Science and Common Sense

Scott Sehon, Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, and Explanation, MIT Press, 2005.

Based on this review by Sarah Worley, Sehon’s book appears to be one of the latest installments in anti-naturalist philosophy of mind.

From Kant to McDowell and beyond, there is a long tradition of philosophers who maintain that the mind as such cannot be understood by science. In alternative to science, a favorite of contemporary anti-naturalist analytic philosophers is “common sense.”

I always wonder what anti-naturalists think of the work of Freud, Skinner, Piaget, Chomsky, Miller, Newell and Simon, and thousands of other alleged scientists of the mind. Sheds no light? Haven’t gotten around to reading it yet? They rarely pronounce themselves on the matter, and when they do, in my experience they don’t exhibit a satisfactory understanding of science.

To support his case, apparently Sehon argues that common sense psychology is not proto-science. For if common sense psychology was proto-science, then it should be either reducible to scientific psychology or replaced by it, which means it cannot be an alternative to it.

I’m not sure what proto-science is. To know that, I would need to understand what science is–independently of common sense–and what a proto-X is. But as far as I can tell, science is common sense, though refined and regimented through self-conscious reflection and criticism. I don’t think this is a radical idea, or even a new one. At any rate, I think it’s better than any account of science proposed by anti-naturalist philosophers. I have defended a special version of it for the use of introspective reports in the sciences of mind (J. Consciousness Studies, 2003). Of course, if science is just refined common sense, any claim that common sense is an alternative to science is misguided.


  1. GF-A

    I feel much intuitive sympathy for your claim that “science is common sense, though refined and regimented through self-conscious reflection and criticism.” I know I’ve said virtually the same thing myself to several people.

    But how do you think we should reconcile this claim with (what I take to be) another datum: the clear disparity between the scientific image and the manifest image? Can scientific and common-sense approaches be all that similar if they lead to such differing resultant ‘images’ of the world we inhabit?

    -Greg Frost-Arnold

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    I think the answer lies in a correct understanding of the history of science (and philosophy). If you compare the image held by a contemporary scientist to that held by a scientifically illiterate person, they are very different. But if you trace the science back in history, you can see that scientific changes, by and large, are commonsensical.

    Example: Modern cosmology seems to tell you something very different from what you come up with by simply looking at the sky with your naked eyes. But if you consider the evidence faced by Copernicus, and Galileo, you will probably be convinced to switch from a geocentric to a heliocentric astronomy. If you consider the evidence faced by Kepler and Newton, you will probably be convinced to switch from circular to elliptical orbits and from a finite to an infinite universe. If you consider later evidence, you will probably start thinking that the universe is expanding, etc.

    By the end, your image has changed beyond recognition, and your common sense ways of thinking have been replaced by precise measurements, heavy use of mathematics, new concepts, and other aspects of science. But each step is quite commonsensical.

    I think the basic point generalizes to other parts of physics and other sciences, including the sciences of mind. Of course, this is not to deny that there is work for philosophers to do in figuring out the detailed relations between the scientific and the manifest images.

  3. I have posted a reply to this thread, with other reference links, as this discussion was referenced at:

    If and/or as you read through all the material, understand, I make certain caveats about my statements, though the arguments are quite sound, and, I will stand for and behind the philosophic statements about meaning and knowledge both personal and collective.

    Don Robertson, The American Philosopher
    Limestone, Maine

    An Illustrated Philosophy Primer for Young Readers
    Precious Life – Empirical Knowledge
    The Grand Unifying Theory & The Theory of Time
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