The Philosophy of Common Sense

W. John Murray
The Astor Lectures
Divine Science Publishing Assoc.
New York, 1917, 8th ed.

We walk by faith, not by sight.
— 2 Cor. 5:7.
[19] Common sense is defined as that which is practical, prudent, wise, and in accordance with reason. According to philosophy, it is that mental power, innate in all men, by which they accurately perceive things immediately and habitually presented to their perceptive faculties; intuition; the cognitions and judgments of this power considered collectively. A cruder definition of common sense is that which declares it to be the accepted opinion of the majority.

At one time in the world’s history it was the common sense of the inhabitants of the old world that there was no western hemisphere. From the standpoint of common sense of that day Columbus was considered a fool, and his search for a western world a sort of “wild goose chase.” But the uncommon sense of himself and his friends triumphed over the common sense of the majority, so that today a man who would doubt the existence of a continent on this side of the Atlantic would be considered devoid of common sense, yet he would be merely sharing that sense of things which was common in Europe a few hundred years ago.

[20] One of the stock arguments against the sphericity of the world was that such a thing was contrary to common sense. Common sense could understand how it was possible for men to live and move on an earth, the surface of which was flat, but that a man could walk on the lower side of a revolving sphere with his head down, like a fly on a ceiling, was inconceivable. Knowing nothing of the law of gravitation and less about the supporting power of imponderable ether, it was the common sense of the world that this planet was held in vacant space either by means reaching down from heaven, or on pillars extending up from the earth.

When the common sense of the world argued against the revolution of the earth on its own axis, it did so because it said “common sense teaches us that if the earth moved we should feel its movements.” But uncommon sense, which is only another name for science, assures us that the reason we do not feel the earth moving under us is because the movement is so smooth as to be imperceptible. Nothing seems so still as the earth, yet nothing moves so persistently. The earth is really moving faster than the fastest train.

We have only two ways of judging whether we are moving or not. One is by feeling the movement under us, and the other by noticing that things outside seem to be moving past us. Have you ever sat in a train in a station and imagined your train moving until you looked out [21] of the other window to discover that your train was still standing by the platform? It was the moving of another train that made you think your train was moving. If a train-load of people were laboring under this delusion and a conductor should say, “The train is not moving at all; its apparent movement is an optical illusion,” every person might look at every other person to see if he had heard aright. The common sense of the passengers might array itself against the uncommon sense of the conductor; but if one passenger should look at the platform, instead of at the moving train on the other side, and then call the attention of the other passengers, the uncommon sense of the conductor would presently become the common sense of everybody on the train.

It was the common sense of the world at one time that wood floats, while iron does not. For this reason the world’s greatest battleships were composed of wooden vessels. One day the uncommon sense of an inventor conceived the idea from a floating iron cooking vessel of the possibility of a floating iron battleship, and now the common sense of the world would ridicule the idea of a return to the old order. When Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, common sense read it and pronounced it fantastic and interesting for imaginative boys, but utterly impossible. The uncommon sense of Jules Verne saw submarine travel and warfare as a remote possibility, and the common [22] sense of today, after all the horrors of war, is convinced that it was not so remote a possibility after all.

When Mr. Morse, the inventor of the telegraphic system, asked the Legislature of the State of New Jersey for permission to put up poles and string wires through that state for the purpose of telegraphing from New York to Philadelphia, the common sense of the legislators denied his request on the grounds that it was ridiculous to assert that a message could be conveyed over such a distance by merely tapping on a little instrument. Today it is the common sense of every man with a grain of intelligence that telegraphy is one of the sciences which Balzac was thinking of when he said, “There is a science which can abolish time and space.”

And what shall we say of wireless telegraphy and wireless telephony, and many other inventions which the common sense of our forefathers would have considered infringements on Divine rights? The common sense of today is the general acceptance of a theory which yesterday was considered an evidence of individual insanity. Paul says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Uncommon sense asserts that we walk by both.

Emerson says, “Walking is a stumbling forward,” and when we consider the movement of the earth we perceive how true this is. In our ordinary walking we resemble the man on the [23] stage who balances himself on a huge ball. If we walked merely by sight we should become afraid, since this huge ball upon which we stand is moving with lightning rapidity under our feet. It we could see ourselves when the earth has revolved upon its axis as a man would appear walking up the side of a wall in a horizontal position, as we actually do at certain times of the day, the sight would terrify us.

Common sense, as we understand the term, would suggest that no man could walk on a moving body such as this planet is described, but that uncommon sense, which takes all the facts of the case into consideration, explains the possibility according to certain laws. This explanation is embodied in school books so that a truth in the world of physical science which only a few accepted at first, now becomes the common sense of every rational thinking being. If in the past we have used the term common sense somewhat loosely, there is no reason why we should not now use it to designate that general state of mind which has become persuaded of a truth which in the past was held only by those of most progressive thought.

Most of our common sense is second-hand, but there is no reason why it should always remain so. There is a common sense which is not derived from other minds by instruction, but arises from within the mind itself. It is a sense which each man shares in common with every other man in the universe. This common sense is in [24] the savage as in the saint. It is to be found in every country where Christianity has been preached and practiced, and it may be found in those countries where Christianity is unknown, except unfavorably. It is spoken of by John the Apostle as “the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” This sense which is common to all men is a knowledge that comes to us without effort of our own, and also without any process of reasoning.

We are born with this common sense, and the older we grow and the more experience we have, the more this common sense asserts itself. It has been denominated by different philosophers as instinct, intuition, feeling, faith, inspiration, and revelation. It is not physical sense, for the physical senses are not nearly so common as we think. The sense of sight is not nearly so common as it should be, since some are born without it, while many others are deprived of it by disease and other causes. This is true also of the sense of hearing, and the sense of speech.

The sense that is most common might be called the sixth sense, or that faculty of the mind by which a man feels that there is something to which none of his other senses testify, but which he nevertheless knows to be true. The North American Indian calls this something “The Great Spirit,” the German calls it Gott, the Anglo-Saxon calls it God, while other nations call it by other names. John the Apostle called it Love. Plato called it Mind, and Jesus called it Father. [25] There are some who share this common sense of all humanity who cannot think of this invisible, yet acknowledged, Something. Others feel that back of all phenomena, there are nomena which they call by different names, such as Energy, Law, or Supreme Intelligence.

We see from this then, that the commonest sense in the world is the sense of Something back of all visible manifestation, to which none of our other senses testify, and yet which we could not deny if we tried, any more than we could deny the principle of mathematics. We say experience teaches us that if we can solve mathematical problems by observing certain rules, there must be a principle of mathematics from which these rules proceed. But we can no more see the principle of mathematics than we can see this Something which men call by different names; therefore, the sense which assures me of the reality of mathematics and the sense which assures me of the reality of the Principle of Being is that which is common to all men and which philosophy calls intuitive perception. It is as common a sense to the blind man as it is to the man who sees. This common sense is no respecter of persons, for all men in whatsoever station of life admit the existence of Something superior to themselves, but what this Something is, and how to co-operate with it intelligently is another question.

To admit the existence of the principle of [26] mathematics, but to remain unable to solve a single problem would be of little real benefit.

To share the common sense of the world concerning the reality of God and yet not to know what God is, nor how to avail ourselves of His law, is like admitting the existence of water, but being unable to get a drink.

This Something, which the common sense of all humanity admits, is that to which we turn in the hour of our extremity. It is as instinctive with man in the hour of danger to turn to this Something, which he calls God, as it is for the flower to turn towards the sun. He subconsciously realizes this superior presence and, though he never kneels in prayer at other times, when the day of great pain and perplexity arrives, we find him in his anguish of mind crying to a God he cannot understand.

The point to be emphasized here is the truth that an act which we perform instinctively and spasmodically, we should perform intelligently and systematically. The flower does not turn to the sun on just one morning in the week. If it did, it would presently cease to be a flower. The common sense of the inhabitants of the floral world teaches them that their support comes from Something higher than themselves, and so they turn to this daily in order to receive its vivifying light and heat. This is the flower’s prayer. It opens itself to the influence of that Something which makes for life and beauty. Common sense teaches man that he does not live [27] from himself any more than the flower lives from itself, and if we would listen to this highest phase of common sense it would teach us that we can no more thrive on occasional prayer, than we can thrive on an occasional meal, or a flower can thrive on an occasional sun bath, or an occasional drink of water. Prayer is not a safety valve for the emotions, nor a something like a life-belt at sea to take refuge in when we are in danger. Prayer is an exercise of the soul, by which the soul’s muscles are kept in condition for any sudden demand that may be made upon them. Common sense teaches us the necessity of preparedness, not only in a military way, but in a normal and a spiritual way. Just as there are text books on military preparedness and the science of modern war, there are text books on general fitness–spiritual, mental, and physical.

If in the past common sense taught us that there is a Power by which we are brought into being; this same common sense is now teaching that we can co-operate with this Power and thus enter into the enjoyment of a fuller measure of peace and prosperity.

If a youth asks how he shall become conversant with military tactics, common sense advises that he study military text books. If one would grow in the understanding of Spiritual Science, common sense insists that a study of the subject is necessary.

An occasional sermon on the subject is insufficient to bring about the highest results, just as [28] an occasional lecture on military maneuvers is insufficient to make a commanding officer out of a private soldier.

If we would succeed in the science of Life, let us study its principle and apply its rules, for in this way only can we bring into manifestation those things which “God hath prepared for us before the foundation of the world.” This is the philosophy of common sense.

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