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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Intuition in Philosophy

Intuition has an interesting role in philosophy, particularly analytic philosophy. One of its functions is epistemic. It's used to test various assumptions and conclusions in philosophy for validity or truth. If something fails to stand up to intuition the propositions in question get dismissed.

There's also a good deal of literature in a field known as "experimental philosophy". The research often takes the form of surveys to different groups of individuals (intro to philosophy students, professional philosophers, etc). The purpose of the surveys is to assess what "intuitions" people have. What the research tends to indicate is that intuitions vary greatly between groups depending upon a variety of circumstances (culture, philosophical exposure, etc.)

I've always despised the use of intuition in philosophy. (Perhaps it just didn't seem correct, intuitively!) I've often felt that intuition lacks much in the way of epistemic value. Part of this is may stem from the fact that I have background and affinity to math and science. Mathematicians, physicists and other scientists often draw conclusions which are counter-intuitive. When this occurs, the scientists will often accept the counter-intuitive result and reject the intuition. This is completely opposite of the method of physicists.

One particular example that comes from mathematics is the intuition that "every curve has a tangent". Stated in mathematically precise terms, the claim is that every function continuous at point P is also differentiable at point P. Mathematicians eventually constructed functions which are everywhere continuous but nowhere differentiable. (See the Weierstrass function as an example.)

Mathematicians have accepted result and rid themselves of the "every curve has a tangent" intuitions. I suspect if philosophers (at least those who sympathize with intuition) had derived the result they would have concluded the result was intuitively false and would have to decided to search for different definitions for "continuous" and "differentiable" (ones that would make the intuition valid). I suspect they would still be searching for such definitions.

My own take on intuitions can be summarized by a quote attributed to Einstein:

Intuition is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.
The actual quote attributed replaces "common sense" for "intuition" but since there is no source for the quote I'll attribute this version to him.

I think intuitions are little more than a set of beliefs and expectations that we've developed over the years. Many things can influence them. While I'm largely agnostic about the "nature" versus "nurture" part, I tend to lean more toward cultural and experiential aspects to these intuitions.

When I have an intuition (or hear someone using one), my first question is not the validity of the intuition but rather the genealogy of that intuition. I want to know how I came to have such a belief and whether or not I can replace it with something else.

This is not to say that I don't have intuitions but rather that I'm willing to explore other ways of thinking. I often have, what I call, "sympathy" for various sorts of beliefs, some more so than others. These sympathies often conflict with one another. I see no problem with this because I give intuitions very little epistemic status.

One interesting question I have would be this: what would philosophy look like had philosophers not given so much status to intuitions? What if philosophers were more like mathematicians and scientists accepting counter-intuitive result?

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