Common Sense and Culture

If we compare what I said about common sense to the letter of St. Augustine on the errors of the Donatists, quoted here, it seems that St. Augustine takes his belief in Christianity to be a matter of accepting common sense:

For they prefer to the testimonies of Holy Writ their own contentions, because, in the case of Cæcilianus, formerly a bishop of the Church of Carthage, against whom they brought charges which they were and are unable to substantiate, they separated themselves from the Catholic Church—that is, from the unity of all nations. Although, even if the charges had been true which were brought by them against Cæcilianus, and could at length be proved to us, yet, though we might pronounce an anathema upon him even in the grave, we are still bound not for the sake of any man to leave the Church, which rests for its foundation on divine witness, and is not the figment of litigious opinions, seeing that it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. For we cannot allow that if Cæcilianus had erred,— a supposition which I make without prejudice to his integrity—Christ should therefore have forfeited His inheritance. It is easy for a man to believe of his fellow-men either what is true or what is false; but it marks abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world on account of charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world.

It is true that St. Augustine talks about “divine witness” and so on here, but it is also easy to see that a significant source of his confidence is existing widespread religious agreement. It is foolish to abandon “the unity of all nations,” and impudent to “condemn the communion of the whole world.” And the problem with “charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world,” is that if you disagree with the common consent of mankind, you should first attempt to convince others before putting forward your personal ideas as absolute truth.

Is common sense a real reason for St. Augustine’s religious position, or he is merely attempting to justify himself? Consider his famous rebuke of those who attack science in the name of religion:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

St. Augustine in fact seems to be giving priority to common sense over religion here. If your religion contradicts common sense, your religion is wrong and common sense is right. This suggests that his argument for his religion from common sense is an honest one; it might even be his strongest reason for his belief.

As I said in the earlier post, the argument for religion from the consent of humanity had problems even at the time, and as things stand, it has no real relevance. There is no religious doctrine, let alone any religion, that one could reasonably say is accepted by even a majority of humanity, let alone by all. At any rate, this is the case unless one makes one’s doctrine far vaguer than would be permitted by any religion.

I concluded above that St. Augustine’s defense of common sense is likely an honest one. But note that this was not necessary: it would be perfectly possible for someone to defend common sense in order to justify themselves, without actually caring about the truth of common sense. In fact, consider what I said here about Scott Sumner and James Larson. Larson’s claim to accept realism is basically not an honest one. I do not mean that he does not believe it, but that its truth is irrelevant to him. What matters to him is that he can seemingly justify himself in maintaining his religious position in the face of all opposition.

Consider the cynical position of Francis Bacon about people relative to truth, discussed here. According to Bacon, no one is interested in truth in itself, but only as a means to other things. While the cynical position overall is incorrect, there is a lot of truth in it. Consequently, it will not be uncommon for someone to defend common sense, not so much because of its truth, but as part of a larger project of defending their culture. Culture is bound up with claims about the world, and defending culture therefore involves defending claims about the world. And if everyone accepts something, presumably everyone in your culture accepts it. One sign of this, of course, would be if someone passes freely back and forth between putting forth things that everyone accepts, and things that everyone in their culture accepts, as though these were equivalent.

Likewise, someone can attack common sense, not for the purpose of truth, but in order to engage in a kind of culture war. Consider the recent comments by “werzekeugjj” on the last post. There is no option here but to explain these comments with the methods of Ezekiel Bulver. For they cannot possibly represent opinions about the world at all, let alone opinions that were arrived at by honest means. Werzekeugjj, for example, responds to the question, “Do people sometimes write comments?” with “No.” As I pointed out there, if they do not, then he did not compose those comments, and there is nothing to reply to. As Aristotle puts it,

We can, however, demonstrate negatively even that this view is impossible, if our opponent will only say something; and if he says nothing, it is absurd to seek to give an account of our views to one who cannot give an account of anything, in so far as he cannot do so. For such a man, as such, is from the start no better than a vegetable.

Nor is it possible to apply a principle of charity here and say that Werzekeugjj intends to say that their claims are true in some complicated metaphysical sense. This does apply to the position of the blogger from Atheism and the City, discussed in that post. He presumably does not intend to reject common sense. I simply point out in my response that common sense is enough to draw the conclusions about causality that matter. The point is that this cannot apply to Werzekeugjj’s expressed position, because I spoke expressly of things in the everyday way, and the response was that the everyday claims themselves are false.

Of course, no one actually thinks that the everyday claims are false, including Werzekeugjj. What was the purpose of composing these comments, then?

We can gather a clue from this comment:

“in such a block unniverse there is no time flow
so your point on finalism or causality is moot
same with God
they don’t exist

The body of the post does not mention God, and God is not the topic. Why then does Werzekeugjj bring up God here? The most likely motivation is the kind of culture war motivation discussed here. Werzekeugjj associated talk of causality and reasons with talk of God, and intends to attack a culture that speaks this way with whatever it takes, including a full on rejection of common sense. Science has shown that your common sense views of the world are entirely false, Werzekeugjj says, and therefore you might as well abandon the rest of your culture (including its talk of God) along with the rest of your views.

Supposedly describing their intentions, Werzekeugjj says,

i’m not trying to understand the world or to change your mind but i’m trying to state what is true
and i’m puzzled by how you think there is no problem with arguments like these

This is false, precisely as a description of their personal motives. No one who says that balls never break windows and that they did not write their comments (in the very comments themselves) can pretend to be “trying to state what is true.” Sorry, but that is not your intention. More reasonably, we can suppose that Werzekeugjj sees my post as part of a project of defending a certain culture, and they intend to attack that culture.

But that is an inaccurate understanding of the post. I defend common sense because it is right, not because it is a part of any particular culture. As Bryan Caplan puts it, “Common sense is the foundation of all reasoning.  If you want to reject a common-sense claim, you’d better do it in the name of an even stronger common-sense claim.”

35 thoughts on “Common Sense and Culture

  1. alright

    i read your articles but i disagree with this one
    on one crucial point

    you mentionned
    This is false, precisely as a description of their personal motives.
    and said that
    Werzekeugjj associated talk of causality and reasons with talk of God, and intends to attack a culture that speaks this way with whatever it takes, including a full on rejection of common sense.

    i disagree
    the reason i put god in my comment is to illustrate one thing
    that is visible in physics nowadays
    is that like reasons and causes
    physics dont use them

    i have no beef with athiesm or theism myself
    its just that the words used for cause and reason and god have no place in physics
    and that if you take that the argument for eternalism show sthat there isnt any time flow
    and as such nothing to start an action
    or pause it
    then there is no need to posit a subject to do it
    and since with no subject their is no cause

    foor example the one you mentionned with the comments situation
    i did claim that i didnt write the comment
    and i still maintain my view here
    let me detail my thought

    if we take the object comment it exists located in spacetime
    so we can see it as an object of particles or atoms or whatever fundamental constituants
    and their position and location overtime c(x,y,z,t)

    if you want we can even take the form (in your sense of form) of the comment
    and even the impressions of the comment it leaves on us

    so if you take me as a similar object b(x,y,z,t)
    there is no need for me to exist for example to have c(x,y,z,t) existing
    and i dont see a clear way to figure out what it would mean for b to cause c
    since c exists eternally
    and b too
    the relation between b and c is only coincidental
    i mean
    nothing makes b necessary to cause c

    at best id grant you that forms exist
    and that b and c have some relations
    we can surely say as a convenience of language that b causes c
    or that i wrote a comment
    but its not true since therei snt any cause in the 4d universe
    and if there was the idea that b causes c appears ultimately coincidental or brute factish to me
    why say b causes c and not the other way around?

    i read your post on hume
    but i really didnt understand what i was missing

    i mean im asking about the belief of cause and effect and reason
    not of induction

    i hope this comment clears the misunderstanding
    i just discovered your blog as i saw your reply to athiesm in the city
    an deven if i dont agree and dont see what arguments youre showing
    im ready to change my mind
    (here again the i and you and all actions are a convenience of language if you were to take this as acounter example)

    trust me its not fun to see the world without cause effect people and niceness
    but thats how harsh realtiy is

    Like

    • Ok. It’s possible I misinterpreted your motives. However, I have no reason to trust what you say here either. Because you double down here on the false statement that you aren’t writing these comments. Obviously, you are. So if you say you are not, even though it is plain to both of us that you are, it is equally possible for you say that something is or isn’t your motive, regardless of whether it is true or not. So there is literally no reason for me to trust anything you say, as long as you take that attitude.

      Do you know what the word “cause” means? If so, where did you get that knowledge, if causes don’t exist?

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      • well not a definition per se but a feeling of what it is

        like a cause is what brings something into being if spacetime wasnt fourdimensional
        for example
        you have dried wood and a match
        you stroke the match and you make a fire out of the dried wood

        like youre the cause of the match being stroked
        and the match being stroked is the cause of the fire

        but this works only becaise of the arrow of time
        and in a fourdimensional spacetime their is no arrow of time

        Like

        • There is an arrow of time in four dimensional spacetime, namely the direction from low entropy to high entropy. But this is a distraction — nothing we are talking about has anything to do with scientific details, and the scientific details have nothing to do with the discussion.

          Where did you get the idea of something bringing something into being?

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          • well here im not sure

            the basic idea would be that i heard it
            i saw it
            or learn about it
            so it would be by observation
            but thats not quite possible if there are no causes

            either its a wrongly built concept
            which is truer in some ways
            but still not convincing

            either its a random thought that popped in my brain
            by some luck of the spacetime disposition
            like a position of the atoms making my brain at t
            like a brute fact

            id say the last proposition

            Like

            • Actually, you got the idea from observing things like balls breaking windows. But that couldn’t have happened, if balls never break windows.

              That it “popped into your brain by some luck” is just silly.

              You misunderstood when I mentioned the game about convincing. I didn’t mean you were trying to change my mind. I meant you were acting like I have the responsibility to convince you (e.g. “Why can’t I say X”), but with the rule that you are allowed to say any nonsense you please. I’m not playing that game. I don’t need to convince you. You are not behaving sensibly, and I have no call to deal with every senseless person that happens along.

              You don’t “want to say things that are true.” We are not remotely close to that as long as you keep saying things that would get you in trouble for perjury if you said them under oath, like “I didn’t write those comments,” and “this idea just popped into my head. I didn’t get it from anywhere.” If you ever do want to say things that are true, perhaps we can have a conversation then.

              Like

              • alright

                assume that these wording would get me in trouble if id say them in court

                youre saying that im allowed to say any nnsense i please but i agree
                im just confused whether to respond anything to this

                i mean
                people can tell you that were brains in vats
                or that things can pop in and out existence at random
                but you hve no way to prove them wrong

                anything we can conceive as existing
                we can conceive it as not existing

                so how can you get out of this situation?
                how come you can show that the world is not some random blind unfolding following of events?

                you can never observe you giving an order to your arm to raise
                all you feel is that you have the order in your mind
                and then the following moment your arm raises

                what observation tells me is that events happen
                i cant go further than that

                if you feel im making you lose your tiem
                thats not my opinion
                because i cant see how or what you would reply to this view
                if i could
                i wouldnt be arguing for it

                Like

                    • Even the post you originally commented on, about causality, responded to your view about causality and explained precisely why it was wrong. You ignored the explanation and stated your view as if I had not addressed it. It is addressed, completely and in detail, in that post.

                      Also I have linked other posts that are relevant. If I haven’t before, see this one: https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2018/06/03/skeptical-scenarios/

                      and this one:

                      https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/form-and-reality/

                      In particular you need to understand that ordinary language is not a “convenient description.” It is just saying the way things are. And if you want to say “how you can prove someone is wrong” when he spouts nonsense instead of ordinary language, the answer is I don’t need to prove that. They are wrong anyway, no proof needed.

                      Like

                    • well sorry if i came out unclear or misunderstanding
                      ill give a better read at your two posts

                      and come back if iant understand something

                      but believe me
                      im not doing that spitefully

                      im actually highly disoriented because athiesm in the city
                      said that his arguments had no counter arguments
                      and you seem to show its false

                      so i dont know what to see or think
                      but ill give it a betterr ead

                      doy ou have also a post about fatalism like blind fatalism or logicalf atalsim?

                      Like

                    • You aren’t doing a great job trying to discuss their position, in that case. They say:

                      “On my view of causality, if you threw a brick at a glass window it would shatter, if you jumped in front of a speeding train you’d be smashed to death by it. ”

                      So they think that balls break windows and that people write comments, too. They just think that this doesn’t involve “ontological becoming.” My argument is that this is irrelevant. I do not need to prove that there is any such thing as “ontological becoming,” and I do not care if there is or not. Causality is about things like breaking and smashing the way that really happens, not about the way some people might think it happens.

                      Probably nothing relevant to your specific concern but here are some posts about free will: https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/?s=free+will

                      Like

                    • well you said

                      You aren’t doing a great job trying to discuss their position, in that case. They say:

                      “On my view of causality, if you threw a brick at a glass window it would shatter, if you jumped in front of a speeding train you’d be smashed to death by it. ”

                      and then

                      So they think that balls break windows and that people write comments, too. They just think that this doesn’t involve “ontological becoming.” My argument is that this is irrelevant. I do not need to prove that there is any such thing as “ontological becoming,” and I do not care if there is or not. Causality is about things like breaking and smashing the way that really happens, not about the way some people might think it happens.

                      his point is if ontological becoming doesnt happen
                      then there is no causality as typically understood
                      youre saying that ontological becoming doesnt matter
                      his view is exactly that causality is a shorthand for having two things related in spacetime ni a special way
                      but causality as understood typicaly involves ontological becoming
                      hence causlity doesnt happen
                      so im completely at loss
                      because you say you dont need to argue for ontological becoming
                      because its irrelevant

                      Like

                    • I explained in the post what causality means. Yes it means two things are related, but “ontological becoming,” whatever that means, has nothing to do with it. Causality means one thing is from another, which we observe, and it means that knowing that one thing is from another helps us understand things, which we also observe (we notice we understand them when we know what things come from.)

                      Like

                    • well perhaps im speaking past you
                      but

                      I explained in the post what causality means. Yes it means two things are related, but “ontological becoming,” whatever that means, has nothing to do with it. Causality means one thing is from another, which we observe, and it means that knowing that one thing is from another helps us understand things, which we also observe (we notice we understand them when we know what things come from.)

                      this is where i feel we dont agree

                      youre saying that all we need to have causality is to have one thing from another

                      but what athiesm in the city and i have been trying to show
                      is that what you mean here is ontological becoming

                      see the world in a 4d way
                      try it
                      any object in 4d is perfectly independant
                      think of it as leibniz prestablished harmony

                      in your case of a ball breaking a window
                      in a 4d universe
                      you could remove the ball and the window would still break
                      since both objects are independant

                      this is why i try reading your article on the observation
                      but i cant grasp the idea that things are only “locally” related
                      any of our representation is just relative to what we see at best

                      so you can link the window breaking with the ball
                      sure
                      but why the ball?
                      why not the door next to it?

                      youre probably going to tell me thats because every time we throw a ball at a window
                      it breaks
                      and that window normally dont break on their own
                      but on a 4d universe
                      this could be seen as just a coincidence

                      mind you
                      im honest
                      im really trying to see what it is im saying so wrong

                      Like

                    • Look, I don’t even know what “ontological becoming” is supposed to mean, and neither do you. And if it something that never happens, then no one experiences it, and there is no reason why anyone would talk about it.

                      “but what athiesm in the city and i have been trying to show
                      is that what you mean here is ontological becoming”

                      No, you haven’t tried to show that. You assume that, even though no one even knows what “ontological becoming” is supposed to be.

                      Even in a 4d universe, if you removed the ball the window would not break, because that would not fit with the pattern, and Atheism and the City says that natural laws are fixed patterns. So if you took away the ball, the fixed pattern would mean that the window would not break.

                      “this could be seen as just a coincidence”

                      That is why I linked the post on induction. It is not a coincidence, and in case the belief that it is, is just silly.

                      Like

  2. alright
    this is where our disagreement is

    Even in a 4d universe, if you removed the ball the window would not break, because that would not fit with the pattern, and Atheism and the City says that natural laws are fixed patterns.

    how do you show that?
    you cant go back in time and remove the ball to test

    Like

          • well no

            its the simplest hypothesis we use
            not something we know

            but nothing would prevent a window to break in principle
            right?

            Like

            • Nothing needs to prevent a window to break. Windows don’t break by themselves, so nothing needs to prevent it from happening.

              Also, something can happen “in principle” if there are principles that would make it happen. There are no principles that would make a window break without coming from a principle. Obviously, since it would be without principles. So a window breaking that way cannot happen in principle.

              Like

              • doesnt this position amounts that no brute fact exist
                and that the real world is rational?

                how can we check these two hypotheses?

                i hope im not acting like an idiot in your eyes
                im really trying to see how you think what you think

                Like

                  • hmmm not sure
                    take a desintegration for example
                    its a brute fact when it happens
                    the nucleus of an atom spontaneously deplects
                    when such atom is instable
                    but there is nothing which “borke” the atom

                    Like

          • Hey, no, he’s right.
            There’s no way for us to get a 100% “windows don’t break” knowledge.
            Besides, this assumes the existence of universals, like “windows”.
            While the only view needed in science is the pragmatic one.

            But it doesn’t help your cause at all : so far, sure, we’ve never seen a window breaking spontaneously.
            Nothing forbids us in the future to see one window break spontaneously.

            Like

            • He’s playing a game, the same one kids play when they say, “but why?” knowing that there is nothing to prevent them from continuing with that forever.

              I’m not interested in that game.

              Like

              • You’re sure?

                For my part, I’m interested in how you can escape skepticism and claim “well, we know X and Y”. At best, we have a good rough estimate. Nothing more.

                All the solutions I’ve seen involve a magical appeal to God at some point.

                Like

                • Yes, all human knowledge is fallible, if that’s what you’re saying. I don’t disagree with that. But “know” in that context doesn’t mean you’re infallible.

                  Likewise, being sure, in a human way, does not mean you are infallible. That does not always give you a reason to feel uncertain.

                  Like

                • Anyway, there is plenty of discussion of these topics in the posts on my blog and I’m not going to repeat everything in the comments to everyone who passes by and asks these questions without having read the content.

                  Like

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