Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Common Sense, or Merely Common Hubris?

“Nothing is more fairly distributed than common sense: no one thinks he needs more of it than he already has.” ― René Descartes, Discourse on Method

Hume was on to something. John Locke had proposed that our senses responded to our experience by presenting sensations to the mind. The mind in turn worked to store these sensations as memories or to connect and then store these sensations as complex memories.

David Hume saw Locke’s theory as disabling the distinction between what we nowadays call “correlation” and “causation.” Our sensations are of events in our experience. All we can observe through our senses, even our senses amplified by instruments, are events. But we are in the habit of believing in cause and effect if one kind of event is consistently followed by events of another, different kind.

Indeed this tendency to connect one predecessor class of events to another following class gives rise to the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, “after that, therefore because of that.” For example, people more often feel queasy after eating raw clams, than after eating zucchini; so, they think, "Raw clams cause queasiness more so than does zucchini.” (But what if people who eat raw clams stuff themselves more frequently than those who eat zucchini?}

Between correlated event-classes we do not observe an intermediate event, a causal nexus, as it is sometimes called, that helps us distinguish between causation and “mere” correlation. True. But there is another way to look at this.

Maintaining Cause and Effect. Immanuel Kant attempted a rescue by proposing that Locke had gotten it wrong. The Mind (in German, Verstand, translated both as “mind” and as “understanding,” -- not Seele or Sinn also translatable as “mind”) does not merely make connections of sensation brought in through the senses. The Mind’s very structure tends to process correlative event classes as cause and effect. We can hardly help but understand -- at least initially -- repeated correlation as indicating cause. This theory has been found to be much more attractive in the US since the withering of radical Behaviorism in the later 20th Century. (See A Critical Review of B.F. Skinner's Philosophy )

However, invoking some logic, there is a more direct way of thinking about it. We can accept Hume, yet maintain the distinction between correlation and causation. Consider universal negatives, which are statements that propose that, at any place or at any time, something is not; or, that nothing is, a certain way or thing.

For example, “There are no such thing as dragons,” or, what is logically equivalent, “There are no dragons, anywhere, ever.” The issue here is not whether the claim of the non-existence of dragons is true or false; but, whether there is an observation we -- or beings like us, of limited breadth of experience in space and time -- can perform to establish it.

Note that it is easier to disprove a negative universal than to establish it. The find of one dragon disproves it. But despite a very, very large number of failures to find a dragon, any claim that they don’t exist is not proven by that failure. It was, in fact, widely believed in the 19th Century and earlier that there was no such thing as a black swan. There are, in Australia. Also, tomatoes were considered to be poisonous, e.g. there was no such thing as a tomato that could safely eaten by humans. We know differently.

Reconsider the example given above about the relation of eating raw claims and queasiness. The very argument against its being causation demonstrates that we bring much more to such a causal claim than a narrow consideration of correlation: we consider possible alternatives, or intermediaries, standardly characterized as confounding or mediating variables. A host of assumptions and presuppositions supports our observational reports.(See Identifying Trans-ideological Epistemological Presuppositions)

The “Common Sense” of American School Reform. There is always the possibility of hidden, overlooked or disregarded causes or effects that undermine an assertion that one situation causes another. As many have discovered, an apparent “common-sense” causal relation can disappear under closer scrutiny due to confounding or mediating variables.

There are a host of causal myths involved with American education, primary, secondary, and higher, be it public, private or parochial. For example:

Bad or insensitive teachers are the primary cause of failing students.

Students have learning styles. Teachers can teach to them, i.e. no child is unteachable.

College is a pure waste of time, i.e. nothing worth the cost is learned.

Today’s schools are in a position to forestall 21st Century employment problems.
(See References to Schooling Myths.)

Such “common sense” beliefs underlie the hubris that drives a great many of today’s school reform undertakings. Their prospect is to continue on in a century-long American tradition: the cavalier waste of mis-aimed scarce resources leading to reform failure.

To examine these and related issues at greater length, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: 
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?)

--- EGR