Knobe on the Continuity between Science and Common Sense

Joshua Knobe was kind enough to write me as follows (reproduced with permission):

I was happy to see that you wrote up a description of our
 [two weeks ago at the PSA Meeting], and I’m glad that you are bringing attention to these important questions about the relationship between common sense and
scientific theory.  I worry, though, that I didn’t really do such a
good job of presenting my argument in the talk.  So I thought it might
be a good idea to write to you personally and try to explain the
argument more clearly.

In essence, the claim is that one of the major lessons of experimental
philosophy thus far is that moral considerations play a key role in
many of our most basic common sense concepts.  So it has been shown
that moral considerations play a role in the concepts of intentional
action, reason explanation, doing and allowing, valuing, causation,
perhaps even consciousness.  (In the talk, I presented some data about
the concept of causation, but that was just supposed to be an
illustration of a broader theme that emerges from this whole research

Now, it seems to me that scientific concepts are not infected with
moral considerations in quite this same way.  So I wanted to suggest
that there is a certain kind of fundamental discontinuity between
science and common sense.  Specifically, when we switch over to
developing scientific theories, we seem to construct concepts that
serve specifically to help us *predict* and *explain* certain phenomena
(rather than to make moral judgments about those phenomena).

When I describe the argument in this way, does it seem any more
compelling to you?

Here is my response to Joshua:

Your argument is interesting but I have some concerns about it.

1.  The claim of continuity between common sense and scientific theory
is so vague that it’s difficult to evaluate effectively without
specifying more precisely in what way common sense and science are
deemed to be continuous or discontinuous.

2.  Some of the effects you describe may be due to a bias that is
present in common sense and that needs to be eliminated before genuine
scientific theorizing gets off the ground.  If so, I would be inclined
to retain the continuity thesis with the obvious caveat that common
sense is full of confusions and fallacies, which people need to overcome
in order to think scientifically.

3.  Are you familiar with the literature on science and values?  It is
now quite accepted that contrary to the old positivist view that science
is value-free, ethical values play a role in various aspects of
scientific reasoning.  For instance, when scientists need to say which
levels of certain pollutants are likely to be harmful to people, they
often need to go beyond the existing evidence.  The conclusions they
draw are different depending on which levels of risk they find
tolerable, which depend on the values they have, which in turn tend to
correlate with whether they work for industry, government, or academia.
So some of the effects you describe may well be present in scientific
reasoning too.

4.  How do people become scientists if science is not continuous with
common sense?  I would be interested in knowing more about how you think
people can change their way of thinking from common sense to scientific
theorizing.  It seems to me that a story about that ought to be part of
any compelling case against the continuity thesis.

I do agree with the following point Joshua made: “It seems to me that these issues are very complex but also extremely fundamental and that it would be wonderful if we could foster further discussion of them.”


  1. Eddy Nahmias

    Two seemingly relevant connection:
    1) Bob McCauley is writing a book with the same title as this article:
    McCauley, R. N. (2000). “The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of Science,” Explanation and Cognition. F. Keil and R. Wilson (eds.). Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 61-85.
    His point seems related in interesting ways to Joshua’s. To put it too simplistically (but I hope roughly accurately), McCauley says that our cognitive system is designed in such a way that the type of thinking associated with religions comes easy to us–religion is a spandrel that fits well into our “commonsense” cognition–but scientific thinking is highly counterintuitive and difficult and “unnatural.”

    2) Mixing Memory has a post to a seemingly relevant article:

  2. Joshua Knobe


    You bring up a number of interesting questions here. Let me start off by addressing just two of them.

    First, there is the suggestion that common sense might be fundamentally amoral but that certain kinds of confusions or performance errors might allow moral judgments to play an inappropriate role. I think this is an important and promising approach to these problems. When I first began gathering data on this topic, I suggested that the results were best explained on the hypothesis that moral considerations actually play a role in people’s commonsense concepts. But a number of psychologists and philosophers (Nadelhoffer, Malle, Alicke, etc.) subsequently proposed alternative explanations that could account for all of the data in terms of various performance errors. What I love about these explanations is that they involve specific models that make definite, testable predictions. For example, Nadelhoffer originally proposed that people’s judgments were being led astray by their emotional reactions; then Young et al. showed that the same judgments could be found in patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions (which, they suggested, was evidence against the emotion-based hypothesis); but then Alicke developed a model that could account for the data from VMPFC patients but still posited a motivational bias. It will be interesting to see how this whole debate plays out.

    In any case, I think that these sort of hypotheses are where the action really is. They don’t just consist of vague metaphors or general appeals to the idea that common sense has some sort of ‘scientific’ character. Instead, they give us specific, testable accounts of how certain phenomena could arise even on the supposition that common sense is fundamentally scientific.

    Second, there is the question about how science could have arisen if common sense was not already ‘scientific’ to begin with. It seems to me that this question has often been posed in a misleading way. Specifically, it has often been supposed that the defining feature of scientific theories is their sensitivity to empirical data. But sensitivity to empirical data is not itself distinctively scientific. (We can find it in many practices that arose long before the scientific revolution — even, e.g., in certain religions doctrines.) To see what makes science special, we need to look not only at what scientists take into account but also at what scientists *don’t* take into account. It seems as though there are also sorts of considerations that one takes into account when evaluating, e.g., religiious doctrines but that one doesn’t take into account when evaluating scientific theories. One such consideration is the significance for moral judgment. To learn how to engage in a truly scientific inquiry into cognition is, in part, to learn how to study cognition in a way that does not itself rely on moral judgment.

  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
    Art Auctions:

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