The commonsense of the near future

It is a truism that most of us carry out our everyday commonsense tasks with very little conscious effort or analysis. Indeed to find everyday tasks formidably complex can often be a sign of mental illness or disability. The world of artificial intelligence, however, shows that commonsense is actually very complex and that commonsense reasoning is very difficult to simulate with a computer.

Our scientific understanding of commonsense is likely to change as we gradually understand more about how the human mind works. At the moment, however, how commonsense 'works' is something that is somehow hidden from scientists, even though it is part of our everyday experience. And perhaps that is how we like it, for now, because if robots had commonsense, they would probably be able to perform many routine tasks like a human being making many of us instantly redundant. Despite our (happy?) ignorance about how to simulate commonsense, there are several things that we can say about commonsense today.

Commonsense is thought of as a fixed thing, but is really a 'moving target'. It is not a fixed quantity, and varies from one culture to another, and it changes within a culture, over time. Because of this, some currently, non-commonsense technical ideas will undoubtedly become part of the commonsense of the future. Indeed we already have a relatively new commonsense concept for signalling when novel or technical ideas don’t fit in to our existing commonsense ideas, but should really become part of it. Can you guess? That concept is "this might be 'counter-intuitive', but...". There are many more examples of relatively recent additions to our collective commonsense. Examples include concepts from economics such as ‘lateral thinking’, or concepts from the arts, such as ‘that's a bit melodramatic’, or ideas from psychoanalysis, like "She’s repressed" and "Maybe I’m in denial". All these ideas were once originally novel and technical, yet were taken up and eventually absorbed in to our culturally specific commonsense reasoning about our world, ourselves, and other people.

Artificial intelligence researchers already know that commonsense is not confined to everyday life, but extends itself in to every area of knowledge. Given that human knowledge is constantly growing, this suggests that the domains that commonsense moves in to can also be new, as our environments and knowledge also changes and grows. Conversely, older commonsense concepts are also becoming less well known and understood, as their domains of knowledge become more isolated, old-fashioned or obsolete. Consider commonsense ideas to do with farming and nature, conjured up by old-fashioned phrases still in use like: ‘make hay while the sun is shining’ or the, now, less well known: 'There is no better manure than the farmer's foot'.

Another way to see how commonsense changes is to look at how academic subjects informed commonsense, long, long ago. Exploring novel ideas in everyday reasoning traditionally fitted within the notion of philosophy and particularly ancient philosophy, which was designed to be used in everyday life to deal with everyday problems and soon became somewhat commonsensical in its own time. For instance, my friend Jules Evans has written a book about the roots in ancient philosophy of the psychological therapy now known as cognitive behavioural therapy. The book is excellent, but makes relatively little mention of the how in ancient Greece the technical concepts of 'syllogistic reasoning' and 'socratic dialogue' became commonsense. Now you have an idea of how much commonsense can change, and this might make you wonder what the commonsense of the near future could look like.

One possibility is that modern technical and mathematically-flavoured ideas which are applicable to understanding how the mind works become part of commonsense itself, in the way that Freudian ideas became commonplace in the 20th century. This is especially likely to be the case if these technical ideas start to invade more areas of everyday life. As science and technology does indeed invade more of our life, surely certain ideas come with them. For example, marketing is now seen more as a science than an art, and it is the same with teaching now more than ever. If this is the case, could some of the mathematical concepts from science and engineering which inform these new domains of knowledge, become the commonsense of the near future?

Wrapped up in all modern scientific ideas is the notion of the empirical, so that consciously exploring ideas and trying things out itself becomes a process by which ideas are repeatedly applied and tested. 'Models' are developed to help us to understand when ideas have been properly tested and when they have not. An important technical idea that relates to empiricism and testing of ideas is the notion of ‘feedback’ while another (related) concept is the notion of ‘noise’. Both of these ideas are slowly becoming more commonsensical, so it appears to me.

Obviously, ‘feedback’ and ‘noise’ are broad technical concepts and relate to science in lots of ways, this is why these ideas may become ubiquitous in our lives. Both appear in a wide variety of different disciplines, used in very different contexts and with slightly different applications and meaning. For example, in physics and engineering, 'feedback' can mean something quite different to what it may mean in neuroscience or educational theory, but the ideas are still closely related. The concept of ‘noise’ is also interesting and is usually understood in purely statistical and mathematical terms, but I think can also perhaps be useful in different ways. Perhaps the now common or (even recently defunct?) phrase "That's random!" is an indication of the technical idea of 'noise' has arguably already entered commonsense reasoning.

Of course, the context of this website collaboration project is 'complexity'. Complexity is also often analysed and modelled using feedback, where the notion is important to help us to understand complex systems which can readily adapt and evolve in relation to their environment. As my own experiment, and attempt at generating some feedback, I am interested in hearing from people who come in to contact with these kinds of technical ideas and to find out whether or not they have applied them in areas of their everyday reasoning, so that they have turned in to part of their own 'personal' commonsense. I am also interested in individuals who are sufficiently familiar with technical ideas ranging from experts interested in decision-making in nature, such as neuroscience, to individuals who come across technical ideas in education or work, such as in computing or marketing.

In general, I am interested in those who have tried to use scientific/technical ideas in everyday reasoning to improve the quality or confidence in their own decision-making so that those ideas have eventually become commonsense just for them. Or perhaps most of those ideas seem to be terrible in practice? I would love to know if neuroscientists explore their own technical ideas they use in their jobs to try to improve their everyday reasoning, or if that turns out to be a big mistake! If it is a mistake, why? Commonsense says one of you must have tried it.

Bibliography

Davis, E., & Brachman, R. J. Representations of commonsense knowledge. (1990)

Evans, Jules. Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. New World Library, (2013).

Roberts, Seth. "The unreasonable effectiveness of my self-experimentation."Medical hypotheses 75.6 (2010): 482-489.

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