Tuesday 24 May 2016

How Distinctive Is Philosophers’ Intuition Talk?

This post is by James Andow (pictured above), a Lecturer in Moral Philosophy at the University of Reading. James’s research interests are in philosophical methodology, in particular, on intuitions and experimental philosophy. In this post he summarises his paper ‘How Distinctive Is Philosophers' Intuition Talk?’

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’.


  1. Hello James (if I may)

    I have a different worry, which is as follows: If philosophers don't use intuitions as evidence for their theories, wouldn't that put philosophers - at least, in most cases involving moral philosophy, it seems to me - on the hook again?
    The reason I'm thinking is that intuitions are actually the primary if not the only we have to test the theory, in many cases.

    For example, let's say a phycisist comes up with a theory T according to which (among other predictions) some particle P will be formed under conditions C, and the theory also predicts the properties of P, which allow measurements.
    Then, a way to test T is to create conditions C and measure the results, to see if the predictions match the data.
    While they still need to use their epistemic intuitions to make a probabilistic assessment about T (there are infinitely many hypotheses compatible with observations), about the reliability of observations, etc., it seems that those epistemic intuitions are generally trusted (which might be a problem, though I personally think generally it's not), it seems that the primary method of testing is not intuitive.
    But now let's say that two philosophers posit moral theories. Bob comes up with Negative Utilitarianism (NU), and Alice with Rule Consequentialism (RC).
    As long as they have just suggested those theories for testing, there is no problem. But how would they or anyone else go about testing those theories, if not by considering specific cases and making intuitive moral assessments, to see whether the predictions match the assessments?
    If they test the theory in that matter, if the predictions match the intuitive assessment, that increases the probability of the theory. If they don't, the theory is ruled out, unless perhaps there is another reason to suspect that the specific case in question is one in which moral intuitions are unreliable.
    But if moral intuitions (the same goes for other theories) are not used as evidence - i.e., as a means to increase or decrease the probability of the theory -, then it seems no evidence is available that might raise the probability of the theory (i.e., the proper epistemic probabilistic assessment) from the prior, or the prior plus the added info that the theory is not contradictory (assuming Bob and Alice can establish that the theories they suggested are not contradictory, which might or might not be the case).

    In that context, it seems to me it would be epistemically unjustified for either of them to come to believe that the respective theories are true, or even probable. After all, there are plenty of competing theories. Without testing them against intuitions, what could justify assigning high probability to one of them?
    A high prior seems improper to me, especially if moral intuitions aren't used - even if Alice could properly assigned a high prior to RC, wouldn't she be assigning that high probability by means of resorting to some intuition?
    In any event, even granting for the sake of the argument she can properly assign a high prior to RC even though she's familiar with NU and other theories, she would not be able to move beyond the prior (leaving aside the non-contradiction issue, but that doesn't help much), and similarly for Bob.
    Let's say that Bob also properly assigns a high prior to NU, and then Bob and Alice discuss the matter, trying to convince each other. Given that intuitions are not used as evidence and they're both familiar with both theories, it seems to me (maybe there is a way, but so far I don't know how), there is no good reason for either of them to change their view, no matter how much they discuss.

    Personally, assigning a high prior to either RC or NU is epistemically improper, but in any case, after tested against moral intuitions, both of them should be deemed extremely improbable.

  2. Hi Angra Mainyu!

    Thanks for your comment! It is a pretty popular view that philosophers use intuitions as evidence. That view can be spun in various ways -- including the way you spin it above.

    As I indicate in the post, it is also pretty common to ask -- What else philosophers could use to support their theories (perhaps especially in ethics)?! The purpose of the post wasn't to chase that question but of course my line of thought also raises that question -- if intuitions are getting used in explanation rather than support ... then what is doing the supporting?!

    This is precisely the sort of question I am going to have to grapple with as I develop my thinking further here, so you'll have to wait for my considered answer. (I'm sympathetic to the idea that philosophers don't *use* intuitions as evidence, but that nonetheless the justification for philosophical positions ultimately rests on intuitions.)

    In the meantime you should take a look at the work of the 'intuition deniers' -- philosophers who deny that intuitions are used as evidence in philosophy -- such as Cappelen and Deutsch to see what they have to say. 'Intuition deniers' is a term coined by Jennifer Nado who discusses these authors in a cool paper which is available on her website (here: http://www.jennifernado.net/pdfs/papers/intuition%20deniers.pdf)

  3. James, thanks for the reply and the suggestions.
    I'll take a look at Jennifer Nado's paper, and I'll add the work of Cappelen and Deutsch to my "to do" list.

  4. There's nothing wrong with relying on intuitions per se. The problem is that philosophers rely on intuitions about thought experiments. Our moral judgments in real life are grounded in arational socio-psychological factors that cannot be adequately captured by thought experiments. Some of these factors are intrinsic to our humanity, not 'impurities' that need to be weeded out by armchair moral theories. Such moral theories can (as simplifed models) help us understand moral reasoning, but the former cannot substitute for the latter.

  5. "There's nothing wrong ..." is probably too strong. What I meant was, outside of special cases, reliance on intuitions is generally in order.


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