2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

[ print ]

Board of Governors Professor, Department of Philosophy, Rutgers University
"Our" Intuitions

There is a strategy for defending philosophical views that has been around since antiquity. It's used to support rules for reasoning (in science and elsewhere) and moral principles, and to defend accounts of phenomena, like knowledge, causation and meaning. Recent findings have made it increasingly clear that, after 2500 years, it's a strategy ready for retirement.

Here's how it works. A case, sometimes real, often imaginary, is described, and the philosopher asks: What we would say about that case? Does the protagonist in the story really have knowledge? Is the behavior of the protagonist morally permissible? Did the first event cause the second? When things go well, the philosopher and his audience will make the same spontaneous judgment about the case.

Contemporary philosophers call those judgments "intuitions" And in philosophical theorizing, our intuitions are an important source of evidence. If a philosopher's theory comports with our intuition, the theory is supported; if the theory entails the opposite judgment, the theory is challenged. If you have ever taken a philosophy course, you'll likely find this method very familiar. But it's not just a method that philosophers use in the classroom. At a recent colloquium in my department, I sat in the back and counted the appeals to our intuition made by a rising star in the philosophical profession during a 55 minute talk. There were 26—roughly one every two minutes.

That's a lot of intuition mongering, though it is hardly unusual in contemporary philosophy. Another thing about the talk that was not at all unusual was that the speaker never once told us who "we" are. When a philosopher makes claims about "our" intuitions about knowledge or causation or moral permissibility, whose intuitions is he talking about? Until very recently, philosophers have almost never confronted that question. But if they had, their answer would likely have been very inclusive. The intuitions we use as evidence in philosophy are the intuitions that all rational people would have, provided they are paying attention and have a clear understanding of the case that evokes the intuition. According to contemporary defenders of this methodology, intuitions are rather like perceptions. They are shared by just about everyone.

Some of us have long thought that there was room for a fair amount of skepticism here. How could philosophers, seated comfortably in their armchairs, be so confident that all rational people share their intuitions? This skepticism was reinforced with the emergence of cultural psychology over the last three decades. Culture, it turns out, runs deep, and it affects a wide array of psychological processes, ranging from reasoning to memory to perception.

Moreover, in an important article, Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan have made a persuasive case that WEIRD people—people in cultures that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic are outliers on a wide range of psychological tasks. WEIRD people, they argue, are "the weirdest people in the world." And philosophers are overwhelmingly WEIRD. They are also overwhelmingly white, predominantly male and have all survived years of undergraduate and graduate training in settings where people who don't share the professionally favored intuitions are sometimes at a considerable disadvantage. Could it be that these factors, singly or in combination, explain the fact that professional philosophers, and their successful students, share lots of intuitions?

About a decade ago, this question led a group of philosophers, along with sympathetic colleagues in psychology and anthropology, to stop assuming that their intuitions were widely shared and design studies to see if they really are. In study after study, it turned out that philosophical intuitions do indeed vary with culture and other demographic variables. A great deal more work will be needed before we have definitive answers about which philosophical intuitions vary, and which, if any, are universal.

There are lots of important intuitions to look at, lots of cultural and demographic groups to consider, and lots of methodological pitfalls to discover and avoid. But, not surprisingly, the early efforts of these "experimental philosophers" have not been warmly welcomed by philosophers deeply invested in the traditional intuition-based method. One leading philosopher proclaimed that experimental philosophers "hate philosophy." He and others have also staked out a fallback position which insists that it doesn't much matter what we discover about the intuitions of ordinary people, or of people in other cultures, because professional philosophers are the experts in making judgments about knowledge, morality, causation and the rest, so only their intuitions are to be taken seriously. 

It will be a long time before the dust settles in this dispute. But one conclusion on which perhaps most of those involved can agree is that it's time to stop talking about "our" intuitions without bothering to say who "we" are.