Common sense is a form of seventh sense supposed to be ubiquitous, acquired at birth, and/or requiring, at the very least, nominal form of nurture for development. However, too often, we come across people using phrases such as ‘Use your common sense’, ‘Common sense is not so common after all’, and ‘Your opinion just killed common sense’. If common sense is what it is supposed to be, why do we come across folks who don’t seem to possess it!
If I came from a region on Earth which is perpetually tormented by the Sun with such horrendous intensity that I never had to ‘heat’ anything. If that region on Earth had such an abundance of edible, natural resources that I never had to process any item to satisfy my intake. Let’s just assume that I never have known what ‘cool’ is! I guess if you burnt a matchbox stick in front of me, I would not avoid touching it, would I? So doesn’t that mean I haven’t got what would be common sense to you?
Likewise, it’d be OK to be ignorant of the forces of balance which guide us to jump and land on two feet, but it’s common sense to know how not to fall. It’d be OK to be unschooled of the equation of a straight line but it’s common sense to be able to draw a straight line. Is it OK for a non-electronics guy to not know that the power symbol has its own sweet little origin story? Depends, doesn’t it! What the fuck is common sense then?!
This is what I think. Common sense is that line between being ignorant and being unscientifically knowledgeable; especially, knowledgeable to the point where validation is deemed unnecessary. I added the ‘unscientifically’ for a reason. Let’s talk about it later.
To break it down to rules, common sense is nothing but a set of rules which have been coached in to you since a time you don’t remember. It is a set of emotional, physical, mechanical. mathematical, geographical, or say-what-you-will phenomena, you knew were true. Or phenomena, which you have accepted to be true. Rather, phenomena which you are never going to have to verify. Ever. You just know.
Usually, it takes the form of collective observations amassed over time based on real-life experiences to which you get exposed to. They don’t necessarily apply to another human being. They are your observations. Stuff that you know will hold true when it happens a second time, but to you. Stuff like, if you are driving in the right lane then it might be common sense that you’re going to turn right on the next turn. Well, this won’t hold true if you are driving in Gurgaon. Here, you have free will. Nobody obstructs with your free will. Common sense obeys the driver’s rules in this part of the country, not the other way around. Anyway.
But, the wonderful part here is that common sense by itself can never be wrong and hence can never be right either. This, I say from an audience point of view. As I mentioned earlier, it is an acquired sense of perception of things just as an acquired sense of opinion, which may or may not have been influenced. To quote from NYTimes’s review of ‘Everything is obvious once you know the answer’:
Watts’s point is that however well we understand the parts, we do not thereby acquire a complete understanding of the whole. This is one of the big reasons that common sense is unreliable. We are prone to think in terms of individual actors whose doings set predictable chains of events in motion. But social systems can acquire properties that don’t easily jibe with this kind of common sense — through processes like self-reinforcing cascades, in which outcomes feedback upon themselves, or nonlinear dynamics, in which small changes in input can lead to large changes in output.
This leads us to the ‘unscientific’ part of my definition. Certainly, you can use common sense to guide you through your chores. Like not dropping that ceramic coffee cup on the floor. But not for deciding that you have to revolve the car steering wheel clockwise to turn it right. When doing so, you’d have to check if there is an oncoming vehicle on your right lest you wish to dent his car. Another example:
If we drop a match on a forest floor, we cannot predict whether the result will be a conflagration or a campfire just by knowing a lot about matches. The outcome much depends on what is going on nearby: how dry is the terrain, how dense is the forest, how fast is the wind? When the right conditions for a fire exist, any spark will set it off; but when they do not, no spark will suffice.
Rightly so, common sense is not inherently consistent. Two people performing a similar action based on their respective common senses may arrive at two completely different outcomes. Common sense is ambiguous because, unlike a scientific experiment which can be performed n-times by following the same procedure under similar environments, common sense can’t be bound by procedures. Hence, common sense is also unverifiable. Essentially, a better common sense is a wise judgement developed through the right experiences over a period of time through your mistakes/knowledge/actions. And just as, there is always a decision or opinion better than yours, there is always a common sense better than yours. An article by HBSWK applies a similar concept to explain leadership skills requiring decision-making.
So maybe the next time you have to use your common sense, you might as well back it up with as many experiences as possible without failing to take into consideration those external factors whose effect on your decision might deem your common sense a screw up!