Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What are Intuitions? Part Two

In my last post about intuitions, I made a distinction between conventional intuition, i.e. a cognitive process that allows us to make split second assessments of situations based on the information that we’ve gained over years of prior experience, and rational insight, i.e. a cognitive process that forms beliefs about a set of claims, which includes beliefs about claims made in math and logic.

In this post I’d like to say more about rational insight.  Much of what I’ll say here comes from George Bealer’s work.  However, I deviate a bit from his own views of intuitions.  Bealer makes five identifying remarks about intuitions.

1.  Phenemonology
Rational insight analogous to sense experience.  It has its own kind of experience.  In fact, I hold that there are three different types of experiences.  First, there are sense experiences.  Second, there are introspective experiences.  These are the kinds of experiences of your own mental states.  For example, the experience of an emotion like sadness fits under this category of introspective experience.

The third kind of experience is the experience brought about by rational insight.  This sort of experience is what you have when a particular claim just seems true to you, and this "seeming" can't be reduced to other forms of experience.  This sort of experience typically applies to claims in the foundations of mathematics and logic.  This sorts of claims come with their own kind of experience.  They "seem" true in a way that's analogous to how there seems to be a tree in front of us, or how we seem to feel pain.

This is probably the most important point about rational insight.  My argument supporting the role that rational insight plays in epistemic justification will depend on its relevant similarity to other forms of experience.

2. A Prioricity
The term "a priori" is used for a certain kind of knowledge.  It's knowledge that you arrive at by certain means.  A priori knowledge is knowledge that's gained independently of experience.  This is opposed to a posteriori knowledge which is knowledge gained by means of experience.

This definition of a priori creates a bit of a problem, though.  If rational insight, introspection, and sense perception exhaust all of the possible kinds of knowledge (memory and testimony being derivative of these forms), and if they are all forms of experience, then there is no a priori knowledge.  So, either we'd have to accept that there is no a priori/a posteriori distinction (which is fine with lots of people), or we'd have to redefine what a priori knowledge is.  Maybe you can say that it's knowledge gained independently of sense experience, and that a posteriori knowledge is knowledge gained by means of sense experience.  But that still leaves us with the question of how to treat knowledge gained by introspection.

Bealer holds that knowledge gained by rational insight is a priori knowledge.  I'm fine with this, I guess.  It doesn't matter to me either way.  For my purposes, it doesn't matter if knowledge gained via rational insight is a priori or a posteriori.

3. Distinctness from Belief
Bealer holds that rational insight is not a form of belief.  I agree.  Rational insight is a what I call an "epistemic faculty."  It is a means by which we receive information, and that information gives rise to belief.  This is true also of sense perception and introspection.  These comprise the three epistemic faculties.  All of our information comes via these faculties.  However, this information is not the same as belief.  We know this to be true because there are times when we receive information, but don't believe what we receive.  If I know that I'm under the influence of some hallucinogenic, then I might receive some information via sense perception that there is a unicorn in front of me, but I won't believe that there is a unicorn.

Likewise, sometimes we might receive information via rational insight, but we might refuse to form a belief based on that information.  Because of this distinction, rational insight is not a form of belief, but instead an epistemic faculty, i.e. a means by which we receive information.

4. Distinctness from Common Sense
The distinction that Bealer makes here is the same distinction that I made in my earlier post between conventional intuition and rational insight.

5. Fallibility
This aspect is related to what I've said above about the distinction between an epistemic faculty and belief.  Epistemic faculties aren't always going to give us good information.  They might malfunction, be defective, or work in misleading situations (like when a white ball is shown under red light).  Because of this, we shouldn't think that rational insight is always going to tell which claims are true.  Sometimes we can have false beliefs because of the bad information received via epistemic faculties like rational insight.

So, hopefully this gives you a fairly good idea of what intuitions are.  The bottom line is that the kind of intuition that I'm interested in, i.e. rational insight, is something that's very similar to sense perception.  But, instead instead of perceiving physical objects in the world around us, rational insight "perceives" the truth of more abstract claims.


Andy said...

Hey James,

Now, I don't deal with intuitions except in the context of the Transcendental Aesthetic, but my question is: why think that rational insight is a kind of experience distinct from introspection? Why not just view the phenomenon of rational intuition as a kind of figuring out what I think about [some abstract topic]?

James Lee said...

Hey Andy,

So the way I see, the difference between rational insight and introspection has to do with their content. Introspection is about mental states, whereas rational insight is about the truth of certain kinds of propositions. It seems mistaken to categorize rational insight as a kind of mental state, in the same way that it would be mistaken to categorize sense perception as just being a mental state.

Let me know if that seems plausible, or if you have worries about this line of reasoning.

Andy said...

Alright. Let me ask about the big picture: do you accept a Platonism about the objects of intuition? Is Platonism presupposed?

My thought is this: a reason that sense perception is a distinct kind of experience is because it's about a special category of objects (physical objects). In order to be motivated to view rational intuition as a distinct kind of experience, it needs to either be about a special class of objects or it needs to be phenomenologically different from introspection. Introspection and rational insight kind of feel the same according to my lazy phenomenologically, so to separate introspection and rational insight, they need to be about different categories of objects. So at the outset we need to give an account of what these objects are that we access through rational insight.

James Lee said...

Ideally, I'd like for my own view on intuitions to be independent of views regarding the ontology of abstract object.

So, how would this view work for a nominalist? Hmmm, I guess it depends on how nominalists approach the epistemology of mathematics and logic. Supposing that you take some conventionalist or conceptual mastery approach, there might be a way of carving a distinction between a phenomenology of these concepts and conventions, and a phenomenology of other mental states.

I don't know much about the epistemology of math, but I never really bought into the conventionalist approach. Where did these concepts or conventions come from?

One possible approach for the nominalist is to formulate a view in which the truths of math and logic are something like concrete joints in reality. This would create the needed distinction between the objects of rational insight and the objects of introspection.

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