A puzzle about intuition

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Suppose you have an intuition, ‘P’*. Should you believe P? Should you believe not-P? For some propositions (e.g. the moral kind) there may not be much to go on other than our intuitions. So for the moral intuitionists in particular, here’s a little puzzle for you.

Suppose intuitions have a probability of being true that is greater than 0.5. Therefore, if you have an intuition that P you should believe it rather than not-P. But if this is true, then the consensus of the masses’ intuition is not only more reliable than yours, but is actually very reliable (Condorcet’s theorem). If intuitions have a probability of greater than 0.5 of being true, you should therefore not trust your intuition, but ask the masses.

Suppose instead intuitions have a probability of being true that is less than 0.5. Therefore, if you intuit P, not-P is more likely. But not only should you should not trust your intuition, you can be pretty certain of the right answer by asking the masses and then believing the opposite!

Obviously I have posed the question in a very simplistic way, and there’s questions of statistical independence, the different reliability of different kinds of intuitions** etc. But it does seem that whatever the probability of your intuitions being true are, in a lot of cases it could still make sense to ask around and then either believe what the masses say, or the opposite (depending on your view of the prior probability of the particular intuition being correct).


*This is philosopher-notation for an arbitrary proposition. P could be anything – ‘Murder is always wrong’, ‘I am the same person I was yesterday’ etc.

**There even may be classes of intuitions that are necessarily reliable on the level of the masses, because they are intuitions about proper conventions… but let’s not go into that here

  1. David Franklin
    December 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    But you can’t avoid a circular argument when you try to quantify the probability of intuitions being correct about P. You can’t appeal to your intuition to do so without first quantifying the probability of *that* intuition being correct, so you have to do it inductively. You can’t look at previous intuitions about P, as you have no way of knowing whether they’re correct (if you knew whether P was correct, you wouldn’t be in this mess).

    So you have to look at intuitions about Q, which is similar to P. How do you know that it’s valid to look at Q? Either you use your intuition (not allowed, see above!) or you do it inductively from the similar pair of statements (R,S). Then how do you know it’s valid to associate (R,S) with (P,Q)? You’ve come full circle again.

    • December 30, 2011 at 12:17 am

      Absolutely. Infinite regress and all that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth considering the epistemological relationship between our own intuitions and everyone elses, since we – as a matter of fact – rely on them all the time. If you were to be agnostic about whether or not intuitions are generally reliable or not, you still have a problem – if intuitions are reliable then the consensus of a group is more so, and if they aren’t reliable then we shouldn’t trust them anyway. As a previous proponent of skeptical argument all I want to do is point out the disturbing difficulties of epistemology!

  2. Nick Shepherd
    December 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Your guess is as good as mine.

  1. April 12, 2012 at 10:35 am

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