The ‘common sense’ argument for evolution

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Published: 13 November 2018 (GMT+10)
common-sense

In trying to convince readers that the Darwinian worldview is true, it is commonly argued that the case for evolution is ‘common sense’, as though this expression is solid proof that ends the argument. An example is the headline of one article that exclaimed: “Evolution is plain common sense.”1 Another example is the article “Common Sense ‘Expelled’ in New Movie”, which concludes that it is common sense that creation and Intelligent Design are false and evolution is true.2 Then there exists the “Common Sense Atheism” website that uses “common sense” to prove evolution and disprove Intelligent Design.

The term common sense is often used as “proof”, especially if the idea it is used to support is commonly accepted as fact by most scientists or the general public. If one concludes that it is obvious to him or her that evolution is correct, but cannot articulate why, “it is common sense” may be used as a reason. Unsurprisingly, evolutionists claim the common-sense facility itself evolved as did everything else.3

Examples can be found everywhere, especially in the mass media. For example, below the headline referenced above, “Evolution is plain common sense”, the reporter wrote:

Many people believe ridiculous things, especially when at an impressionable age, but most will eventually, shuffle off such beliefs as time goes on and they become wise with age. However some remain and in the case of Christianity, this is the belief in creationism or its nefarious cousin Intelligent Design and hence they willingly deny biological and galactic evolution.1

Another example is “Like much evolutionary theory, this is just applied common sense.”4

One of many examples is found in the words of Richard Dawkins, who often uses the phrase “common sense”. He says that the religious mind flies in the face of “everything that ordinary common sense and human feeling would see as important.”5 He then adds that common sense evolved like everything else, writing that “Common sense lets us down, because common sense evolved in a world where nothing moves very fast, and nothing is very small or very large.”6 Then he defines a “philosopher as someone who won’t take common sense for an answer.”7 Another example is Jerry Coyne, who wrote that early geologists ordered the different rock layers “using principles based on common sense” to develop the geological strata on which evolution is based.8

The phrase ‘common sense’ is also used by the other side. Intelligent Design supporter Doug Axe, in his new book wrote that common science—using the word science instead of sense—will prove Darwinism wrong, adding that he “called it common science to emphasize the connection to common sense.”9 He also states, “To stand your ground in the face of … intellectual intimidation [by Darwinists], you’d need a simple, unassailable common-sense argument.”10 The problem that “most players are wearing the Darwin jersey” is incorrect, and the evidence is “not to the technical disciplines but rather to common sense and common science.”11

Axe concludes that “common science and common sense naturally lead us to attribute life to God, even as the children of atheists do.”12 To be fair his book extensively documents his conclusion, and by common sense, he refers to logical conclusions based on evidence. Not all writers do this.

Defining ‘common sense’

The phrase ‘common sense’ is often used in both speaking and writing to refer to knowledge shared by all, or most, of the public, thus it is common. “Sense” refers to the human ability to receive and react to stimuli, especially light and sound. It was at one time believed that common sense was a special brain faculty that united and interpreted the impressions of all the five senses. In other words, it was an internal mental process that accurately combined information to form a conclusion based on the information received from the senses.

Except in a loose way as a function of the brain, spinal cord, and the gland system, this ‘faculty’ does not exist. Nonetheless, the use of the expression today often clearly implies this older meaning. The most accepted definition of common sense is “good, sound, practical sense; general sagacity.” Webster’s Dictionary defines it as practical judgment or the use of intelligence to achieve ordinary good sense.

A valid use of the expression refers to blatantly obvious conclusions, such as the earth is round; one cannot fly from Paris to Detroit in five minutes; or the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In order to make sound “practical judgments”, though, one must have factual input; and the amount of knowledge about any one subject varies greatly from person to person. In addition, all judgments rely heavily on feelings, attitudes, prejudices, and individual experiences. The result is that conclusions tend to be somewhat divorced from facts. Good evidence to my mind clearly may not be good evidence to yours.

Therefore, common-sense conclusions are based on what the person has learned, including assumptions and, especially, one’s past experiences. As experiences differ among people, one person’s “common sense” conclusion may not agree with someone else’s. Thus, the clichés “common sense is not very common” and “common sense is a rather uncommon science”, are often directed against one who sees things differently than the speaker.

The variety of viewpoints that the phrase ‘common sense’ is used to support is illustrated by a Flat Earth Society brochure. This organization believes that the earth is physically pancake-shaped, and they are dedicated to “proving” this view, which to them is plain common sense. A brochure describing the requirements for membership stated:

Membership is open to all persons of integrity who have a serious and abiding interest in the Society and who subscribe to [its] … aims and constitution … . The Society does not indulge in vulgar proselytizing, but depends for the diffusion of its ideas upon the dedication of its membership to the ageless testimony of common sense.

The “ageless testimony of common sense” means that, when on the earth’s surface, unaided visual sensory input normally conveys only the earth’s apparent flatness. Common sense is used in this case to “prove” a concept to avoid relating direct evidence. The expression, “ageless testimony of common sense” is unlikely to bring forth an intelligent response because there is little except an expression to which one can respond.

Statements like, I “very seldom believed” what was told to me like intelligent design unless “it made a lot of common sense”, mean that one seldom believes someone else unless it sounds reasonable. If something didn’t fit in to his worldview, regardless of its validity, he may not accept it. Conversely, something that appears reasonable may be incorrect, as illustrated by optical illusions. The more incongruence between an idea and our cognitive set, likely the more we will disagree with it, and thus the less it sounds like a common-sense conclusion. If the phrase “common sense” was replaced by “my conclusion, ideas, prejudices, etc.,” this statement would be both clearer and more honest. Writers should support their conclusions with evidence instead of appealing to the dictates of common sense.

Use of the term in lieu of supportive data

As in the above illustrations, the phrase ‘common sense’ is often used in lieu of supportive empirical data. When pressed to defend one’s position, one can avoid giving valid reasons by responding with, “It’s common sense.” This is especially true if one cannot provide factual data or present coherent logical arguments to back up one’s position. If one had factual data, he or she probably would supply it: “A 1999 study by Taylor showed that ….”

A person may believe that a conclusion is clearly valid without being able to give specific reasons as to why. We all learn a great deal that we cannot immediately recall, but, nonetheless, affects our decision-making. A correct conclusion may be partially the result of a subconscious evaluation of data without full awareness of the data that the mind used to make the decision. But even here, using the phrase ‘common sense’ as support for a conclusion is not justified. Avoiding answers like “It’s common sense” may force an examination of the actual basis used to make the decision. As it was made on some basis, we should at the least attempt to construct that basis, and not gloss over this necessary process with, “It’s common sense.”

Common sense as magic

It is even sometimes implied that a conclusion “from” or “of” common sense is somehow better than a conclusion formed by other means. It is as if there is something mystical or magical about common sense deductions. For this reason, especially in scholarly writing, the words “common sense” can obscure the actual basis of one’s argument.

The conclusion is that the phrase ‘common sense’ is misused even by the educated elite. Harvard University Professor of Government, Adam Ulam said in a New Republic article it “would have been much better had our ‘best and brightest’ [referring to the leading government officials] heeded Poirot’s advice, rather than that of professors, and consulted the ‘little gray cells,” i.e., used common sense rather than stultifying models.13 In other words, Ulam claims they would have made better decisions had our government officials relied on their own 'common sense' rather than consulting those who spent their lifetime researching their respective areas!

The phrase common sense is often used because it has a strong appeal. Use of it in a book title is likely to strike a responsive chord in those who might otherwise pass up the volume. The 2017 Books in Print lists over 60 titles that begin with the words “common sense”, e.g. Commonsense Darwinism: Evolution, Morality, and the Human Condition.14

Summary and conclusions

The phrase ‘common sense’ is a much used and abused phrase with little or no meaning, often implying some non-existent brain skill. Not being able to resort to “It’s common sense” would force one to find evidence or valid reasons to back up what is said. No longer could the populace refer to common sense as proof of a supposition or prejudice. No longer could we pass off unsupported statements with the “rubber stamp” proof of “It’s common sense.” For these reasons, our language would be better off without this phrase.

References and notes

  1. Freeman, T., Evolution is plain common sense, news24.com/MyNews24/Evolution-is-plain-common-sense-20141014, 14 October 2014. Return to text.
  2. Radford, B., Common Sense ‘Expelled’ in New Movie, livescience.com/2430-common-sense-expelled-movie.html, 3 April 2008. Return to text.
  3. Wilkins, J.S., The Evolution of Common Sense, blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-evolution-of-common-sense/, 24 May 2011. Return to text.
  4. Like much evolutionary theory, this is just applied common sense, forum.wordreference.com/threads/like-much-evolutionary-theory-this-is-just-applied-common-sense.2146597/, 12 May 2011. Return to text.
  5. Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, p. 313, 2006. Return to text.
  6. Dawkins, ref. 5, p. 364 Return to text.
  7. Dawkins, ref. 5, p. 83 Return to text.
  8. Coyne, J., Why Evolution is True, Penguin Books, New York, p. 23, 2010. Return to text.
  9. Axe, D., Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed, Harper-One, New York, p. 60, 2016. Return to text.
  10. Axe, ref. 9, p. 100. Return to text.
  11. Axe, ref. 9, p. 189. Return to text.
  12. Axe, ref. 9, p. 232 Return to text.
  13. Ulam, A. Agatha Christie: Murder and Class, The New Republic, p. 23, 31 July 1976. Return to text.
  14. Lemos, J., Commonsense Darwinism: Evolution, Morality, and the Human Condition, Open Court, New York, 2008. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Graham P.
Great article! And then there's world view....what does common-sense look like in New Delhi, where cows are worshiped? And what of common sense among folk of the cargo-cult societies, who build runways in Pacific Island jungles hoping American Army cargo planes will land and bring food?
And the common-sense of psychologists who believe everything is subjective? How can they even admit such a thing exists?
Ah, someone might argue, common-sense is only valid for evolutionists......but there's the rub: something that only evolutionists can have can't be appealed to as evidence for evolution..... How can Darwinists ask us to consult our common-sense if, as creationists, our common-sense is invalid?
Gian Carlo B.
Interesting. Quantum Mechanics challenges our 'common sense' from Newtonian and even General Relativity, yet these evolutionists have no problem accepting QM's weird things, why then, can't they accept the 'weird' things creationists say that all we see is the Design of Our Creator? So you're right when common -sense should just be thrown out because anybody can make common-sense out of anything. I could say that the weirdness of QM today is common-sense in spite the counterintuiveness it implies. Just like the creation account that Earth came first before the stars is so counterintuitive.
James C.
Thank you. I had not heard the origin of the "common" in common sense before - it's not that "everyone knows" but that "all your senses combine to tell you". It's not that it's common to all people but that it's the common element of your senses.
I know that has nothing to do with the current usage (misusage) of the phrase "common sense" but I do like knowing where things came from.
Edmond C.
Great "common sense" article. I want to point out though that Paul and, by inspiration, God appeals to common sense in Romans 1:20, where he says that His attributes are clearly seen through creation. God did not reveal Himself to each person by divine revelation, but He holds them accountable to discern His existence from his creation. While the term common sense is not used, I think its pretty safe to assume that God is telling us that our common sense tells us there is a God who created everything. We can't completely dismiss common sense because there is a sensibility that humans have built-in about reality. I do understand what this article is saying though, appealing just to common sense as an argument is not evidence. Though I would say in Doug Axe's case, where he talks about young children having the intuition to believe their is a creator until they are told otherwise, this is evidence of God. Remember Christ tells us to have faith as a little child. Perhaps because little children's common sense is unpolluted by bias. They see the world and instantly believe that something designed and created it.
Peter M.
Proverbs 14:12
"There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death."

Isaiah 55:8-9
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts."

1 Corinthians 1:18-21
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe."
Jordan C.
Great article!

Many people believe ridiculous things, especially when at an impressionable age, but most will eventually, shuffle off such beliefs as time goes on and they become wise with age. However some remain and in the case of MATERIALISM, this is the belief in MATERIAL POPPING INTO EXISTENCE FROM NOTHING or its nefarious cousin NEO DARWINIAN EVOLUTION and hence they willingly deny biological and galactic CREATION. - It's just common sense....
Tammy S.
Interesting indeed! I couldn't agree more with the chord being struck by the line of reasoning here, and it definitely makes me want to take a hard look at my own uses of the phrase. But I have to say, it's very difficult to avoid saying it is common sense, say, that the evidence of a Creator is the creation itself! In no human's experience anywhere at anytime has "something" been observed to come from absolutely "nothing". Cause & effect reflects the common human experience, and should therefore get a pass on being referred to as "common sense". But I know the principle has to be applied consistently. Smiley face.
Tommy S.
It might be true that we should dismiss with the phrase "common sense", but I find it ironic that evolutionists actually believe their viewpoint is "common sense" and that everything about creation and intelligent design flies in the face of "common sense." To me, it's blatantly obvious that it is evolution that flies in the face of "common sense." It's pure insanity to believe that complex life sprung into existence on its own, wrote its own software, built its own machinery, became self-aware, etc. You have to abandon all reason and "common sense" to believe such lunacy.
Jared C.
The "common sense" argument is typically an escape mechanism for having to actually articulate and defend an idea. It should be openly mocked when ever it is used. And especially, when it is used by people like Richard Dawkins. In his book, The Blind Watchmaker, he openly admits that living organisms have "...the appearance of having been designed..." and then argues against it. To defend your idea by arguing against the most important of human senses is literally the opposite of it being "common sense." They have no credibility.

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