If we are dealing with earnest participants, it seems the purpose of debate is to convince our interlocutor into accepting our position, or have them abandon or weaken their current beliefs. At the least, the purpose of such discussions would be to defend our own view, or explain it to another. How then, do we, or should we, pursue such discourse? Put another way, what is the methodology of,or the rules that govern, discourse?
The most pervasive methodology appears to be an appeal to Reason. The rules of reason can, very roughly, be summarised as follows:
- Subject S can only believe that proposition P if and only if S has a reason for believing that P.
- S must cease to believe that P when S are provided a reason for believing that P is false.
Additionally, is a complete hostility to what is vaguely described as “feelings”. That is, how one feels about P, regardless of whether they believe that P or not, is completely and utterly irrelevant. Reason, it is thought, is the only proper justifier for a belief.
Thus far, my observations here are neither novel or unique. But what I want to challenge in this entry is this idea that feelings should not sway our beliefs, or even serve as justifiers for them. In this entry, I make a rough argument that our intuitions are a particular type of feeling and that intuitions, all other things being equal, are a perfectly valid justifier for believing that P. Given that much of our fundamental beliefs (i.e., I exist in a real world, and not a simulation of one), axiomatic principles (mathematics and rules of logic), are based on nothing but intuition – that is, a feeling that they are true – that this is grounds for accepting, at least, a type or variety of feeling, i.e., intuitions.
I think the philosophical paradox that makes my point most salient is the problem of radical skepticism and closure principle. Consider the following the closure principle:
1. For S to know that P, S must also know not H, where H is any proposition (or hypothesis) that is contra to, or otherwise incompatible with, P.
2. If S does not know that not H, then S cannot know that P.
3. S does not know that not H.
C. S does not know that P.
This is a perfectly valid argument, and is highly intuitive. Consider the principle with a concrete example. John is at the zoo and sees a zebra shaped object. John forms the belief that, “that is a zebra” (P). However another person, Mary, says it is possible that the zebra shaped object could be a horse that has been painted to look like a zebra. The competing hypothesis is “that is a painted horse” (H). With the current evidence, John cannot rule out that the zebra shaped object is a painted horse (not H), so, according to the closure principle, must stop believing that “that is a zebra” (P).
But consider the following. You are sitting in front of a computer, so you most likely believe that “I am sitting in front of a computer”. However, a competing hypothesis is that you are in a computer simulation that perfectly simulates reality: can you know that you are not in a computer simulated reality? If you cannot know not H, according to the closure principles, then you cannot know that you are, in fact, sitting in front of a computer.
One can apply this computer simulation hypothesis to any proposition about the external world (and, some have argued, to any proposition). But does that mean you will now abandon your belief that you are in reality? Of course not. Even when the argument is perfectly valid (and quite possibly sound), people will stick by the guns. One might suggest they accept the argument, but that believing you are in a simulation is not helpful or useful, so choose to ignore it. But such an argument ignores the problem, acts as an ad hoc justification that balks at reason and is easily curtailed (e.g., believing that the world is a simulation is still just as helpful). The truth is though, we would still hold that we are not in a simulation because of these reasons, but because we have a very, very strong feeling – i.e., intuition – that the world we are in is very real.
Answers to the problem of radical skepticism have been numerous. Some suggest we simply reject the closure principle. Others suggest that we do not know anything at all. But why are these answers unsatisfactory to many, if not all of us? The simple reason is because they are counter-intuitive answers, that is, answers that do not feel correct. And we take these feelings very seriously. And it seems to me that if we did not, then all people would do is consistently bite the bullet on every argument or dispute we have.
For instance, counter-examples are often trotted out in both academic and folk discussion in an attempt to illustrate why some proposed theory is wrong or at least has serious flaws. But what is the mechanism in which counter-examples do this? A counter-example is attempting to demonstrate some proposed theory produces counter-intuitive results, (i.e., the answer produced by a theory feels wrong), and for that reason ought to be rejected, or at least modified.
But perhaps most striking is the pervasive view that reasons ought to dictate beliefs is, itself, based upon an intuition. For what justifies our belief that reason ought dictate belief? Why it is an intuition that reason simply ought to, and anyone who disagrees is simply mistaken.
The irony of all the above is that I have attempted to justify the importance of intuitions and feelings with reasons, and, because of that, I am suggesting that if people recognise my reasons as sound, then that reason should dictate their beliefs regardless of their intuitions. For this quagmire, I have no answer.
But, I should qualify an important counter-point here. I am not saying these ‘feelings’ or intuitions are ‘truth makers’ or have ‘truth-making’ properties, or that they cannot be challenged or defeated. Intuitions can change, some seem more fundamental or ‘deeper’ than others, while providing a solid argument or pointing out an intuition conflicts with other intuitions can unhinge and remove them. But note that the same can be said of reasons: having a reason or argument for believing that P does not make P true, and arguments can be changed or rejected if they conflict with other arguments or reasons a person holds. But what I am saying is that these intuitions play an important role in our epistemic practices, and that they perhaps ought to.
But I think highlighting the importance of intuitions and feelings, and taking them seriously, will help us understand ourselves and others, and the beliefs we all hold. Because if we ignore intuitions, these peculiar type of ‘feelings’, in favour of being “purely” rational and only listening to arguments and reason, we have missed a significant and important epistemic tool that we use to justify our beliefs and, surprisingly often, find truth. Ignoring intuitions, or believing we do not have any, also blinds us to really knowing what we believe, and why we believe it.