At Thoughts Arguments and Rants, Brian Weatherson gives a new argument for the reliability of intuitions. His main idea is that, given how many falsehoods are counterintuitive, there is a strong prima facie case for intuition being reliable. To deny this prima facie case, one must either deny that there is a fact of the matter about the reliability of intuitions or that there is a singular notion of intuition, but both of these options look bad. I found both Weatherson’s argument and the ensuing discussion in comments thought-provoking, so here are some of my thoughts.
My main point will be that it only makes sense to talk about whether intuitions are reliable with respect to what one thinks their role is in philosophical enquiry.
Think about a different case first. Suppose I claim that the Bush administration is reliable in interpreting military intelligence data. Well, there is that whole Iraq thing. But think about the good cases: they haven’t invaded Fiji on false intelligence, or Madagascar, or Sealand, or many other nations. The Bush administration’s interpretations are in fact correct in most cases. Boring, in the sense that these interpretations simply agrees with commonsense, but correct nonetheless. Therefore, I claim that the Bush administration is reliable in interpreting military intelligence data.
Hopefully, you agree that this claim is unwarranted and that there is something weird about the foregoing argument. First, what we commonly mean by reliability is really not getting more cases right than not. Instead, when we say a method is reliable, we mean that it is reliable enough. Secondly, what counts as reliable enough depends on what is at stake. What is at stake, in turn, is determined by the context and our interests. Once we interpret the claim thus, it is no longer warranted to say that the Bush administration is reliable in interpreting military intelligence data, given the high standard set by what is at stake.
The discussion about the reliability of intuitions in philosophy ought to be framed by the same considerations. What matters is not whether intuitions are reliable, in the sense of getting the majority of things right (or having the disposition to do so). Instead, what matters is whether intuitions are reliable enough, in the sense of meeting a standard set by what is at stake. What is at stake, in this case, depends on the role that one thinks intuitions play in philosophical enquiry.
Then there could be multiple coherent positions (and I think the comments on Weatherson’s post shows this possibility). On the one hand, for someone who thinks intuitions are more like visuals in mathematical reasoning, which are good heuristic devices but not proofs by themselves, then perhaps the standard need not be so high. On the other hand, for someone who thinks arguments can get us very far but intuitions are the ultimate deciders at the end of the day, the standard better be really really high for intuitions to count as reliable enough. There are many other possible positions in between, depending on one’s view about the epistemology of philosophy, and the standard of reliability varies accordingly. Without deciding on what the correct view is, we can agree that it only makes sense to discuss intuitions’ reliability with respect to their role in philosophical enquiry.
Most of us probably hold some hybrid view. That is, what role we think intuitions play shifts depending on the type of philosophical enquiry we are engaged in. For example, I think that intuitions are the ultimate deciders in highly abstract realms like hardcore metaphysics, but more like a heuristic in less abstract realms like debating aesthetic value. Given the variation in the standard of reliability, it might even make sense for me to be an intuition skeptic with respect to metaphysical intuitions but not aethetic judgment intuitions. (A restricted intuition skeptic might find some sympathy in Eric Schwitzgebel’s comment.) At the very least, I ought to demand stronger evidence of intuitions’ reliability when I am doing metaphysics than when I am debating aesthetic value. So, even though I am not an intuition skeptic, I can understand the motivation for being one, provided that one holds certain non-crazy views about the epistemology and aim of philosophical enquiry.
To make it clear, I am not saying that there are multiple intuitive faculties that are reliable to different extents. Nor am I saying that intuitions vary in their reliability, in the sense of getting X percentage of cases right, depending on the domain of enquiry. What I am saying is that whether intuitions get to be counted as reliable, in the sense of satisfying a standard, depends on the domain and, more importantly, the role they play.
There is a surprising, maybe even counterintuitive, consequence of the picture presented. Assume that we have pretty decent evidence for intuition being right most of the time. Then one ought to be an intuition skeptic only if one thinks intuitions play a very important, if not decisive, role in philosophy!