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New Thought and Common Sense

by Deb Whitehouse, Ed.D.

Presented at the Regional SSMR Conference, Tampa, Florida, October 25,2003

New Thoughters have always prided themselves on their commonsensical approach to their religion. They use such terms as practical Christianity and scientific prayer. They stress that their belief system is for managing the affairs of everyday living rather than just for Sunday. They seek to be down-to-earth, avoiding elaborate rituals and intellectualizing.

Unfortunately, New Thoughters along with everyone else on the planet have used the single term common sense to refer to two separate and independent notions. This confounding has resulted in enormous basic self-contradictions, which undermine any argument in which they are present. Only one of these two types of common sense can appropriately be applied to a system of metaphysics, including that which underlies New Thought. This paper will describe the two types of common sense as outlined by constructive postmodern philosopher David Ray Griffin and differentiated into hard-core and soft-core common sense. It will show how violating the principles of hard-core common sense, the type that is universal and "inevitably presupposed in practice", has led to major flaws in New Thought metaphysics. It will then illustrate how these errors can be removed by updating New Thought metaphysics to reflect developments in constructive postmodern (process) thought, still preserving the fundamental New Thought relationship with Ultimate Reality that is central to its practices.

What Is Common Sense?

Dictionary definitions going back to 1535 recognize common sense as "1: the unreflective opinions of ordinary men 2: sound and prudent but often unsophisticated judgment". The first definition is hardly a desirable basis for a contemporary religious movement that seeks to align itself with the best of scientific thinking. Even the second definition falls far short of the mark. If common sense is indeed something to be prized, it must rest on something far more substantial.

Process New Thought philosopher Alan Anderson has observed that the nineteenth century was a sort of halfway house between the variety of common sense described by Webster and the heavyweight version we are about to encounter in the work of Griffin. The father of New Thought, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, quoted Scottish Commonsense Philosophy, which he found by way of Thomas Upham, who taught at nearby Bowdoin College in Maine. Upham was quoting Thomas Reid. This philosophy came to be the predominant philosophical outlook in American colleges in the nineteenth century. It was edged out by Hegelianism toward the end of the century. Griffin notes that process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the central figure in constructive postmodern thought, "stands in the tradition of commonsense philosophy, with which the name of Thomas Reid is especially associated" (RWS, p 30). Griffin asks,

Is there some criterion for distinguishing between those "commonsense intuitions" that are defeasible by a knockdown argument and those that are not?
The conviction that there is such a criterion lay at the root of the "Scottish commonsense tradition" . . . . The criterion for what is common sense in the strong sense was formulated in various ways, but the basic idea was that there are certain notions that are "common" in the sense of universal—truly common to all people—and that they are such because they cannot be consistently denied: The very act of denying them verbally would involve an implicit affirmation. To deny such beliefs, Reid said, would be "metaphysical lunacy." I have come to refer to common sense in this strong sense as "hard-core common sense," to distinguish it from common sense in the weak sense, which I call "soft-core common sense." Common sense of the latter sort does not refer to truly common or universal notions but merely to parochical notions that can be denied without pain of implicit inconsistency. In any case, this tradition fell into disrepute and virtual oblivion in the late nineteenth century. One reason seems to be that proponents came to claim the status of common sense in the strong sense for all sorts of ideas . . . that did not really match the criterion, a tendency not altogether absent in Reid himself. Another problem was that no naturalistic explanation for the origin of these commonsense notions was offered. They were, instead, said to have resulted from a supernatural implantation in our souls. With the demise of supernaturalism, accordingly, no explanation of these commonsense notions seemed possible. (UWK, pp 16-17)

Griffin traces the reemergence of "common sense that is not truly deniable" through G. E. Moore, Charles Peirce, and Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead also refers to the criterion of hard-core common sense without using the term "common sense". Griffin states that Whitehead "understands the very task of philosophy to be that of showing how the various hard-core commonsense notions are mutually consistent. A central task of epistemology, furthermore, is to provide a naturalistic explanation as to why we all share these notions." (p. 17) He also indicates that the result of the failure to distinguish hard-core from soft-core common sense has been that "the former has often been denied in the name of the latter". (p.21)

To integrate religion and science (as constructive postmodern thought and presumably New Thought both seek to do), Griffin explains that both religion and science must change to some extent. The ultimate criterion that both must use is hard-core common sense.

Common sense thought the Earth was flat, that it was the center of the universe, and that matter was solid, but science showed all of these and many other commonsense ideas to be false. Science is sometimes characterized, in fact, as a "systematic assault on common sense" . . . . (RSN, p. 98)

But, as we have seen, science has not distinguished between hard-core and soft-core common sense. Griffin amplifies:

Common sense of the soft-core variety involves beliefs that are widespread at a particular time and place but that, given new knowledge, can be given up. The beliefs in a flat Earth, a geocentric universe, and solid matter were all soft-core commonsense beliefs. Given new knowledge, these beliefs were rightly given up. . . . Hard-core commonsense beliefs, however, are different in kind. Rather than being parochial beliefs, limited to a particular time and place, they are universal, being common to all humanity. This does not mean, to be sure, that they are consciously and verbally affirmed by all human beings, but only that they are inevitably presupposed in practice, even if denied in theory. The fact that they are inevitably presupposed means that, if we do try to deny them verbally, we will inevitably contradict ourselves, in the sense that our behavior (our "practice" ) will contradict the content of our verbal statement. . . . This type of contradiction between theory and practice is called a "performative self-contradiction" by Jurgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. (pp. 98-99)

An example of how violation of hard-core common sense leads to performative self-contradiction is skepticism about the existence of an external world. A person who holds this position is known as a solipsist, but the moment such a person states this position to an audience, he or she shows belief in the existence of the audience. Even if the statement is written instead of stated orally, this presumes the existence of a computer and a body with which to operate it.

In short, hard-core and soft-core commonsense ideas have nothing in common except the word "common sense".

Griffin lists nine hard-core commonsense presuppositions, which we take for granted in our living and ought to allow for in our metaphysics:

The reality of conscious experience, with its emotions, memories, beliefs, and purposes. This eliminates eliminative materialism, which seeks to eliminate all that Kant held was required of meaningful living: God, freedom, and immortality [Matter is not wholly illusory, but is some form of mind.] (See VPT 32).
The reality of the external world. This rules out solipsism and also any notion that the reality of the physical world depends on its being perceived or conceived, but it need not rule out an idealistic integration of the world.
The reality of efficient causation as real influence. This rules out famous skeptical philosopher David Hume’s suggestion that efficient causation is nothing but the "constant conjunction" of certain types of events).
The causal efficacy of our bodies for our conscious experience. We know efficient causation as real influence because we directly experience our bodies as causing pains, pleasures, and sensory perceptions.
Freedom in the sense of partial self-determination in the moment. This rules out all deterministic philosophies.
The efficacy of conscious experience for bodily behavior. Our partially free decisions influence our bodily behavior in return.
The reality and efficacy of values, and our awareness of norms. Our purposes and decisions are not totally determined by the power of the past (efficient causation), but are partly drawn by the attraction of realizing some possible value (final causation).
The reality of the past and the future. There has been a past, and there will be a future.
The unity of our experience. We are not simply aggregates of experiential data. "We not only have unified behavior, which can be observed by others, but also consciousness of unified experience." (Adapted from PPS)

Violating hard-core commonsense principles inevitably leads to self-contradiction, and, as Griffin points out, "the ‘law of noncontradiction’ is usually and rightly considered the first rule of reason". (RSN p. 100) Religion and science meet on the lap of philosophy, and to process philosophers, religious beliefs need to be justified. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, one must interface one’s ideas with those of other human beings, and this involves the use of reason. Every other area of existence presupposes a rational basis, and we rightly expect others to use reason. If you ask me what time it is and I respond, "Hickory, dickory dock; the mouse ran up the clock", you probably will not want to spend much time with me! If the first rule of reason is noncontradiction, this means that my beliefs, whatever they may be, must be consistent with each other so that I do not contradict myself. To do so is to weaken my argument. As Jesus put it, "If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand" (Mark 3:25). I cannot build a fence around my religious beliefs and excuse them from conforming to the laws of reason, if I expect to have a serious conversation about them with other people. Further, my beliefs need to rest on a sound metaphysical foundation. Griffin elaborates:

Already in Whitehead’s time, many philosophers and theologians were saying that the only justification needed by religion is pragmatic: we call it true because it produces good fruits. Whitehead demurred. In spite of his concern to provide a metaphysical justification for science, he agreed that "science can leave its metaphysics implicit and retire behind our belief in the pragmatic value of its general description" (RM 83). But not religion. "If religion does that, it admits that its dogmas are merely pleasing ideas for the purpose of stimulating its emotions." (RWS p. 354)

Griffin adds, "Religious concepts claim universal validity, so that the appropriate criteria for evaluating their truth are philosophical." We shall look at the epistemology of science, philosophy, and religion later in this paper.

Griffin’s "five-foot shelf" of works goes into exhaustive detail about what is necessary to reconcile science and religion. The scope of this paper allows only brief highlights: Religion must modify its supernaturalism and its notion of creation ex nihilo; science must reconceptualize the ultimate units of nature. The two must meet on a ground of naturalism: that which dispenses with the need for any miraculous interventions by God. A minimalist definition of naturalism is naturalismns. Science currently holds to what Griffin refers to as naturalismsam (sensationism or sensory perception, atheism, materialism), a position which he shows is inadequate for science itself, let alone religion. Religion and science can meet on a constructive postmodern ground of naturalismppp, where sensationism is replaced by prehension (which includes nonsensory perception), atheism is replaced by panentheism (all is in God), and materialism is replaced by panexperientialism (a constructive postmodern form of idealism). These parameters work well for New Thought.

Self-Contradiction in New Thought

Even the greatest and best-trained scholars occasionally make internally inconsistent statements, and it is one of the central tasks of scholarship to ferret out these self-contradictions. Once they have been pointed out, some of the great philosophers have been able to correct their own errors; in other cases, another—sometimes much later—scholar is able to remove the inconsistency.

The commonest self-contradictions in New Thought metaphysics come under the heading of pantheism, a term that refers to a collection of various views about the relationship between God and the world, frequently if not always holding that God is totally immanent. Some such positions begin with the world and say that the world is God; others begin with God and say that God is everything, including the world. Any position that maintains that there is nothing but God and then goes on to discuss our power to choose is self-contradictory, because if there is nothing but God, then there can be no power other than God, and our free will, a power, becomes nothing but false appearance. As we have seen, one of the tenets of hard-core common sense is that there really is a world; there really is something other than I. Another tenet is freedom in the sense of at least partial self-determination in the moment (partial because I may be constrained by my own previous choices and other aspects of the past).

Many New Thoughters seem to be aware that pantheism is considered untenable, so they attempt to defend their beliefs against the charge of pantheism. They usually do this by defining pantheism as one of its positions other than the one of which they are guilty, which is simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Since examples of New Thought’s self-contradictory pantheism are legion, I have arbitrarily selected several examples of it to illustrate the point. Readers (or listeners) may amuse themselves by looking for other examples in New Thought literature, in which the writers often contradict themselves in the next paragraph or sentence, or indeed, in the same sentence!

Unity co-founder Myrtle Fillmore held as one of the primary "Truths of Being" that the universe and God are one (which begs the question as to what is meant by "one"), and, according to biographer Neal Vahle (TBLW pp. 52-54), discussed this in "all her letters". She wrote,

We know that God is the only real power in the universe. . . (This contradicts the notion of free will; any power that we have is not real.)
God is in you and you are in God—God being the Mind in which this universe is created and from which it is evolving. (This is a beautiful panentheistic [all is in God] statement, but look at the next quotation:)
God and man are one and the same. . . (It’s fine to say that we are inseparable from God, as she does in another quotation, but not that we are indistinguishable from God. In another place, Myrtle states, "God is your senior partner". How can God be senior if we and God are one and the same?)
God and His heaven are right here, now, in your own consciousness, awaiting recognition and unfoldment. (Another beautiful statement reflecting the immanence of God, and the use of the word "recognition" implies that there is someone other than God and His heaven to do the recognizing).

Vahle notes, "Unity School was considered in some Christian circles as Pantheist. Myrtle disagreed, considering it an unfair and inaccurate characterization of the Unity point of view. She wrote:

We do not think we could be classified as Pantheists or materialists. We teach the Omnipresence of God, but we do not worship nature. We do not say that all is God in his manifestation. We see nature as an expression of God. Pantheists worship material things and call them God. (p. 54)

Here is a wonderful example of fingering one form of pantheism and saying that because one does not hold that particular form, one is not a pantheist. Materialistic pantheism is only one variety among many, and, as we have seen, does not have a monopoly on self-contradiction. There also may be some confusion between the popular use of the term materialism to mean wanting material things and the philosophical use, meaning that the basic building blocks of the universe are matter rather than mind. Yet Myrtle was also quite capable of clear thinking on this subject. In another place (Witherspoon, pp. 271-2), she writes concerning the differences between New Thought and Christian Science:

Mary Baker Eddy maintains that matter does not originate in Mind; we agree with her there, but cannot follow her in giving matter the power to crowd Mind out of our universe. We have no war with matter. When we, here at Unity, heal human bodies, we do not set up the theory that the bodies do not exist, as in Christian Science, but we hold that the mind that believes in the body is unified with the real, spiritual substance.

One might quibble over the phrase "real, spiritual substance", but here Myrtle is in harmony with the hard-core commonsense notion of the reality of the external world, including our bodies.

Moving alphabetically, Divine Science minister Emmet Fox says of metaphysics in the popular sense:

It is not Pantheism. Pantheism, as generally understood, gives the outer world a separate and substantial existence and says that it is part of God—including all the evil and cruelty to be found in it. The truth is that God is the only Presence and the only Power, that He is entirely good, that evil is a false belief about the Truth; and that the outer world is the out-picturing of our own minds. (MYLWW, pp. 228-9)

Whether or not one chooses to dispute whether pantheism holds that the outer world is merely part of, as opposed to all of, God, we see here another example of describing one form of pantheism, different from one’s own, and using that difference to defend oneself from the charge of being identified with positions known to be self-contradictory. To hold that "God is the only Presence and Power" is, as we have seen, to violate hard-core common sense. Yet Fox also states (elsewhere in the same collection of writings), "True religion may well be summed up as the Practice of the Presence of God" (p. 25), a wonderful summation, but if God is the only Presence and Power, why would God need to practice God’s own presence?

Yet Fox, arguably one of the greatest New Thought writers, is famous for saying that when you go to church, you should not check your common sense with your hat at the door. He condensed his message into his famous Golden Key (PTCT 137), which is simply to "stop thinking about the difficulty, whatever it is, and think about God instead". It is very different to say that God is everything from saying that God is present and available everywhere. "You do your half, and God will never fail to do his" (140). Once again, if God is the only Presence and Power, what accounts for your power to "do your half"?

Religious Science founder Ernest Holmes studied philosophy with personalist philosopher Ralph Tyler Flewelling, who wrote a regular column for Science of Mind magazine and who invited Holmes to lecture to Flewelling’s philosophy students at the University of Southern California, as described in the biography of Holmes by his brother, Fenwicke:

Although he was not lecturing on pantheism as such, he was challenged as he often was by the students on this ground, and he made the following reply: "I venture to say that you could stir up more debate between yourselves over what pantheism really is than you could over my so-called pantheism. You need to settle on a definition before you issue the challenge. But let me give a simple answer. I believe that all that is is God, but I do not believe that it is all there is of God." Everybody had a good laugh.(234)

Humorous and clever though he was, Holmes still attempted to get off the hook by quibbling over a definition of pantheism, which actually has at least eight or nine varieties that have to be defined separately. The real issue is whether Holmes’s philosophy was self-contradictory, which it obviously was, based on his own conflicting statements of belief to the class. He seems to be making a stab at an idea of God as both immanent and transcendent, which can be done, but not while including a pantheistic statement of God as solely immanent ("all that is is God"). A class cannot be a member of itself.

We should not leave the subject of New Thought self-contradiction in the form of pantheism without first attempting to understand why the notion of God is all there is/all there is is God is so prevalent in New Thought. If, as Emmet Fox avers, quoting from seventeenth-century mystic Brother Lawrence, "true religion may well be summed up as the Practice of the Presence of God", and the Golden Key of thinking about God instead of the problem is at the heart of New Thought practice; and since New Thought is also much inclined towards mysticism (defined as direct conscious experience of God), then it behooves us to look for a non-self-contradictory way to express and explain this valuable God-is-all-there-is experience. Ironically, the solution is supplied by the mystics, as we shall see.

An Eye-Opening Epistemology

Author Ken Wilber, in his book Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm, outlines an epistemology embraced by at least two well-known mystics: Saint Bonaventure, known as the Seraphic Doctor; and Hugh of St. Victor. It holds that human beings have at least three modes of knowing, which the mystics referred to as three eyes: "the eye of flesh, by which we perceive the external world of space, time, and objects; the eye of reason, by which we attain a knowledge of philosophy, logic, and the mind itself; and the eye of contemplation, by which we rise to a knowledge of transcendent realities" . Wilber adds, (ETE 3)"Similar ideas can be found in every major school of traditional psychology, philosophy, and religion." The eye of flesh is used for empirical knowing, as in the sciences. The eye of contemplation, used by the religions, is often pictured as higher than the other two eyes, because it sees farther. But the real middle eye is philosophy, where the knowledge from the other two eyes must be reconciled into a single, internally consistent body of approximations of truth. The three eyes are of equal importance. As Wilber puts it, "Each eye is valid and useful in its own field, but commits a fallacy when it attempts, by itself, to fully grasp higher or lower realms." (4) The attempt of one eye to usurp the function of the other two results in what Wilber calls "blurred vision" or a "category error". (10) As another wit has remarked, "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed king can still goof up". This occurred in the medieval church, when the eye of contemplation attempted to usurp the function of the eye of flesh as the churchmen refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. It has occurred again in modernity, when much of science has dismissed religion as irrelevant or superstitious. Griffin has shown (RSN, RWS) that in the process, science has put itself on an unsound and unwarranted metaphysical foundation, to its own detriment. Most of philosophy then proceeded to fall on its own sword by reducing itself to Humpty-Dumpty word games, as in destructive postmodernism. Wilber explains,

Philosophy as a rational system—a system based on the eye of mind—was . . . decimated, and decimated by the new scientific empiricism. At that point, human knowledge was reduced to only the eye of flesh. Gone was the contemplative eye; gone the mental eye—and human beings had enough collective low self-esteem to restrict their means of valid knowledge to the eye of flesh—the eye we share with animals. Knowing became, in source and referent, essentially subhuman. (12)

Unfortunately, Wilber aligns himself with what is known as the perennial philosophy, which is yet another form of pantheism. Griffin (PTPT) points out that one cannot consistently hold that belief in a personal God, as is held by a number of major religions, can be reconciled with the various nontheistic or pantheistic religions: "While the inclusive doctrine that ‘we are all on the same path’ seems appealing in comparison with the exclusivist claim that ‘there is no salvation outside of our church,’ it is not illuminating of the empirical realities. It is also not necessarily the only alternative." (PTPT 42) He proposes that the great religions are complementary rather than essentially identical and therefore have much to learn from each other. The constructive postmodern philosophy outlined by Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and their followers is what Griffin proposes as an alternative, one that honors the independence of the three eyes.

Getting Into Focus

My purpose in this paper is not to describe constructive postmodern philosophy but to salvage the valuable God is all/all is God perspective of New Thought in a reasonable, internally consistent way. The epistemology of the three eyes with their independent and equally important functions holds the key to doing this. If I have a mystical experience in which for me, at that moment, God is all there is, my experience is my experience. It may be numinous or ineffable, but all the same, I may struggle to put it into words, and my description is my description. Up to this point, I am using the eye of contemplation. However, if I then interpret my experience by stating that, based on my mystical experience, this is the way the world is, I am usurping the function of the other two eyes. If I remain in the realm of the contemplative, I can ignore paradox or self-contradiction. I also cut myself off from the knowledge of the other two eyes. Spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo had the honesty to admit that that was what he was doing and to advocate doing so, judging the input from the other two eyes to be of little actual value (GTEW 269-273). But if we seek to unite science and religion, to reconcile knowledge into a systematized whole, this will not serve our purposes.

What we can do is to maintain the independence of the eyes by not allowing our contemplative experiences to eclipse philosophical and scientific knowledge. We can seek a God-is-all-there-is state of consciousness, where our relationship with God however understood and by whatever name crowds all other considerations out of our minds; and at the same time treat this experience as what philosopher Hans Vaihinger referred to as an "as if": for us, at that moment, it is as if God is all there is. Depth psychologist Alfred Adler, an admirer of Vaihinger’s philosophy, regarded such notions as useful fictions. (IPAA)


New Thought has too much to offer to the world as a meeting place for science, philosophy, and religion to allow itself to be limited to a narrow sphere of knowledge that furnishes only "pleasing ideas for the purpose of stimulating the emotions". We can have it all: changed thinking, changed lives, practical spirituality, and an intimate relationship with God without denying ourselves the benefits of rational, self-critical thought and scientific exploration.



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Deb Whitehouse