On Language, Reason, and Honesty
Ben Franklin is often quoted as having said “common sense is indeed uncommon.” This statement strikes us as true in our experience, but in fact, it is only true if we allow that what we mean when we employ the term is in contradiction to the way we use the term. The commonly accepted interpretation of the phrase “common sense” might be “the innate capacity for reason combined with normal experience”, as in “it is just common sense that if you cross the street without looking you are likely to get hit by a car.” Anyone familiar with cars and streets, or anyone observant upon first encountering a street will recognize the danger of stepping out on the street unaware of the traffic. This might even be said to be a common sense description of common sense. However, the context of the term as used invariably describes the tendency to ignore reason and observation and proceed upon an assumption. Anything out of the ordinary is often assumed to defy common sense. Foreign customs are seen to violate common sense. Someone in Wisconsin may need to have “sense enough to come in out of the rain” to avoid hypothermia, while in Malaysia nobody would get much done if they went indoors every time it rained, but people in the American South may assume that getting out of the rain is “common sense” whether it is warm or not, because common sense it what you think when you don’t bother to think carefully, because it is what we’ve learned to think. Literally, the words of the phrase “common sense” could mean “shared feeling” or “typical worldview”. It strikes us as true because it feels true, not because we have examined its veracity or its logic. When we praise something as being “common sense” we are merely expressing our trust that, because it is likely to be accepted as true, it must, in fact, be true. What we label as common sense very seldom fits the intended meaning of the term.
This disconnect between what we think common sense is and what it actually is in practice is but one example of how we can embrace contradictions in thought by using labels and handy assumptions in place of clear thinking. There are cases in which two ideas sound contradictory but are not, and cases where two ideas sound compatible that are not. It is what makes language rich and useful and yet dangerous and an obstacle to truth all at the same time. Some exploit language to mesmerize, and other so distrust language as to avoid all but the most basic and thus misleadingly simple terms. The fact that language is the basis for both communicating and obfuscating ideas makes it always a challenge to even discuss certain ideas in a good faith attempt to communicate. It becomes even worse if the goal of discussion is to persuade rather than to understand. We can, in fact, persuade ourselves that a belief that would be advantageous to hold is in fact true, by focusing on the description of the belief and the room that its vagueness provides for. It is not uncommon to hear someone who is defending their belief switch between contradictory meanings for the same words in the course of the discussion, or simply refuse to acknowledge that a switch is implied by their evading clarity when pressed. It is common sense that as long as the words do not change, there is no contradiction. Likewise, we may use terms that are assumed to describe something which they do not or cannot.
Common sense is one example of a term that is often assumed to mean one thing while describing the opposite. Using the term generally implies that it describes truth, when it so often does not. As another, terms such as absolute truth are so far beyond useful meaning that they are rendered meaningless beyond the most abstract discussions. In this example, no word has an absolute meaning, so nothing said with words could possibly be absolutely true, even if we can conceive of an absolute truth in the abstract. Even ”a=a” is a definition, not a truth in its own right. This does not mean that communication is futile. A portion, even most of what we wish to communicate can successfully be conveyed between us, and our understanding can be enhanced in the process, just as we can successfully persuade each other of things for good or ill, and alter our understanding for better or worse or neither. But if we assume that our initial impressions of an idea are trustworthy and never need to be examined or questioned, we are avoiding understanding, not demonstrating it. We are making “sense” of our feelings, rather than using reason to discern what is true or correct. This is what is truly common: intellectual laziness, and intellectual dishonesty. When we claim to understand something, yet avoid verifying that understanding, we are dishonest. We may believe it, and there are things that we will believe that we do not understand, and this is human. But to falsely claim that an idea is proven or even reasoned based on the avoidance of analysis is dishonest even if it is typical human behavior, just as to use word trickery to persuade rather than seek a common understanding is dishonest, yet common.
Lest one see this treatise as a cynical lament, it is important to note that there are large swaths of our experience for which this state of being is advantageous and not an evil. If we had to consciously consider every assumption we would be paralyzed. If one assumes that the car weaving up ahead is likely to swerve into them, it does not harm to be wrong and may save a life if correct. Making one of two equally bad (or good) choices, such as which processed food is healthier based on impressions may save time not fretting over a decision of no real impact. Our initial impressions of others may be accurate enough for reasons other than logical deduction even if we rationalize a phony idea of why we were impressed that way after the fact. We have to function and so we have a mental construct of truth that is close enough to keep us working and getting the kids to and from school and putting food on the table, and not thinking to hard about things that matter little may free us up to think hard about things that matter a lot. It is only a problem when we grow to trust not-thinking as being equal or superior to thinking, or grow to mislabel our common mode of not thinking as “right thinking”, particularly when it comes to things that do matter. Governance issues such as fiscal policy and civil liberties deserve honest consideration, but are often treated as cookie-cutter ideology presented in simple “common sense” choices. Overcoming prejudice and bigotry require that we challenge our assumptions as well as the self-persuading arguments we use to justify them. Succeeding in business often requires frequent re-assessment of “the way it’s always been done” in light of new possibilities.
Some essential values, such as the Golden Rule, and many useful facts are found in the general body of “common sense” we grow up with. Just because we don’t think about something important does not mean that we never get it right. But, as the saying goes: “A clock that has stopped altogether is still right twice a day.” The conclusion is that common sense is not a reason to believe anything important. It is a reference point, and nothing more. Whenever an idea is hailed as being the Common Sense answer, don’t be surprised if it cannot stand up to scrutiny, or if it is a clever platitude with no truth value beyond tautology, or most likely, it simply repeats what someone wishes were true as if that proves that it is.