The Role of Intuitions in Philosophy

Join us on Monday, November 16th at 4:30pm in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the Strange Philosophy Thing. All are welcome to this informal conversation, and to refreshments.

I want to center the discussion on Monday around two questions.

(Q1) Do intuitions provide us with reasons to believe?

(Q2) Does studying philosophy improve student’s intuitions, or their access to their intuitions, does it simply acquaint one with received interpretations of various puzzle cases, thought experiments, and the like, or does it do something else entirely?

Consider a problem case or thought experiment you’ve encountered in a class, such as Gettier’s famous thought experiment, which is meant to yield a counterexample to the traditional analysis of knowledge as justified true belief. Suppose an individual, Smith, has just applied to a job, and has just acquired good evidence, and has formed the belief, that another applicant

(1) Jones will get the job and has 10 coins in his pocket.

Suppose Smith just counted the coins in Jones’s pocket, and the CEO just told Smith that Jones would get the job. Suppose Smith then infers that

(2) The person who will get the job has 10 coins in their pocket.

Now suppose, despite what the CEO thought, that it is in fact Smith who will get the job, and, while Smith is unaware of this, she happens to also have exactly 10 coins in her pocket. Gettier then notes that (2) is true, and that Smith is justified in her belief in it. But, he thinks, something has gone wrong, and Smith does not know that the person who gets the job has 10 coins in their pocket.

It is this very last move, in the last sentence, in which Gettier is appealing to our intuitions. He is hoping we have the same intuition, that Smith does not know that the person who gets the job has 10 coins in their pocket. It is only if we have this intuition that Gettier’s case will act for us as a counterexample to the traditional analysis of knowledge as justified true belief, as a case in which someone is justified in believing something that is true, but they nevertheless fail to know it.

Do our intuitions provide evidence for our conclusions about cases like these? Even if I agree with Gettier, can my intuition that Smith does not know act as evidence for me in my belief that Smith does not know? Challenges have been brought against the idea that intuitions can act as evidence in this way. A potential a posterori challenge comes from experimental philosophy, which has had mixed results concerning the universality of intuitions in various sorts of cases. Early experiments (e.g., Weinberg et al. 2001 and Machery et al. 2004) concerning epistemic intuitions, like the one at issue in Gettier’s case, and semantic intuitions, suggested there are cross-cultural differences which threaten to undermine any claim they have to being evidence. Later more nuanced studies (e.g., Kim and Yuon 2015) have suggested that perhaps there isn’t as much to worry about in the case of epistemic intuitions. But questions linger concerning the universality of both epistemic and semantic intuitions and other sorts of intuitions.

A priori challenges to the evidential status of intuitions have also been developed. Earlenbaugh and Molyneux (2009), for example, argue that intuitions can’t be used as evidence because another’s intuition that P can’t ever act as evidence for me to believe that P, as can another’s perceptions. If another perceives that P though I do not (perhaps I am looking the other way), I will take their perception, via their testimony, as evidence as a matter of course. Intuitions never work like this, Earlenbaugh and Molyneux claim.

Another question discussed in a recent article is whether education in philosophy trains students to have better (access to) their intuitions (let’s assume they can act as evidence) about various cases, or whether something else is happening, like that it is merely relaying to students the received interpretations of the various cases. When you first encounter the Gettier case, is the instructor enabling you to become aware of your own intuition about the case? Or is the instructor instead simply reporting what the philosophical community’s general consensus is about the case? Or is something else going on? Whichever way, does it matter? Do some answers to these questions, for example, threaten to undermine the legitimacy of philosophy as a discipline? See here for a brief overview of the new article from the Daily Nous, as well as a description of even more possibilities of what could be going on than I mentioned above.

I look forward to discussing these issues with you on Monday!