Intuitions: Role and Reliability

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!


7 Responses to Intuitions: Role and Reliability

  1. dtlocke says:

    This post needs a comment. Now it has one!

  2. Haha. I checked Go Grue! and was like “Oh, a comment! Let’s check it out.” Then, I was disappointed. Now at least the next person to come by will be like “Oh, a whole conversation! Let’s check it out.” but then they’ll be disappointed too, but at least they won’t feel alone.


  3. Steve C. says:

    Oddly enough, I feel alone.

  4. dtlocke says:

    Whoa, this post is blowin’ up!

    …oh wait.

  5. a says:

    this is probably a bad idea, given the high level of discourse and heated discussion in this comments thread, but i’m going to go ahead and comment on this post before reading weatherson’s post (yeah, i’m a badass like that).

    it definitely seems right to me that whether intuitions get counted as reliable depends on what domain we’re looking at. but i wonder, sam, why you don’t go ahead and make the further claim that whether intuitions *are* in fact reliable depends on what domain we’re talking about.

    i also wonder why you don’t want to say that there is more than one intuitive faculty. that doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea to me: suppose you think, as some do, that affect is an important component (and partly constitutive if i may use that term loosely) of moral intuitions. then you might want to think of moral intuition as the product of a faculty which isn’t implicated in producing, say, metaphysical intuitions. or maybe another way to put the point is: it could turn out that psychopaths are quite capable of having metaphysical or semantic intuitions, but deficient in their capacity to have moral intuitions.

    sorry for taking this comments thread so far off-topic; i’m going to go read weatherson’s post now. cart, horse, blah blah.

  6. Shen-yi Liao says:

    hey alex. the reason why i don’t say intuitions *are* reliable is because i think there are two, equally eligible, meanings of the term “reliable”: 1. (descriptive) getting things right most of the time, and 2. (normative) meeting our standards. i am only trying to convey that i am talking about the normative sense of “reliable” with my perhaps arbitrary word choice. i think weatherson’s argument is right if we’re talking about the descriptive sense of “reliable”, but i don’t think that’s the right sense for this discussion.

    i made the disclaimer about more than one intuitive faculty in response to something weatherson said. i take it to be a presupposition of discussing whether intuition is reliable that we have some faculty of intuition and intuitions have a unique status. specifically, intuitions are not just beliefs, acceptances, or judgments. intuitions’ unique status seems plausible to me; I could judge that there is a computer in front of me, based on my perception, but that would certainly not be an intuition. so i am not what sure what you mean by moral intuitions. it is certainly true that affect is an important component of judgments of moral thought experiments, but i am not sure whether that is intuition proper.

    this is my worry about positing multiple intuitive faculties: why should we even bother with the term “intuition” if there is nothing in common between the so-called intuitions of different domains? if “moral intuition” is generated by affect and “semantic intuition” is generated by felicity judgments, then why should we place them under the same umbrella term? but anyway, weatherson touches on this worry a bit. i am not sure what exactly to say.

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