The abnormality of common sense

Everyone thinks they have common sense and that having common sense is enough to have an opinion. Biologists render opinions about metaphysics and chemists on theology. Ministers hold forth on economics and mechanics evaluate Picasso. Most people think they know a lot more than they really do. I know I do. But common sense is more complicated than you might think. 

Have you watched babies reach for their rattle and miss? When they finally grasp it, and go to stick it in their mouth, they stick it in their eye instead. This is very instructive for the baby because it is the way they begin to learn how their world works and to acquire a little common sense. 

To build a simple structure with blocks, children must understand many abstract ideas. Abstract concepts like color, size and shape must be recognized even when the objects may be partially covered by other objects. Once the process of finding is done, another part of the mind must accurately move the hand in three-dimensional space without disturbing what has already been assembled.

These decisions and acts can only be made if the mind of the children have clear ideas of what the end products will be and a plan for creating them. Of course, sometimes children forget what they were building. Personally, I never technically forget. More often I just come up with another idea before the first idea is completed.

Anyway, children must have mental ideas about desired outcomes. They must be able to remember what they want to create. Then they have to make adjustments on the fly. What if they don’t have enough of one color or size? What if the structure is unstable? 

This vague knowledge is called common sense because it’s the sum total of what we all have arrived at through our shared experiences. My wife thinks common sense should be very simple and common. She doesn’t understand that common sense is apparently a very complicated thing made up of many compartments and sub-units, all connected and working together. In my defense, I’ve tried to explain this to her. 

All concepts and abilities were learned at one time or another. Later in life, when we try to explain some things to youth, we simply find it impossible. That’s because, while we may recall episodes from our childhoods, we usually do not clearly recall daily details that contributed to our common sense. 

The point is, people of each generation must build their own minds. Individuals make progress and change. In fact, individuals progress whether they have formal education or not. Most people throughout history had little schooling but progressed well. Schools simply allow societies to control the learning processes. Besides, schools provide a place to keep the kids all day. That’s just common sense. 

However, societies cannot progress in the same way as individual people do because every individual in a society must learn about the world on their own.  Each person must learn for himself all the “common sense” that the previous generation already thinks they have. However, the common sense of the previous generation may not be sufficient understanding for the next generation. 

A new generation faces a world that has already been screwed up by the present generation, thereby altering the future. Future common sense must be different from present common sense. I can testify that past common sense is now pretty uncommon. If you think about it too much, it kind of makes you dizzy. Maybe that’s just me. 

This may be the misunderstanding of social progress. People progress. Societies change, but they do not necessarily progress. In fact, societies may decline even while some people progress. That’s what I think has happened in my case. 

Anyway, my wife now understands how uncommon common sense is and has lowered her expectations accordingly. Happily, in the meantime, I am free to continue to render my opinions about science.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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