When Intuitions Are Useful

Part of the se­quence: Ra­tion­al­ity and Philosophy

In this se­ries, I have ex­am­ined how in­tu­itions work so that I can clar­ify how ra­tio­nal­ists1 should and shouldn’t use their in­tu­itions2 when solv­ing philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems. Un­der­stand­ing the cog­ni­tive al­gorithms that gen­er­ate our in­tu­itions can dis­solve tra­di­tional philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems. As Brian Talbot puts it:

...where psy­cholog­i­cal re­search in­di­cates that cer­tain in­tu­itions are likely to be in­ac­cu­rate, or that whole cat­e­gories of in­tu­itions are not good ev­i­dence, this will over­all benefit philos­o­phy. This has the po­ten­tial to re­solve some prob­lems due to con­flict­ing in­tu­itions, since some of the con­flict­ing in­tu­itions may be shown to be un­re­li­able and not to be taken se­ri­ously; it also has the po­ten­tial to free some do­mains of philos­o­phy from the bur­den of hav­ing to con­form to our in­tu­itions, a bur­den that has been too heavy to bear in many cases...3

Know­ing how in­tu­itions work can also tell us some­thing about how we can train them to make them ren­der more ac­cu­rate judg­ments.4

Prob­lems with intuition

In most philos­o­phy, in­tu­itions play the role that ob­ser­va­tions do in sci­ence: they sup­port and un­der­mine var­i­ous the­o­ries.5 Con­cep­tual analy­ses are re­jected when in­tu­itive coun­terex­am­ples are pre­sented. Mo­ral the­o­ries are re­jected when they lead to in­tu­itively re­volt­ing re­sults. The­o­ries of mind and lan­guage and meta­physics rise and fall de­pend­ing on how well they can be made to fit our in­tu­itions, even in bizarre sci­ence fic­tion hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nar­ios.6

But why trust our in­tu­itions? Our in­tu­itions of­ten turn out to con­tra­dict each other,7 or they are con­tra­dicted by em­piri­cal ev­i­dence,8 or they vary be­tween peo­ple and be­tween groups of peo­ple.9 Com­pared to sci­en­tific meth­ods, the philoso­pher’s use of in­tu­itions as his pri­mary tool doesn’t seem to have been very pro­duc­tive.10 Also, we can’t cal­ibrate our in­tu­itions, be­cause wher­ever we have a non-in­tu­ition stan­dard against which to cal­ibrate our in­tu­itions, we don’t need to use in­tu­ition in the first place.11 More­over, philoso­phers have typ­i­cally known very lit­tle about where their in­tu­itions come from, and why they should trust them in the first place!12

Defen­ders of in­tu­ition­ist philos­o­phy re­ply that we can’t do philos­o­phy with­out in­tu­itions.13 Others point out that we have similar wor­ries about the re­li­a­bil­ity of of sense per­cep­tion.14 But these replies do not solve the prob­lem. As Talbot says,3 these re­sponses “give us rea­sons to want to trust in­tu­itions… but no ev­i­dence that they are par­tic­u­larly re­li­able or use­ful.”

The way for­ward is not to give a pri­ori ar­gu­ments for or against the use of in­tu­itions. The way for­ward is to ex­plore what cog­ni­tive sci­ence can tell us about how our in­tu­itions work (as we’ve been do­ing) so that we have some idea about when they work and when they don’t.

What is in­tu­ition?

But first, what is this ‘in­tu­ition’ we’re talk­ing about? Defi­ni­tions of ‘in­tu­ition’ abound.15

In 2008, Eliezer wrote a post about the ‘in­tu­itions’ be­hind util­i­tar­i­anism. He re­sponded to a critic who used the word ‘in­tu­ition’ in a very broad sense—per­haps mean­ing all thoughts and seem­ings. But when we use the word so broadly, then the word is not so use­ful any­more—like the word ‘god’ af­ter you’ve re­defined it to mean ‘a higher power’. When I talk about ‘in­tu­ition’, I want to talk about in­tu­ition in a more spe­cific and use­ful way (as Eliezer would ap­pre­ci­ate16).

But we don’t need to ar­gue about defi­ni­tions. We can use stipu­la­tion. We can ar­gue about the sub­stance rather than the sym­bol.

For now, let’s think of the thing we’re in­ves­ti­gat­ing as the seem­ing to be true of some propo­si­tion due to an opaque men­tal pro­cess (and not mem­ory or per­cep­tion). After all, if in­tu­itions were trans­par­ent, we could just point to the things that ground them as ev­i­dence, and the in­tu­itions them­selves would add no weight of their own to our ev­i­dence.3

When in­tu­itions are useful

As we are dis­cussing it, an in­tu­ition is a judg­ment that springs from the un­con­scious. And from where does the un­con­scious get its judg­ments? From evolu­tion17 and from un­con­scious learn­ing18 and from at­tribute sub­sti­tu­tion heuris­tics.19

Be­fore con­sid­er­ing how these sources of in­tu­itions make them un­suit­able for many of their pop­u­lar uses in philos­o­phy, let’s ac­knowl­edge how effec­tive in­tu­itions are in some situ­a­tions.

Fa­mil­iar­ity with re­cent cog­ni­tive sci­ence has led many to con­clude that “be­ing more an­a­lytic and less in­tu­itive should help you to de­velop more effec­tive and re­ward­ing solu­tions.”20 But re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tions have lo­cated a few cir­cum­stances in which in­tu­itions out­perform con­sid­ered judg­ments.

In one study, bas­ket­ball ex­perts asked to make spon­ta­neous pre­dic­tions about the out­comes of a bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment made more ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tions than those asked to de­liber­ate care­fully about their pre­dic­tions.21 Other stud­ies on in­tu­ition vs. de­liber­a­tion have found in­tu­ition ‘win­ning’ on tests of cer­tain kinds of face recog­ni­tion,22 route recog­ni­tion,23 and voice recog­ni­tion,24 while de­liber­a­tion ‘won’ on tests of sub­ad­di­tivity prob­a­bil­ity judg­ments,25 raf­fle-win­ning prob­a­bil­ity judg­ments,26 quan­tity es­ti­ma­tion,27 pic­ture recog­ni­tion,28 con­junc­tions and dis­junc­tions,29 and con­di­tional in­fer­ences.30

Bet­ter-sup­ported is a trend in re­search which finds that when se­lect­ing prod­ucts to to take home with us, we end up feel­ing more satis­fied with our choice if we made it us­ing in­tu­ition rather than a con­scious pro­cess of weigh­ing pros and cons, costs and benefits.31

And if you’re try­ing to avoid col­li­sions or catch a base­ball, you’re bet­ter off act­ing on your split-sec­ond in­tu­ition than try­ing to calcu­late the physics of mov­ing ob­jects.32

Some au­thors have sug­gested other, very spe­cific do­mains in which in­tu­ition may sur­pass the ac­cu­racy of con­sid­ered judg­ment,33 but these claims are not yet well sub­stan­ti­ated.

You may have no­ticed that the do­mains in which in­tu­ition might ex­cel are not par­tic­u­lar rele­vant to solv­ing philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems. In the next post, we’ll be­gin to ex­am­ine the ways in which in­tu­itions can lead us astray when do­ing philos­o­phy.

Next post: Con­cepts Don’t Work That Way

Pre­vi­ous post: In­tu­itions and Un­con­scious Learning


1 I use the term ‘ra­tio­nal­ists’ as Less Wrong uses the term, not as the main­stream philo­soph­i­cal com­mu­nity uses the term. As Less Wrong uses the term, a ‘ra­tio­nal­ist’ is some­one de­voted to the craft of re­fin­ing their ra­tio­nal­ity by coun­ter­act­ing known cog­ni­tive bi­ases and try­ing to make their be­liefs and de­ci­sions track with tech­ni­cally cor­rect be­liefs and de­ci­sions (defined with refer­ence to, for ex­am­ple, Bayes’ the­o­rem and de­ci­sion the­ory).

2 In the pref­ace of Pless­ner et al. (2009), the au­thors provide a handy list of search terms for those who wish to re­search the sci­ence of in­tu­ition on their own: “un­con­scious per­cep­tions, ‘blind­sight,’ pat­tern recog­ni­tion, in­stinct, au­to­matic pro­cess­ing, ex­pe­ri­en­tial know­ing, tacit knowl­edge, re­li­gious ex­pe­riences, emo­tional in­tel­li­gence, non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, clini­cal di­ag­noses, ‘thin slices of be­hav­ior,’ spon­ta­neous trait in­fer­ences, the ‘mere ex­po­sure’ effect, the pri­macy of af­fect, ‘think­ing too much,’ prim­ing, feel­ings as in­for­ma­tion, im­plicit at­ti­tudes, ex­per­tise, cre­ativity, and the ‘sixth sense.’” They recom­mend the fol­low­ing sources as “ex­cel­lent overviews” for study­ing these terms and ideas: Ba­stick (1982); Davis-Floyd & Arvid­son (1992); Hog­a­rth (2001); My­ers (2002); Wil­son (2002).

3 Talbot (2009).

4 Hog­a­rth (2001, 2007).

5 Cum­mins (1998); Talbot (2009).

6 Talbot (2009) pro­vides a nice lit­tle sum­mary of how in­tu­itions are used in philos­o­phy (I’ve changed his cita­tions to the origi­nal ar­ti­cles in some cases): “In­tu­itions about un­der­stand­ing Chi­nese are used by John Searle to ar­gue against what he calls “strong AI” (Searle, 1980). In the philos­o­phy of ac­tion, in­tu­itions about play­ing video games are used by Michael Brat­man to ar­gue that we can try to do some­thing with­out in­tend­ing to do it (Brat­man, 1987). In­tu­itions are used as counter-ev­i­dence against com­pat­i­bil­ism (Bok, 1998). One of the most fa­mous use of in­tu­itions as counter ev­i­dence comes from episte­mol­ogy: Get­tier cases (Get­tier, 1963). In meta­physics, in­tu­itions are ap­pealed to to ar­gue for the­o­ries of cau­sa­tion (e.g., Lewis, 1973), and against them (by point­ing out that they have counter-in­tu­itive con­se­quences, such as tran­si­tivity) (Hall, 2000). In ethics, Ju­dith Jarvis Thom­son uses in­tu­itions about vi­o­linists and car­pets to ar­gue for her claim that abor­tion can be morally ac­cept­able de­spite hav­ing a right to life (Thom­son, 1971). Bernard Willi­ams uses in­tu­itions about kil­ling rebels as counter-ev­i­dence against util­i­tar­i­anism (Willi­ams & Smart, 1973). In the philos­o­phy of lan­guage, Tyler Burge uses in­tu­itions about “arthri­tis” to ar­gue for mean­ing ex­ter­nal­ism (Burge, 1979), and Saul Kripke uses in­tu­itions about Gödel to ar­gue against a de­scrip­tivist view of names (Kripke, 1972). This list goes on and on.”

7 Sup­pes (1984); Cum­mins (1998).

8 Wis­niewski (1998); Hastie & Dawes (2009); Gilovich (1991); Kah­ne­man, Slovic, & Tver­sky (1982); Nis­bett & Ross (1980); Stanovich (2009).

9 Stich (1988); Wein­berg, Ni­chols, & Stich (2001); Swain, Alexan­der, & Wein­berg (2008).

10 Bishop & Trout (2004); Miller (2000). Talbot (2009) ex­plains: “Con­sider the state of philos­o­phy, they say. There is lit­tle agree­ment on most key is­sues, we have pro­duced few the­o­ries that have been very suc­cess­ful or sur­vived crit­i­cism, and philos­o­phy has ac­com­plished lit­tle of prac­ti­cal sig­nifi­cance in the last few hun­dred years. There is noth­ing about the sub­ject mat­ter of philos­o­phy that makes these re­sults in­evitable; most of us be­lieve that there are an­swers out there to be found, and at least some philo­soph­i­cal dis­ci­plines can pro­duce use­ful re­sults. This gives us rea­son to think that we are study­ing the right stuff but in the wrong way. Some as­pects of our method­ol­ogy – logic and rigor­ous thought – are be­yond crit­i­cism, and thus, they say, the blame for philos­o­phy’s lack of suc­cess falls on our use of in­tu­itions.”

11 Cum­mins (1998); Talbot (forth­com­ing).

12 Cum­mins (1998); Wis­niewski (1998).

13 Sosa (1998); Bealer (1998); BonJour (1998).

14 Sosa (1998); Pust (2000).

15 Bealer (1996) refers to in­tu­itions as a pri­ori seem­ings of the sort by which De Mor­gan’s laws come to seem true to some­one—in­tel­lec­tual seem­ings, not per­cep­tions or imag­i­na­tive seem­ings. Sosa (1998) defines ‘in­tu­ition’ as “non­in­fer­en­tial be­lief due nei­ther to per­cep­tion nor in­tro­spec­tion,” but sees in­tu­ition as fo­cused on ab­stract propo­si­tions: “At t, S has an in­tu­ition that p iff (a) if at t S were merely to un­der­stand fully enough the propo­si­tion that p (ab­sent rele­vant per­cep­tion, in­tro­spec­tion, and rea­son­ing), then S would be­lieve that p; (b) at t, S does un­der­stand the propo­si­tion that p; (c) the propo­si­tion that p is an ab­stract propo­si­tion; and (d) at t, S thinks oc­cur­rently of the propo­si­tion that p (in pro­pria per­sona, not just by de­scrip­tion).” Willi­am­son (2004) de­scribes in­tu­itions as “ap­pli­ca­tions of our or­di­nary ca­pac­i­ties for judg­ment” and says “when con­tem­po­rary an­a­lytic philoso­phers run out of ar­gu­ments, they ap­peal to in­tu­ition.” Gop­nik & Sch­witzgebel (1998) say: “We will call any judg­ment an in­tu­itive judg­ment, or more briefly an in­tu­ition, just in case that judg­ment is not made on the ba­sis of some kind of ex­plicit rea­son­ing pro­cess that a per­son can con­sciously ob­serve. In­tu­itions are judg­ments that grow, rather, out of an un­der­ground pro­cess… that can­not be di­rectly ob­served.” Gold­man & Pust (1998) briefly re­fer to in­tu­itions as “spon­ta­neous moral judg­ments.” Talbot (2009) calls an in­tu­ition “a rel­a­tively un­re­flec­tive re­ac­tion that a propo­si­tion is true or false.” Or, more pre­cisely, he says “an in­tu­ition is the seem­ing to be true (al­though not nec­es­sar­ily ac­cep­tance of or be­lief in) of some propo­si­tion that is not a per­cep­tual seem­ing, or due to con­scious rec­ol­lec­tion, or due en­tirely to trans­par­ent men­tal pro­cesses.” Hog­a­rth (2001) says in­tu­itions “are reached with lit­tle ap­par­ent effort and typ­i­cally with­out con­scious aware­ness. They in­volve lit­tle or no con­scious de­liber­a­tion.” Ac­cord­ing to the ‘as­so­ci­a­tive learn­ing’ view of in­tu­ition, in­tu­ition draws on the whole stream of past ex­pe­riences: Betsch et al. (2004); Betsch & Haber­stroh (2005). Betsch (2007) offers a defi­ni­tion of in­tu­ition from this per­spec­tive: “In­tu­ition is a pro­cess of think­ing. The in­put to this pro­cess is mostly pro­vided by knowl­edge stored in long-term mem­ory that has been pri­mar­ily ac­quired via as­so­ci­a­tive learn­ing. The in­put is pro­cessed au­to­mat­i­cally and with­out con­scious aware­ness. The out­put of the pro­cess is a feel­ing that can serve as aba­sis for judg­ments and de­ci­sions.” Note that the view of in­tu­ition from the heuris­tics and bi­ases per­spec­tive (Kah­ne­man & Fred­er­ick 2002, 2005) and from the as­so­ci­a­tive learn­ing view are gen­er­ally not con­tra­dic­tory but rather com­ple­men­tary. Fi­nally, also see sur­veys of opinion on the na­ture of in­tu­ition, for ex­am­ple Aber­nathy & Hamm (1995).

16 In his post, Eliezer re­sponds to his critic’s broad defi­ni­tion of ‘in­tu­ition’ like this: “Now ‘in­tu­ition’ is not how I would de­scribe the com­pu­ta­tions that un­der­lie hu­man moral­ity and dis­t­in­guish us, as moral­ists, from an ideal philoso­pher of perfect empti­ness and/​or a rock. But I am okay with us­ing the word “in­tu­ition” as a term of art, bear­ing in mind that “in­tu­ition” in this sense is not to be con­trasted to rea­son, but is, rather, the cog­ni­tive build­ing block out of which both long ver­bal ar­gu­ments and fast per­cep­tual ar­gu­ments are con­structed.”

17 The field of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy is rich with can­di­dates for evolu­tion­ar­ily adap­tive psy­cholog­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tions, some more thor­oughly sup­ported by the ev­i­dence than oth­ers. For an overview, see Buss (2011); Dun­bar & Bar­rett (2007).

18 Hog­a­rth (2007); Slo­man (1996); Slo­man (2002); Evans & Over (1996); Stanovich (2004); Mercier & Sper­ber (2009); Betsch (2007); Ep­stein (2007).

19 Kah­ne­man & Fred­er­ick (2002, 2005).

20 Kardes (2002), p. 402.

21 Halber­stadt and Lev­ine (1999). For an overview of similar re­sults, see Pless­ner & Czenna (2007). For older stud­ies, see Am­bady & Rosen­thal (1992).

22 Clare & Le­wandowsky (2004); Fal­lshore & Schooler (1995); Halbert­sadt (2005); Schooler & Engstler-Schooler (1990).

23 Fiore & Schooler (2002).

24 Perfect et al. (2002).

25 Dougherty & Hunter (2003).

26 Wind­s­chitl & Krizan (2005).

27 Gilbert & Rap­poport (1975).

28 Klimesch (1980); Silver­berg & Buchanan (2005).

29 Kruglan­ski & Fre­und (1983).

30 Schroyens et al. (2003).

31 Dijk­ster­huis & van Ol­den (2005); Dijk­ster­huis et al. (2006).

32 Gigeren­zer (2007), ch. 1.

33 Gigeren­zer (2007); Glad­well (2005).


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Bealer (1998). In­tu­ition and the au­ton­omy of philos­o­phy. In De Paul & Ram­sey (eds.), Re­think­ing In­tu­ition. Rowan and Lit­tlefield.

Betsch (2007). The Na­ture of In­tu­ition and Its Ne­glect in Re­search on Judg­ment and De­ci­sion Mak­ing. In Pless­ner, Betsch, & Betsch (eds.), In­tu­ition in Judg­ment and De­ci­sion Mak­ing (pp. 3-22). Psy­chol­ogy Press.

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