Friday, November 15, 2013

What are Intuitions? Part One

As you might recall, my dissertation is on the epistemology of metaphysics.  In part of this dissertation, I talk about how intuitions play a role in giving an individual prima facie justified beliefs in metaphysical propositions.  I thought I'd write a bit here about what intuitions are supposed to be.

People use the word "intuition" in lots of ways.  By my reckoning, I take there to be two broad ways of understanding the term.

The first, and more common way that this term is used is to refer to a way of thinking that is fast and to some extent non-rational.  This form of intuition may be considered to be a species of memory.  It is the mind's way of recalling and packaging information very quickly so as to give the thinker a very quick reaction to some stimulus.  For instance, and experienced soldier might take a quick look at an area and form the belief that ambush lies ahead.  This belief is formed through rapid series of cognitive processes where the mind processes lots of relevant information about similar past situations.  When people talk about conventional wisdom, common sense, gut reactions and such, they are referring to this kind of intuition.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, and Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, provide extensive discussions about this type of thinking.  This type of intuition I'll call "conventional intuition."

The second form of intuition is what Laurence Bonjour calls "rational insight."  I hold that this is an altogether different cognitive process than conventional intuition.  This is a process that allows us to "see" the truth of axiomatic claims.  For instance, the law of contradiction "seems" true to us.  Foundational principles in logic and mathematics are the sorts of things that are the object of rational insight.  Just like we see trees or cars and form the belief that there are trees and cars, we "see" the truth of these sorts of claims in math and logic and form the belief that these claims are true.

I think there's a lot of wrongheaded debate in philosophy because people either conflate these notions, or confuse one for the other.  But, sometimes things get a little tricky.  As I'll discuss in a later post, it may not be clear whether a particular claim is appropriately an object of conventional intuition or an object of rational insight.  People who write about intuition (like George Bealer) make the division by arguing that rational insight only applies to stuff related to math and logic.  I don't think this is quite right.  Part of my project, then, will be to argue for a different way of understanding rational insight so as to make it more inclusive.  This allows for intuition to be a source of justification for beliefs in metaphysical propositions.

But, more on rational insight later.

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