Re: Argument From Authority

From: Russell Blackford (
Date: Sun Aug 19 2001 - 05:43:31 MDT

Damien said

>>I firmly believe that science
>>is nothing more than ordinary reasoning and common sense
>>methodically applied to certain areas of inquiry.
>Ah, then you might read Alan Cromer's UNCOMMON SENSE for another opinion.
>He develops a Piagetian analysis of why science is really quite difficult
>and massively counter-intuitive. Plainly we mostly approach the world on
>the basis of evolved dispositional templates that, in conjunction with
>cultural memory, create our *folk physics* and *folk psychology*, etc: the
>usual ways humans tend to negotiate our *Lebenswelt*. One element of folk
>physics or plain common sense gives us the wrong answer if we ask so simple
>a question as which bullet falls to the ground first, one dropped straight
>down or one fired horizontally above a level plain at 1 km/hr. (Luckily,
>folk physics assumes that the earth is flat.)

I think you're both right but are using the expression "common sense"
differently, or emphasising different aspects of it.

Take the classic case of Galileo, who overturned the "common sense" of his
time but through reasoning that was nonetheless "commonsensical" in the way
that I think Lee means.

How to resolve this seeming paradox? Well, some shared concepts and
experiences must be appealed to even when attempts are made to overturn what
a culture views as commonsense truths. Otherwise, the argument can gain no
imaginative grip on its audience. Rational inquiry proceeds piecemeal and is
heavily dependent upon mutually intelligible examples, analogies and
metaphors. In explaining the new, reference is made to the known. There is
no method used by science that is discontinuous with other methods used in
the process of rational inquiry. Yet a society's "common sense" beliefs
about the world can, indeed, be overthrown by scientific inquiries and

In _The Copernican Revolution_, Thomas Kuhn (whom I'm not normally a huge
fan of) says, "The idea that the earth moves seems initially absurd." He
then elaborates:

"Our senses tell us all we know of motion, and they indicate no motion for
the earth. Until it is reeducated, common sense tells us that, if the earth
is in motion, then the air, clouds, birds, and other objects not attached to
the earth must be left behind. A man jumping would descend to earth far from
the point where his leap began, for the earth would move beneath him while
he was in the air. Rocks and trees, cows and men must be hurled from a
rotating earth as a stone flies from a rotating sling. Since none of these
effects is seen, the earth is at rest. Observation and reason have combined
to prove it."

In the early 17th century, however, Galileo challenged this "commonsense"
view, drawing on a mix of empirical observations and ingenious arguments
that used examples and analogies which his contemporaries understood.

Alan Chalmers (_What is this thing Called Science_?) and Philip Kitcher
(_The Advancement of Science_) have given both given detailed explanations
of how Galileo was able to convince opponents that telescopic observations
of the heavens were reliable, even though he lacked an adequate theory of
optics. For example, he supplemented the telescope with an attached device
that enabled relatively precise observations of the movements of the
apparent "starlets" around Jupiter. The motions and the apparent
disappearances behind Jupiter or in front of it or into its shadow did not
appear to be an illusion caused by the telescope. Moreover, why should such
an illusion appear near Jupiter and nowhere else?

Kitcher describes how Galileo was able to check the reliability of the
telescope on earth, to train others, to demonstrate how the device worked
systematically, and to exploit overlaps in the results of naked eye and
telescopic observations. Galileo was able to subject his observations to
practical tests that could be conducted by others, including the prediction
of further positions of Jupiter's moons and their transits and eclipses. In
dealing with apparent planetary sizes, which were inconsistent with all the
astronomical theories of the time, he introduced the hypothesis of
irradiation but was able to offer arguments for this that did not depend
upon circular reasoning presupposing his own ideas. For example, he appealed
to evidence about terrestrial phenomena such as torches glowing at night,
which seem larger than they are.

Galileo, then, was able to draw upon knowledge and experience that was
available within his culture in order to demonstrate the general reliability
of telescopic observations. His arguments were of a familiar kind that was
continuous with commonsense methods of inquiries understood by his
contemporaries, and it is notable how easily his contemporaries were
convinced by, for example, the discovery of the moons of Jupiter. But the
arguments then provided, in turn, new empirical knowledge sufficiently
compelling to stand as premises in arguments directed at some of his
culture's commonsense beliefs.

To the argument that an object dropped from a tower must fall "behind" the
tower if the earth rotates, Galileo replied with the example of an object
dropped from the mast of a moving ship. For a sea-faring culture, this
analogy had an imaginative grip that it would not have had in some other
cultures. Indeed, Galileo's arguments in general would have made no sense to
a culture unacquainted with the various phenomena to which he appealed as
examples and analogies. In that sense, his ideas, discoveries and arguments
were culturally constrained and had to be continuous with other arguments,
"knowledge" etc in his culutre. This applies to all scientists, scholars and
thinkers, but it entails neither truth-relativism nor that we should be
pessimistic about overturning substantive "common sense" beliefs by rational
inquiry and argument that people around us can understand if we lead them
through it. After all, the earth does move.

I don't think we can limit in advance the kinds of arguments that can be
made by scientists and philosophers, thought there will always be *some*
limits as to what arguments can be run in particular societies. However,
there is no single "method", merely the use of various kinds of empirical
observation, reasoning, the ratcheting up of what empirical observations are
possible as new, reliable instruments are invented, etc. I take it this is
the sort of thing that Lee means by "common sense" modes of reasoning.
Scientific inquiry is continuous with any other form of rational inquiry - I
think that is Lee's point. To attack science and its methods it is to attack
rational inquiry itself - which is used in the law, in medicine and lots of
other places apart from formal science, as Lee says. OTOH, as Damien says,
this process can and often will end up subverting common beliefs that are
considered "common sense" in a particular society.


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