Daily Rumination No. 22: Questioning Common Sense

It is interesting to consider the term ‘common sense’. What does it mean exactly? The Oxford Dictionary of English defines it as ‘good sense and sound judgement in practical matters’. The issue here is that what is ‘good’ and ‘sound’ will vary from person to person. What is common sense to me may not be common sense to you.

To me, common sense is found in logic, reason and most importantly, evidence. We can reason logically that there probably isn’t a god (or gods) because of the overwhelming scientific evidence about the nature of life on Earth, its evolution and its origins, not to mention the wonders of the observable universe.

I extend this way of thinking and the dangerous concept of common sense to psychics. These people who claim the ability to connect with the dead or see into others’ futures are either brilliant liars or completely deluded.

In recent conversations, I discovered that a number of people whom I know, both professionally and more personally, believe in the power of psychics and fortune-telling. They were also people who were not terribly religious and in some cases even criticise religion. This was somewhat of a shock to me. How could these people believe in something so nonsensical when they reject other commonly held spiritual ideas?

Furthermore, when I questioned them about this politely, they stated that they only believed in elements of it or thought that some psychics and fortune-tellers were better than others. Yet, interestingly, none of them could define why or how they believed in it, how it could work or even how you could judge or measure their effectiveness.

I believe that this stems from the intrinsic human desire for a good story with a happy ending. If you lose a loved one or need ‘closure’ (as is the common term) for something, you want to believe that there is some genuine way to reestablish that connection and bring things to a comfortable conclusion. I don’t wish to denigrate this desire because loss is a very real thing and I also like a good story with a happy ending. What I do wish to critique, however, is the role that psychics play as exploitative storytellers, preying on these emotions. They’re just more like priests who do freelance work without a specific deity.

Although psychics are the ones who are manipulating people’s emotions, it is the cynics and doubters—think atheists—who are heavily disliked if they question such a belief system. Like for religious individuals, when one dares to ask a probing, logical question about a belief in fortune-telling, a believer is often unwilling to consider the other side at all. They take such questions as a personal insult… an interrogation of and an attack on their identity.

With this in mind and with reference to my earlier mention of ‘questioning’ believers whom I know, I have tried to adopt a new approach in how I speak with any kind of believer. First of all, do not assume that someone shares the same common sense as you. If someone presents a spiritual or religious idea that sounds downright ridiculous, don’t nod and agree just for the sake of politeness and don’t just brush it off. Instead, ask questions and attempt to learn why they believe this. By agreeing or leaving something unchallenged, you validate what they have to say. By questioning in a polite manner, you are able to listen respectfully and allow them to share their thoughts. In the subsequent discussion, as I have seen, a spiritual interlocutor will start to question their own ways of thinking, because they have never been challenged before. When they don’t have the answers, they start to ask questions of themselves. It’s hard to consider the alternative when you’ve never looked at it properly.

This is what I think is missing from the world and something that is exacerbated by the prevalence of social media. When people come up against ideas that they don’t like, they turn away from or just yell at others. If you listen and pose questions, you may not agree with what you hear, but a discussion will take place that may unravel what another believes to be common sense. At this point, we can realise the potential for constructive discourse and understanding.

So really, the next time that someone says something ridiculous that you know to be false, don’t lose it or turn away. Instead, engage with them, ask them questions and see if they actually have the answers. With any luck, you may start to share common sense.