June 26, 2004

Experiments and Intuitions

I provoked Jonathan Weinberg into providing an account of the purpose of folk-philosophical surveys. I recommend the whole discussion there, and also Keith DeRose's responses ("Re 9") to a comment by Eddy Nahmias about similar issues.

My own position concerning Jonathan's destructive project of anti-intuitionism is that there are two things going on. One is that philosophers often use unsupported intuitions about particular cases, such as the Gettier intuitions about when justified true belief fails to be knowledge; saying perhaps "We can just see that this isn't knowledge." Here it is a good idea to figure out whether people agree with you, because the idea behind this citation of intuitions is that the extension of the word 'knowledge' is determined (at least in part) by its use in the language, and if you're making that move you need to know what that use really is.

Another is that philosophers sometimes use "intuition" as a way of saying "I just find this argument convincing." There the proper reaction to learning that someone has a different intuition is to figure out if you can persuade them to your view, or to consider their arguments and see whether they persuade you. Philosophers are known to publicly differ on this sort of intuition all the time; learning that some of the folk differ from you too shouldn't be such a shock. Perhaps if all the folk hold a certain view that gives that view a slight advantage, but it's not clear that it does more.

Jonathan, in response to a comment from Neil Levy, says that philosophers' intuitions concerning KNOWLEDGE or FREE WILL or CAUSE shouldn't be given any more weight over the folks'. I'm not quite sure whether he just means to be ruling out the first kind of case ("This is just what free will is") or the second as well. That, I think, has the potential to be self-defeating; how would such an experimentalist argue for the idea that what is important is studying what the folk think? Do we survey the folk and see what they think about that question, or do we try to convince philosophers? If the latter, how do we do that without privileging what the philosophers think is important--which is my second kind of intuition?

In case you want more of this, I'm reproducing most of my comment on Jonathan's thread below the fold.

It seems to me that there are two different uses of the word "intuition" at issue here. One comes up in Gettier-type cases--people say, "Intuitively, these cases aren't knowledge." What they mean is: There's this word "know" that everyone uses, we're competent speakers of English so we can use it, and so by looking at our intuition we are revealing facts about this ordinary word "know" that everyone uses. And I agree that that is empirically exposed, and if your purpose is to get at some non-technical sense of knowledge you'd better make sure that that's what you're getting at.

But the role of "intuition" in many free will debates seems to me fundamentally different. When someone says something like "Intuitively, if you can't do otherwise you're not responsible" or "Intuitively, in the Frankfurt case Jones is responsible for his action," they're not explicate what the folk mean when they use the word "responsible"--they're trying to say what matters for responsibility. To mangle a quote from Wittgenstein, intuition is an unnecessary shuffle--it's the philosophers' way of saying "this argument works" or "this argument stinks."

One of the differences between the free will case and the knowledge case has to do with how people talk about the importance of the concept they're discussing. In Gettier cases the initial philosopher's reaction wasn't "We need this connection for knowledge to be something that's worth having," it was "Wow, this doesn't look like knowledge," with analysis of why knowledge might be worth having coming much later. In free will cases the argument always goes something like "The kind of 'freedom' that the compatibilist discusses may be well defined, but it's just not important. You couldn't really ground praise and blame on that sort of 'freedom'." And I take it that the people making that argument, if they were to discover that the folk did ground praise and blame on that sort of freedom, would say that the folk were making a mistake.

(Compare surveys showing that people think that a word is more likely to end 'ing' than to have 'n' as its next-to-last letter--no one's going to think that's right, no matter how overwhelming the survey is!)

So I don't necessarily think that compatibilists should be worried if a survey shows that most all the folk have incompatibilist intuitions. The response could be--"They haven't thought about these problems hard enough to figure out what's important to moral responsibility. We have, and we find these considerations convincing--our opinions count for more because they've been hardened in the fire of philosophical debate." Compatibilists maybe should be worried that about half the philosophers working in the field just don't see the point of their arguments, and vice versa, but that's another story....

Posted by Matt Weiner at June 26, 2004 12:30 PM