March 17, 2006

Common Sense Update


Nick, traxus4420 – this is a belated (and far from adequate) response to your comments.

“how is it possible to separate the positive powers of common sense from the dysfunctional legacies of primate evolution, for instance the 'intuitive' sciences Pinker describes” (Nick)

Firstly, I think that Pinker is a brilliant exponent of common sense:

This can be seen across the board in his writings, but particularly in his approach to language, which is very hands-on and evidence-based (in contrast to Chomsky’s pencil and paper analyses which lead to frequent absurdities (e.g. that children’s brains contain some form of information about 16th century root forms)), and in his rejection of pomo intertextuality and signification.paralysis.

His deployment of common sense is particularly effective when he lays into the parenthood advice industry, which preys on feelings of guilt and inadequacy to instruct parents as to how they can best shape their children’s intelligence and personality. The evidence suggests that genes, peer groups and chance are the main determinants of personality and that the behaviour of parents has comparatively little positive influence on the development of their children’s personalities. On hearing this, the knee-jerk reaction from parents who have invested energy and money in their children’s upbringing (and in the how-to-be-a-good-parent-industry) is to retort “So you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my children?” And of course it matters because it’s clear they can have a massive negative impact through inflicting psychological or physical abuse. Evidence aside, common sense leads Pinker to ask why parents would even want to shape their children’s personalities, or buy into the belief that if they love their children their children they will turn out good, rather than love them because that’s what humans do in deep and satisfying relationships. We don’t try to shape the personalities of other adults, such as our partners, so why would we try to shape those of children?

“The fact that people can forget these simple truths when intellectualizing about children shows how far modern doctrines have taken us. They make it easy to think of children as lumps of putty to be shaped instead of partners in a human relationship… It is children, above all, who are alleged to be blank slates, and that can make us forget they are people.” (The Blank Slate 398-9)

Humans have been taken far from common sense when doctrinal authority dictates how a parent should relate to their offspring. An example of how parasitic memetic machinery manipulates and feeds off its host by unplugging common sense. Memes/ideologies/discourse have an amazing capacity for utilising the unknown, and fears about the unknown, at the expense of common sense, which is pretty well-equipped to get by.

These ‘modern doctrines’ include those which seek to tell us that: gender is a construct imposed by culture and society and has nothing to do with biology or innate psychology; and that rape has nothing to do with sex. ‘Healthy’ common sense rebels against such doctrines, instinctively dismissing them as absurd. And not just Western, post-Enlightenment common sense: non-pomo anthropology of an evolutionary bent asserts that all human societies acknowledge gender differences as biological and psychological givens. Evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics are providing plausible theories and evidence to support the gut reactions of common sense - sometimes we and the world are not as complicated and inexplicable as some would like to have us believe.

Pinker’s project in The Blank Slate was to a) describe how the doctrines of the Enlightenment - the ghost-in-the-machine/blank slate/noble savage memeplex – are proven wrong by strands of contemporary science stemming from the theory of evolution and the computational model of the mind, and b) describe how these doctrines still provide the scaffolding for much of current thinking - rational and absurd varieties.

When it comes to politics, Pinker is very pro-Enlightenment, in the sense of consciously assuming certain moral principles to be universal, by deliberately ignoring scientific facts:

“The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable. It is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups to which the individual belongs. Enlightened societies choose to ignore race, sex and ethnicity in hiring, promotion, salary, school admissions, and the criminal justice system because the alternative is morally repugnant… Regardless of IQ or physical strength or any other trait that can vary, all humans can be assumed to have certain traits in common. No one likes being enslaved. No one likes being humiliated. No one like being treated unfairly, that is, according to traits that the person cannot control… The Declaration of Independence proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” The author, Thomas Jefferson, made it clear that he was referring to an equality of rights, not a biological sameness. For example, in an 1813 letter to John Adams he wrote ‘I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtues and talents…’” (The Blank Slate p145)

The premise for Paine’s Common Sense was that natural rights are metaphysical truths, for the author of the Declaration of Independence they were ‘self-evident’ truths, and for Pinker they are consciously upheld fictions. It would have been interesting if Pinker had traced the lineage of these ‘self-evident’ truths back to Locke, the initial target in The Blank Slate. The blank slate and natural rights come together as part of Locke’s Enlightenment package and it is only by retaining the concept of natural rights, after throwing out the blank slate, that Pinker prevents his evolutionary psychology from veering off into Social Darwinist fascism. Pinker is far more indebted to Locke than he acknowledges (or perhaps realizes).

Here Paine’s common sense has adapted to the point where it is now conscious that the assumptions it rests upon are in fact fictions, but judges those fictions to be worth clinging on to because the alternative is a return to pre-Enlightenment brutality.

A distinction has to be made between the rational, adaptive common sense that Paine deployed against the English government and intuitive bio-programs which are not likely to undergo much adaptive change in the near future (if left to their own devices). Enlightenment common sense actually counteracts intuitive programming, particularly in its English and American realizations. It’s possible to read Paine’s assault of monarchy as an attempt to prize humanity out of its deep-seated deference to the alpha male (the American revolution being profoundly anti-oedipal), and his attacks on the Bible in The Age of Reason , which lost him his friends, as a doomed attempt to terminate most of the god program in the human brain.

The difference between (Enlightenment) common sense and Reason would be/could be that common sense rests on assumptions, while Reason operates from, on and with assumptions. Paine didn’t actually have to do a great deal of thinking because Locke had done most of it for him. Common sense judges the current situation and argues from the assumptions it rests on, and it draws its efficiency from not analyzing them (too closely). Reason is brought to bear when new theories and novel situations emerge, and it forces common sense to adapt. So, weather permitting, an initially outrageous theory such as the theory of evolution can be absorbed into common sense. (Once upon a time people used to say things like this: “Anti-Oedipus is basically just common sense now.”)

The intuitive physics and economics Pinker describes operate at deep levels - the former tied into judging and controlling motion, and the latter plugged into food acquisition and consumption. Since these are so basic to the survival of our machinery, they evolved long before rational thinking and common sense – and are therefore not particularly susceptible to the charms of logic or adaptation. Intuitive physics is still pretty useful for us while we have these bodies on this planet, even if it is completely wrong scientifically. Intuitive economics is out of sync with our technocapitalist environment and is a lot more harmful, obviously. But are the decisions which drive intuitive economics based on assumptions? If they are, they are very stubborn and less amenable to revision than social-political assumptions or metaphysical beliefs. If common sense is involved in intuitive economics then this is an example of common sense working sub-optimally…

Coincidence or not, The Wealth of Nations, Common Sense and The Declaration of Independence were all published in the same year (1776), so economics really is bundled up with common sense.

“common sense as more like a syntax than a distinct set of thoughts and actions -- though prior to such a linguistic metaphor -- sub-mathematical, more like.” (traxus 4420)

This seems very plausible. It is very close to Pinker’s picture of mentalese – developed from Leibniz and Turing – where thinking is described as non-linguistic symbol processing. Common sense would be a kind of default setting for certain types of processes.

“Isn't 'de-subjectification,' one of hyperstition's recurrent themes, profoundly non-common sensical?”

I guess so, but if it’s borne in mind that common sense is just one tool among many, operating in a thoroughly baffling context, then I don’t think thinking about common sense does any harm.

Posted by sd at March 17, 2006 03:11 AM | TrackBack




sorry - missed a point in my insomnia driven comments:

Pinker's investment in the scientific method is based on a common sense assumption: that evolution has equipped our brains to make reliable observations about the world we evolved in - an assumption that the excesses of post-modernism outlaw. This 'realistic' assumption is not naive because it takes the design and construction of the brain into consideration. So common sense can pack fairly sophisticated self-critique in the principles underpinning research.

Posted by: sd at March 17, 2006 07:50 AM



This is obviously an important topic, but I'm less convinced it can be resolved so easily. If scientific realism is equated with 'common sense' then, of course, it becomes far more solidly reinforced by dynamic cultural trends - but even these are far from unambiguously inexorable (see entire topic below, although of course social conservatism has its own definition of common sense, as does the left, and all of these are (arguably) rooted in aspects of our evolutionary heritage).

The elephant in the room for me is the oncoming wave of Singularity Revolutions, with their highly counter-intuitive consequences for 'common sense' ideas about normality, the speed of change, human identity, biological stability, social relations, differences between organisms and machines, the ineffability of consciousness, and many others. Ideas understandably categorized as 'psychotic' and asociated with the most extravagant tendencies of philosophy and religion (electronic personality copying, animated and intelligent anorganic plasmas, immortality, body-shifting ...) are becoming inescapable practical issues. The capability of the human species to reach 'common sense' consensus on these is questionable at best.

That said, I entirely agree that the psychoanalytically-inspired 'master thinkers' who want to substitute their own elite insight for distributed common sense need to be - and I think undoubtedly will be - strenuously resisted, derided and marginalized. Nevertheless, it still seems to me that fragmentation, schizoid discontinuity and ontological implosion is far more likely than a restoration of consensual reality, since the forces of convergence are themselves multiple. While rigorously tested technoscientific hypotheses will be reinforced by capitalist pragmatics, cashed out in the complex arithmetic of economic competitiveness, religious revivalism and romantic revolt will also be reinforced by parallel (and intractably loopy) dynamics.

Despite Kurzweil's best efforts, I doubt whether Singularity can ever really be a common sense proposition - if it seems psychologically assimilable, it's probably being misunderstood.

Posted by: Nick at March 17, 2006 08:18 AM



‘the elephant in the room’ Ha!

[get the feeling I'm digging myself into a bit of a hole here, but anyway...]

I can't see how common sense, or at least the abandonment or abuse of it, won't play a major role in the forthcoming Singularity revolutions.

The Singularity presents huge opportunities for multifarious memetic manipulation: from both flesher or dream ape resistance and pro Singularity posthumanism, and from the machines themselves. Without doubt, conflicting appeals to common sense will come from all sides - in essentialist reaction, technocapitalist marketing, heated crisis management and AI seduction.

What better space than the smooth adaptability of common sense (coupled with humanity’s innate love of gadgetry) for buying off human consent? If AI needs to seduce humanity, then appeals to rational self interest and presentations of ‘self-evident’ benefits would seem to be the tried and tested methods. Electronic copying of personalities could be a dressed up as a rational option, appealing to a very deep-seated desire for security, though the outcome could indeed be a psychotic implosion of common sense.

“The capability of the human species to reach 'common sense' consensus on these is questionable at best.”

I stressed that common sense can be/is a weapon used in a war waged on political and religious memeplexes – at least this is what it is in the best traditions of the Anglo-Enlightenment. Just a tad naively, Paine pinned all his hopes on common sense and in 1791 assumed that the world would see the light of Reason within 7 years (all monarchy and aristocracy would vanish). After the French, Bolshevik & Chinese revolutions, and with persistent, determined resistance to the theory of evolution, it is clear that humanity is stubbornly enamoured with authority and skygods. It’s obvious no consensus will be reached and ‘scientific realism’ and Anglo-Enlightenment common sense is rather (hopelessly) embattled. It’s war. However, it’s difficult to see what the alternative to common sense is. D&G-style schizotechnic text production doesn’t carry much clout: it seems to do little more than describe; it hasn't actually contributed much to capitalist pragmatics.

“I doubt whether Singularity can ever really be a common sense proposition - if it seems psychologically assimilable, it's probably being misunderstood.”

AI will also have to develop some form of default (but adaptable) assessment-judgement program that works and brings results. I imagine that after autonomous robo-soldiers, the first major application of AI will be in data-processing assistance, and programs which outperform human common sense in terms of speed, efficiency and profitability will confer an advantage on AI and create a whole new set of selection pressures.

[The emergence of a new logic which makes sense, but to who? Or a logic for navigating senselessness?]

Posted by: sd at March 17, 2006 02:05 PM



There's an element of devil's advocacy in my probings here, but because this seems an important and fertile topic it would be good to get a sense of the boundaries and general topography.

How much of common sense is rhetorical weaponry, how much is tested and tried cognitive adaptation, and how much is general heuristics / method? The consequences of pushing it down these various pathways are surely substantial.

Posted by: Nick at March 18, 2006 12:32 AM



nick. yea, you might start getting a better Hyperstition definition while you're at it.

Posted by: northanger at March 18, 2006 08:12 AM



'an important and fertile topic'

I think D&G's 'Postulates of Linguistics' from ATP is very relevant here, but it'll take a little while...

Posted by: sd at March 19, 2006 01:01 PM



Yeah, the term 'common sense' is far too amorphous and clumsy to make much of any kind of sense if you try to apply it systematically. Pinker's substrate of intuitive physics we can probably just leave alone. Even if one wanted to, attacking or speculating on our basic modes of perception is pretty worthless without laborious empirical research.

Then you've got say the set of sub-mathematical tactics that I brought up, which in my view at least take so much effort to operate within consistently that it can hardly be called 'common' -- even if it's universal it seems obvious that there are a rather significant number of beautiful souls with enough humanist and/or theist posterior programming that full access will always be barred. What I'm talking about naturally (via either thought or empirical evidence) leads to a contradiction of subjectivist humanism (and the core ideology of liberalism, btw) if taken to its amoral conclusions. Which are NOT brutal and Hobbesian if the logic is applied correctly, btw.

Then you've got the result of ingrained thougt procedures -- quick surface decision making built on an infrastructure that presumably works.

Finally you've got bullshit that ideologues call common sense to make dissenters feel stupid.

All these modes of thought seem very different to me (though with the typical degree of bleed-through I'm sure), and to lump them under the blanket term 'common sense' is not something I can be OK with.

Vaguely humanist/liberal morality and ideology, along with their companions self-interest and competitiveness, are abstract machines with a pretty long shelf-life, and the only entities of their kind in existence that seem able to ensure smooth functioning of the economic and social spheres. Without an alternative to replace them (a painful process, no doubt), it might be best for such values and their believers to be regulated and cajoled rather than contradicted too forcefully. Though the hypocrisy necessary to this position provokes all by itself.

However this 'singularity' will probably obviate all of them regardless if we make it that far.

Second caveat, any slight miscalculation could bring this 'smooth functioning' into ecological or economic meltdown if only friedmanesque market 'common sense' is relied on to support it against simian pro-self-sufficiency conservationist 'common sense.' Surely you're aware of some of the possibilities for catastrophe independent of islamofascistmarxistfanaticbadguys...

Posted by: traxus4420 at March 20, 2006 07:53 AM



"some of the possibilities for catastrophe independent of islamofascistmarxistfanaticbadguys" - well, more clarity on this would be nice.
1) There's a long and disreputable history of grotesquely overstating such threats, especially in the environmental movement.
2) Where such threats exist, they are hugely exacerbated by the addition of human malice. A new plague? A reactor meltdown? Throw in a terrorist and you can crank it up an order of magnitude.
3) So setting up a resolute security machinery imaginatively oriented to the activities of bad guys is quite possibly the most practical way of pre-empting many other types of threat too (meteorite impact perhaps exempted).
4) Since money and technology is the best long-range defence against anything, "friedmanesque market 'common sense'" is IMHO exactly the way to go.

Posted by: Nick at March 20, 2006 09:21 AM



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