Friday, October 13, 2006

Intuitions in the Sandbox

A graduate student recently reminded me of an essay I'd written in 1998 with Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at U.C. Berkeley. He appears to be just about the only person who liked it. But maybe I'm wrong about that -- maybe he was merely being polite!

The essay begins with a dialogue pertinent to the relationship between empirical psychology and philosophical intuition, which is an increasingly hot topic these days. The dialogue is, I think, amusing, provocative, and self-standing (it was entirely written by Alison), and for some reason I feel like inflicting it on readers of this blog.

To understand the dialogue it's necessary to know that developmental psychologists now think that children progress from, at age 3, not realizing that beliefs can be false to knowing, by age 4, that beliefs can be false. (Surprising as this conclusion may be, it is now orthodoxy in developmental psychology and is supported by hundreds of studies.)

Here's the dialogue, conceived of as between two three-year-olds in a sandbox, Phil and Psyche.

Psyche: You know, Phil, something’s been bothering me. You know how beliefs are always true? Well, an odd thing happened the other day. My big brother saw my mom put a piece of chocolate in the cupboard and then left to play Nintendo, and while he was away my mom took the chocolate out of the cupboard and put it in the drawer. When my brother came back, he went straight to the cupboard and said loudly, several times, that he was sure the chocolate was in there. But of course, it was really in the drawer. So I have this idea: Could it be that he had a belief that was just like ordinary beliefs, except false?

Phil: My dear Psyche, as I have so often pointed out to you before, your confusion is due to a category mistake. You are treating the truth of beliefs as if it were an empirical matter. Actually, it is simply a conceptual fact about beliefs that they are always true. Indeed, we might say that it is criterial for a belief to be a belief that it be true. Look, consult your intuitions, consult the intuitions of anyone else in the sandbox. All of us agree, immediately, intuitively, without inference or theory, that all beliefs are true. Ask yourself what a belief is. What else could it be but a true representation of events?

Psyche: But couldn’t we all be wrong? Couldn’t there be an alternative way of conceiving of belief that none of us happen to subscribe to now?

Phil: Another category mistake. When I say that beliefs are necessarily true, this isn’t a mere contingent psychological fact about the concepts of all us three-year-olds. It’s an eternal, platonic, philosophical fact about the nature of belief and truth.

Psyche: Well, what about my brother?

Phil: He is probably participating in an alternative form of life. I always thought he was kind of weird.

Psyche: But you see, it isn’t just him. It even seems to be me. Since the chocolate incident, wherever I look, I see evidence that beliefs may be false. Why just yesterday, a woman came into the daycare center with a candy box and I said “Candy!” and then she opened the box and there were pencils inside. I know intuitively that I must have thought there were pencils in the box all along, and of course that’s what I told her when she asked me. But then why did I say “Candy!”? Am I turning into a madwoman?

Phil: (gravely) I fear you may have a worse affliction. I fear you are turning into a cognitive psychologist. As I was saying just the other day, “It would be dangerous to deny from a philosophical armchair that cognitive psychology is an intellectually respectable discipline, provided, of course, it stays within proper bounds.” [Apparently a copy of John McDowell's 1994 book, Mind and World found its way onto the picturebook shelf.] This is what happens when those bounds are breached.

Psyche: But surely there must be some explanation?

Phil: Philosophy does not provide explanations, only diagnoses. (Intones) Of that we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent....

The remainder of the essay was conceived of simply as the exposition of the main idea of this dialogue: that philosophers who think that their intuitions reveal necessary metaphysical truths about the world are as confused as Phil. Our intuitions derive from empirical sources (or else, no better, were written into us innately by natural selection), and we should hold them up to revision as new empirical evidence comes in. I don't think Quine or Carnap would have disagreed....

You can find the entire essay here.


Genius said...

I am inclined to think it is easy to over simplify these things. For example I might say "children below age X, and only below X don't know beliefs can be false" but I would have all sorts of false positives and negatives.

Similarly I think you would have false positives or negatives WITHIN THE SAME CHILD (in various situations), i.e. at a particular age that a child might not realize a belief that chocolate is in a box can be 'false' but still realize a belief that he can grab that chocolate in his hands could be false and some adults may have issues with the concept of their religion being false.

As to the dialogue I see and appreciate the point about intuition. And I think they should be open to revision (and am a little frustrate by others who don't revise them).

However, intuition does serve as limited evidence (i.e. in the absence of something strong to stand against it) because it amounts to some sort of a secret calculation by natural selection or our subconscious or our environment all of which tend to do a little better than random chance answering questions correctly when filtered through our minds.

For example it is my intuition that I would not enjoy falling down some concrete steps - and indeed, from memory that is true.

BTW that Phil, despite being 'confused', is one smart toddler.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, genius! I agree with every word. Alison and I develop the second point a bit in the full essay.

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

I just browsed through the paper and think it raises a number of interesting issues. The one I want to focus on is the claim that elucidation of intuitions may help us understand the concepts we use but that may not be a good guide to understanding the world from a scientific point of view. Following Strawson, we can say that intuitions are a good guide to descriptive metaphysics, but that science may encourage us to hope for revisionary metaphysics.

But what should we be after when we are doing philosophy? Are we aiming as the same thing that scientists are after? I think this methodological question is the most interesting one your paper brings into view. Williams, for example, thinks that the aim of philosophy is understanding, not knowledge, which for him means it is a mistake to think that philosophy should aim to develop an absolute conception of the world. You can quibble with this way of making the distinction (e.g. Putnam thinks the absolute conception is incoherent) but it seems like one worth making and thinking about.

I think it helps in this context to think back to Socrates. He challenged people to think about the "folk" concepts (and presuppositions about those concepts) deployed in their emotions, beliefs, choices, etc - the concepts that gave sense to their lives. In the Euthyphro, for example, he tries to get someone to think about the concept of piety that structures his way of life and his society. Promoting this sort of rational reflection can lead to the development of what I call critical metaphysics - descriptive metaphysics + critical reflection on that.

Now one question is: what role can and should a scientific understanding of the world play in the project of critical metaphysics?

However the answer to that goes, I think it is important to emphasize that engaging in descriptive metaphysics is very important because it promotes self-understanding, which can all by itself have a critical edge to it. By elucidating and reflecting on our conceptual scheme we can become more rational, and the aim of becoming more rational need not require that we make claims that can pretend to scientific objectivity (whatever that is). Aiming for that sort of objectivity may even derail our pursuit of rationality in our actual lives and social institutions.

This is not to criticize science; it is to ask, as open questions, (1) how much of our philosophic and cognitive resources we should allocate to achieving a more (scientifically) objective view, and (2) HOW will pursuit of that goal will help or hinder the project of critical metaphysics.

Genius said...

Yes I made the comment then I read the full essay and realised you had expanded on it.

So Brad,
would the answer then be to seperate a scientific and philosophical approach or to have scientific branches of philosophy constantly emerging from the body of it without proceeding too far? (ie use scientific tools to, and I struggle a bit with the imagry here, shape but not redirect the development of philosophy)...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Brad, for your long and thoughtful comment. I started working on a reply, and realized that the core problem was that I object to the very term "metaphysics". It was getting complicated, so I just decided to do a whole post on it, which you can see at the top of the blog today.

Perhaps that post also implicitly suggests a certain view about the relationship(s) between philosophy and empirical science....