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
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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