[ 24/2/20 ]
How deeply are you prepared to look for an answer?
How deeply are you prepared to examine common sense as an idea?
How deeply are you prepared to examine philosophy as an idea?
I started looking deeply at both ideas over 50 years ago, and have kept at it ever since.
There is no short or simple answer I can give to the question that will be commonly understood, because most people believe that ideas like True and False, Right and Wrong, Good and Evil etc actually exist in reality.
For me, all such simple binary notions have, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, been disproved as aspects of reality, but have been shown to be really useful models to have when rapid decision making is required for survival.
It seems that reality is deeply and fundamentally complex and uncertain, yet in some contexts it can behave in really reliable and predictable ways. So we can have weather and computers. Weather usually contains surprises, computers usually do what we expect them to (provided we maintain them within limits of temperature, voltage, current, magnetic flux, high energy particle density, humidity, structural deformation, etc).
So all of my understandings are based in probability, some things being more likely than others in some contexts.
We seem to be deeply cooperative entities selected over deep time by a process of natural selection operating at multiple levels in a very unusual set of contexts that have rewarded cooperation over competition for most of that history.
If one looks deeply at us, we are the most cooperative entities on the planet, despite what economic dogma would have us believe. And certainly if you place us in competitive contexts (like competitive markets) then we can compete. Yet if you look deeply at the strategic nature of our existence, you will see clearly that freedom, security and prosperity find their greatest expression when there exists real, non-naive, cooperation.
So what we think of as common sense seems to be a set of biological and cultural heuristics (things that work well enough in context to survive) that worked for our ancestors in the environments that they lived in.
Our environment is changing – rapidly.
Some of the old heuristics don’t work as well as they did.
And when you look deeply at the mathematics and logic of it, starting with a quantum mechanical understanding of the replication of a DNA molecule and working up recursively through the levels of replicating entities and strategies that seem likely to have emerged over time leading to us; then, after repeating that process about 15 times through emergent levels of complex adaptive systems, you start to get a feeling for the depths of complexity embodied in us, and just how deeply complex some of those heuristics are.
If you delve deeply into the mathematics of neural networks, then you can begin to see evolution as a search over the space of functions and predicates that deliver both weak and strong convergence. If you are not familiar with the mathematics of deep neural networks then think of the previous sentence as describing ways in which evolution can shape our brains and our culture to be able to more easily make sense of the particular environments in which they existed (social and environmental).
So common sense is a deeply complex topic, and it is not very common that many people have much real idea at all as to how it actually works.
What about philosophy?
Philosophy comes from two Greek words, usually translated as the love of wisdom, but probably more accurately characterised as a deep friendship and admiration of skill, art, cleverness and wisdom (what it takes to be a well rounded and contributing member of society). The Greek word Sophia has the same root as the Latin sapere, from which we get our species name and sapience (wisdom or understanding).
Asking questions about such things is what started science.
Science is about asking questions of reality, and looking closely at how reality responds and what we can learn from that.
Some people have been doing that since people became people. We have written records of some of it since writing was developed.
We have reasonable collections of bits of such writings covering the last 3,000 or so years.
And as with all such inquiries, the more we look at all aspects of the process, the more complex it gets.
For me, it is over 50 years since I started reading Darwin’s Origin of Species, and I have read samples from ancients through to moderns, across what was once called philosophy, before it became separated from mathematics, logic and science.
For me, I have the greatest respect for philosophy when it is the synthesis of all branches of experience and inquiry and tradition across all cultures – involving history, science, and the deepest explorations of mathematics, logic and strategy.
So in this sense, philosophy starts out with common sense, and starts asking hard questions of experience, and starts exploring the abstract realms of bounded systems like mathematics and logics, and looks for intersections where there are useful understandings to be had, models to be created.
And when one spends a few decades in that inquiry, one meets many sets of infinities, and many different classes of fundamental uncertainty and unpredictability, that put many of the simple commonsense assumptions that one started with into a similar class as Santa-Claus – a useful idea to start with, but something to be seen through quickly.
So it seems very probable indeed that all philosophy necessarily started from commonsense, and much of modern philosophy is so far removed from common sense that there are libraries describing the pathways between them.
It seems that every individual has some unique set of understandings and relationships, the utility and accuracy of which will likely be very context dependent.
More accurate isn’t always useful, if it takes too long to compute.
Often reality rewards speed far more than accuracy, or more accurately, it punishes the slow much more harshly than it punishes slight inaccuracies.
And much of what passes for modern philosophy is so far removed from reality and so full of fundamental errors, that it isn’t a lot of practical use; and some of it is profoundly useful.
So there is no simple answer as to what is best, it is always very context sensitive.