Forming Impressions: Expertise in Perception and Intuition (4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my recently published book, Forming Impressions: Expertise in Perception and Intuition (OUP, 2020).

Intuition in Philosophy

Let’s call the following picture of philosophy the Standard Picture.

[A] Philosophers make judgments about knowledge, freedom, wrongness, etc. based on intuitions about knowledge, freedom, wrongness, etc. These form an epistemically distinctive class of intuitive judgments. [B] Intuitive judgments play a special role in philosophical method. [C] If so, then what that means is they are treated like data used to confirm or disconfirm theories about knowledge, freedom, wrongness, etc. [D] Current philosophical method is a sound way to theorize about knowledge, freedom, wrongness, etc.

Recent philosophical discussion of intuition has primarily occurred in reaction to the Standard Picture. Participants criticize or defend one or another element in it.

Negative experimental philosophers reject [D]. According to them, experiments show that intuitive judgments are inappropriately sensitive to factors such as socioeconomic status, cultural background, and order of presentation of thought experiments. Garbage in/garbage out, so current philosophical method is unsound.

Various forms of philosophical anti-exceptionalism challenge [A] and/or [B]. One strand rejects the idea that there is an epistemically distinctive class of intuitive judgments, maybe because there are no intuitions. Another strand sidesteps this issue and rejects the idea that intuitive judgments play any special role in philosophical method; putative intuitive judgments are replaceable with arguments.

I’m also suspicious of the Standard Picture. But I’m inclined to accept elements [A], [B], and [D]. My suspicions are about element [C]. Epistemically distinctive intuitive judgments might play a special role in sound philosophical method without being treated like data. Part of what it is to be treated like data is to stand in the following relation to reasoning: reasoning might tell us where to gather data and what data to keep and what to throw out, but reasoning does not determine what the available data are. I think reasoning can determine our intuitions and via them our intuitive judgments.

The second post in this series discussed how experts can talk novices into better intuitions. Much of philosophy, it seems to me, consists in philosophers talking each other into what they consider to be better intuitions. As noted in the earlier post, this practice doesn’t presuppose that anyone count or be recognized as an expert about knowledge, freedom, wrongness, etc.

The Expertise Defense

The negative experimental challenge to current philosophical method can be usefully organized into three phases.

Phase 1 reasons from results of surveys to the conclusion that folk intuitions about thought experiments are influenced by irrelevant factors that do not track the truth about their subject matter.

Phase 2 gives reasons to think that philosophers’ intuitions are influenced in the same way. This might involve generalizing from folk to philosophers. Or, as in some more recent work, it might involve surveying philosophers.

Phase 3 goes something like this. If philosophers’ intuitions are influenced by irrelevant factors, then any method that accords judgments expressing them a special role is unsound. Intuitive judgments do play a special role in philosophical method. So, current philosophical method is unsound.

Any line of reasoning this involved will be open to criticism at various points. Let’s set aside worries about Phase 1. Expertise has been invoked in certain criticisms of Phases 2 and 3.

According to one form of Expertise Defense, Phase 2 is problematic because philosophers possess philosophical expertise that manifests itself in superior philosophical intuitions. One dimension of superiority is that their intuitions are not influenced by irrelevant factors.

According to a second form of Expertise Defense, Phase 3 is problematic because philosophers possess philosophical expertise that manifests itself in superior use of intuition in reasoning about philosophical subject matter. Their intuitions might be influenced by irrelevant factors, but practiced philosophers know how to use them to good effect anyway.

In Chapter 7 of Forming Impressions, I suggest another way to invoke expertise. According to this alternative form of Expertise Defense, Phase 3 in the negative experimental challenge is problematic because part of philosophical methodology is deliberately improving intuitions so they are expert-like in content. Maybe there are no upstream barriers to irrelevant influences. And maybe there are no downstream quality controls. But philosophers do spend time drawing distinctions, clarifying meanings, proposing analogies, highlighting logical form, etc. All of these influence what is found to be intuitively compelling.

You are reading Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. You share his intuitive judgment about the Gödel-Schmidt case. Now you acquire the kind of evidence that your intuition is influenced by irrelevant factors provided by experimental philosophers. Should you suspend your judgment about the case? No. You also know that you, but not the participants in the survey, have just read through Lecture 1 of Naming and Necessity (the case occurs in Lecture 2) and so benefit from relevant stage setting that helps you to see more clearly what to say about the case. Even if you’ve gained evidence that your intuition is influenced by irrelevant factors, you haven’t gained evidence about how those factors will interact with other factors you know to be present.

2 Comments

  1. “ Maybe there are no upstream barriers to irrelevant influences. And maybe there are no downstream quality controls. But philosophers do spend time drawing distinctions, clarifying meanings, proposing analogies, highlighting logical form, etc. All of these influence what is found to be intuitively compelling.”

    Very interesting post! But I wonder that if we concede both of the above points, we have a “garbage-in, garbage-out” situation. If there are no upstream barriers to irrelevant influence and similarly no downstream quality controls, how aren’t all of distinctions, clarifications, etc. philosophers draw all just doing this with fundamentally bad data? What’s the point of drawing clarifications, distinctions, etc., if (by hypothesis) you have no upstream or downstream check on whether the data you are applying them to is any good to begin with?

    Relatedly, how does the final part of the proposal here—that applying philosophical methods to data without any external controls on whether the data is any good—not amount to a kind of epistemic coherentism and the fatal problems it runs into: namely, that there are many different ways of rendering the same data coherent, none of which (without external controls) you have any grounds to take to be more veridical than any of the others? Sure, philosophical methods may “influence what is found to be intuitively compelling.” But what we want to know is whether the way that philosophy influences what is intuitively compelling bears any relation to the truth—and I worry that once we concede that there are no upstream or downstream checks on the methods themselves, then there are no grounds for thinking this: no grounds for thinking that what philosophy influences us to find intuitive is likely to be true simpliciter, not to mention any more likely to be true than the intuitions we had to begin with before we applied philosophical methods to them.

    • Hi Marcus,

      Thank you for your comment, it raises a number of important points. As a preliminary to thinking through some of them, let me try to make my reasoning a bit more explicit than I did in the original post. Consider the following:

      [1] If it intuitively seems to you that p, then you thereby have prima facie justification for believing that p.

      [2] Evidence that it intuitively seems to you that p because of an irrelevant factor constitutes an epistemic defeater only if it is evidence that your intuition is unreliable.

      [3] If you know that your intuition is influenced by many other factors as well, then evidence that it intuitively seems to you that p because of an irrelevant factor is not yet evidence that your intuition is unreliable.

      If we have [1], [2], and [3], then the thought about the experimental challenge is this: typically, we do know that intuitions that occur in philosophical practice are influenced by many factors other than the irrelevant factors isolated in the x-phi surveys. My focus in the post and its predecessors was on getting the right perspective on this. The influences need not be upstream barriers or downstream filters, but, (maybe unwisely) sticking with the metaphor, can be midstream determiners of intuitive content.

      One might challenge [1], [2], or [3]. I’ll assume [1] and [2] here. [1] hinges on more general epistemic commitments. [2] is closely related to ideas nicely developed in Katia Vavova’s paper, “Irrelevant Influences.” Some of what you write suggests you might doubt [3]. For example, maybe only something like the following is true:

      [3′] If you know that your intuition is influenced by many other factors as well & you know that these factors are truth-conducive, then evidence that it intuitively seems to you that p because of an irrelevant factor is not yet evidence that your intuition is unreliable.

      I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about [3′]. There are different ways to interpret the addition. My suspicion is that either it’ll be too strong or it’ll be a condition we do in fact meet. For example, if the knowledge must be about the specific proposition that p and cannot itself rely on any intuitions, then I think [3′] is too strong. On the other hand, if the knowledge can be general–e.g. drawing distinctions often helps–and can rely on intuitions, then I think [3′] can easily be met. There will be a variety of in-between principles, and it isn’t clear what to say in advance of the details.

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