An accommodation with the authority of common sense

In Science in Action, Bruno Latour talks of the birth of the modern science of geology, triumphed by Charles Lyell. He discusses Lyell’s attempt to professionalise and win respect for geology, and the need to find funds to support research in the new discipline. One solution to the need for funds it to appeal directly to the public, in Lyell’s case by writing a book that the landed gentry might read and so be convinced to donate to the cause of Geology:

If geology is successful in reshaping the earth’s history, size, composition and age, by the same token, it is also extremely shocking and unusual. You start the book in a world created by God’s will 6000 years ago, and you end it with a few poor Englishmen lost in the eons of time, preceded by hundreds of Floods and hundreds of thousands of different species. The shock might be so violent that the whole of England would be up in arms against geologists, bringing the whole discipline into disrepute. On the other hand, if Lyell softens the blow too much, then the book is not about new facts, but is a careful compromise between commonsense and the geologists’ opinion. This negotiation is all the more difficult if the new discipline runs not only against the Church’s teachings but also against Lyell’s own beliefs, as is the case with the advent of humanity into earth history which Lyell preferred to keep recent and miraculous despite his other theories. How is it possible to say simultaneously that it is useful for everyone, but runs against everyone’s beliefs? How is it possible to convince the gentry and at the same time to destroy the authority of common sense? How is it possible to assert that it is morally necessary to develop geology while agonising in private in the meantime on the position of humanity in Nature?


Replace 19th century geology with ‘cognitive sciences’, and gentry with ‘public’, and the essential tension is still there. The new brain science seeks attention and kudos, and in doing this must reach an uncomfortable accommodation with the ‘authority of common sense’. Psychologists and neuroscientists want to be heard in the public domain, but they will get so much more attention if they flatter received wisdom rather than attempt to overturn strongly held intuitions about human freedom, reasoning and morality.

2 replies on “An accommodation with the authority of common sense”

I wonder if it also works the other way. Neuroscience and psychology is popularised on the back of controversial, disruptive claims, often bound up in a ‘big idea’ that recasts a number of phenomena in an unusual way. See The Blank Slate, The Brain That Changes Itself. Maybe they’re not radical enough for what you’re thinking – they still reassure and try and tie the phenomena back to intuitive narratives. But I’m reading Matthew Hutson’s 7 Rules of Magical Thinking, and the cheery battering he gives free will is illuminating. The tenor of that section is that believing in free will is magical thinking, and a false attribution. As per, it’s based on the Libet experiments and follow-ons, and echoes a point of view I hear commonly in rationalist circles, that free will must be an illusion. This pushes hard against our strongly held intuitions (at least mine, as they stand now) but is almost a fashionable orthodoxy to do so. This is despite the fact that the Libet experiments are no slam dunk for what they purport to be showing (eg ) and that in any case free will is a pretty thorny subject to experimentally verify or disprove.

(There are people working at a higher level to accommodate the science with the intuition, Dennett’s Elbow Room springing to mind, and these are admittedly less publicised, but I think because of their complexity, not that they are more controversial and counterintuitive than the ‘no free will’ perspective that is casually propounded – generally by people who don’t seem particularly phased by it in the first place….)

I wonder what you think. Perhaps this is different to the examples you were thinking of.


Great quote (your link is broken by the way, but the book is right there on Amazon). In modern times many scientists are labelled as atheists when discussing free will. And the way actual atheists behave isn’t helping matters any, as pointed out by Julian Baggini. Anyway, now geology has fallen into the shadows and I wonder why it’s not considered as threatening as evolution. In several of our nature interpreting courses we were told to try and avoid using the terms climate change or global warming so as not to upset the public. It’s pretty outrageous.

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