Is Intuition to Philosophy as Observation is to Science?
Min-Jun Kang, Korea International School: Jeju Campus, South Korea
Second place runner up to the 2020 Philosophy Prize | 8 min read
When asked what characterizes the empirical sciences, it is often said that its reliance upon observations serves as the answer. When the same is asked of philosophy, many philosophers hold that the answer lies in philosophy’s dependence upon our intuitions. Naturally, then, the question arises: is observation to science as intuition is to philosophy? To answer this question, I will analyze and compare the roles assigned to observation and intuition in science and philosophy, respectively. After such examination, I come to the conclusion that as there are roles that only intuition serves and not observation, their contributions in their respective fields are not analogous to each other.
Before discussing what roles intuition and observation have, however, it must first be granted that the two do indeed have their places in scientific and philosophical inquiry. As such, the scientific and philosophical method and whether observation and intuition contribute to them must be examined beforehand.
Scientific Theorization and Evaluation
The scientific method, in contemporary literature, is identified with two steps: theorization and evaluation (Dorling & Miller, 1981; Gieseler, Loschelder, & Friese, 2019; Popper, 2002). Scientists first start their inquiry by postulating rational theoretical systems that, in accordance with reason, explain observations (Gieseler, Loschelder, & Friese, 2019; Popper, 2002; Staley, 2014). In the process, scientists follow what I call Theory Constructing Principles (TCPs). TCPs are the necessary principles of reason that allow scientists to think rationally. Without TCPs, the very rules of reason, no rational theorization can take place. Thus, by constructing rational theories, all scientists follow TCPs.
After scientists hypothesize theories, they discern the most plausible ones. They carry out this evaluation by using what I call various Theory Evaluation Principles (TEPs): generally, scientists prefer theories that do not contradict empirical observations, that are falsifiable, precise, parsimonious, and in agreement with corroborated theories (Gieseler, Loschelder, & Friese, 2019; Popper, 2002). Theories displaying these virtues laid out in TEPs, are favored over theories that fail to do so. As both theory construction and evaluation are closely related to observation, it seems reasonable to conclude that observation is at the core of the scientific method.
Philosophical Theorization and Evaluation
Philosophers generally believe that philosophical inquiry can be broken down into three major steps: philosophers first canvass intuitions, then construct rational theories that systematize them, and lastly evaluate their plausibilities (Bealer, 1998). Simply put, philosophical inquiry also involves a theorization-and-assessment process.
As there cannot be any form of rational theorization without the basic principles of reason, philosophers—in constructing rational theories—follow TCPs as well. Furthermore, after their construction, philosophical theories undergo an evaluation process in which philosophers apply their own TEPs: generally, philosophers prefer theories that are largely in agreement with intuitions, that are precise and ontologically parsimonious (Carroll & Markosian, 2010; Pust, 2000). As such, intuition also is deeply connected with the philosophical method in both the theory construction and evaluation process. Therefore, it seems, observation and intuition have their rightful places in science and philosophy, respectively.
With this established, to answer the question on whether intuition in philosophy is analogous to observation in science, I will specify the conditions that allow intuition to be similar to observation. If intuition in philosophy lacks the epistemic status observation enjoys in science, or vice versa, an affirmative answer to the question will not be available. Thus, in order for one to be justified in claiming that intuition’s role philosophy is similar to observation’s role science, intuition must satisfy the two following conditions:
Intuition in philosophy must not lack any of the roles taken up by observation in science.
2. Intuition’s role in philosophy must not exceed the roles taken up by observation in science.
The First Condition: Roles Both Observation and Intuition Serve
Observation’s Roles: Explanandum and Evidence
As mentioned before, theories exist as the explanans that explain observational data. Consequently, in constructing theories, observation takes on the role as the explanandum, i.e., that which is to be explained. As the purpose of a theory lies in explaining observational data, observation is one of the most important pieces of evidence scientists use to test the theory’s validity. Therefore, it could be said that observation, in science, takes up the role as (ⅰ) the explanandum and (ⅱ) the evidence that evaluates a theory’s validity.
To give a thoughtful answer to the question, intuition and observation’s role in their respective fields must be examined in depth. Observation’s first role is self-evident: observation is that which is to be explained by scientific theories. However, the second role lacks some clarity. Due to the apparent vagueness of the term ‘evidence’, numerous philosophers, in their attempt to analyze the scientific method, have made many endeavors to precisely identify how observation’s evidential role in theory evaluation is to be understood (Chalmer, 2013; Staley, 2014). Of these efforts, I will discuss two of the most widely held considerations:
Hypothetico-deductivism and Bayesian Personalism.
Hypothetico-deductivism on Observation as Evidence. In Hypothetico-deductivism (HD), during their evaluation process, theories are subject to rigorous testing as scientists actively seek to falsify them by finding observational data that contradict their predictions (Popper, 2002). If a theory’s predictions are at odds with actual observations—and thus fail to satisfy the first TEP as laid out before—it is rejected regardless of whether or not it satisfies the rest of the TEPs. By shaving off false theories through rigorous testing, scientists conversely seek to select theories that are consistent with empirical observations. These unfalsified theories—although they never could, in principle, be proven to be true—are among the best, most plausible ones available to scientists. As such, in the theory evaluation process, observation serves as the evidence—perhaps the most important one—that indicates which theories are false and which theories are most plausible.
Bayesian Personalism on Observation as Evidence. On the contrary, in Bayesian Personalism (BP), the main focus of theory evaluation is on who determines whether a theory must be accepted or not. A theory’s validity is determined by scientists and “ [the] subjective probabilities [, i.e.,] measures of subjective degrees of belief[, they assign to theories]” (Dorling & Miller, 1981, p. 110). In the evaluation process, empirical observation influences probabilities scientists assign to theories by strengthening or weakening scientists’ degree of belief in the theories in question (Dorling & Miller, 1981). As such, the evidential role of observation is to shape a theory’s subjective probability assigned by scientists, i.e., to persuade scientists.
Intuition’s Role: Explanandum and Evidence
In philosophy, it is widely accepted that “theories are designed to … explain [intuitions]” (Bealer, 1987, p. 312). Moreover, intuition—in philosophical argumentation—is presented as evidence for or against theories (Bealer, 1998; Pust, 2000). Thus, it could be said that intuition, in philosophy, takes up the role as (ⅰ) the explanandum and (ⅱ) the evidence that evaluates a theory’s validity.
The evidential role of intuition displays the same sense of ambiguity that was seen in the evidential role of observation. Therefore, I will further analyze the evidential status of intuition according to the two interpretations of the scientific method discussed before: HD and BP.
Hypothetico-deductivism on Intuition as Evidence. HD could characterize intuition’s role as evidence similar to how it describes the evidential role of observation in science. Philosophers “argue for [a theory] by showing that [what] it implies … is indicated by… intuitive judgements … [and] against the correctness of a theory by producing a … case [or cases] about which intuition disagrees with the theory in question” (Pust, 2000, p. 3). As a good theory must account for all the evidence, i.e., intuitions (Bealer, 1998), philosophers would reject falsified theories whose entailments contradict intuitive judgements. On the other hand, theories that are consistent with our intuitions would be considered to be strongly supported (Pust, 2000). Thus, intuition, in HD, could be interpreted as the evidence that either falsifies or strongly favors certain philosophical theories. HD’s interpretation of intuition’s evidential role seems to closely resemble its interpretation of observation’s evidential role: both intuition and observation either support or falsify theories in their respective fields.
Bayesian Personalism on Intuition as Evidence. In BP as well, intuition could be interpreted to take on an evidential role that closely resembles that of observation. When philosophers are persuaded by intuition to believe in the truth of a theory, BP could emphasize the philosophers—the subjects in philosophical evaluation—and the evidential role intuition has in influencing their degree of belief. Intuition would form a theory’s subjective probability by strengthening or weakening a scientist’s degree of belief in the theory. Therefore, in BP, similar to how observation influences scientists, intuition would have the evidential role of persuading philosophers and thereby shaping a theory’s probability. As such, intuition seems to satisfy the first condition: intuition in philosophy, like observation in science, is the explanandum and the evidence used in theory evaluation in both HD and BP.
The Second Condition: Roles Only Intuition Serves
Intuition as the basis of philosophical theories
The epistemic weight intuition has in philosophical theory construction is quite distinct from that of observation in scientific theorization. As Bealer notes, philosophical inquiry starts from canvassing intuitions and proceeds to theorization by systematizing those intuitions (Bealer, 1998). Philosophical theories, in other words, are rooted in intuition. The only interpretation of the scientific method in which theories are derived from observations is inductivism (Chalmers, 2013). However, both Hypothetico-deductivists and Bayesian Personalists unanimously accept the glaring problems of induction presented by Hume and others (Dorling & Miller, 1981; Popper, 2002). Consequently, both views reject inductivism and would dare not describe scientific theories as being rooted in observational data. Thus, in both HD and BP, intuition serves an additional role that observation does not: intuition is the basis of philosophical theories.
Intuition in the Justification and Identification of TEPs and TCPs
Furthermore, intuition is responsible for much of the justification and identification processes of TEPs and TCPs. In many cases, philosophers—without rational justification—simply have the intuition that there are some theories that are better than others; that there are common qualities those theories possess which make them better; and perhaps most importantly, that philosophers know what those qualities are (Bealer, 1998; Carroll & Markosian, 2010). Simply put, much of the attempts at identifying and justifying TEPs rely on intuition. For example, in discussing the reasons philosophers adhere to the principle of theoretical parsimony, Carroll and Markosian write, “many philosophers just prefer a leaner, meaner ontology” (2010, p. 213).
Not only this, but the only evidence philosophers can offer for TCPs are exclusively their intuitions. Philosophers have the intuition that some truths are necessary for rational theory construction; that those truths cannot be false; and that philosophers know which ones they are. As Bealer writes, “[out of the] many alleged principles of logic and linguistic theory … [a philosopher] tell[s] which ones are true … ultimately by using intuition as evidence” (1987, p.310). Despite intuition’s intricate connection to TEPs and TCPs, observation enjoys no such relationship. Although observation can be used to evaluate theories, it itself cannot justify why it can be used as evidence. These are matters reserved for rational, and intuitive justifications. Furthermore, empirical observation, by definition, has no part in constructing a priori principles of reason as well (BonJour, 1998).
Thus intuition’s role in philosophy can be summarized as the following:
intuition, in philosophy, takes up the role as (ⅰ) the explanandum, (ⅱ) the evidence that evaluates a theory’s validity, (ⅰⅰⅰ) the basis of philosophical theories, and (ⅳ) the evidence for the justification and the identification of TEPs and (ⅴ) TCPs.
There may be additional roles assigned to intuition and observation that I have failed to mention. Some may be assigned to both. However, as I have demonstrated, these three roles assigned to intuition that I have laid out are not to be found in observation. Moreover, it seems that these fundamental discrepancies are too great to be simply discarded as trivial. Consequently, regardless of any additional roles of intuition and observation I may have overlooked, intuition fails to fulfil the second condition. Therefore, the conclusion must be as follows: intuition in philosophy is not analogous to observation in science.
1 The principles of logic, arithmetic, geometry, set theory, modality, probability, etc.
2 Dorling & Miller, 1981; Gieseler, Loschelder, & Friese, 2019; Popper, 2002
3 Gieseler, Loschelder, & Friese, 2019; Popper, 2002; Staley, 2014
4 Popper, 2002
5 Popper, 2002
6 Popper, 2002
7 Pust, 2000
8 Concerning intuition’s contribution to the justification and identification of TEPs, I do not wish to imply that intuition is the only evidence philosophers can offer. Unlike TCPs, some philosophers do provide other rational justifications for some TEPs apart from mere intuitions.
9 The principle of theoretical parsimony states that theories, preferably, should be ontologically parsimonious and must not posit entities beyond necessity. This principle is stated in TEPs listed above.
10 Bealer, 1998; Carroll & Markosian, 2010
Bealer, G. (1987). The Philosophical Limits of Scientific Essentialism. Philosophical Perspectives, 1, 289-365. doi:10.2307/2214149
Bealer, G. (1998). Intuition and the Autonomy of Philosophy. In DePaul, M., & Ramsey, W. (eds.), Rethinking Intuition: The Psychology of Intuition and Its Role in Philosophical Inquiry. pp. 201-240.
BonJour, L. (1998). In Defense of Pure Reason. Cambridge University Press.
Carroll, J. W., & Markosian, N. (2010). An Introduction to Metaphysics. Cambridge University Press.
Chalmer, A. F. (2013). What is this thing called Science? (4th ed.). University of Queensland Press.
Dorling, J., & Miller, D. (1981). Bayesian Personalism, Falsificationism, and the Problem of Induction. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 55, 109-141. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4106855.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_SYC-5187% 252Ftest&refreqid=excelsior%3A034b8233ec77dfcbdabe67ef272d7197
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