Friday, June 01, 2012

The Armchair and the Lab Throne

(by guest blogger Carrie Figdor)

I've noted that the popular science press is both accomplice and victim in the miscommunication between god and mortal. But some philosophers too -- the other main class of professional skeptics -- may be in the same boat. Here a failure to be sufficiently skeptical can appear in the guise of burning the despised Armchair in favor of the Lab Throne, a.k.a rejecting intuitions as evidence in favor of empirical data (even though elicited intuitions are empirical data).

It's often hard to know exactly what is being rejected. Sometimes it seems to be the counterexample tennis (e.g. the Gettier-problem cottage industry) in which intuition gets used. Sometimes it seems to be the scope of an intuition-based claim (I am always reminded of the joke in which Tonto says to the Lone Ranger: "What do you mean "we", white man?"). Sometimes it seems to be the use of far-fetched hypothetical scenarios, although trolley problems are pretty far-fetched and what we are to make of the moral judgments (a.k.a. intuitions) they elicit is a lively subject of debate.

However, if burning the Armchair means not using intuitions as evidence, the Lab Throne will go up in flames along with it. Science depends heavily on intuition in the form of reasons that would be offered for background assumptions if such assumptions were made explicit and explicitly questioned. Why is memory cashed out in terms of encoding-storage-retrieval? Well, what else could memory be but a kind of storage? The fact that this intuitively plausible answer is only now being questioned by memory researchers seeking a more dynamical conception underlines how difficult it can be to root out the role of intuition in science.

Another way in which intuition is deeply embedded in science is in judgments about which aspects of a phenomenon (a stimulus, a task, a performance) are essential to its being the kind of phenomenon it is. One such case occurred to me during a recent talk by Stephen Stich, in which he argued that intuitive judgments exhibit wide variability based on apparently irrelevant factors (and so presumably cannot be relied on to track the truth). One example was the so-called Lady Macbeth Effect, in which moral judgments are affected by bodily cleansing. In one study, moral judgments of those who used an alcohol-based cleaning gel were significantly less severe than those of subjects who used a non-cleansing hand cream (Schnall et al. 2008).

But why think cleaning one's hands is irrelevant to moral judgment? Hopefully not because it seems intuitively plausible. My own off-the-cuff reason for doubt stemmed from generalizing from Goldin-Meadow's experiments with gesture and counting. If moral judgments are embodied, changing embodied aspects would be changing relevant features. (I should note Steve was wholly amenable to this interpretation; I also later found a similar view defended by two staff writers for the Association of Psychological Science.)

In this particular case, the moral is that in at least some cases the problem with Armchair intuition is that it is disembodied, not that it is a priori. Moreover, some critics of intuition may simply presuppose a disembodied (Cartesian?) view of intuition. (Why?) In general, the problem with intuition seems to be that different disciplines have different Armchairs, and the Lab Throne is just another style of Armchair -- and philosophers who prefer Lab Throne style should be especially critical of that particular Armchair.


David Duffy said...

Surely there are intuitions and intuitions. I would trust the intuitions of an expert in a field over someone without a grounding in the area, Maybe the word is standing for too many concepts/processes. The lab throne at least has the requirement that you are expected to test your intuitions.

And I thought the point about the hand washing was how it stood to the established literature on disgust and moral judgements. If there are alternative explanations, design the next experiment: then is it moral psychology or moral (x-) philosophy.

Carrie Figdor said...

@David: Indeed, a blanket "intuitions bad!" approach doesn't do anyone any good, and in some cases intuitions aren't the real target anyway. One of the issues I did try to raise, however, was the fact that untutored intuitions -- say, that dogs and other complex objects exist, or that Stroop tests must have color words but not particular colors, words or fonts -- are part of science and are often not tested. Or they are tested in the breach, so to speak: whenever something unexpected happens, hidden expectations are revealed. ... especially the expectations hidden in the established literature.

Scott Bakker said...

Shades of Nietzsche! He was always big on the importance of breakfast and indigestion to philosophical thought.

I'm with David: the metaphor of the 'lab throne' actually does quite abit of rhetorical work, making it seem that the fact that INDIVIDUAL armchair theorizing and INSTITUTIONAL scientific theorizing are stranded with intuitions means that they are somehow caught in the same cognitive bind.

Focussing on our reliance on 'intuition' (whatever the hell it is!) is important in the sciences. But if it's sometimes overlooked, it also often goes without saying. The important question is one of what our practices MAKE of our intuitions. Strip away the metaphors and what you're talking about is thought left to its own devices, and thought processed through a system of practices that have revolutionized the world in just a handful of centuries.

The examples you give, I think, illustrate the crucial importance of those practices more than anything, simply because the more unreliable our intuitions turn out to be generally, the less we can trust thought left to its own devices, the more reliant we become on whatever allows us to find our way past that unreliability.

carrie figdor said...

@Scott: Right -- I went with "throne" rather than "bench" to continue the Wagnerian theme, but the difference between individual vs. institutional is interesting to consider ... and maybe more could be said in general about how the two are intertwined (in both philosophy and science). it may be that the term 'intuition' may be being used ambiguously between 'a priori' and 'untested' or 'unquestioned' -- and so the criticism is not so much the use of intuitions (i.e. the source of a claim) but the lack of testing of intuitions (i.e. challenging the claim). P can seem intuitively obvious, or 'we' would agree that P, and then it turns out that, yup, P is correct or empirically confirmed. From that perspective (yours?), the criticism of philosophical uses of intuition might be that there's too much argument from authority (or acceptance of intuitions from authoritative figures).

Scott Bakker said...

'Intuition' is a most peculiar concept: the 'intuition intuition' is something that perplexes me more everyday. The more I think about it, the more it seems that 'intuition' is simply a way to keep a certain kind of neural information artificially packaged for a certain kind of discursive consumption.

Maybe it would be better to amend David's earlier comment that 'all intuitions are not equal' to something like 'all REGIMENTATIONS of intuition are not equal.' It only dawned on me afterword that the 'armchair' is a much an institutional artifact as the 'throne.'

Would it be too reductive to say what we're talking about is simply a kind of information access, what the brain makes available for 'reportability'? And that the 'armchair' and the 'lab' constitute two very different institutional ways of regimenting this information?

Carrie Figdor said...

@Scott: By 'regimenting' I think of formal logic, as in regimenting a discourse. I don't know if that's what you mean. But I would agree with the idea that the two furnitures can represent different ways of responding to a specific kind of reportable information. In that case I'd also want to say that philosophers and scientists may sit in both at different times. After all, even non-x-phi philosophers argue against intuitions (e.g. responses to Kripke's anti-physicalist arguments or Block's anti-functionalist thought-experiments). Are scientists immune from accepting claims that are backed by intuition? Nah. No one is.
It sure would be nice to know exactly what intuition is, though, other than an outcome of processes we aren't conscious of.