The Case for Common Sense

John Ikerd

Professor Emeritus

University of Missouri

American farmers have been told they must specialize, mechanize, and manage their farms like a business – it’s the logical, reasonable thing to do.  But, this logic and reason has led to fewer farms, larger farms, and increasingly, to corporate control of farming.  Being logical and reasonable has brought the demise of family farms and now threatens the food security of the nation.  Maybe it’s time to try something else.  Maybe it’s time for farmers to rely on their common sense.


Our common sense is our insight into the true nature of things – into what Plato referred to as “pure knowledge.”  Plato argued, around 400 BC, that one can never gain “pure knowledge” through observation.  Anything that can be observed is always changing, he said, but pure knowledge never changes.  He argued that we observe only imperfect examples of the true “form” of things – “form” being the order or architecture of pure knowledge.  We can observe examples of “form” and we can visualize true “form” in our minds through insight.  However, we can never actually observe “form” – or the true order of things – because it is intangible and exists only in the abstract.


The true nature, or “higher order,” of things never changes.  Being “pure knowledge,” it is the part of the constant reality of the universe.  We can see this higher order reflected in the world around us and in the lives of other people.  However, our observations have meaning only because we may have some intuitive understanding of the true order from which things emanate.  We can never gain an understanding of this higher order through observation, because we can observe only imperfect examples.  Instead, true understanding must come about by other means – means which may be referred to as insight, intuition, or better yet, by using our “common sense.”


Science, on the other hand, is based on logic and reason – not on insight and intuition.  Today’s science has evolved from philosophies of more than four hundred years ago.  Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, John Locke, and others of that time, hypothesized that the world worked like a big, complex machine, with many intricate and interconnected parts.  They reasoned that everything that happens, every effect, must have a discernable cause.  Thus, if we formulate appropriate hypotheses concerning cause and effect relationships, and if we design appropriate experiments or observations, we can find the cause of every effect and acquire knowledge and understanding.  The thinkers of this “age of reason” laid the conceptual foundation for today’s dominant notions of “science.”


Many scientists today believed that through logic, reason, and scientific observation, we can discover “truth” – we can find “true knowledge.”  Many scientists today reject anything that cannot be “proven” empirically, through observation or experiment, as irrational superstition.  If you can’t prove it, it simply is not true.


In relying on our common sense, we need not reject science as a means of gaining knowledge or understanding of the things around us.  But we must reject the proposition that there is only one way of knowing or understanding.  Thomas Huxley, a noted English botanist, once wrote, “All truth, in the long run, is only common sense clarified.”  Albert Einstein wrote, “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”  We must use science to “clarify and refine” our common sense, but not allow science to replace it.  We must be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom that science is the key to all knowledge with a more enlightened concept of science that respects common sense as our only source of “true knowledge.”


Conventional wisdom is something fundamentally different from common sense – although the two are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably.  Both may represent widely held opinions, but the sources of those opinions are quite different.  Conventional wisdom, like science, is rooted in logic and reason – in conclusions drawn from experimentation and observation.  Sometimes the logic and reasoning are faulty, and thus, so are the conclusions.  But even more important, “true knowledge” can never be observed – it exists only in the abstract.


Common sense is something that we know to be true, regardless of whether we have experienced or observed it ourselves or have been informed of it by others.  Conventional wisdom may include some things that make common sense.  However, things “make sense” to us only if we somehow know they are true – only if the truth of it is validated by the spiritual or metaphysical part of us rather than by the logical or reasoning part of us.  Some people choose to deny their spirituality, and thus, their common sense, and instead rely solely on logic and reason.  But, we all have access to common sense – we possess it in common.  But, we are each free to use or not use it.


When the framers of the Declaration of Independence wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” they had no scientific basis for such an assertion.  These truths were not derived by logic and reason, and this statement certainly did not represent conventional wisdom in those days.  The truth of this statement was something they felt in their souls.  They were relying on their common sense.


There is no logical, rational reason to accept the Golden Rule: do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Yet, it is a part of almost every organized religion and every enduring philosophy in the history of the world.  It’s just common sense.  When Thomas Paine wrote of “the rights of man,” and Jimmy Carter talked of “basic human rights,” they were not relying on exhaustive scientific experiments.  They relied instead on their common sense.  Common sense comes to all of us from somewhere beyond our body and mind – from the spiritual part of us that allows us to glimpse the realm of the higher order of things.  We all have access to it, but we must open our hearts and our minds to receive it.  And we must accept its reality.


Our common sense today tells us something is fundamentally wrong in American agriculture.  We are told we shouldn’t be concerned about the current farm financial situation. The current crisis is just a normal economic adjustment, and the free-market ultimately works for the good of all, so they say.  We are told we shouldn’t be concerned about the natural environment, that we have no proof we are damaging the natural ecosystem, and after all, we can find a technological fix for any ecological problem.  We are told we shouldn’t be concerned about what is happening to family farms and rural communities, that rural people want the same things urban people want, and thus, they must give up their rural ways of life.  But, our common sense tells us that something is fundamentally wrong in rural America – economically, ecologically, and socially.


Common sense tells many farmers they would not be better off in some other occupation, even if they could make more money.  Common sense also tells them they can’t continue to take from nature without giving something back to nature, no matter what new technologies science may bring.  Common sense tells them that positive relationships with other people, with their families and communities, make their lives better, regardless of where they might choose to live. 


Our common sense tells the rest of us that we must help farmers develop farming systems that can meet the needs of the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for the future.  Our common sense also tells us that our food and farming systems must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible, if they are to be sustainable over time.  And, our common sense tells us that an industrial, corporately controlled agriculture is not sustainable.


Our common sense also tells us that we can and must find ways to live and work that nurture the personal, interpersonal, and spiritual aspects of our lives.  We know that we must accept responsibility for ourselves — that our individual well-being is important to our quality of life.  But we know also, that caring for other people is not a sacrifice, but instead, that compassion for others adds to the quality of our own life.  And, we know that taking care of the land is not a sacrifice, but instead, stewardship of the earth helps give purpose and meaning to our lives.  We know the quality of our life is enhanced when we make conscious, purposeful decisions to care for the earth and for each other. 


We need not condemn ourselves for having failed to rely on our common sense.  Even the founding fathers of our country sometimes denied their common sense in favor of conventional wisdom.  The rightness of owning slaves was conventional wisdom until well into the 19th century – it had always been done.  Until the 20th century, women in the U.S. were denied the right to vote – the conventional wisdom: their husbands should vote for them.


Conventional wisdom today says that farms must become still larger and fewer if farmers are to survive economically.  Conventional wisdom says that agribusiness corporations can take better care of the land than can family farmers and that “fee markets” will ensure that all are well-fed.  Conventional wisdom says that family farms and rural communities are but nostalgic memories of a past that never was.  But, the conventional wisdom concerning American agriculture is wrong.  It’s time to reject the conventional wisdom.  It’s time to use our common sense.


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