Written By: Leon FelkinsSorry, this section is a work in progress!
Last Revision on October 8, 2009
"Common sense is the measure of the possible; it is composed of experience and prevision; it is calculation applied to life." -- Henri-Frédéric Amiel
I have always been puzzled by the seemingly irrational actions of many in our society. Why is there so little common sense? Why do people blindly follow propaganda from politicians and the news media? Why are we so prone to accept explanations based on mysticism or wishful thinking? Why do we not try to apply a little logic to our thinking? Why are we so easily manipulated?
While we will never know the answers to these questions completely, a useful concept that helps to understand some of it is the concept of memes. Richard Dawkins introduced this concept in his book, The Selfish Gene, (second edition published in 1989). I will provide some links to essays on memes that are on the net. Other interesting essays on the mind and human behavior will be referenced and links provided, where available.
There is an essay by Richard Dawkins available on the net called 'Viruses of the Mind', another term for memes (more references on memes and related subjects are listed at the end of this essay). I have placed a summary essay on memes and genes, called "STROLLING THROUGH THE MEMETIC MINE FIELD", at the Ethical Spectacle site. A couple of essays that examine the concept of memes in some depth are: "Memetics: On a conceptual framework for cultural evolution" by Hans-Cees Speel and "The Ecology of Intentions: How to make Memes and Influence People: Culturology" by Adam Westoby (1944-1994). One that provides considerable historical detail is "MEMETIC SCIENCE: I - GENERAL INTRODUCTION" by Elan Moritz, (1990) "Memetic Science: I - General Introduction." in: Journal of Ideas 1, p. 1-23. And there are a couple of books about memes, Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie and Thought Contagion by Aaron Lynch (see References).
Daniel Dennett also has an essay on memes available on the internet -- along with several other excellent essays on related material -- entitled, Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination.
There are other terms used to describe this phenomenon that essentially have the same meaning or may extend the concept further. A good example are the articles by Pierre Lemieux on "cascade theory" and "herd behavior" as discussed in his articles, "Herd Behavior and Public Information" and "Following the Herd".
"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinion, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation." Oscar WildeApparently memes have evolved to help humans deal with the complexities of life. We use memes to substitute for thinking when we get into complex and stressful situations. Therein is a serious problem, of course, because, like drugs, we have become addicted to memes. Listen to people talk -- at parties, at work, on television, on the street -- they all mindlessly have the same righteous indignations, the same prejudices, the same political (correct) views, etc. They never question anything that the group supports. It never seems to occur to them that the group could be wrong. When I hear casual conversation or when I hear spirited indignation and a call for action, mostly what I hear are memes talking.
As I discuss elsewhere, memes can have a useful purpose (and some are very useful) but their actual application is usually harmful. The danger of memes could be overcome if people would only run their memes through the "common sense" filter before they get too attached to them.
Politicians use memes for political control. Most of us are well aware of the use of propaganda by politicians to create political memes ("Pemes", according to one writer) but there are many, more subtle, ways that the pemes are established. See my page on Politics for more on political control.
A great difficulty related to memes is the problem of distinguishing a meme from intuition. When something happens to me and I have to make a quick decision, I may have an internal voice that tells me to take a certain action. Is that internal voice my intuition or is it just a meme talking? How can I know? I think it is very difficult to know. The only safe thing to do -- if you have time -- in a situation like this, is to apply a bit of logical analysis to this idea that your intuition, or a meme, suggested.
In the last analysis, we see only what we are prepared to see, what we have been taught to see. We eliminate and ignore everything that is not part of our prejudices. - Jean Martin Charcot De l'expectationA prejudice is just another meme; that is, a prejudice is a judgment of someone or something that is not based on facts or logic. A prejudice then is just another mindless belief -- no different than any other meme. It is an interesting reflection on our society that it is perfectly ok to be a mindless robot (even with a college degree, yes), totally controlled by memes -- except for a class of meme we call "prejudices". In fact the great negative feeling we have toward the concept of "prejudice" is itself a meme, only recently established. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that is a good meme or a bad meme. It seems to me that the faults we have against "prejudices" would just as well apply to memes in general.
For a discussion about the workings of the mind that supports this essay and others here see the essay, "Thoughts about the Thinking Process".
Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen. -- Albert EinsteinBefore we examine this question, let's first agree on the definition. According to my dictionary, the definition for common sense is:
sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.I would expand "normal native intelligence" to include an analytical ability. People with common sense tend to work problems out in real time by the application of simple reasoning.
So, let us examine my assertion that common sense may becoming a scarce commodity. First off, I suspect that the amount of common sense available has varied much over history and over the various societies. Common sense flourishes when there is ample opportunity for individualism and free expression. Common sense is not going to be very widespread in an environment in which government and/or religion determines the activities of ordinary individual's lives. Such situations have existed from time to time throughout history.
In the last few hundred years, individualism has flourished in the USA and other industrial nations. Common sense, analytical abilities, creative solutions, self-reliance, etc. all flourished during this period.
Unfortunately, with the advent of the "New Deal" of the nineteen thirties and subsequent trends for limitation of self-reliance and the increased dependence on the government, common sense has rapidly become a scarce resource.
Follow this thread for further enlightenment, ;-), on the Strangely Uncommon Common Sense.
For more on logic, follow this link to my essay on Logic.
Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but -- more frequently than not -- struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.
Apparently most people of the world are incapable or too lazy to think for themselves and therefore are best served by a set of rules of behavior that they blindly follow (dogma). This works as long as they continue to avoid thinking for themselves and the rules are good ones.
Unfortunately, the system fails when people start thinking for themselves (or they pick us some other dogma, e.g. "New Age"). In our time, blindly following religious dogma has become a problem since we teach science in our schools and enough is absorbed by the students to at least create doubts about religious teaching in their minds (unfortunately, not enough is absorbed to actually replace the dogma with scientific reasoning!).
Another problem with using religious dogma as a basis for morality is that many of the rules have little to do with the practical approach to getting along with each other. Many of the rules are irrational, in other words. For example the rule, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" is moral nonsense. Coveting can't be helped -- acting on it is where morality should come to play. Such rules do a lot of harm in that they make people feel guilty -- a terrible plague of modern society.
Another serious negative aspect of religious based morality is the use of fear to compel proper action. The Christian religion, in particular, uses the fear of eternal suffering in hell to encourage moral activity. Just how moral am I if the reason I don't beat up my children is because I will suffer in hell!? I would much rather live in a community in which the residents treated each other with respect and kindness based on true compassion and rational understanding of what is best for the community than on the fear that they will suffer in hell if they do not. Think about this; what kind of person do you have that is taught morality based on the fear of hellfire if that person "loses their religion"? Would it not be safer for the community if all residents had a morality based on mutual respect?
Whether it is anything more than memory and cognitive relationships cannot be simply answered. (An essay, "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" by the famous philosopher, Charles S. Peirce, that delves into the subject in some depth is available.) Unfortunately, intuition is often associated with psychic powers which doesn't help it credibility.
In conclusion, the famous quote "It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover" by Poincaré, expressed in reverse order, provides the best advise. Since you don't really know if the "intuition" that you have received is in fact some deep insight into your soul, just a meme, or something you read on the back of cereal box last week, then your best bet is to test it with a bit of logic before you make use of it!
Arste, Kai; "Theory of Knowledge: Reasoning and Logic", online at http://www.kahome.co.uk/logic.htm.
Dawkins, Richard; The Selfish Gene, second edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Dawkins, Richard; "Viruses of the Mind", 1991. Online at http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Dawkins/viruses-of-the-mind.html.
Lynch, Aaron; Thought Contagion. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
Dennett, Daniel C.; Consciousness Explained. Back Bay Books, Boston. 1991.
Gauthier, David. Morals by Agreement. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1986
Howard, Philip K.. The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. Warner Books, New York. 1994.
McWilliams, Peter. Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do. Prelude Press, Los Angeles. 1993.
Parfit, Derek: Reasons and Persons. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1984.
Revel, Jean-François. The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information. Random House, New York. 1991.
Ridley, Matt. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. Penguin Books, New York. 1993.
Ridley, Matt. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Viking Penguin, New York. 1997.
Ruwart, Dr. Mary J.. Healing Our World: The Other Piece of The Puzzle. SunStar Press, Kalamazoo, 1993.
Smith, Donald G.. ...And They Also Kick You When You're Down: An Irreverent Guide to the Way the REAL World Works. Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. 1984.
Sorabji, Richard. Animal Minds & Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate. Cornell University Press, Ithaca. 1993.
Wilson, Edward O.. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1998. Chapter 1 is online at http://www.human-nature.com/books/consilience.html
Wilson, Edward O.. On Human Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 1978.Back to "Rational Life".