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!

Crows, Ravens, Persons

Join us on Monday, January 30th in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the Strange Philosophy Thing. All are welcome to this informal conversation, and to refreshments.

I ran across this article recently. In it, the author Diana Kwon relates research done by Diana Liao and others in Andreas Nieder’s animal physiology lab at the University of Tuebingen, in which they provide evidence that crows can understand recursion. Kwon also discusses similar research done on monkeys and humans. Recursion is a distinguishing feature of human language, as in, “The horse raced past the barn built by my uncle is a Palomino”. This made me think about Steven Pinker’s attack, in his 1994 book The Language Instinct, on studies through the second half of the 20th century which sought to show that chimpanzees and bonobos were capable of the sort of “open” languages that human beings are capable of (as opposed to “closed” fixed collections of distinct calls). One of Pinker’s critcisms involved highlighting the fact that the English directions to which the bonobos of one study responded were quite simple; none were recursive. Kwon is clear that the results of Liao et al.’s study does not mean that crows are capable of language. (Indeed, this in itself raises the question of why crows understand recursion if not for applications in communication.) But it is nonetheless intriguing if crows have this rather sophisticated cognitive ability.

Corvids have impressed us before, e.g., in their apparent ability to attribute mental states like visual perception to other members of the same species. In another study (Bugnyar et al. 2015), researchers showed that, ravens, which are close relatives of crows, behaved differently if a known peephole in their habitat was open or closed. The ravens were not able to see whether or not there is another raven on the other side of the peephole when it is open. But they would nonetheless reliably re-hide a treat if the peephole was open when they first hid it, and they would not do so if the peephole was closed at first-hiding. The authors of this study conclude that these ravens must understand that other ravens might see them. This sophisticated and generalized reasoning, which involves the attribution of mental states to others that might be present, is another impressive ability not shared by many in the animal kingdom.

All this reminded me potential conditions a thing must meet to be a person. Daniel Dennett discusses several. He says,

“The first and most obvious theme is that persons are rational beings. . . . The second theme is that persons are beings to which states of consciousness are attributed, or to which psychological or mental Intentional predicates, are ascribed. . . . The third theme is that whether something counts as a person depends in some way on an attitude taken toward it, a stance adopted with respect to it. . . . The fourth theme is that the object toward which this personal stance is taken must be capable of reciprocating in some way. . . . This reciprocity has sometimes been rather uninformatively expressed by the slogan: to be a person is to treat others as persons, and with this expression has often gone the claim that treating another as a person is treating him morally. . . . The fifth theme is that persons must be capable of verbal communication. . . . The sixth theme is that persons are distinguishable from other entities by being conscious in some special way: there is a way in which we are conscious in which no other species is conscious. Sometimes this is identified as self-consciousness of one sort or another.” (Quoted from “Conditions of Personhood”, in Brainstorms 1976, 269-70.)

While crows may not have an open language like humans, and are perhaps not even capable of it, a key element of such a structure, viz., recursion, may be present. So even if corvids are not capable of verbal communication, they may nonetheless go some way toward meeting Dennett’s sixth condition, insofar as they may possess a cognitive ability that is a distinctive aspect of human language. This, coupled with their apparent ability to understand that others have mental states, and reason accordingly, makes me wonder how far toward Dennett’s fourth condition corvids go as well.

I thought we could discuss questions about these and other examples of non-human animals going some way to meeting some of the conditions of personhood Dennett sets out. And I thought we could have a more general discussion about the adequacy of these conditions more generally. What is a person? What sets a person apart from non-persons? Should some of Dennett’s conditions of personhood be discarded? Are there any other conditions you think something needs to meet to qualify as a person? Can we ever hope to find a set of conditions that are jointly sufficient for personhood, i.e., some set of conditions that, if met, guarantee that a thing is a person?

I look forward to discussing these and other questions with you on Monday!

Prof. Dixon

Post-Theory Science

Join the philosophy faculty and other interested parties for the next installment of the 22–23 the Strange Philosophy Thing. The Strange Thing meets in the Strange Lounge (room 103) of Main Hall. We gather there most Mondays of the fall and winter terms from 4:30–5:30 for refreshments and informal conversation around a given topic. It’s a lot of fun!

I take my inspiration for this week’s Strange Thing from this article from The Guardian, by Laura Spinney. Reading it is optional. I’ll hit the most important points, and highlight the most important questions the article raises, quoting some useful passages along the way.

A traditional and familiar strategy for carrying out scientific research is to explain a type of phenomenon by formulating a theory—a hypothesis—which predicts some particulars of that type of phenomenon, and run experiments to confirm those predictions are accurate. Newton, for example, hypothesized that gravity operated in the absence of air resistance according to his famous inverse square law. And sure enough, he was able to derive Kepler’s empirically well-confirmed laws of planetary motion from it. It’s easy to miss the fact that a lot of scientific practice—especially recently, with the use of AI—differs drastically from this picture. As Spinney notes,

“Facebook’s machine learning tools predict your preferences better than any psychologist [could]. AlphaFold, a program built by DeepMind, has produced the most accurate predictions yet of protein structures based on the amino acids they contain. Both are completely silent on why they work: why you prefer this or that information; why this sequence generates that structure.”

The reason they are silent on why they work is due to the opaqueness of what is going on inside the neural nets which generate the predictions from ever-growing datasets.

Spinney grants that some science is, at this stage at least, merely assisted by AI. She notes that Tom Griffiths, a psychologist at Princeton, is improving upon Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s prospect theory of human economic behavior by training a neural net on “a vast dataset of decisions people took in 10,000 risky choice scenarios, then [comparing it to] how accurately it predicted further decisions with respect to prospect theory.” What they found was that people use heuristics when there are too many options for the human brain to compute and compare the probabilities of. But people use different heuristics depending on their different experiences (e.g., a stockbroker and a teenage bitcoin trader). What is ultimately generated via this process doesn’t look much like a theory but, as Spinney describes, ‘a branching tree of “if… then”-type rules, which is difficult to describe mathematically’. She adds,

“What the Princeton psychologists are discovering is still just about explainable, by extension from existing theories. But as they reveal more and more complexity, it will become less so – the logical culmination of that process being the theory-free predictive engines embodied by Facebook or AlphaFold.”

Of course there is a concern to be noted concerning bias in AI, particularly those that are fed small or biased data sets. But can’t we expect the relevant data sets eventually to become so large that bias isn’t an issue, and thus accuracy of their predictions abounds? Will science look more and more like this in the future? What does that mean for the role of human beings in science?

This last question can be addressed with the help of the notion of interpretability. Theories are interpretable. They involve the postulation of entities and relations between them, which can be understood by human beings, and that explain and predict the phenomena under investigation. But AI-based methods of prediction preclude interpretability due to the opaqueness of the AI processes by which they are generated. Human’s don’t observe the process of the weights of the nodes of the neural net changing as new data is fed in. AI-based science appears to prevent us from having an explanation of why scientific predictions are accurate, and thus presumably precludes us from providing one another with explanations of the phenomena under investigation. There are at least two sorts of reasons to be leery of non-interpretability. One is practical, the other theoretical.

On the practical side, Bingni Brunton and Michael Beyeler, neuroscientists at the University of Washington, Seattle, noted in 2019 that “it is imperative that computational models yield insights that are explainable to, and trusted by, clinicians, end-users and industry”. Spinney notes a good example of this:

‘Sumit Chopra, an AI scientist who thinks about the application of machine learning to healthcare at New York University, gives the example of an MRI image. It takes a lot of raw data – and hence scanning time – to produce such an image, which isn’t necessarily the best use of that data if your goal is to accurately detect, say, cancer. You could train an AI to identify what smaller portion of the raw data is sufficient to produce an accurate diagnosis, as validated by other methods, and indeed Chopra’s group has done so. But radiologists and patients remain wedded to the image. “We humans are more comfortable with a 2D image that our eyes can interpret,” he says.’

On the theoretical side, is such understanding important for its own sake, in addition to or solely because of practical considerations like the one mentioned above? Spinney suggests that AI-based science circumvents the need for human creativity and intuition.

“One reason we consider Newton brilliant is that in order to come up with his second law he had to ignore some data. He had to imagine, for example, that things were falling in a vacuum, free of the interfering effects of air resistance.”

She adds,

‘In Nature last month, mathematician Christian Stump, of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, called this intuitive step “the core of the creative process”. But the reason he was writing about it was to say that for the first time, an AI had pulled it off. DeepMind had built a machine-learning program that had prompted mathematicians towards new insights – new generalisations – in the mathematics of knots.’

Is this reason in itself to be leery of AI-based science? Because it will reduce the opportunity for creative expression and the exercise of human intuition? Would it do this?

Hope to see you Monday for discussion with the philosophy department and refreshments!

Is linguistics a science?

Please join us Monday, September 26, at 4:30 p.m. in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall for the second installment of the Strange Philosophy Thing of the 22-23 academic year.

The author of this article considers a couple of reasons one might think that linguistics and/or universal grammar isn’t a science. One concerns falsifiability. Karl Popper famously argued that a necessary condition for a hypothesis to be scientific is that it is falsifiable, i.e., it must generate predictions that can be refuted by observation. The challenge for linguistics concerning falsifiability is particularly acute for Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar, according to which human beings have a common innate linguistic capacity which guarantees that all human languages will share certain traits, most notably, recursion, i.e., the ability to form arbitrarily long expressions by repeatedly applying one or more rules of grammar.

A Syntax Tree Featuring Recursion

Chomsky’s view faces a challenge due to the existence of languages like Pirahã, which do not appear to feature recursion. The author notes that, in response to being questioned about the falsifiability of universal grammar, Chomsky himself has claimed that universal grammar shouldn’t be understood as a scientific hypothesis but instead as a field of study, like physics, with the claim of innate universality being a guiding assumption, akin perhaps to the presumption in physics that physical objects exist. So, if asked about the implications a language like Pirahã has for universal grammar, rather than trying to argue that it does in fact contain recursion, or to explain it away as irrelevant data, Chomsky would presumably reject the assumption implicit in the question that universal grammar is a scientific hypothesis.

The author of the article points out another reason one might think that linguistics isn’t a science: the peculiarity of the data from which linguists draw many of their conclusions. In particular, the sorts of sentences linguists use to draw certain conclusions are heavily contrived. In many cases, neither the grammatically incorrect nor grammatically correct sentences relied upon are sentences one would hear in normal discourse. The author makes connections between the contrivance of these sentences and idealization in other scientific domains we might be familiar with, e.g., in the formulation of various laws, like v = 9.8m/s2 × d, in which we abstract away from friction produced by air resistance.

The author’s discussion of these issues raises a few clusters of questions:

1. Must a science be falsifiable? Is universal grammar falsifiable, given the approach notable adherents use to deal with Pirahã? Is linguistics in general falsifiable?

2. Should universal grammar be understood as a field of study rather than a scientific hypothesis? Should it be taken as a methodological assumption or does it need to be confirmed empirically? If the former, then what should one make of the existence of Pirahã?

3. What is the role of idealization in science? Does the respect in which idealization figures into linguistic data, as the author describes, the same (or at least relevantly similar to the) way in which it figures in elsewhere, e.g., in the abstraction away from friction in, for example, v = 9.8m/s2 × d?

See you on Monday for discussion of these questions and refreshments!

Knowledge and Happiness Pumps, “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By” (S3E9) Feb. 16 2022 Strange Lounge Main Hall

Join us Wednesday, February 16th at 4:30pm in the Strange Lounge in Main hall for the next installment of the Strange Thing!

In this episode, Michael and Janet visit Doug Forcett, played by Michael McKean. Doug is described in the series as the first and only human being to discover the point system for getting into the Good Place. They are visiting him to determine how our main protagonists should act in order to get into the Good Place. I’d like to explore a couple of general directions of inquiry, though I would be interested to hear about any other issues that stuck out to you as well.

One question I had is: Does Doug know that the system to get into the Good Place is what it is? He is described as having been the only human begin to have ‘discovered’ it. But he formed the belief while high in the 70s, seemingly out of thin air. And they don’t mention that he ever got corroboration. But without such corroboration, it is not clear to me where his motivation comes from to abide by the system as exactly as he does. Indeed, knowing that one has ingested a mind-altering drug is a classic sort of circumstance often used to provide us with reason to doubt the beliefs we form during that time, however true they may seem to us at that time. So not only might Doug not know about the system, he may actually have reason to doubt that the system is the way he thinks it is.

Putting issues concerning Doug’s epistemic position aside, Doug is described as a happiness (or utility) pump, since, in an effort to maximize his chances of getting into the Good Place, he does everything he can to make others happy to accrue as many points as possible. This involves him living in such a way that he leaves as small a carbon footprint as possible, and participates in the morally repugnant supply chains of modern society as little as possible. It also involves him doing whatever the local teen sociopath (or anyone) tells him to do. The idea of a happiness pump has been raised as a criticism of utilitarianism, the view that what is right is what maximizes overall happiness. I thought it would be worth discussing why a happiness pump poses a problem for utilitarianism, and whether it is an effective criticism of the view. Of course I’d also like to discuss “story-internal” questions like, “Is Doug’s way of life enough to get him into the Good Place, especially given that his motivations might be corrupted due to his potential knowledge of the system for getting in?”.

Season 2, Episodes 10 and 12

Please join us this Monday, Nov. 15, from 4:30 to 5:30pm to discuss episodes 10 “Rhonda, Diane, Jake, and Trent” and 12 “Somewhere Else” of the Good Place, Season 2. We’ll meet in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall.

Episode 10 “Rhonda, Diane, Jake, and Trent” With Michael and Janet’s help, the crew has snuck into the bad place in the hopes of gaining access to the neutral zone to plead their case to the judge. Unfortunately, they get caught in the middle of a cocktail party celebrating the perceived success of Michael’s fake neighborhood, and must lie to avoid being discovered. Unsurprisingly, Chidi is having trouble with this. Eleanor responds to Chidi by invoking moral particularism.

Chidi: “Hey! Hi! So, those road(?) demons over there think I’m some kind of great torturer and they want my advice on how to torture someone. Jason is stalling by ranking MMA ring girls with them but I have to do something. And Eleanor, you’re wearing glasses now. Help me!”

Eleanor: “You know the answer, dude. Lie your ass off!

Eleanor: “What if lying is ethical in this situation. What if certain actions aren’t universally good or bad, like Jonathan Dancy says.”

Chidi: “Jonathan Dancy? Are you talking about moral particularism? We never even covered that. You read on your own?!”

Eleanor: “You think that just because I’m a straight hottie I can’t read philosophy for fun? Look, moral particularism says there are no fixed rules that work in every situation. Like, let’s say you promised your friend you’d go to the movies. But then, your mom suddenly gets rushed to the ER. Your boy Kant would say, ‘Never break a promise. Go see Chronicles of Riddick. It doesn’t matter if your mom gets lonely and steals a bucket of Vicodin from the nurses’ closet.’”

Chidi: “Real example?”

Eleanor: “Yep. But a moral particularist…like me. I’m one now. I just decided. …would say, ‘There’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation.’ And right now we are in a pretty bonkers situation.”

What do you think of moral particularism? There are at least two ways we can understand the claim that general moral principles do important ethical work—the idea which the moral particularist rejects. First, moral principles can be understood to help explain why particular actions are right or wrong. So, for example, Chidi’s lie that he is a great torturer would be wrong because it is incompatible with some general moral principle like Kant’s categorical imperative. Second, moral principles can be understood as guides that help us figure out what we should and shouldn’t do. On this conception, Chidi can figure out that he shouldn’t say that he’s a great torturer by noting that it is incompatible with the categorical imperative. There is a third way to understand the claim that moral principles do important ethical work: that they do both of these things. What does the moral particularist lose on each of these conceptions of moral principles? Does the moral particularist have anything to put in the place of moral principles? Can the moral particularist explain why a particular right action is right without appealing to moral principles? Do they even need to do so? Why should we think that there is an explanation for such a thing? And how are we to go about figuring out what is right or wrong if there are no general moral principles that say, about all, or at least wide classes, of actions, that they are right or wrong (as the case may be)?

Episode 12 “Somewhere Else” The crew successfully reaches the judge, and the judge agrees to give them tests, which will determine whether they belong in the good place or the bad place. Everyone except Eleanor fails, and so they must all get sent to the bad place. Eleanor doesn’t think that’s fair, and in response, the judge says,

“I still believe that the only reason you improved in Michael’s fake neighborhood is because you thought there was a reward at the end of the rainbow. You’re supposed to do good things because you’re good, not because you’re seeking moral desert.”

What do you think of the judge’s claims? Concerning the first, do you think that the four protagonists improved only because they thought they were going to get rewarded if they did? In Eleanor’s case, it seems her (at least initial) motivation was to improve to the degree that, if she had been that good on earth, she would have deserved to have been sent to the good place. This doesn’t really seem like merely seeking moral desert to me since it’s all after the fact.

What about the second sentence? First of all, is there a difference between the two ways ‘because’ is being used in the last sentence? The first sounds like an external explanation, i.e., an explanation someone else might give when explaining the person’s behavior without appealing to their internal mental states. The latter, on the other hand, sounds like an internal explanation, i.e., one that that person might represent to herself in order to motivate herself to do a good thing. But perhaps we can fix up the judge’s claim, e.g.

“You’re supposed to do good things because they’re good, not because you’re seeking moral desert.”


“You’re supposed to do good things because they’re the right thing to do, not because you’re seeking moral desert.”

What do you make of these claims? Can someone be moral doing the right thing only because they’re seeking a reward of some kind? Can they even successfully do a good thing when they do something only because they’re seeking a reward of some kind? The first question concerns the nature of the person’s character, while the second concerns the nature of their act.