Is Intuition a Guide to Truth?

26 August 2014


Before we can answer the question, “Is intuition a guide to truth?” we’ve got to get clear on what exactly we mean by “intuition,” and particularly by the philosopher’s use of this term.

The colloquial sense of intuition is something like an instinct or premonition, a type of perception or feeling that does not depend on—and can often conflict with—conscious reasoning. Our 2012 show “Gut Feelings” with psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer deals with these kind of intuitions, and the role they ought to play in important decision-making.

But there’s another, perhaps less-familiar, sense of “intuition,” which is the kind that philosophers often rely upon, and these are more caught up with conscious reasoning than intuitions of the "gut feeling" variety are. Let’s call this second kind, “intellectual intuitions.” Philosophers often try to use "intuition pumps” (to borrow Daniel Dennett’s term) as a way of defending a particular philosophical analysis of a thought experiment. Let me give an example.

Probably one of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy, inspired by Descartes’ evil demon, is Hilary Putnam’s “Brain in a Vat.”  In it, a living brain is removed from its body, put in a vat of nutrients, and hooked up to a super computer so that it is stimulated in exactly the same ways that normal, embodied brains are. The question is then asked: how would you know, based only on your experience, whether or not you are such a disembodied brain in a vat? Given that we’re hardly going to remove someone’s brain and put it in a vat to find out if there’s an obvious difference in experience, all we can do is think about the case and form an intuition.

As a philosopher, Putnam is rather fond of using these kinds of thought experiments to elicit certain intuitions, though, I have to admit, he usually elicits the "wrong" intuitions in me. In the case of the brain-in-a-vat, the intuition we are supposed to have is that there would be no detectable difference between the experiences of the brain, suitably hooked up and stimulated, and the experiences of a fully embodied person moving about in the world; hence, we cannot escape the radically skeptical conclusion that, for all we know, our perceptions of the world could be completely illusory. (Putnam actually comes to an even more radical conclusion, namely that brains-in-vats couldn't even entertain the thought that they might possibly be brains-in-vats, but we'll leave this aside for now.)

Why suppose intuitions like this are reliable? And what if you don’t share the “correct” intuition? In the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment, you might share Putnam’s intuition if you already endorse a theory that reduces perceptual experience to neuronal processes. But what’s the evidence for that view? Various theories of embodied cognition refute this kind of reductive approach to perception (and its corresponding interpretation of the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment). So, if some version of embodied cognition is correct, then Putnam’s intuition that we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between normal embodied experience and envatted brain experience would just be plain wrong. 

Regardless of what you think about this particular thought experiment, the bigger point is that appealing to intuitions seems like a bad way to do philosophy. First, our intuitions often conflict, in which case, how do we decide whose are correct? Moreover, when our intuitions disagree, it's often because we have different theoretical commitments, and these prior commitments inform what we tend to find philosophically “intuitive.” 

But even if we always agreed on our intuitions, why suppose they are genuinely informative about the world? Surely, there are many truths about the world that are just counter-intuitive. Take a very simple case: If you were to drop a feather and a bowling ball from a tall building, which do you think will hit the ground first? The “intuitive” answer, which was Aristotle’s and many other’s, is that the heavier object is going to fall faster than the lighter object. But, as Galileo later proved, it turns out Aristotle and company were wrong.

This case highlights a big difference between science and philosophy: scientists, like Galileo, may start off with an intuition, but they never treat their intuitions as evidence for anything. Instead, they go out and test them, and it’s the data gathered in their experiments that counts as evidence, not the intuition that prompts the experiment. Philosophers, on the other hand, like to sit in their armchairs and come to all sorts of conclusions based on intuition. But why should anybody treat their intuitions as evidence of anything, other than what they themselves think?

One problem with simply dismissing intuitions in philosophy is that, for some areas of philosophy, intuition seems like an indispensable tool. Take moral theory, for example. How do we develop a good moral theory if we don’t start off with at least some intuitions about what is right and wrong and go from there? For example, we're often told as children that we should never tell a lie, but intuition might sometimes conflict with this moral prescription. Imagine you’re in Nazi Germany and you’ve hidden your Jewish neighbors in the attic. The Nazis come, demanding to know if there are any Jews in the house. What does your intuition tell you would be the moral thing to do? Lie to the Nazis, or tell the truth?

My initial response to this kind of thought experiment is this: if your intuition says to tell the truth, all that proves is that you’re an idiot. I mean, why go to all the trouble of hiding your neighbors in the first place if you’re only going to give them up as soon as the Nazis come knocking? Of course you should lie!

Granted, this snarky response slightly misses the point, which is that we have to use intuition to figure out the right way to act, and from there we can start to build a moral theory. Apart from the fact that your behavior would seem illogical were you to just give up your neighbors after hiding them, my guess is that most of us would agree—intuitively—that lying to the Nazi’s to protect your Jewish neighbors is also the moral thing to do.

Ultimately, though, this is not much of a defense of the philosophical use of intuition. I could come up with a bunch of other thought experiments where our moral intuitions don’t offer clear and easily agreed upon answers as to what the right thing to do is. And, like the brain-in-a-vat case, disagreement in moral intuition will often stem from disagreement in prior theoretical commitments. So, intuition can’t support those theoretical commitments—it can only bring them to the surface.

If that’s the case, what does that say about the entire enterprise of moral philosophy? Is there a way to develop moral theories that does not depend on intuition? Or is there a way to rescue the use of intuition in philosophy from the problems I’ve raised here?

Tune in to this week’s show, “Is Intuition a Guide to Truth?” with guest Alvin Goldman, and let us know your thoughts below!

Photo by Michael Carruth on Unsplash



Comments (8)'s picture

Saturday, August 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Can intuition be sharpened by

Can intuition be sharpened by practice? Does instinct relate to or influence intuition?

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens's picture

Sydney Gurewitz...

Saturday, August 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

This conversation brought me

This conversation brought me to my preoccupation: Agency in young children.
A little background:
Babies have no doubts.  They struggle for their skills, working tirelessly until they achieve them.  (Picture a 9-month-old trying to pull herself up to standing.  Tries, plops, tries again, plops again, may quit for a while but then will resume the trying and plopping until she conquers the problem.)  But children by age 4 (I wrote a book about 4-year-olds after teaching them for 9 years) have all sorts of inhibitions...from being a little afraid to try something new to an extreme --  a child I taught who said to me "I don't know how" despite having seen a dozen other children learn the new skill of standing on their heads.  She persisted in saying "I don't know how as if that were the final deal...she didn't know and she couldn't know and she wasn't going to know.  I was frightened for her because she was rejecting the idea of learning, and that, I intuited, would be the ruin of her.
My intuition about how this loss -- from babyhood to age 4 -- comes about?  
People who love the baby and want the best for him say things like "don't do that, you'll get hurt" and "I'll do that for you" and "wait for me" and, over time, with the best intentions, rob the child of initiative, of agency (the belief that I can accomplish -- perhaps with some help from others -- what I can imagine.)
I'm eager to read others' ideas about this idea.  Agency isn't a term of art in early childhood education (my discipline) but it should be.  Sociologists and philosophers -- I think it's your term, and I'd very much like your input on this topic, which I will continue to convey to people in the field, raising the children.

tomscribe's picture


Saturday, August 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Philosophy Talk said:

Philosophy Talk said:
"If you were to drop a feather and a bowling ball from a tall building, which do you think will hit the ground first? The 'intuitive' answer, which was Aristotle?s and many other?s, is that the heavier object is going to fall faster than the lighter object. But, as Galileo later proved, it turns out Aristotle and company were wrong." 
C'mon, guys.  A bowling ball would not fall faster than a feather?   You forgot to mention that the tall building is surrounded by a vacuum.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, August 31, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Tom, I think you're missing

Tom, I think you're missing the point of the example! The details are not important (which is why they were omitted). The point is: the truth can be counterintuitive, so intuitions ought to be tested. If you don't like the example I came up with, choose another. Quantum physics is a good source for counterintuitive truths.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, August 31, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Rayna, I think you would like

Rayna, I think you would like the show we did (mentioned above) with psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer as the guest. A lot of his research is about how to sharpen intuitions. You might like his book, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Monday, September 1, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Sydney, you'll probably be

Sydney, you'll probably be very interested in our upcoming show with developmental psychologist Paul Bloom on babies and morality. It will broadcast the week of 9/14.

MJA's picture


Monday, September 1, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

If you are still searching

If you are still searching for truth, I would suggest as Michelangelo suggested to me: study nature.
And Einstein had some more advice: simplify.
As for intuition: intuition equals outtuition at a point of infinite and immeasurable truth.
One is One

WilliamRichard's picture


Friday, September 19, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Even the most powerful

Even the most powerful intuitions we have can be misleading. Why is it, then, that many philosophers treat them as crucial when arguing for a conclusion? Can intuitions lead us to important truths about the world.