What do philosophers think about intuition?

Earlier this year I complained, on Rationally Speaking, about the fact that so many philosophers think it’s sufficient to back up their arguments by citing “intuition.” It’s a tricky term to pin down, but generally philosophers cite intuition when they think something is “clearly true” but can’t demonstrate it with logic or evidence. So, for example, philosophers of ethics will often claim that things are “good” or “bad” by citing their intuition. And philosophers of mind will cite their intuitions to argue that certain things would or wouldn’t be conscious (for example, David Chalmers relies on intuition to argue for the theoretical possibility of “philosophical zombies,” creatures that would act and respond exactly like conscious human beings, but which wouldn’t be conscious).

I cited many examples, not only of philosophers using intuitions as evidence, but of philosophers acknowledging that appeals to intuition are ubiquitous in the field. (“Intuitions often play the role that observation does in science – they are data that must be explained, confirmers or the falsifiers of theories,” wrote one philosopher.) That’s worrisome, to me, because the whole point of philosophy is allegedly to figure out whether our intuitive judgments make sense. It’s also worrisome to me because intuitions vary sharply from person to person; for example, I don’t agree at all with G. E. Moore’s argument that it is intuitively obvious that it’s “better” to have a planet full of sunsets and waterfalls than one with filth, even if no one ever gets to see that planet. (He may prefer a universe that contains Planet Waterfall to one that contains Planet Filthy, but I don’t think that makes the former objectively “better.”)

In the comment thread under his response-post, Massimo objected that intuitions are not, in fact, widespread in philosophy. “Julia, a list of cherry picked citations an argument doesn’t make,” he wrote, and he asked me if I had randomly polled philosophers. I hadn’t, of course.

But I recently came across two people who did. Kuntz & Kuntz’s “Surveying Philosophers About Philosophical Intuition,” from the March issue of the Review of Philosophy and Psychology, surveyed 282 academic philosophers and found that 51% of them thought that intuitions are “useful to justification in philosophical methods.”

Because the term “intuition” is so nebulous, the researchers also presented their survey respondents with a list of some of the more common ways of defining intuition, and asked them to rank how apt they thought the definitions were. The top two “most apt” definitions of intuition were the following:

  1. “Judgment that is not made on the basis of some kind of observable and explicit reasoning process”
  2. “An intellectual happening whereby it seems that something is the case without arising from reasoning, or sensorial perceiving, or remembering.”

The survey also shed light on one reason why Massimo, a philosopher of science, might have underestimated the prevalence of appeals to intuition in philosophy as a whole: “In regard to the usefulness of intuitions to justification, our results also revealed that philosophers of science expressed significantly lower agreement than philosophers doing metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of mind,” Kuntz and Kuntz wrote. That squares with my experience, too — most of the philosophy of science I’ve read has been grounded in logic, math, and evidence.

Another important side point the researchers make is there’s more than one way to use your intuitions. Philosophers certainly do use them as justification for claims, but they also use intuitions to generate claims which they then justify using more rigorous methods like logic and evidence. 83% of survey respondents agreed that intuitions are useful in that latter way, and I agree too — I have no problem with people using intuition to generate possible ideas, I just have a problem with people saying “This feels intuitively true to me, so it must be true.”

12 Responses to What do philosophers think about intuition?

  1. This “generating claims” bit is significant — a key part of the logical approach known as “abduction” in contrast to deduction and induction.

  2. Isn’t the basis of all philosophy intuition? That, to me, is the big difference between science and philosophy. Science is grounded in the observable and refutable where as philosophy exists in the realm of hypothetical constructs that all trace back to how someone feels about something and the rules they built around those feelings.

    This isn’t to say that there isn’t intuition in science but there is much less. As a layman, I’d call “intuition” in science “assumptions”. Things like, “you can observe the natural world to come to conclusions about its laws”.

    I’m probably biased again philosophy as I don’t really understand its utility when science is available. If you watch the BBC’s “The Atheism Tapes” you might see what I mean. Listen to the differences between Colin McGlinn (philosopher) and Steven Weinberg’s (physicist) answers. Which one feels like it gets you somewhere?

  3. I haven’t read Tamar Szabó Gendler’s book on the topic, but her 2007 article “Philosophical Thought Experiments, Intuitions, and Cognitive Equilibrium” was worth reading. (Available through her faculty site or philpapers.org.)

  4. Alex says:

    Are intuitions overused and often given far too much weight in philosophy? Sure. p-zombies are a great example of how intuition-pumping can lead us astray. With that said, it seems to me there’s still a valuable (if highly limited) role for intuitions to play that isn’t directly addressed in this post, namely helping to clarify the boundaries of a folk concept, and thereby determine the explananda for our theories.

    For example, let’s imagine we’re working on the philosophy of emotions. A natural question to ask might be ‘what sorts of phenomena should a comprehensive theory of emotions be able to explain?’ The answer to this question is going to be partly determined by our folk concept of emotion. Cautious use of intuitions can give us a tentative taxonomy of things that a) clearly ARE emotions, b) clearly AREN’T emotions, and c) might be emotions. Thought-experiments can play a useful role in drawing up this list.

    Obviously this doesn’t have to be done by philosophers (though we’ve had practice) and it could turn out that our folk concept of ’emotion’ doesn’t map on to any natural kinds whatsoever, but it’s certainly a job that’s seems to be worth doing when we’re still building theories.

  5. Max says:

    I’ve argued that a simulation of a brain on a fast but ordinary computer would be a philosophical zombie, because essentially all it does is perform one arithmetic operation at a time like a calculator, and store 1’s and 0’s in memory like text in a book. Is it intuition to say that a calculator and a book aren’t conscious?

    • Andrew T says:

      Of course, all brains do is undergo electrochemical reactions and adapt various cells to strengthen certain synaptic responses according to various pieces of knowledge and experience.

      As for consciousness, it’s just a word, with a definition that varies depending on the scientist or philosopher. That definition does depend on intuition, and at the current state of artificial intelligence, the gap between consciousness and not-consciousness is significant, and so the intuition used to define the two seems significant. But in the future, intelligences will exist that will blur that line and make that “can you say that x isn’t conscious” question much less convincing.

  6. Vesuvium says:

    A good way of getting those who are skeptical about the use of intuitions to re-consider their skepticism, I have found, is as follows:

    Philosophy is not the only discipline which relies upon intuitions to provide justification. In some sense, all knowledge derives from intuitions. An intuition is, ultimately, an appearance: to intuit that p is for it to appear to one to be the case that p. Perceptual experiences are intuitions in this sense, but everyone must grant that it is acceptable to rely upon perceptual experience in constructing theories about the world. Otherwise, scientific knowledge would be illusory. Of course, these intuitions are experiential or perceptual, but there are also a priori disciplines. Consider mathematics and logic. Not all mathematical and logical knowledge can be obtained by inference from more basic principles: at some point, we must rest our knowledge upon certain basic principles which cannot be known by inference, and so must be known by intuition. To deny the evidentiary force of intuitions is therefore to deny that any knowledge exists – to deny the evidentiary force of a prior intuitions is to deny the existence of the safest bodies of knowledge that exist, mathematics and logic.

    One salient difference that Julia notes between intuitions in philosophy and other intuitions is that philosophical intuitions differ from person to person. However, the significance of this is not clear. Consider the famous Asch conformity experiment, in which subjects were confronted with two lines that were obviously of the same length, but which various confederates posing as participants in the experiment described as being of different length (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asch_conformity_experiment for a longer description). I think many people who would identify as sceptics/rationalists/humanist/whathaveyou would want to say that if you found yourself in this kind of setting where everyone around you is saying something which is obviously false, then you should just trust in your own visual perception. Similarly, then, if people around us have intuitions which are obviously false by our lights, might we not rationally trust in our own intuitions over theirs? If we think that we should remain steadfast in the Asch-setting, we think that even if perceptual intuitions did differ widely, this would not undermine our right to trust in our perceptions. If we think that, why not thnk the same about philosophical intuitions? We must beware of endorsing what is sometimes called ‘the Idiot’s Veto’: the idea that if someone disputes some proposition and there is no way of getting her to see that she is mistaken, then we are not justified in believing that proposition.

    • JP says:

      Concerning mathematical truth: it is true that some claim some kind of “platonic” existence for mathematical objects and truths (Godel and Martin Gardner are two well-known examples, I think).

      However, from within mathematics, axioms are only arbitrary assumptions. They are not claimed to represent any kind of “absolute” truth, or anything of the kind. Of course, lots of factors intervene when selecting axioms – but that they are “True” (capital T) is not one of them. In fact, they don’t have to be justified at all: a mathematician may try any set of axioms he likes and see what happens. If they end up giving interesting results, then all is for the best and, I suppose, they could be said to be justified a posteriori.

      Thus, while mathematics and logic may represent, as you say, our safest bodies of knowledge, this knowledge is all expressed conditionally: given these undefined primitive terms, these axioms and inference rules, this is what follows.

  7. The point about ‘generating claims’ makes me think of my calculus professor who stated that “any method of obtaining the solution of a differential equation is permissible…even guessing…as long as you can prove that the solution fits the equation”.

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  9. Richard Wein says:

    Bear in mind that inductive (or non-deductive) inferences cannot be fully justified, because we don’t have a set of rules that takes us all the way from evidence to conclusion. In that sense, all of our inductive inferences involve an element of intuition. On philosophical questions the evidence tends to be much scarcer and harder to interpret than on scientific questions. That means that intuition has a larger part to play. That’s not to say that we should just accept our intuitions. We should subject them to conscious scrutiny as far as we can. But we can’t expect to justify them “all the way down”.

    Philosophers don’t usually appeal merely to intuition on the main question. If they did that their papers would be very short indeed! But they may leave too much to intuition, particular in terms of their basic premises. Philosophers have traditionally tended to think in terms of making deductive arguments from intuitive premises, rather than making inductive inferences from evidence. And many still do. I think there are an increasing number of philosophers who favour taking a more scientific approach to philosophy. But many (including Massimo Pigliucci) are still too committed to the idea that science and philosophy are fundamentally different enterprises.

    As I see it, the biggest problem in philosophy is the difficulty of understanding the questions. A great deal of philosophy is rightly concerned with analysing the meanings of words. And meaning is a product of interpretation by the human mind. So meaning is always going to be a tricky subject to study empirically. Still, philosophers need to study it as empirically as possible, more than most have done so far. But empirical study can usefully include studying your own use of words, and their causes and effects, since your own mind is the one you have the most direct access to.

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