies so too does the role of the self as a child die. Both of which may be grieved only as a memory. We grow by burying the abstract visions of the self which we pin to ourselves as name tags for hell is not a place one goes after death. Hell is living within a psychological cadaver, unwilling or unable to let go of an imagined form and be reborn in a vision of the self that can function in dialogue with the reality of the present.
Image: The Lovers by Rene Magritte