Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method

15 May 2011

Sunday


pictogram - man with idea

Philosophical thought is often believed to be remote from the concerns of quotidian life. One of the reasons that I created this particular forum was to attempt to show the deep and systematic way that philosophical ideas penetrate even the most mundane and ordinary concerns of our daily lives.

Personally I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing. When people do lie in bed all day and do nothing they are diagnosed with a mental illness, because science is today the paradigm for dealing with such matters. However, we are under no obligation to participate in this paradigm, and we can recognize the possibility of an existential malaise that is the visceral corollary of the philosophical position that it is not worth the effort to get out of bed. This is only one of many ways in which a theoretical attitude can have practical consequences.

If philosophical ideas often seem distant from ordinary concerns, philosophical argument must seem an order of magnitude further removed from life, with its remarkable subtleties and its complex details that demand our careful attention, but I want to try to show how philosophical reasoning and argumentation have a basis in matters familiar to almost everyone, and are even at times closer to our intuition than arguments of science.

There is a passage from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World in which he gently makes fun of those who presume to offer up, as authoritative arguments, their gut feelings:

Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”
I say, “I just told you what I really think.”
“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”
But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1997, p. 180

While I am not without sympathy for Sagan’s point here, it strikes me as inadequate from a philosophical point of view. Sagan, whatever his reputation as a sage, was ultimately and spiritually a scientist. His thoughts are formulated like a scientist, and science-like observations (which presumably exclude gut feelings) are as crucial to science as science-like reasoning, science-like theories, and science-like predictions.

However, as philosophers we are not limited to science-like observations, any more than we are obligated to participate in the scientific paradigm of existential malaise as mental illness. In fact, as philosophers we not only have the intellectual right to pursue matters on the cusp of the ineffable, but in fact we have an intellectual duty and obligation to do so. We must go farther and test every possibility of evidence or we will fall short of full possibilities of theoretical thought.

Obviously, Sagan did not think that gut instincts constituted “evidence.” Certainly untutored instincts do not constitute scientific evidence, but they are nevertheless evidence of something, and this evidence is of the greatest philosophical interest. The point here is not whether or not our intuitions are evidence, but what the value of what evidence is, what that evidence means, and what place it ought to hold in a given body of knowledge.

There would probably be a way to formulate this in terms of Bayesianism (and hopefully some day I will take the time to work out this formulation), but I won’t pursue that at present. I will, however, pursue an alternative method to doing justice to our intuitions, instincts, and feelings.

Therefore, and without further ado, my sure-fire, quick-and-easy, step-by-step method for formulating a cogent philosophical argument merely on the basis of one’s gut instincts is as follows:

Step 1: Review the current positions and arguments in any area of philosophy that strikes your interest.

Step 2: Search your feelings for your visceral reactions to these ideas and arguments. (If you have no visceral reaction whatsoever to ideas, you probably aren’t cut out to be a philosopher.) You will notice that some of your visceral reactions to ideas will be sympathetic, and some will be antipathetic. That is to say, you will like some ideas, and other ideas you will dislike.

Step 3: Turn your attention to your viscerally negative reactions to some ideas. Examine these reactions carefully. Ask yourself, “Why do I react strongly against this idea?” Inquire carefully into your intellectual likes and dislikes.

Step 4: If you can bring your feelings to a level of explicit consciousness, you will notice that your antipathetic responses to some ideas usually follow from the fact that the ideas in question have ignored or contradicted something that you intuitively know to be the case, and perhaps also to be important. Ask yourself, “What is the intuition to which this idea has not done justice?”

Step 5: Bring your neglected or contradicted intuition to full and explicit consciousness. Develop a theoretical exposition of this intuition (or these intuitions, if there are several) on its own terms.

Step 6: Compare this exposition of your neglected intuition with ideas and arguments to which you felt an immediate sympathy. Does it tally with them? If yes, you can develop your exposition of your intuition in the context of known theories.

Step 7: If your neglected idea does not tally with existing ideas with which you are sympathetic, you will need to go up to a higher level of generality to find a systematic theoretical context in which you can formulate an exposition of your intuitions.

Step 8: If you can’t find any systematic theoretical context within which you can fit the exposition of your neglected intuition, then you will have to construct an entire metaphysics from scratch, and you’re in for a long, hard slog. Enjoy it.

Step 9: Once you have an exposition in a fully developed metaphysical context of some gut instinct to which current philosophical ideas and arguments do not do justice, confront those ideas and arguments with your now powerfully formulated exposition of their ellipses. Wait for the sparks to fly.

Step 10: If no sparks fly, and your powerful formulation of an ellipsis in contemporary philosophical thought falls dead-born from the press (or, rather, falls too low in Google rankings to ever be seen or read by anyone), prepare to die gracefully and await posthumous discovery and fame. For a philosopher, patience is a virtue and death is the least of considerations when it comes to the value of an idea.

So, there you have it — ten easy steps to philosophical wisdom, and a method for doing justice to matters of the intellect that the intellect sometimes neglects, to do justice to that which we know in our bones. Of course, if you know something in your bones that doesn’t mean that it’s true, only that it has a place in our thought. The next step is to determine what the proper place is in our thought for our instincts, intuitions, and feelings. That will require a further method.

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Euclid woodcut 1584

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Studies in Mathematical Intuition

1. Epistemic Space

2. The Ethos of Formal Thought

3. Fractal Intuitions: Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.

4. A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians

5. Fractal Intuitions: Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox

6. Fractal Intuitions: A visceral feeling for epsilon zero

7. Adventures in Geometrical Intuition

8. Fractal Intuitions: A Note on Fractals and Banach-Tarski Extraction

9. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method

10. Exaptations of Intuition

11. Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space

12. Saying, Showing, Constructing

13. One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism

14. The Church-Turing Thesis and the Asymmetry of Intuition

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Grand Strategy Annex

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