April 28, 2007

"Common Sense," "Pre-Theoretical Intuitions," and Philosophy

I am presently reading Peter van Inwagen's Material Beings (I'm not sure if it's going to actually help with my very strange philosophy of religion term paper wherein I argue that idealism is compatible with a belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead, or if I'm just procrastinating). In section 10, after denying that there are, in metaphysical rigor, any artifacts (i.e. inanimate macrophysical objects, such as chairs), van Inwagen makes the following remark:

Does my position not fly in the face of common sense? I do not think so. This is not because I think that my position is in accord with "common sense," but rather because I do not think that there is any such thing as the body of doctrine the philosophers call common sense. There is common sense: Common sense tells us to taste our food before we salt it and to cut the cards. It does not tell us there are chairs. (p. 103)

Van Inwagen implies that common sense does dictate that when people say such things as "there are two very valuable chairs in the next room" they may, under the correct circumstances, say what is true, despite the fact that (according to his theory) there are (in metaphysical rigor) no chairs (p. 100). According to van Inwagen, the sentence "there are two very valuable chairs in the next room" is like the sentence "It was cooler in the garden after the sun had moved behind the elms" (p. 101). It is "common sense" that both sentences sometimes express truths, but the former is not inconsistent with van Inwagen's theory, and the latter is not inconsistent with Copernican astronomy. As it turns out, we simply don't have any "common sense" about Ptolemaic vs. Copernican astronomy, or about theories of mereology.
Berkeley, unsurprisingly, had to deal with the same sort of objection. Curiously enough, however, Berkeley attempts to turn the objection around against his opponent:
I am content ... to appeal to the common sense of the world for the truth of my notion. Ask the gardener, why he thinks yon cherry-tree exists in the garden, and he shall tell you, because he sees and feels it; in short, because he perceives it by his senses. Ask him why he thinks an orange-tree not to be there, and he shall tell you, because he does not perceive it. What he perceives by sense, that he terms a real being, and saith it is, or exists; but that which is not perceivable, the same, he saith, hath no being. (Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, 3.234)

The idea is that people have common sense about the existence of trees: they can touch them, smell them, sit under them, eat their fruit - they exist. But people don't have common sense about "matter," whether matter is defined in the Lockean sense as "a material substratum; a substance capable of supporting accidents" or in the physics sense as "that which has mass/inertia and takes up space." And they certainly don't have common sense about whether the matter described by physics is ontologically fundamental, or mind-dependent, or epiphenomenal, or what. The commonality between van Inwagen and Berkeley (though van Inwagen is by no means an idealist - in fact, though he believes in God and angels and so forth, and these beings are clearly not embodied, he's a physicalist about human persons) is that people have common sense about the possibility of seeing chairs, and sitting in them, and so forth, but they don't have common sense about the existence of chairs in any metaphysically interesting sense. Berkeley argues, of course, that common sense is phenomenalist about material objects, and this comes out in attempts to use Moore's "two hands" argument against Berkeley, or in Samuel Johnson's famous "refutation," which consisted of kicking a rock. In both cases phenomenalism is implicitly assumed: my hands are there because I can see them, the rock is there because I can kick it.

Our "common sense" ideas are sometimes called "pre-theoretical intuitions" and the use is not limited to material objects. In the context of a debate on whether laws govern, Susan Schneider presents a reasoning principle she calls (C): "Ceteris paribus, choose the philosophical theory of F that best accomodates our (relevant) pretheoretic intuitions about F." ("What is the Significance of the Inuition that Laws of Nature Govern?", forthcoming in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy) This principle, she thinks, militates against "Humean supervenience" (regularity) accounts of lawhood. I actually think that this principle is probably correct. However, I think it is almost entirely irrelevant. We almost never have intuitions about matters of philosophical interest which are both relevant and pretheoretic. For instance, in the lawhood debate, our inuitions come from a long tradition of science and philosophy. In the debate about material beings, Berkeley thinks that our 'intuitions' come from indoctrination with Aristotelian metaphysics, from which even the moderns have not escaped. People who have never studied philosophy or science don't have intuitions about this sort of thing.

Now, I do think there is one intuition that is relevant to the lawhood debate, and I think it is the intuition that those who hold the governing conception of laws are really getting at. This is what I was refering to when I was making inflammatory remarks about Armstrong-laws (I didn't intend them to be too terribly inflammatory, but commenter "Marc" was apparently rather upset, prompting me to clarify my actual position). It is, in fact, the intuition behind teleological arguments for the existence of God: to state it at its most general, this intuition says "where there is a rational order, there must be a rational ordering principle." This needn't be the traditional God, but may instead be something like (as I said in the previous post) the Heraclitean logos. This intuition is relevant while the others are not because it is actually within the realm of common sense: we distinguish between objects formed by random undirected processes and objects formed by processes with a rational ordering principle behind them all the time. Common sense is well adapted only for dealing with things we ordinarily encounter in everday life. Similarly, we have pretheoretical intuitions only about things we have reason to "intuit" about before we begin theorizing. Thus common sense and intuition are relevant to philosophy only rarely.

For the record, in those cases where it is relevant, I think that the reason it works is that we often go through rational deductive processes of which we are not even conscious. That is, we draw valid inferences, but a philosopher is at great pains to formalize and bring to light those inferences. This, I think, is the case with these "teleological" intuitions.

Posted by Kenny at April 28, 2007 2:46 PM
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