Monday, September 11, 2023
With all due respect to the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, this article titled "Common Sense" is not a call to arms but rather a short discussion about what common sense is, when we get it, when we apply it and how we lose it.
This topic was raised in a conversation I had with a contemporary of mine — a retired doctor. We were observing that young doctors and lawyers are far better educated than we were and are arguably far smarter, but they often lack common sense. We both observed that in todayfrs graduate school tests, most of the exams are given in multiple choice questions. The correct answer is often determined by probability rather than by sound and prudent judgment based on a perception of the situation or facts.
I admit we were both expressing a bit of ego by assuming we were blessed with an uncanny amount of common sense but in our advancing years some ego is earned. However, just in case ego got in the way, I decided to do a bit more research into this topic.
Let's start with a modern and simple definition: Common Sense defined as sound and prudent judgment based on a perception of the situation or facts. It sounds simple enough at face value, but in reality, it is oh so complicated.
Let's go back in time to Aristotle. Ari thought ( in Greek: koine aesthesis ) translated as "common perception," was comprised of our ability to perceive common everyday things: our ability to perceive that we perceive; our ability to perceive time; our ability to remember what we perceive; and our ability to perceive distinct qualities by different sensory modalities (shape, color, feel, smell, heft, etc.) as belonging to the same object. The philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries led by the Scottish School of Common Sense — principally one Thomas Reade — wrote that "... common sense is man's innate ability to perceive common ideas and that this process is inherent in and interdependent from judgement. Common sense, therefore, is the foundation of philosophical inquiry."
Not wanting to wade into deep philosophical debate let's go back to our simple equation of determining the process that gets us from perception to sound and prudent judgment. One could easily argue that the process requires experience or years of observation. So, it might follow that older doctors and lawyers could have more common sense than their younger versions. However, common sense tells me that the amount of experienced, professional folks who lack common sense is probably the same amount as younger folks. So maybe age is irrelevant. Is common sense, then, experiential?
Let's look at Congress. The average age of members of the 118th Congress is 58 years old. Comparatively, the median age of Americans, according to the most recent census data, is 38 years old. The average length of service for Representatives at the beginning of the 118th Congress was 8.5 years (4.3 House terms); for Senators, 11.2 years (1.9 Senate terms). That should be a sufficient age for our congressional bunch to experience good governance and to exercise common sense. My observation, without sounding too cynical, is that it is hard to find the application of much common sense to our members of Congress.
So, if it is neither age nor experience then what are the forces at work that defeat applying common sense (assuming, of course, that congressional members are capable of exercising sound judgment)? The political process must significantly interfere with the common-sense process. The political process makes politicians dependent on those writing checks — the infamous lobbyists — and they seem to rely more on polling of undisclosed participants rather than using their own common sense, which partially explains the gap between what is believed in Washington DC and what the rest of the country believes.
Another threat to the use of common sense, in my opinion, is artificial intelligence — the new Silicon Valley phenom. As I understand it AI searches at light speed the entirety of the web and spits out a "consensus" if not best answer to the question asked. There is no guarantee of the accuracy or validity of what's on the web; stuff is just there. AI does not perceive and collect and collate. While AI could be a valuable tool, it does not have any common sense, it does not perceive the world or the foibles of mankind. Will Gen 2 AI gain from the experience of Gen 1 AI? Does AI ever admit it was wrong? Does it learn from its mistakes?
Another contemporary threat to the application of common sense might be the new wave of book banning in schools and the editing of history to suit current popular thinking and the canceling of inconvenient truths. If we cannot read or learn from a wide variety of conflicting sources, if our perceptions are colored by the politically imposed and therefore narrowing of our field of knowledge, how will we gain the experience to make sound and prudent judgements? It appears younger folks would prefer to gain information through the internet as opposed to the slower process of gaining knowledge and perhaps wisdom from wiser elders.
From two recent news articles Common sense tells me if you are going to revolt against someone like Putin either complete the task or go into deep hiding for the rest of your life. Common sense tells me if you are going to leave the baseball stands and run onto the field during a game to "pet" an all-star baseball player you should expect to be arrested and get hauled off to jail. In both of these examples Common sense was absent.
As do many of my articles, this one raises more questions than answers. Common sense tells me I should seek out answers about common sense from people who have it, like you.