Wednesday, June 27, 2012

An Academic's Intuition and Intuitionism

Intuition is one kind of mysticism common in the USA in our time. Becoming familiar with intuition may help to arm advocates of reason for the long war ahead.

OVERVIEW OF THE SERIES ON INTUITION. The first post in this series on intuition was a book review (June 5, 2012) of The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value, by philosophy professor Robert Audi. (Unless specified otherwise, page citations below refer to Audi's book.) That first post introduced the idea of intuition as it has been used by some academics working in the field of ethics, as a branch of philosophy. For cultural contrast, a later post, the third in the series, will present the idea of intuition advocated not by an academic but by an author who writes to a mass audience.

This post, the second in the series, further considers the academic concept of intuition and distinguishes it from intuitionism, which is a theory of intuition -- describing not only what an individual intuition is, but the manner in which individual intuitions relate to each other and to other ideas. The source for this post is Audi's The Good in the Right. This post will cite the views of intuition that Audi, partly a rationalist, has originated or has adopted from earlier intuitionists such as W. D. Ross, an empiricist.

Readers of this post should keep in mind its limitations: (1) The brief notes here are my simplified interpretation of one academic's complex presentation. (2) Academics who advocate intuitionism disagree with each other on many aspects of intuitionism. (3) Academics are only one set of voices speaking in favor of intuition in our culture today. Thus, this post is a sampling.

WHAT IS AN INTUITION? Consider an example of an intuition in the field of ethics. You see a man beating a child with a belt. A thought -- "Beating a child is wrong!" -- appears in your mind. That thought is the product of an intuition. (p. 60) In this case, the thought is a narrow principle, where "principle" means an idea upon which other ideas can stand. (For example, a broader abstraction -- such as the generalization, "Harming others is wrong" -- could stand on multiple narrow principles such as "Beating a child is wrong," "Hurting a parent is wrong," and "Injuring a spouse is wrong.")

The intuitional sequence is simple. You look at a particular social situation, and a thought appears in your mind. (p. 60) In epistemology, this sequence is an instance of epistemological "realism," the view that things outside the mind directly give rise to ideas in the mind.[1] More technically, the "natural properties" of things (the "is" of a child and a belt) somehow give rise to the "moral properties" (the "ought"); and the moral properties -- received by the mind's "moral sensitivity" (pp. 57 and 58) directly produce a narrow moral principle in your mind: "Beating a child is wrong." This sequence is a "reliable belief-generating process" (p. 57). Apparently this is the manner in which intuitionists bridge the "is-ought" gap

DEFINITION. An intuition is a "non-inferential cognition" (p. 8). An intuition, as a product of a "process" that has no steps, is a proposition, that is, a statement, a sentence. An intuition is not an individual concept. (p. 9) An example intuition, from the field of ethics, is this proposition: "Everyone has a duty to keep promises" (p. 43 for the duty of promise-keeping).

REQUIREMENTS. Not every thought that pops into the mind can qualify as an intuition. "One may not ... simply insist that someone has a [moral] duty, or ought to do something, and claim that one 'just sees' it.  ... The intuitionist thesis that some knowledge of what we ought to do is intuitive and non-inferential implies neither that it is not reflective nor that it cannot be supported by argument or refuted by relevant consideration to the contrary," Audi says (pp. 38-39). Intuited knowledge might be supported by or reached independently by "reflection," that is, thinking about the subject and making inferences from other, already acquired knowledge.

For an intuition to actually be an intuition, it must have these characteristics: (1) directness -- an intuition cannot be based on a premise;  (2) firmness -- the intuitionist has a "definite sense that the proposition ... holds [true]"; (3) comprehensiblity -- an intuition must be understandable by appropriately prepared, intelligent observers; and (4) pretheoreticality -- forming or understanding intuitions comes directly from observation and therefore cannot depend on a theory, which is a broad abstraction induced step by step from evidence. (pp. 33-35)

FALLIBILITY. While "firmness" of belief is one characteristic of an intuition, as Audi presents it, he and some other intuitionists do not claim that intuitions are infallible. Intuitions can be mistaken. Audi offers (pp. 8, 9) this analogy: Scientists rely on sense-perceptions of the world as starting points for their scientific conclusions. Scientists know, however, that sense-perceptions -- or our initial understanding of them -- can be mistaken. Seeing a "bent" stick in a pail of water is an example. The same idea, Audi says (p. 8), holds for intuitions. Misunderstanding the facts of a situation can lead to a false intuition -- but it is still an intuition. An intuition can never lead to a false proposition as a result of a defective process of intuition. The reason is that intuition is not a process. There are no steps in any particular intuition. You look and the proposition appears in your mind.

If that is the nature of any particular intuition that arises in observing a moral situation, then in what way do intuitions, once acquired, relate to other knowledge?

WHAT IS INTUITIONISM? The term "intuitionism" names a certain philosophical view, the conviction that intuitions in some form play some role in creating knowledge. At least among some academics, intuitionism is a theory that explains the source of intuitions, the limits of intuitions, and the relationship of intuitions to other elements of knowledge. Intuitionists disagree with each other about the details.

EXAMPLE: AUDI'S INTUITIONISM. In the field of ethics, intuitionism is "the view that at least some basic moral truths are non-inferentially known" (p. 5). The theory of intuitionism described by Audi has three characteristics. (pp. 20, 21, and 40)

First, Audi's intuitionism is pluralistic, which means that the foundation of this ethics is made of a set of narrow, individual moral "principles," like tiles in a floor. In contrast, in other ethical theories, a single broad principle -- such as the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative -- serves as a foundation (or sky hook) from which narrower ethical guidelines can be deduced.

Second, each particular, narrow moral "principle" (such as "Keep your promises") is "grounded" in one of these three sources: (a) an observable action (such as making a promise); (b) an item of knowledge (a bleeding man will die); or (c) an accessible fact (such as the fact that one individual can benefit others).

Third, each narrow, intuited "principle" is "knowable by ordinary moral agents," that is, individuals who are concerned about acting properly.

Audi is a syncretist. He weaves together elements from various sources into one intuitionist theory of ethics. For example, he melds (1) the idea of a set of intuited moral principles (the narrow kind) such as "Keep promises" and "Do no harm to others," with (2) Immanuel Kant's overarching moral rule of the categorical imperative.

TYPES OF INTUITIONISM. There are various theories of intuitionist ethics (and ethics is only one field in which intuitionists work). Some are rationalistic; others are empiricist; and still others (such as Audi's) are a combination of the two. (pp. 2 and 19) Some forms of intuitionism are "contextualist," that is, the intuitions are grounded in the context of a moral situation and arise automatically without inference and without reflection. (p. 59) Some forms of intuitionism are radical; their advocates accept only the intuitions themselves as guides and reject any form of reasoning about them. Other forms of intuitionism are moderate, as with Audi's theory, in which intuitions provide elements of the moral theory but "reasoning" weaves them into wider generalizations or at least connects them with an overarching principle such as the categorical imperative. (pp. 6 and 54)

CONCLUSIONS. On many issues, intuitionists in academia disagree among themselves, but they agree that intuition -- a claim to immediate cognition, from whatever source -- plays or should play some role in our knowledge of what we should do in the world. These intuitionists are commanding a seldom-seen but powerful battalion of soldiers in the war of mysticism against reason.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at

[1] For epistemological realism, see and Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., p. 2.

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