“Common sense notions”

Objection: Rational theology rests on common sense notions and unreflective, logical intuitions but science has shown that these are unreliable.

Response: Rational theology and science have exactly the same relation to common sense notions: they sometimes offend them and sometimes accept them.

An electron might offend common sense so far as it has to spin twice to go around once, but then part of the argument for the existence of electrons is that every observed charge is some multiple of 1.602 × 10-19 coulombs, i.e. the whole is a sum of its parts. One and the same common sense account of part-whole relations gets accepted or rejected. The first oddity that Planck discovered about QM, namely that energy transfer is non-linear, was what Einstein appealed to for a “common sense” proof for the existence of photons. These photons – proved by common sense appeals to the fact that the action of things follows their existence – clashed with the common sense proof that light was a wave since it produced interference when passed through a slit – because action follows existence.

In the same way, rational theology uses some common sense ideas and offends others, often in the same proof. There is nothing common sensical in an entity that transcends the concrete and abstract, that causes without interacting, that can have distinct moments of action without any intervening action, etc. But for all that, all of these things characterize human ideas, i.e. they provide for the possibility of “common sense”.

All this is unavoidable since the human mind explains the familiar by the unfamiliar and the unknown by the known. These two imparatives easily conflict and need to be set in harmony by any scheme of explanation. Common sense (or better, the axiomatic) has to be accepted in some places as “the most known” and rejected in other places as “the familiar”. There is probably no a priori scheme that will allow us to determined what stays and what goes, at least not beyond the widespread agreement that it will be hard to get on without the principle of contradiction. Notice that my argument here is retorsive: this paragraph is itself both an appeal to common sense notions and an offence against them.

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