Thursday, September 11, 2008

End of (Philosophical) Innocence

Philosophy is built upon intuitions. (Maybe all knowledge is, at root.) Arguments must start somewhere, with something that seems obvious, with something we're willing to take for granted. In the 20th century, philosophers became methodologically explicit about this. Ethicists explicitly appeal to the intuition that it's not right to secretly kill and dissect one healthy person in order to save five needing organ transplants. Metaphysicians appeal to the intuition that if your molecules were scanned and taken apart and that information used to create a person elsewhere who was molecule-for-molecule identical to you, that person would be you. Philosophical debate often consists of noting the apparent clash between one set of intuitions and a theory grounded in a different set of intuitions. For example, if you won't dissect the one to save the five, does that imply that if a runaway trolley is heading toward five immobilized people, you shouldn't divert it to a side-track containing only one? There are ways to say no to the one and yes to the other, of course, but only by means of principles that conflict with still other intuitions... and we're off into the sort of save-the-intuitions game that analytic philosophers (and I too) enjoy!

Until recently, such intuition-saving disputes have been conducted without any careful empirical reflection on the source and trustworthiness of those intuitions. We have the sense that it would be wrong to dissect the one or that the recreated individual would be you, but where does that intuition come from? Do such intuitions somehow track a set of facts, independent of the individual philosopher's mind, about what is really right, or about what personal identity really consists in? A story needs to be told.

That story will necessarily be an empirical story, a story about the psychology of intuition -- and maybe, too, the sociology and anthropology and history and linguistics of intuition. For example, suppose it turns out that only highly educated English speakers share some particular intuition that is widely cited in analytic philosophy. That should cast some doubt -- doubt that can perhaps be overcome with a further story -- about the merit of that intuition. Or suppose that a certain intuition was to be found only among people for whom having that intuition would excuse them from serious moral culpability for actions performed earlier in their lives. That should should cast defeasible doubt on the intuition.

With the maturing of empirical sciences that can cast light on the sources of our intuitions, we philosophers can no longer justifiably ignore such genetic considerations in evaluating our arguments. We can no longer innocently take our intuitions about philosophical cases as simply given. We must recognize that psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and linguistics can cast important light on the merits and especially demerits of particular philosophical arguments.

Of course most philosophers know virtually nothing about psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and linguistics; and most psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and linguists are insufficiently enmeshed in philosophical debates to bring their resources to bear. A huge cross-disciplinary terrain remains almost unspoiled. To me, nothing could be more exciting! (Well, nothing in academia.)

A few have made starts: Paul Bloom, Tony Jack, and Philip Robbins have been discussing the roots of the intuition that mind and body are distinct. Fiery Cushman, Marc Hauser, Joshua Greene, and John Mikhail have been discussing the psychological roots of the moral intuitions in runaway trolley type cases. Reading "intuition" widely to include any views that people find attractive without compelling argument, Shaun Nichols has explored the roots of the intuition that there is no incompatibility between free will and causal determinism. I have examined the culturally-local metaphors behind the sense philosophical phenomenologists and others have that coins look elliptical when seen from an angle. These are barely beginnings.


MC said...

Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I began reading "Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized" (OUP 2007) by Ladyman, Ross, Spurrett and Collier, and I think you'll find the feirce polemical attack on the role of intuitions in philosophical inquiry to be very inticing; moreso than anything Kornblith has elicited in me, frankly.

I know that we agree on much; specifically on Naturalism in philosophy (I think), so I can highly reccomend the book to you, esp. the first chapter--it's theses are very much in line with the content of this post (inter alia).

MC said...

Just so I don't have any "'referential' danglers" (qua Smart):

Cf. K0rnblith's "The Role of Intuition in Philosophical Inquiry," in "Rethinking Intuition" (1998) by DePaul and Ramsey (eds.)

His "K n o w l e d g e and It's Place In Nature" (2002) is a great work in n@turalistic epistem0logy and says much to the role of intuition(s) in philosophical inquiry.

Cf. Also "Conceivability and Possibility" (2002) by Gendler and Hawthorne (eds.), among others...

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

Interesting post!

It seems to me that we need someone (William Alston, where are you?) to come in and distinguish between the many senses of 'intuition' used in philosophical. On the one hand, there is the sort of intuition involved in (e.g.) math and logic -- the sort appealed to in (e.g.) derivations. In these cases (at least in relatively simple cases!), I often need not appeal to anything beyond my own mind to find a competent judge on these matters.

I'm not sure if the next sort are really different from the previous sort, but it seems that we have some sort of insight into whether one entity A includes, precludes, or is compatible with another entity, B. So, for example, I intuit that being red all over precludes being green all over, that having size includes having shape (for finite substances -- or at least for the objects of geometry), and that being red neither includes nor precludes being round. Here, too, it seems that intuition is a genuine source of information, and that (at least in relatively simple cases!) I need not appeal to an expert in another discipline for help. (I'm not saying, however, that this sort of intuition is infallible)

But then there is another use of 'intuition', which seems to me to be a grab bag of sorts, which includes "intuitions" about the sorts of cases you mention in your post. Here my sympathies are with you: these are like educated guesses or hunches or beliefs -- or prejudices?

So I guess I side with the armchair philosophers in the first two senses of 'intuition', and with the experimental philosophers in the latter sense of 'intuition'.

Felipe Leon

Anonymous said...

Whoops -- sorry for the typos!


Joachim Horvath said...


is there really such a clear and sharp distinction between your second and your third sense of intuitions? Consider the Gettier cases: Here, we (most of us) tend to have the intuition that these cases, which are instances of justified true belief, are not compatible with having knowledge. So, if described in this way, they seem to fall squarely within your second category (and many other intuitions about hypothetical cases as well).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks!

M: I must embarrassedly confess that I had not heard of the book you mention. It sounds very interesting, and I greatly appreciate the suggestion! I agree with you that although Kornblith is hard core, I've never been quite satisfied with his vision. I confess I never made it through the conceivability and possibility collection, though I had it on my shelf for a while and skimmed a few things. Is there an essay or two in there you particularly recommend?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Felipe and Joachim: I agree that it would be very interesting to articulate the different sorts of judgments that tend to get lumped into the category intuition -- and that Alston would have been just the guy to do it! I've settled with a fairly deflationary and very broad definition of "intuition" for my own purposes -- just judgments that arise other than via explicit reasoning processes (Gopnik & Schwitzgebel 1998). But this category includes *many* different psychological processes.

However, I'm with Joachim on the idea that it might be hard to cleanly distinguish your three types of intuition -- though maybe there are clear cases in the extremes. I myself am inclined to a pretty radical philosophy of math and logic, though, which might collapse intuitions of your first two sorts into something more like intuition of the third sort as you're conceiving it. We can develop mathematical procedures and concepts and inference rules at whim, creating them much as we create fictions or musical compositions (and like fictions and musical compositions they have only psychological reality), and then it's an empirical-cum-normative (i.e., pragmatic) question how useful those creations are. The same applies to concepts like knowledge or morality -- we can either take them as found (and explore them empirically) or take them as creations (and then defend or attack them pragmatically).

(By the way, Felipe, I was pitching your distinction between "high-flying" and "low-flying" modal intuitions to some of the experimental philosophy crowd, and they seemed pretty sympathetic. One said he was very much looking forward to seeing an essay from you on the topic someday.)

Anonymous said...

Daniel Gardner in "The Science of Fear" distinguishes in our decision making process between System One (defined as "Gut" -- emotional, intuitive and quick) and System Two (or "Head", conscious thought). Philosophy -- and its intuition-based dogmas -- might just be the evolutionary result stemming from the way our brain works in this split fashion. You are right, it is a good idea to re-examine the even the most obvious intuitions that “feel right” for no apparent reason.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joachim and Eric,

(Btw, thanks for the plug, Eric!)

I have a little song and dance I've written re: the epistemology of distinctions and the epistemology of intuitions in general, but I'd just like to put on the table the idea that there are different sorts of intuitions involved in different sorts of cases. So, for example, take Descartes' famous piece of wax. If I exclude in thought my representation of its fragrant odor from the rest of my representation of the wax, the latter remains intelligible. But if instead I exclude in thought my representation of its determinable property of having shape, I thereby render the representation of the wax unintelligible.

But what about ethical claims involved in, say, the thought experiments associated with the trolley problem? At least in my own case, trolley problem thought experiments aren't amenable to a Cartesian excludability test of the sort involved in the case above -- at least not obviously. Rather, I either experience something on the order of imaginative resistance here, and this (rightly or wrongly) is the basis of my judgement about the case.

Alternatively, it may involve a judgement of aptness or fittingness that's doing the heavy lifting in the trolley problem thought experiment. I hope I'm remembering correctly, but in their paper in Rethinking Intuition, Eric (and Alison Gopnik) bring up a comparison of intuitions in philosophy with our judgments regarding (among a host of other things) grammaticality. I think this sort of thing may well be going on in this case.


Anonymous said...

Ok, this is getting ridiculous. I promise I'll proofread my comments before hitting "publish" from now on.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, anon and Felipe!

Felipe: You may be right that there's a difference between the kind of failure of imaginability in the wax case and in trolley-type cases. It certainly seems that there's a little something different going on. But what, exactly? And how different, really? Hm.... Tough issues! I'd be interested to hear more details about your thoughts on this.

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for all the interesting posts - I have been reading along even though I have been to busy to post myself!

Just thought I would mention that the worry about the source of intuitions can be found in Mill and other historical figures (Marx and Nietzsche come to mind, obviously). Mill's "On Nature" contains a nice introductory warning about the sources that might be misleading. Of course this will not hit your bar of "careful empirical reflection" I suppose.

But I think your claim that the story has to be empirical is misleading insofar as some (!) rationalists will appeal to the analogy with Chomsky and claim that there is some sort of innate moral sense. It might be distorted or deformed in some, but that does not mean it is not there (this is a traditional intuitionist view). Joyce has a nice discussion of the innateness issue in "The Evolution of Morality" I think.

Also: I think your main point is a good one but that it stands independently of any metaphysical issues about whether there are independent facts of the matter to be tracked, so to speak. I agree that this sort of cross disciplinary work is useful for thinking about how to improve our intuitions - and it might have interesting implications for education. But I think that worrying about the metaphysical issues and how the arguments from disagreement or relativity bear on this is a side issue.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Brad, it's nice to know you're still following along! -- and thanks for the tip on Mill.

I'm not sure I understand your point about my claim that the study of the source of our intuitions must be an empirical study. That's perfectly compatible with the intuitions being innate: It's an empirically discoverable fact, perhaps, that we innately have certain intuitions. Presumably Chomsky would agree. I didn't mean to be saying (if this is how you interpreted me) that the intuitions *themselves* must be learned empirically by those who hold them. Or am I missing your point?

I also think the epistemology and the metaphysics are intimately tied. I don't buy the traditional picture of metaphysics in part because I don't see, epistemically, how we could come to know metaphysical facts. I don't think you can do the metaphilosophy of metaphysics without doing some epistemology....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I encourage anyone who's made it this far down the comments thread to check out John Turri's post (and the comments) at Certain Doubts: