Is Intuition a Guide to Truth?

Sunday, December 17, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 31, 2014

What Is It

Turns out that Galileo was right and Aristotle was wrong: in a vacuum, a feather and a bowling ball will fall from a tall building at exactly the same speed. This is not to say that Aristotle wasn’t a brilliant thinker; empirical evidence shows he just had a wrong intuition. 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, or do they merely teach us about ourselves? John and Ken trust their instincts with Alvin Goldman from Rutgers University, author of Pathways to Knowledge: Private and Public.

Listening Notes

After getting clear on what type of intuitions are at issue, John and Ken begin by questioning whether using intuitions is a good practice for philosophy.  Philosophers often craft thought experiments and use the intuitions they produce as evidence in their work.  The pair both cast doubt on the strength of these intuitions as evidence, though Ken points out that intuitions are very useful to make clear our beliefs to ourselves. 

After welcoming guest Alvin Goodman to the show, the three begin to dig into the question of whether intuitions can lead us to truth.  Alvin, an epistemologist, points out difficulties surrounding the question that come from our uncertainty about truth.  They then discuss a common application of intuitions: in categorizing judgments.  Philosophers often probe people’s intuitions on what type of things fall into certain categories in order to establish and readjust the boundaries of these categories.  Alvin points out the importance of intuitions in revealing culturally impressed thought patterns.

A question from the audience steers the topic of the conversation to the relationship between intuitions and the unconscious.  John points out that intuitions can give us insight into unconscious thought processes that rational reasoning cannot.  Some philosophers have claimed we have over-intellectualized philosophy, losing touch with our intuitive knowledge.  Others think such intuitive ‘knowledge’ is not reliable to use as evidence in philosophical discourse.  Another audience member raises the important question of whether there is a fact to the matter in many of these questions of intuition.  People have differing intuitions about whether fetuses are people, but take for granted that there is a right answer.  The hosts discuss with Alvin about how these intuitions are often issues of classification, and how there might not be a real answer underlying the conflicting intuitions.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:45): Natalie explores the conflict between intuition and experimental evidence in fields such as linguistics, interviewing Professors Geoff Nunberg and Tom Wasow.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 46:42): Ian Shaoles takes on our intuitions about new technology and start-up culture.


Comments (5)

RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, October 3, 2019 -- 5:24 PM

What are we really saying

What are we really saying when we use the word "intuition"? It's really almost a completly meaningless word. Does it mean "feelings" does it mean "the last random thing that popped into our head" does it mean "divine inspiration" does it mean "innate calculations" does it me "indoctrinated calculations." It could mean any of these, any combination of these, all of these, or even some blather i havent even blathered yet. Too broad of a term to use in any meaningful way except to leave a gap in meaning or some other artistic expression. Maybe it's better left to theistic enticements that depend on you to put meaning where there never was any to begin with, rather than, rational discourse to explain complex concepts in a meaningful way.

RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, October 3, 2019 -- 5:46 PM

While a feather and a bowling

While a feather and a bowling ball fall at the same speed, they do not have tge same velocity at impact. When the bowling ball reaches a speed where it impacts into bowling ball powder, the feather bounces like a tennis ball. Saying they fall at the same speed could be seen as a half truth given the stark contrasts right at the end of the demonstration.

Do two bodys that have their own different gravitational pulls, fall at the same speed? I'd have to question it since theres a huge difference between jupiter an our moon. There's not so much difference between a bowling ball and a feather. The difference might not be noticeable with the equipment we have on hand to test the theory; not with two very similar objects like feathers and bowling balls.

RepoMan05's picture


Saturday, October 5, 2019 -- 6:45 AM

The very first principal we

The very first principal we learn, "what does the milk machine like?"

This might go a long way to explain why millenials are so bent on emotive reasoning.

Over-active breast feeding.... hmm.

RepoMan05's picture


Wednesday, November 6, 2019 -- 11:29 AM

I think tho that intuition

I think tho that intuition could be a map to truth. Its natural, after all. But i still think that map has to be read by a qualified technician. Even then, the technician would just be giving a disjuncted opinion.

jpz79's picture


Thursday, December 9, 2021 -- 9:53 AM

Seems a bit of cherry picking

Seems a bit of cherry picking. Intuitions are just non-cognitive (subconscious or psuedo-conscious) processes. The 'intuition' that you speak of is quite different than empirical intuitions that often lead into answers after experimental tinkering. Einstein's intuition that light was a constant speed at 16 years old, was the basis for his theory of relativity much later. In the theory of relativity there is also some empirical (computational) intuitions - for example Einstein 'intuiting' Pythagraems theorem in his thought experiements. So a lot of times, intuition follows experiment (or it happens very quickly). Another example Galelios intuition was correct about inertia.....a ball rolling downhill goes faster, uphill slows down, so it would continue forever inertially without gravity (or air).

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