There’s a bomb on the funicular railway. It is about to go off. It’s a tragic disaster in the making.
There are two carriages connected by a rope. In the carriage nearest the pier, headed down the cliff, there is a party of schoolchildren with buckets and spades. In the carriage nearest the bandstand, headed up the cliff, there is a bomb planted by ecoterrorists. The carriages are currently alongside each other. If the carriages are stopped, …
Philosophers use intuitions. They use them a lot. This much is beyond question. If you have ever studied any philosophy or talked about philosophy with a philosopher you will doubtless have noted the tendency of philosophers to pepper their conversation and writing with hypothetical cases like this which are designed to elicit your intuitions.
What about these slightly different claims? (1) Philosophers use intuitions as evidence. And (2) Philosophers use intuitions as evidence in a way that other academics do not. These are not so obvious. But both are tempting. Intuitions do seem to form parts of arguments for philosophical theories in the same way observations serve as support for scientific theories. It is sometimes difficult to see what else philosophers could use to support their theories. Whereas, in other fields, there is lots of other evidence—so they do not need to rely on intuitions.
If (1) and (2) are right, philosophy might seem to be in a particularly sticky situation. Why? Because, there are various experiments which suggest that such intuitions are unreliable (for discussion see here). (There are debates we could have here, e.g. my earlier post on this blog, but let us suppose philosophical intuitions are unreliable.)
So, should we grant (1) and (2)? In my research I have questioned (2), the idea that philosophy is special in its use of intuitions. In two recent papers (here and here), I have presented evidence that both the extent of the use of the word ‘intuition’, and the way it is used, are surprisingly similar when comparing philosophy and other disciplines. I think this puts pressure on the idea that philosophy is special.
What would that mean for philosophy’s sticky situation? If it means anything, one might think, it will not involve getting philosophy off the hook so much as putting everyone else on the hook too (unless intuitions in their fields are shown to be more reliable). If intuitions are unreliable, it is little solace to philosophers that they are not alone in relying on intuitions as evidence.
But, in fact, that is not quite the picture that emerged from my research. As well as questioning (2), my research has also led me to question (1), the idea that the primary use of intuitions is as evidence. Examining the ways academics use ‘intuition’ has led me to the idea that one of the main uses to which academics put intuitions is to help explain theories rather than to provide evidence for them. As one of the lecturers in my sample put it, 'I’m going to try and explain it intuitively…'
If—and it is a big ‘if’ as yet—that is right, there is now a very interesting question to ask. Is everyone off the hook? Does it matter that intuitions are unreliable? Insofar as intuitions, unreliable though they may be, are only used in explaining theories rather than as evidence, it is very tempting to think their unreliability does not matter to the same extent. Of course, there are potential issues with intuitive explanations. They can be coercive, an intuitive explanation might mean one demands less evidence to be convinced. For example, explanations of the UK budget deficit, which rely on intuitive analogies with household accounting, have arguably made the public less questioning of the justification for austerity politics. However, these problems seem to exist regardless of the reliability of the relevant intuitions.
... So, that is as far as I have got. Various philosophers are beginning to question the idea that philosophers use intuitions as evidence (see for example Cappelen 2012; Deutsch 2015, and so on). I think it is now important for philosophers to ask the obvious questions ‘Well, what on earth are we using them for then?’ and ‘Should we be concerned?’ I have two tentative answers, ‘To explain’ and ‘Maybe not’.