“Sensible” Men and “Sensible” Science

Behind every word is a story. Take the word “primitive.” In modern use it’s either technical (i.e. primitive tools or societies) or pejorative (he’s just primitive in his thinking). In both cases “primitive” describes a time or person or culture or worldview that’s lesser than today. Primitive tools are lesser tools. Primitive thinking is lesser thinking. That’s why we tolerant Americans avoid calling people groups primitive.

Yet, for English speakers in the sixteenth century “primitive” held the opposite connotation. Like today, it connoted ancientness. Unlike today, this connotation was positive. To be primitive was to be wiser, truer and better. Medieval thinkers believed that all perfect things preceded all imperfect things. Things diminished with time. Today we think more evolutionarily: all perfect things proceed from imperfect things.Things improve with time. Thus, the word “primitive” transformed from a glory to a wretch.
Another word with a great story is “sensible.” Today a “sensible” thought is a reasonable thought. A “sensible” person is grounded. He has common “sense.” We juxtapose a sensible person with an irrational person. The sensible man hears all evidence fairly and makes reasoned conclusions; the irrational man does not. “Sensible” is a compliment for a person or an idea, because it implies honesty, objectivity, and truthfulness.
In the sixteenth century, “sensible” describe anything perceived through the senses. A “sensible” truth was one discerned by sight or touch. It was observable truth. As late as the seventeenth century, Joseph Butler wrote about “sensible proof.” He did not mean reasonable, common sense proof, but proof which the five senses could observe and experience.
“Sensible” was not a compliment. A man who knew truth primarily by his senses (a sensible man) was uneducated. Late medieval and early renaissance thinkers took their cues from greek philosophy. Plato believed that while “sensible” truth was valuable, it was unreliable and, well, primitive.

Plato saw the material universe as an ever-changing, chaotic monster. Any truth observed about this universe through the vehicle of the senses was subject to change. The senses themselves were faulty and misleading (think about optical illusions, for example). Thus, it seemed irrational to value “sensible” truth over the unchanging absolute truth discovered by intellectual contemplation.

The intellect held ascendancy. Divine truth was not “sensible”, because it was ordered (unlike the chaotic sensible world). Man’s intellect, through reason, was the only part of himself which could perceive the unchanging truths of the divine. 
We’ve experienced a great inversion over the last 300 years. Sensible truths ascended the heights, and spiritual (intellectual) truths descended into unintelligible ambiguity. Today we doubt whether we can know anything authentically true about the spiritual world, but feel profound security about our knowledge of the “sensible” world. Science (observable truth) has taken the ascendancy as the great standard bearer of veracity. 
Our language bears this transformation out. We have “common sense.” We commend “sensible” people. It points to a profound shift in worldview: we no longer doubt our senses, but instead trust observable truth to a fault. We live by the eye while our souls flounders, malnourished by irrational doubts about the existence of the unseeable.

We have cultural amnesia. All of us forget that the reason we so willingly trust our senses, is because of our Christian heritage. The Christian worldview, unlike the platonic worldview, says that an ordered God made a good, ordered creation. Christ’s incarnation affirms the goodness of this physical world. We all assent to this invisible truth: the laws of science (set in place by an ordered God) are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. If they aren’t, then we must doubt our senses. 

These are presuppositions that we can’t take for granted, but we often do. The story of “sensible” proves it. To be sensible today is to take the veracity of our senses for granted, which, in the end, sounds rather senseless.

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