Forgetting the importance of Intuitions

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:

  1. Subject S can only believe that proposition P if and only if S has a reason for believing that P.
  2. 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 does not make 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.

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Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: V – Conciseness

V

Conciseness

To be concise means to be brief and to-the-point. To be effectively concise requires having only the necessary information structured in the shortest, clearest, and simplest way possible. If a sentence, or paragraph, or essay is concise then the reader will have a much easier time navigating and comprehending it. If the writer is concise they can fit more into their essay. The reader will also thank you for not wasting their time with unnecessary details or flourishes.

Often students are not concise, instead choosing to be wordy and discursive. The reasons for why students are not concise, or not as concise as they could have otherwise been, vary. Some (1) mistakenly think the sentence or paragraph is concise and that the expert is wrong. Other times, (2) they believe the sentence cannot be any more concise than it is presently. A student might also, (3), argue that there is such a thing as being too concise, and that being too concise is overly restrictive, resulting in a loss of meaning or detail. And, (4) understandably, often many mistake ‘philosophy’ for being a subject that requires the flowery expressions and turns of phrases comparably continental philosophers (self-help, new-age books).

Reason (4) is simply a result of undergraduate students being exposed to certain conceptions of philosophy (such as a layman understanding of philosophy), and only certain kinds (self-help, Nietzsche, Rand, De Botton, etc.). I think, in cases like this, it is just a matter of explaining to the student that academic philosophy is done quite differently. Student’s who were being vague or discursive for reason (4) often become concise because “that is just how it is done at the University”.

Reasons (1), (2), and (3), are a matter of students having to learn a craft and realise that they do not know what they are talking about. That is, the students holding to 1, 2, and 3, need to recognise the expertise of their marker, tutor, professor, etc., that when the experts tells you it is not concise, then it is not concise. With regards to (3), the student needs to recognise that being concise requires not losing necessary and valuable information. The trick this student must learn is to be concise and keep all the important information. With regards to (2), this student lacks imagination. This student needs to enumerate the different ways of expressing the same idea and, through this procedure, generate the most concise sentence, or paragraph, that they can. With regards to (1), the student lacks insight; they simply don’t realise the sentence or paragraph is not what it could have been.

You might wonder how one becomes concise. My answer is that we learn to be concise the same way we learn anything: practice. In the same way as the musician, or the artist, or the carpenter, produce great work and demonstrate excellent skill, they treat their subject as a craft. Students need to think about writing essays as practicing the craft of writing. And, in the same way the musician, or the tradesman, takes care of every detail in their work, so the student needs to treat each word as being as important as the totality of the paper it resides in.

The student needs to ask themselves constantly: “can this sentence, this paragraph, this section, this paper, this chapter, be any more concise?”, and then explore whether it can be.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: IV – Clarity

IV

Clarity

Thus far, I have sketched out a design principle concerned with simplicity in essay structure and ideas. I have argued that a simple structure is easier to follow and simple ideas are easier to formulate and successfully execute. And the reason these are important is because they ultimately serve the function of an undergraduate essay. In this entry I want to focus on clarity. I first sketch out what clarity means in an essay context and then explain why such clarity is necessary for good academic writing.

In the context of a philosophy essay, clarity can refer to how quickly the meaning in a sentence (a paragraph, etc.) is comprehended by the reader. We can measure how clear or vague an essay is depending upon the accuracy and speed in which the reader comprehends the intended meaning. The faster and more accurate, the clearer the writing; the slower and more inaccurate, the vaguer. Consider the following sentence:

“The cat sat on the mat”.

What is the meaning of the sentence? I imagine a reader will think the sentence meant to describe a particular kind of animal (cat) and a particular kind of object (mat) and is describing the relationship (sitting) between the animal and object. Because the reader was able to almost immediately comprehend the meaning of the sentence, then this must mean that the sentence was clear – it’s meaning was clear. Now consider the following sentence:

“Upon the mat there was a feline that placed itself upon it”.

The meaning of this sentence is identical to the one above. Yet the mental moves it takes to decode that meaning is more than the previous. Because it takes longer, even if it still results in a correct interpretation, the sentence is less clear than the former.

I do not think the importance of clarity can be overstated. I really do think it is the writer’s duty to take the burden of work with regards to communication. After all, your reader is giving up their time (and often money) to hear what you have to say (or read what you have to write). Given that, it would behoove a writer to make their reader work harder to get the message.

But there are other reasons why, as a student, you should writer with great clarity. You need to demonstrate to the marker that you – the student – understand the material, and you cannot demonstrate an understanding if the reader cannot make sense of what has been written. If the meaning of the sentence is clear then the reader will understand you. Another reason is that it shows you that you yourself comprehend the material and ideas you have read. Student’s often think they get it but, upon asking them to explain the idea in their own words, they quickly falter. Why? Because the student has mistaken a vague notion as understanding, rather than a clear idea.

If we think of an essay as a kind of product for a consumer, then clarity is the design principle that leads to the consumer understanding the purpose of the product and how to use it. If you want your reader to grasp the ideas as quickly as possible you need to be clearer.

One might object that some ideas, problems, or whatever, are too complicated to explain clearly or the ideas in themselves are too vague, to be clarified. For example, you might have heard artists or poets talk about the ideas or themes which they are exploring through their art as being too difficult or even intractable for our common, literal, everyday and even academic talk. Thus, academic writing is incapable of truly capturing the ideas or themes that can be captured by art or more poetic writing.

There are several answers to this. The first, and most uncharitable, is that the above objection is a mark of laziness. Just because something is hard to do does not make it impossible. And considering philosophers and academics have explored such issues by way of academic writing, I do not think this objection holds much water. The second way of responding is simply agreeing, but that since the assignment demands you do it, you might as well try. But the third response is sympathetic to the objection: yes, it might be well that some topics are beyond the reach of plain, literal, academic writing – but you will not know until you try. And, like the artist, while the subject is difficult to grasp, they will try multiple times through many iterations to nail their interpretation, and to try and express that to their audience as clearly as they can.

 But I, and many, can attest that it is possible to become clearer when writing about difficult topics – it just takes a lot of time and effort.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: III – Simplicity in Structure

III

Simplicity in Structure

In the previous entry of this series I argued that simplicity is a crucial design principle in crafting a philosophy essay. However, simplicity can be taken in two different directions, (i) application to ideas, and (ii) application to structure. The prior entry addressed (i), and this entry will examined (ii). That is, in this entry I argue that a simple, no-frills approach to structuring an essay – which I call EOR – is in the student’s best interests.

The essay structure which I strongly suggest to students is a simple one:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection
  4. Response
  5. Conclusion

Obviously though, the length of the essay, or the level of study the essay is being written,  can result in adding extra sections. Yet these extra sections are merely repetitions of the above provided structure, and often, if not always, presented in the same order. For example, a longer research paper might be as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection 1
  4. Response 1
  5. Objection 2
  6. Response 2
    1. Objection 2.1
    2. Response 2.1
      1. Objection 2.1.1.
      2. Response 2.1.1.
    3. Objection 2.2.
    4. Response 2.2.
  7. Conclusion

Note that even when there are extra sections, the structure is essentially the same. And what this structure offers is nothing novel nor interesting; I am simply making salient a simple structural procedure that is highly robust because it fits in with our intuitive grasp of how we manage verbal discussions. For example, consider the following dialogue between two car mechanics attempting to fix a car:

M1: I think it’s the ignition.
M2: Why?
M1: These old Volvo’s were designed with cheap material in the ignition part – I’ve seen this before. (explanation)
M2: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean this one is the same – have you checked the engine yet? (objection)
M1: Nah, yeah – engine is in pretty good nick. Oi, look – the wiring in the ignition is stuffed. (response)
M2: I’ll go get the wire out back.

As we can see from the dialogue above, the structure of our verbal discussions when attempting to resolve problems or discuss issues uses the EOR design.  That is the beautiful thing about EOR – because we deploy this structure throughout our lives, we are able to immediately grasp it, even when we don’t know we are doing it.

But there are other reasons for employing EOR, most of which turn out to be beneficial to both the writer and the reader. First, it makes the essay easy to signpost and to follow. This benefits the writer because it allows them to quickly locate sections of their paper and edit or work on them, and it benefits the reader because it makes reading the essay easier. Second, it can help the student ensure they have provided a well reasoned or argued paper. After all, they can see if they have provided an objection, or provided a response to that objection, and they can see whether they have provided adequate words to developing those sections. Third, it means that when the student is given feedback, they can follow precisely where they went wrong and what to fix.

Finally, I want to note that the structure of an essay is not, by itself, ever going to result in a high mark. Structure, like spelling and grammar, if done right will not benefit you directly, but done wrong and they will hurt your mark. Why? Because like spelling and grammar, the structure of an essay facilitates the communication of the ideas within the essay. And you, as a writer, do not want all that hard work you put into those ideas to be lost under a sea of poorly designed and obscure structure.

 

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: II – Simplicity

II

Simplicity

Perhaps the most overused design principle is simplicity. “Keep it simple”, they say (whoever they are). But what precisely does ‘simple’ mean, and how does such a design principle help with achieving the undergraduate essay-function (UEF)? There are two ways we can cash the simplicity principle with regards to undergraduate philosophy essays.[1] First, we can apply simplicity to the idea attempting to be communicated in the essay. Second, we can apply simplicity to how we present (i.e., write) our idea.

In this entry, I want to focus on the first application of the design principle of simplicity. So what would that look like? What wouldn’t it look like? Let’s reconsider the UEF:

Undergraduate Essay-Function (UEF): Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

So, you should try and make the idea trying to be communicated as simple as possible. Simple in this context, would mean that the idea is easy to understand, or put another way, is not difficult for the reader to comprehend. Perhaps the easiest way to make your idea simple is by making it singular; only argue for one point. Nothing more, nothing less.

By making a philosophy paper only have a single purpose, or point, all resources can be dedicated to making the best possible case one can for the given idea. And, by focusing on communicating a single idea, one ensures they do the necessary work while simultaneously doing the least amount of work required. This might seem confusing (even counter-intuitive), but it comes down to basic math.

Student’s (an essay writer, really) has constraints: word-count, energy, and time. For any idea, that idea requires an explication, an objection to the idea, and then a reply to the objection. So if one has two ideas, they’ve doubled their workload. Worse still, the resources one dedicates to the ideas have been halved.

Suppose a student has 1 week to write a 800 word essay. If that student has one idea they have 1 week to think and write about it, and probably 200 words for each respective part of exploring and defending that idea. If they have two ideas, then they have 3.5 days and approximately 100 words to write about each respective part for each respective idea. Clearly, the former will write a more in-depth and interesting essay than the later because they have more space and resources to explore their idea.

Another way the idea itself can be ‘simple’ is by not overcomplicating or picking an idea that is overly problematic. A student could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not…

  • ‘transcendental philosophy can help explicate our moral sentiments with regards to the phenomenological experience of the individual who has the choice to pull the lever in the trolley problem thought experiment’.

OR they could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not,…

  • ‘letting die is morally different from killing’.

Sure, the first sounds more interesting, but imagine the amount of work you would have to do to even given a mediocre job of exploring and communicating that idea.

So, the take away is simple this: to keep the idea simple, choose a single, plain, and understandable idea.

[1] And it seems to me easy enough to reapply these ideas to essays on other subjects. But I’ve never read nor written non-philosophy essays, so I can’t comment on them directly.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: I – The Function of an Essay

I  

The Function of an Essay

Perhaps the most popular question I’m asked by my students is, “how do I write a good philosophy paper?” That’s an excellent question. So, in this series of posts I want to consider how design principles can help answer this question. I think by applying design principles, an undergraduate can improve their philosophical writing.

I take it that there is more than one design principle. For that reason, merely enumerating a list of principles will not do. Reason being that such a list will be arbitrary; why these particular principles and not others? So, before I outline each principle in subsequent posts, we need to think carefully about why certain principles should be considered design principles, and which ones should not. In other words, we need a theory of design.

My theory of design (for philosophy essays) is straightforward. Design principles should necessarily serve the function of philosophy essays. By ‘function’, I mean the purpose or goal of a philosophy essay (i.e., any philosophy essay). Any purported value that fulfils the function should be adopted as a design principle, and any purported value that fails to realize the function should be rejected (as a design principle). And, I assert, the function of a philosophy essay is simply this:

Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea to the reader.

The essay-function has slightly different applications depending upon the essayist (e.g., undergraduate, PhD candidate, professor, etc.). For the purposes of these entries, I will just consider the essay-function as it applies to undergraduates. The explication of the essay-function for undergraduates is as follows:

Undergraduate Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

If an essay fails to accomplish its function, then it is, by my definition, a bad essay. So, if an undergraduate essay (i) does not engage with the essay topic, (ii) fails to explain and justify your position, and (iii) is not communicated to your marker, then that essay is suboptimal. So, how can an undergrad avoid (i), (ii), and (iii)? I shall address this question – and how design principles fit into this picture – in subsequent posts.