Challenging How Intuitions are Used

One required reading for Ernest Sosa’s presentation is Jonathan Weinberg’s “How to Challenge Intuitions Empirically Without Risking Skepticism.” In this paper, Weinberg argues intuitions are hopeless as sources of evidence. A source of evidence is hopeful to the extent it can detect and correct errors in its use. Vision is used as an example of such a capacity. Though vision is fallible it has checks and balances that mitigate against its fallibility (i.e. provide data on when it is fallible and compensate for its fallibility). So, perception is a “hopeful” source of evidence. Weinberg suggests that if a source of evidence is “hopeless” it should not be trusted.

(H): Any putative source of evidence that is hopeless ought not be trusted (p. 327).

Why should we affirm (H)? Without philosophical methods, and the evidence they are based on, possessing self-correcting abilities errors remain undetected and an entire discipline can get off track, chasing futile lines of reasoning. There is no good way to resolve disagreements between theorists when they are using hopeless sources of evidence. Positively formulated, there are four ways our practices can avoid being hopeless. These criteria are considered sources of hope.

  • External Corroboration: Verifiable against fact and theory.
  • Internal Coherence: Agreement both within and across subjects. Ability to filter outliers, inconsistencies and contradictions.
  • Detectability of Margins: Zones of reliability are clearly demarcated.
  • Theoretical Illumination: Understanding why the thing works when it works and why it doesn’t work when it doesn’t.

Weinberg argues intuition fails to affirm principle (H) for reasons I won’t rehearse in detail. Basically, intuition fails to consist in the aforementioned sources of hope. I will argue that intuition taken as a stand-alone source of evidence is hopeless, but intuition is hopeful when embed within the practice of reflective equilibrium.

So that I’m not talking past Weinberg (a complaint he levels against defenders of intuition), it’s important to keep the target before us. Weinberg is targeting a narrow range of the use of intuitions (e.g. Gettier cases, Searle’s Chinese room, Davidson’s Swampman). Weinberg is not an outright skeptic of intuitions, hence the title of his paper, rather he is skeptical of the way philosophers have used intuitions. He claims philosophers use intuitions as foundational bits of evidence, which do not require further defense or empirical justification. Specific intuitions about specific cases are used to argue for or against a particular claim. If philosophers actually use intuitions in this way, then I agree with Weinberg that the practice is hopeless. I also agree with Weinberg that, “hope does not always come from intrinsic aspects of the source of evidence itself so much as from the particular practices of using it” (p. 331). Yet, Weinberg fails to argue that Searle and Davidson were using intuition in the limited sense, as foundational bits of evidence, to support their philosophical theories. Without this argument another plausible interpretation of philosophers’ use of intuition is that intuition is being used pragmatically.

Philosophers may be using intuitions in a way that roughly mirrors reflective equilibrium (RE). This becomes clearer as one zooms in and out of the arc of a philosopher’s argument, as one views her whole body of work and as one traces how her thought progressed based on critical dialogue with other philosophers. Disagreement prompts revision and refinement. In such a practice, intuitions serve as revisable bits of data. Confidence in particular intuitions about particular cases may vary depending on how an intuition relates to the whole set of data. Intuitions feed the inference machine by providing a practical starting point for the formation of a robust theory or form of epistemic justification. I could make a stronger case for this point by specifically showing how Searle and Davidson are using intuitions in this way, but, for now, the mere plausibility that this is what is happening is enough to cast doubt that both proponents and opponents of intuition know what they are doing when they are using intuitions. I hold that they are using intuitions as useful heuristics or first approximations. These approximations often alert philosophers and their audience that something else must be accounted for—that there is a need for additional reasoning, theorizing and analysis.

Finally, I will argue intuitions are hopeful when used as bits of evidence within the method of reflective equilibrium. Intuitions gain their hope within RE because RE is a practice that exhibits all four criteria of hope.

  • External Corroboration: Empirical facts and a wide range of theories are considered; adjustments to one’s total set of evidence are made in light of these considerations.
  • Internal Coherence: To quote Rawls, the goal of reflection is, “a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into one coherent view” (TJ, p. 21).
  • Detectability of Margins: Conditions prone to error are filtered out as intuitions become considered judgments. Initial confidence in what seems the case is refined as intuitions are thrown out that were made under conditions of emotional duress, conflicts of interest and other distorting factors. Further, the margins of correctness are determined as inference proceeds and inconsistencies between judgments, principles and theories are spotted and corrected.
  • Theoretical Illumination: Logical inference, belief revision and folk psychology provide a theoretical canvas to explain the success and failure of trying to reach a mutually coherent set of judgments, principles and theories.

My contention is that philosophers implicitly, and poorly, use a method that approximates reflective equilibrium when deliberating and justifying their claims. Instead of going back and forth about whether armchair philosophy is valid or whether what seems to be the case varies according to socio-economic demographics our efforts will be better spent refining what philosophers naturally do. That is, the method of reflective equilibrium needs to be made more rigorous or it needs to be abandoned. But, if it is abandoned, a suitable alternative needs to be put in place. Currently, I am not aware of a more robust method of justification. Such a method is not found by arguing about intersubjective agreement, trying to locate the source of origination of intuitions or trying to determine when intuitions work as stand-alone (foundational) sources of evidence. Rather, our efforts will be better spent refining the method of reflective equilibrium.

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