Is Intuition to Philosophy as Observation is to Science?
Ali Haider, Wallington County Grammar School, United Kingdom
Third place for the 2020 Philosophy Prize | 7 min read
Urging the question is a reasonable enough suggestion: rather as empirical observation in science provides the basis for the evaluation of hypotheses concerning the workings of the physical universe, intuition would similarly seem to operate as a sounding board for the evaluation of arguments and theories (normative, of mind, knowledge, art, inter alia) in philosophy. But in order to better assess whether both entities occupy the same functional roles in their respective disciplines beyond this prima facie symmetry, it is necessary to submit either to a sort of truth-conditional analysis of its uses.
‘Observation’ in this discussion refers to the empirical data-gathering procedures – fieldwork, experiment, simulation, etc. – which, aided by the use of sophisticated technical instruments, form the basis of conventional scientific practice. A suitable definition of ‘intuition’, which in the literature has been variously interpreted as a belief, a disposition to believe, and even a wholly sui generis mental state, is more difficult. However, as a working definition that best establishes a comparable functional role to ‘observation’ in science, an intuition may be described as a mental state approaching ‘surmise’, a kind of pre-theoretical impression about a state of affairs, often though not always with isolable propositional content, and of variable conviction and sophistication.
This discussion will focus on some of the more pressing and, in the author’s estimation, interesting threats to the intuition-observation symmetry, with particular emphasis on the incommensurability of data and the nature of falsification and academic consensus.
Resisting falsification in philosophy
One possible asymmetry between intuition and empirical observation is that the former is functionally impotent in respect of falsifying erroneous theories, unlike empirical data.
Essential to the scientific method is the notion that observation provides the fundamental basis for the evaluation of hypotheses. Specific, falsifiable hypotheses are subjected by a community of trained peers to several rounds of experimental scrutiny. The presence of any data directly contrary to the closely defined expectations of a hypothesis will begin to provide grounds for disconfirmation. Sufficient replication of disconfirmatory results will entirely annihilate its chances of widespread acceptance within a scientific community. As such, empirical observation may be imputed to bear the functional role of falsifying erroneous scientific theories.
In philosophy, however, while one’s intuitions about a matter are sometimes treated as providing a sort of prima facie justification for believing a proposition, they might similarly contravene a particular argument’s conclusions, but with no necessary consequences for the argument’s veracity.
Consider William Macaskill’s simple hypothetical concerning whether an agent should save a multi-million-pound Picasso or a child from a burning building. On a utilitarian framework, the likelier prescription, ceteris paribus, would probably be to save the painting, for the money acquired from its sale could be reliably used to purchase several anti-malaria bed nets for vulnerable African children, and unambiguously save many more lives. Nevertheless, for various intuitive reasons, most agents would probably be more inclined to rescue the child.
However, despite the inconsistency between the utilitarian conclusion and quite plausibly an overwhelmingly popular contrary intuition, such an incompatibility alone does not necessarily disconfirm the utilitarian verdict, or the utility calculus at large, as with incongruous evidence in science. One can, in moves resembling Strawson’s distinction concerning ‘descriptive and revisionary metaphysics’, choose to defend one’s intuitions, or follow a chain of reasoning to its ultimate conclusions and revise them.
Indeed, it would be no sin for the philosopher not to rule in accordance with strong intuitions, insofar as her conclusions were independently justified. If, as Peter Singer observes, one’s own interests really are no more important than others’, and it would be diminishing greater suffering to procure those anti- malaria bed nets, then perhaps the utilitarian verdict here is correct after all. As per Singer’s ‘escalator of reason’ metaphor, the autonomy of the human reasoning faculty ensures that, over our species’ evolutionary trajectory, the indiscriminate exercise of reason in worldly affairs is liable, eventually, to lead one towards certain difficult conclusions such as this. It seems possible for one to be ‘rationally persuaded’ in this way of the truth of a nonetheless counterintuitive proposition.
But it is also possible that a certain falsificatory impotence is to be expected in ethics, where resisting intuitional pulls is often justified under the guise of systematising one’s judgements.
(Similar intuitional incongruity is also easily demonstrated in, for instance, the philosophy of mind: credence in physicalist and functionalist theories is threatened by strong intuitions about irreducible qualia, perhaps attributable to a species-wide “common-sense dualism”. Yet such intuitional incongruity is again not understood to falsify these theories which, indeed, are popular philosophical positions.) However, conceding a falsificatory impotence to intuition in even one major philosophical domain like ethics is sufficient to substantially disturb the intuition-observation symmetry.
Of course, if no other intuitions were involved here, this would also suggest that intuitional influences can be resisted altogether in evaluating philosophical theories. But this is not clear; indeed, it might be impossible to accept an argument’s conclusions without some intuitional motivation. Favouring the utilitarian or functionalist options above might appeal to certain, more fundamental intuitions concerning ethical consistency or logical laws, or even be reducible to broader intuitions resembling Kant’s transcendental categories, conditioning one’s experience. Indeed, if every philosophical judgement were intuitionally motivated, the possibility of intuitional falsification would itself be unfalsifiable – one’s intuitions might just happen to accord with the ‘correct’ position every time.
But in assessing intuitions, one would ultimately seem to be confronted with two possibilities:
Either such fundamental, ‘categorical’ intuitions are independently verifiable – i.e., something like the law of non-contradiction may be construed as true independently of one’s experience of the world through it. On this view, siding with categorical intuitions in a philosophical dilemma may be regarded as being non-intuitionally, ‘rationally persuaded’ of a proposition. This means that, rather than a battle between competing intuitions, a real incongruity between a philosophical proposition and the remaining genuine intuition in the dilemma is preserved. Yet because this incongruity cannot alone falsify the theory, intuitions retain their falsificatory impotence.
Or, if every philosophical judgement appeals to some intuition, including ineluctable perceptual categories, no intuition can be shown to be more ‘legitimate’ than another. One cannot demonstrate the validity of the law of non-contradiction because one cannot escape the categorical intuition of non-contradiction. Because of such sceptical concern, one is no more justified in siding with a category-based intuition than any other intuition. Hence, no intuition can be considered legitimate enough to establish from its relation to a theory an incongruity that may give rise to the theory’s falsification, and once again, intuitions retain their falsificatory impotence.
Thus, either because intuitional incongruity may be entirely repudiated or because it is impossible to establish genuine intuitional incongruity, philosophical propositions would not seem to be intuitionally falsifiable. Naturally, moreover, if one cannot distinguish the intuitional circumstances under which a philosophical theory would be false, then one cannot establish conditions for intuitional verification or Popperian ‘corroboration’ of philosophical theories, either.
Resisting falsification in science
But there is another variable that would threaten intuition’s apparently exclusive falsificatory impotence. As Thomas Kuhn observed, in science, observational data can be ‘theory-laden’. In particular, there is a permanent possibility that an observer brings to bear various theoretical presuppositions that filter their perception and conceptualisation of empirical data.
Because these background assumptions are never themselves subject to experimental scrutiny, two scientists belonging to radically different paradigms can interpret the same phenomena as vindicatory of different hypotheses. Thus, “when Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum”. These experiments may be reproduced indefinitely, and yet, because they are unable to distinguish between the conceptual underpinnings of either hypothesis, the empirical data appear consistent with both and unable to falsify either. It would hence seem that, just as intuitions cannot falsify erroneous philosophical theories, the theory-ladenness of observational data constrains their ability to falsify erroneous scientific hypotheses, too.
However, differences in the theoretical presuppositions of competing hypotheses have not always been significant enough to adversely affect predictive power, indicating that their sensitivity to the truth is not significantly compromised by interstitial conceptual details. Famously, Priestley and Lavoisier obtained the same quantitative results in key experiments on combustion, although one was an adherent of the theory of phlogiston, and the other of oxygen.
Additionally, an observer’s theoretical presuppositions can be greatly rectified by subsequent generations when previously overlooked implications of their hypotheses come to conflict with established data. As Popper remarks, competing hypotheses undergo a process resembling natural selection, whereby one is provisionally adopted if it constitutes an improvement over an existing paradigm in respect of explanatory power, and holds promise in respect of predictive power. Crucially, its integration into a field’s multi-paradigm matrix requires the attempted falsification of its most radical predictions, deduced as ‘propositions’ from the initial hypothesis. This hypervigilant screening of hypotheses serves to sustain a longer-term falsificatory potency in science. One might then still reasonably conclude that intuition in philosophy is possessed of a falsificatory impotence not rivalled even by theory-laden observation in science.
One minor concession that might be made in intuition’s favour is that intuitional judgements still exert some influence over an argument’s palatability. The counterintuitive quality of the utilitarian verdict in Macaskill’s dilemma, though not binding one to any conclusion about the argument, might place an added epistemological burden on one who ignores the pull of her intuitions to justify this opposite judgement. This may also explain why philosophers from Grice to Parfit are often compelled to provide ‘error theories’ that ‘explain away’ intuitional incongruity. However, this is still far from occupying the role of outright falsification that empirical observation plays in science.
Another curious aspect of the intuitional character is that it is subject to two kinds of variation not available to its putative empirical counterpart. First, and less consequentially, there is some variation in the importance that is often granted to philosophical intuitions. With respect to fringe ethical scenarios, philosophers – including the aforementioned Singer and Macaskill – sometimes recommend that one should not always rely so closely on one’s intuitions, without the risk of an almighty backlash from their peers, such as one might expect were one to encounter a scientist exhorting others not to consider empirical data.
Secondly, it is an open question whether intuitions have any objective basis, but even supposing they do, philosophy appears to lack a common evaluative framework with which members of the profession might independently reach the same, ‘legitimate’ intuitive judgements. No amount of philosophical analysis seems fit to isolate ‘correct’ intuitions, much less without eroding the common-sense understanding of intuitions as pre-theoretical impressions.
One consequence of the lack of such a framework is that intuitions are in practice subject to a degree of irresolvable individual variation. Thus, two new asymmetries in the functional roles of intuition and observation emerge: first, critical internal disagreement between ‘philosophical data’ is made possible, whereas in science, empirical data are in principle and increasingly in practice assimilable under common theoretical frameworks (although present difficulties in, e.g. reconciling the Standard Model with general relativity may disturb this trend). But inconsistent datasets of this sort also prevent ‘results’ from being reproducible, creating a diffidence towards scholarly consensus in philosophy. By contrast, although Kuhnian paradigm shifts can disturb the solidity of scientific consensus, the truth-sensitivity of scientific practice, evident in the ‘epistemic pruning’ of empirical falsification, contributes to a kind of long-term consensus hitherto unseen in philosophy.
It is difficult to glean the precise influence of intuition over all philosophical inquiry. The philosopher finds herself in the unusual position of being swayed by intuitional data, even conjuring error theories to account for them, in a discipline in which confirmatory intuitional data are not even an explicit sine qua non of theoretical legitimacy.
However, intuitional judgements would at least seem to vary significantly enough in nature and application as to occupy a different functional role from observation. This is epitomised in the relevant dissimilarities of being incommensurable, indisposed to scholarly consensus, and unable to falsify erroneous theories.
Because it is not possible to demonstrate exhaustively over the course of an essay of this sort whether falsification through intuitional judgement is really impossible in all areas of philosophy, the author has elected instead (with relevant qualifications to his argument) to survey moral philosophy and, briefly, philosophy of mind, to provide an indication of the scope of such a criticism.
1 Pust, Joel, "Intuition", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Ed.), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), (https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/intuition/)
2 More contentious is the claim that empirical data serves to ‘verify’ hypotheses it is consistent with, as Popper noted. Because of the inductive nature of scientific practice, one can at most assert that theory-data consistency may serve to ‘corroborate’ a theory, resulting in its provisional adoption and possible retention after repeated attempts at falsification – and even then, only as a ‘working model’ of the phenomenon in question, and not holy writ.
3 William Macaskill, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference (Guardian Faber, 2016)
4 Let it be assumed that the funds obtained from the auctioning of the painting could be counted upon to save more lives, with no extraneous factors tipping the utility calculus in the other direction (one might, for instance, donate to a GiveWell-approved charity such as the Against Malaria Foundation).
5 Peter Frederick Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (Routledge, 1964)
6 Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 135-137
7 Paul Bloom, Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (Penguin, 2011), pp.191-192
8 Bourget, D., Chalmers, D.J., ‘What do philosophers believe?’, Philosophical Studies Vol. 170, pp. 465–500 (2014) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-013-0259-7
9 Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge, 2002, 2nd ed.), pp. 248-252
10 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 2012, 4th ed.), pp. 111-113
11 Ibid. pp. 121-122
12 Ibid. pp. 112-115
13 Conant, J.B., (ed.) “The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775–1789,” in J.B. Conant and L.K. Nash (eds.), Harvard Studies in Experimental Science, vol. I, (Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 74–80
14 Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, pp. 90-92
16 Climenhaga, Nevin, ‘Intuitions are Used as Evidence in Philosophy’, Mind, Vol. 127, Issue 505, January 2018, pp. 69–104, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzw032
17 Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 50-52
Bloom, P., Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (Penguin, 2011)
Bourget, D., Chalmers, D.J., ‘What do philosophers believe?’, Philosophical Studies Vol. 170, pp. 465–500 (2014) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-013-0259-7
Climenhaga, Nevin, ‘Intuitions are Used as Evidence in Philosophy’, Mind, Vol. 127, Issue 505, January 2018, pp. 69–104, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzw032
Conant, J.B., (ed.) “The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775– 1789,” in J.B. Conant and L.K. Nash (eds.), Harvard Studies in Experimental Science, vol. 1 (Harvard University Press, 1957)
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 2012)
Macaskill, W., Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference (Guardian Faber, 2016)
Popper, K., The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge, 2002)
Pust, Joel, "Intuition", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Ed.), Edward N.Zalta (ed.), (https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/intuition/)
Singer, P., The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (Princeton University Press, 2011)
Strawson, P.F., Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (Routledge, 1964)