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.
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.
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.