Common sense leads philosophy astray (and the alternative of scientific rigour)

C C Offline

EXCERPTS: In Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning, Timothy Williamson contends that philosophy starts from commonsense, and that commonsense can serve as a ‘check on the philosopher’s provisional conclusions’. [...] It is commonplace in philosophy to test arguments and theories by reference to commonsense. ,,, But there are good reasons to doubt whether commonsense should play these roles in philosophy.

First, as Williamson recognizes, there is an enormous difference between commonsense knowledge—that is, things that people genuinely know—from commonsense belief, which is what people merely think they know. The problem here, of course, is that without some method for reliably telling these two things apart, philosophy runs the risk of basing arguments and theories on false beliefs that people think they know to be true.

Second, appeals to commonsense in philosophy are a demonstrably unreliable method for distinguishing genuine knowledge (and truth) from mere belief (and falsehood). How do I know this? As Jason Brennan points out, philosophers disagree wildly over philosophical issues. Take any philosophical debate you like—consciousness, free will, morality, epistemology, justice, etc.—you will find a wide plurality of mutually incompatible arguments and theories. Because mutually incompatible claims cannot be true, it follows that virtually all philosophical arguments and theories are unsound, having false conclusions.

Third, better methods—specifically, scientific methods—have a long track record of refuting commonsense beliefs that people once (falsely) took to be knowledge. For example, it was once taken for granted, as commonsense knowledge, that the Earth is flat and stationary—yet we now know from scientific inquiry that the Earth is spherical and revolves around the Sun. The history of science is full of examples like this. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.—all refuted commonsense beliefs about the world that people thought to be knowledge.

Fourth, to the extent that commonsense can get things wrong, basing philosophy upon it runs at least two further risks.

First, commonsense can be regressive, wrongly presupposing the truth of prevailing prejudices. For example, in his 1680 work Patriarcha, British philosopher Robert Filmer used commonsense religious beliefs in his time to defend the divine right of kings, the view that monarchs rule with absolute, God-given authority.

Second, to the extent that commonsense can be used to challenge prejudices, it can—if it is not adequately grounded in facts beyond commonsense—be recklessly utopian. For example, although Karl Marx gave what many take to be a strong commonsense argument against capitalism, Marx also claimed that a proletarian revolution to destroy capitalism will (somehow!) give rise to true Communism: a stateless way of human life without private property or exploitation. Suffice it to say, that prediction has never materialized. What has materialized from Marxist revolutions are rivers of blood: 20-62 million deaths in the Soviet Union, 40-77 million deaths in Maoist China, 1.3 million deaths in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and so on. Capitalism may very well be deeply unjust—but unless we have more than commonsense to go on about the extent to which human beings can do better than capitalism, we run a serious risk of advocating utopian fantasies that do more harm than good.

[...] This brings us to one final option: we might adjust philosophy’s methods... (MORE - missing details)
Magical Realist Offline
Common sense realism is an example of philosophy not lining up with common sense. We easily suppose that all the datum of perception exists outside of us in the physical world and would be there just the same if we were absent from it. But a quick look at our brain reveals that these are qualities originating from the inside of experience-- in the lit up omnipresent space of consciousness. Colors and flavors and shapes and scents and sounds and textures are all projected beyond us in a "reality" that we assume is totally objective and correctly represented. In reality, the world is a blank canvass we paint all the qualities of perception with.

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