I've listened to dozens of interviews with philosophers of all kinds; moral philosophers, philosophers of art, ontologists and natural language philosophers; and all seem to refer to the same thing in judging the validity of their philosophical claims: does our definitions appeal to our common sense intuitions? Which has made me incredibly curious; what is an intuition?
As of writing this sentence, I don't know the answer to that question. These essays are exploratory, and their conclusions are tentative. But there is a method to this madness. First, let me start with a definition.
Intuition: The sense of rightness or wrongness felt at pondering an idea or concept.
At first glance, this definition nicely captures the idea of the intuition. But as I write this, two different thoughts appear in my mind. The first: What mental faculty through this definition into my head, and the second; What mental faculty felt a sense of rightness at reviewing this definition.
As I wrote the previous sentence, an answer started appearing in my mind. It looks something like this: The definition is the idea that is the best approximation I could find, that was at the same time the abstraction of the many tokens of this idea I had heard in all those interviews. In Fregian terms, this definition is the sense that has the most of the utterances as a reference.
But, this latest paragraph does not, I can now see, answer my questions. It is rather a description of the result of the process that would lead from a stepwise progression of asking those two questions many times. As I wrote that sentence, the words "algorithm" appeared at the forefront of my mind. I guess then, that, as I continue to wrote, I can effortlessly describe and algorithm detailing what I have just conjectured. Let's see.
Okay. First I start with all the instances I have read and heard in those instances. Then I seek a definition. A crude definition comes up. I then count the number of tokens covered by the type. Thirdly I make a new definition, and proceed with the same step. After, the two is compared, and the definition with the fewest members is discarded. I repeat this process, much of it unconsciously, and through transitivity I reach the best definition I can. I only stop when my sense of "wrongness" turns to "rightness."
Reviewing the last paragraph, I see that I introduced three new concepts; analogies, which admittedly came in a little earlier, sneaking it's way in like water sneaks itself on a fish; then transitivity and the unconscious. Transitivity is merely the logical mechanism that allow these kinds of comparisons without actively comparing all definitions at the same time. The unconscious, though, is a worse case to crack.
Intuitively, and there is that word again, I imagine the unconscious like the part of a theatre scene that is behind the curtain. It is the same actors that are in front that go in the back, but sometimes they bring forth a new prop. You knew it was back there somewhere, but you didn't quite know what the actor was going to fetch.
Now, let me introduce the word "metaphor" in the sense which Lakoff uses it. Why? I'm not quite sure, it's just what the actor brought. I think it's this; at least, what I'm about to write is also something hollered out from behind the curtain. This scene is a description of the metaphor which structures my thinking around the conscious and unconscious boundary. And, in most cases, this is what my ideas of that boundary will be constituted, limited and empowered by. That is, until an idea steps so close to the walls of the internal image of this metaphorical state that I must come up with a new framework to thinking by and within for a while.
The whole theatre is me. There is a part of me that is doing this wrong and wright check on the ideas that peek behind the curtain. From neuroscience, we know that the ideas that come into our phenomenal consciousness get extra "resources" allocated to them. The brain sends more little actors to check of something somewhere else in the theatre is relevant. (Oh my, I seem to be captured by this metaphor. Let me break free of it)
Just imagine my whole life. I have lived it, and all my experiences, the things I've read, the habits, all detritus gathered on the stream of my consciousness, piled up in river bends, deposited like silt in my delta, compressed into energy rich oil in my deepest strata, fossilised in the sands - you get it, all of that is with me. Now, the next sentence hits my forebrain, and I become conscious of it. What's happening?
My ideas are gathering around it, I can feel it. I am waiting in anticipation for the next sentence to crop up. I am leaning on my intuition. It is a sense, a trust, that my past has something to offer me, to flow through and out onto the page. (I'm looking back over the essay now. If found the definition, and my next sentence will be a combination of everything written til now, and my revised opinion on it.) My whole earlier self is looking for ways to solve the problem I have put myself, and when a good candidate comes along, I spend time looking again, seeing if I can further modify it. The search finally ends when there is no better definition to fit the fact.
Again, my attention splits two ways. 1: This is a conscious version of the unconscious algorithm described earlier. 2: This looks like the socratic method used to describe a cognitive capacity. 1.1: There is a second law of parsimony, which, I think is a natural analogical extension of it. In nature, most often a single developed capacity is used multiple times before a new kind of capacity is evolved. An example of this is scilia, which are found as the tails of sperm, and in our ear to expel foreign bodies. (Discriminating bastards.) Having no other knowledge of the subject, it is then natural to extend this general biological trend to brain function. (Other reasons for me to put forth this thesis are to many to enumerate in this blog post.) 2.1. It is natural to apply a socratic method like this, because argumentation and thinking is of course a cognitive capacity.
But, a sense of wrongness has just assailed me. I feel that the definition above does not cover all t the advances made in the preceding paragraphs. Two separate things have been talked of; Background knowledge, or habit, and a critical capacity. Let me again try to write a definition of intuition:
Intuition: The our critical capacity applied to a definition or set of beliefs, made to judge whether this definition or set of beliefs is consistent with our lived experience.
Let me now bring in the first definition to compare them:
Intuition: The sense of rightness or wrongness felt at pondering an idea or concept.
Okay; let us take bit by bit, and see the transformation: (The sense of rightness or wrongness --> Critical capacity.) (Idea or concept --> definition or set of beliefs) These last two have been transformed. The third component (lived experience) is new.
The first two things that pops into my head, is that the definition has changed because I have immersed myself in thinking about it, and secondly that my thinking upon it has lead me to revise my definition through altering the pattern of my background beliefs. I was thinking a lot during these last two sentences, so the are probably not well formed. What I now think, more clearly, is that my critical reflection on the definition has edited my set of beliefs, which are part of my background knowledge. But, as you can see, the idea just once again morphed in my brain. Now set of beliefs" and "definition" is not the same thing anymore, and thus the last definition is no longer true to what I think. I now seem to distinguish between three separate states of "fact remembrance", going successively from "simple, immediate, in front of the curtain." to "complex, more complex and behind the curtain." The first is the "definition", the second is the "set of beliefs", and the third is the "background knowledge."
This, it now strikes me, fits well with the idea of the successive stages of critical reflection upon some more stable idea. Which I now think takes place on every stage of think memorized, up until the highest and most active conscious level, above which there is no higher court of appeals. Except, a decision can be taken at every step.
But now I have changed my mode from trying to describe intuitions to describing a cognitive faculty or rational thinking and refinement. What within this broader system is the intuition then?
I feel that, within this view, what we mean when we talk of intuitions has more to do with the more background and lived experiences part of our thinking. We are, when we are engaged in philosophical thinking, always conferring with ourselves, with our earlier experiences and sense of what the society might want to say. What they want to say is really the way we imagine it, or in other words a part of our background experience of how society and people work, and what they do.
And now I feel I am nearing the end of this essay. What then, do I think it is that makes our intuitions powerful? Well, it is namely that we have such a broad store of experiences, which far outreach the limited immediate cognitive capacity of the here and now. Critical thinking often involves casting the idea of the current definition backwards, to see if it fits with our prior knowledge. And thinking consists in going back and forth between levels of abstraction, bringing in and discarding ideas. Our intuition, is our old self, which we talk to, to find our new self is on the right path.