What do philosophers think about intuition?
November 14, 2011 12 Comments
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:
- “Judgment that is not made on the basis of some kind of observable and explicit reasoning process”
- “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.”