Philosophers Against Intuition and Conceptual Analysis

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 21, 2011 in General Atheism

I’ve been attacking intuitionism and conceptual analysis a lot recently, and some readers suspect it’s because I’ve been reading so much Eliezer Yudkowsky.

But no, I’ve held such views for a long time. Distrust of intuition and conceptual analysis due to revelations from cognitive psychology is a large movement in philosophy, and perhaps the best quick intro to this issue is Garry Gutting’s preface for Rethinking Intuition:

Perhaps more than any other intellectual discipline, philosophical inquiry is driven by intuitive judgments, that is, by what “we would say” or by what seems true to the inquirer. For most of philosophical theorizing and debate, intuitions serve as something like a source of evidence that can be used to defend or attack particular philosophical positions.

One clear example of this is a traditional philosophical enterprise commonly known as conceptual analysis. Anyone familiar with Plato’s dialogues knows how this type of inquiry is conducted. We see Socrates encounter someone who claims to have figured out the true essence of some abstract notion… the person puts forward a definition or analysis of the notion in the form of necessary and sufficient conditions that are thought to capture all and only instances of the concept in question. Socrates then refutes his interlocutor’s definition of the concept by pointing out various counterexamples

For example, in Book I of the Republic, when Cephalus defines justice in a way that requires the returning of property and total honesty, Socrates responds by pointing out that it would be unjust to return weapons to a person who had gone mad or to tell the whole truth to such a person. What is the status of these claims that certain behaviors would be unjust in the circumstances described? Socrates does not argue for them in any way. They seem to be no more than spontaneous judgments representing “common sense” or “what we would say.” So it would seem that the proposed analysis is rejected because it fails to capture our intuitive judgments about the nature of justice.

After a proposed analysis or definition is overturned by an intuitive counterexample, the idea is to revise or replace the analysis with one that is not subject to the counterexample. Counterexamples to the new analysis are sought, the analysis revised if any counterexamples are found, and so on…

Refutations by intuitive counterexamples figure as prominently in today’s philosophical journals as they did in Plato’s dialogues…

[But] a very sizable group of contemporary philosophers hold a more qualified view of the reliability of intuitions as a source of philosophical truth… philosophical definitions or theories will often have to be revised because they conflict with intuitive judgments. In other cases it will be the intuitive judgments that will be revised, for example, when they conflict not only with a developing philosophical view, but with various background beliefs as well. [e.g. via reflective equilibrium]

…philosophers have continued to rely heavily upon intuitive judgments in pretty much the way they always have. And they continue to use them in the absence of any well articulated, generally accepted account of intuitive judgment – in particular, an account that establishes their epistemic credentials.

However, what appear to be serious new challenges to the way intuitions are employed have recently emerged from an unexpected quarter – empirical research in cognitive psychology.

With respect to the tradition of seeking definitions or conceptual analyses that are immune to counterexample, the challenge is based on the work of psychologists studying the nature of concepts and categorization of judgments… Psychologists working in this area have been pushed to abandon the view that we represent concepts with simple sets of necessary and sufficient conditions. The data seem to show that, except for some mathematical and geometrical concepts, it is not possible to use simple sets of conditions to capture the intuitive judgments people make regarding what falls under a given concept…

With regard to the use of intuitive judgments exemplified by reflective equilibrium, the challenge from cognitive psychology stems primarily from studies of inference strategies and belief revision… Numerous studies of the patterns of inductive inference people use and judge to be intuitively plausible have revealed that people are prone to commit various fallacies. Moreover, they continue to find these fallacious patterns of reasoning to be intuitively acceptable upon reflection… Similarly, studies of the “intuitive” heuristics ordinary people accept reveal various gross departures from empirically correct principles.

…there has been surprisingly little effort either to meet the challenge or to articulate a plausible method for philosophical inquiry that does not run foul of current empirical research…

There is a growing consensus among philosophers that there is a serious and fundamental problem here that needs to be addressed. In fact, we do not think it is an overstatement to say that Western analytic philosophy is, in many respects, undergoing a crisis where there is considerable urgency and anxiety regarding the status of intuitive analysis.

So whether he knows it or not, Yudkowsky is actually part of a growing movement within philosophy away from intuitive judgments, conceptual analysis, and reflective equilibrium – a movement that has been ongoing for at least two decades.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacopo March 21, 2011 at 5:51 am

Great extract.

Very much an example of someone helpfully coming along and articulating my own (and your) thoughts on the issue well.

I would add that though our intuitive judgements should be called into question, I really wouldn’t be surprised if some of them turn out to be actually rather good. Many of our ethical intuitions don’t work especially well on a large scale or in certain hypothetical scenarios, but if you want to have a successful, functional small group of people (for example), they can work pretty well.

So though there needs to be some corrective work done to keep tacit intuitionism in check, and though I doubt any of our intuitions would pass an empirical/philosophical analysis completely unchanged, there’s no a priori reason why some useful intuitions wouldn’t also contain a grain of truth, in some sense or other.

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Jay Q. March 21, 2011 at 10:42 am

I take an intuition to be a non-inferential intellectual appearance-state.

First I’ll restrict my comments to normative intuitions. Unless you think that virtually all of our normative beliefs are arrived at perceptually (say, either through perceptual experience of normative properties or through testimony), you’ll have to appeal to intuitions even to come to any normative beliefs. Similar things might be said about inquiries pertaining to ‘non-natural’ topics, like mathematics and logic.

As far as philosophical intuitions about (other) non-normative issues, I have some limited sympathy with the passage quoted. However, one thing to question (simply from what you’ve quoted) is how we can be sure that the “empirically correct principles” to which the research mentioned appeals have not themselves been itself deemed ‘empirically correct’ by researchers based on their intuitions that those principles are the correct ones.

Now, maybe you (like many others) implicitly understand intuitions by a more limited definition–say, ‘an initial, non-inferential intellectual appearance-state about whether a particular state of affairs has a certain property’. On that definition, intuitions are initial reactions to particular cases (e.g., ‘does Smith know?’; is pulling the switch morally permissible?’) but not to more general propositions (e.g., ‘is it the case that all squares are four-sided?’). I’ll have to simply register, but not defend, my skepticism (based on having reflected about numerous cases of apparent intuitive knowledge) that that is a necessary or sufficient distinction between the reliable and unreliable types of intuitions.

You can’t put all intuitions and a bag and say, ‘I’m for them’ or ‘I’m against them’. They’re simply too diverse to properly receive that sort of overgeneralized treatment.

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mopey March 21, 2011 at 11:48 am

I feel it in my gut that I should not trust my intuitions, so I’m going with that.

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Bill Maher March 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I feel it in my gut that I should not trust my intuitions, so I’m going with that.  

My intuitions tell me that you should not trust your gut about not trusting your intuitions.

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Ryan March 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Hey Luke,

I used to be a sort of “intuiton skeptic” as well. I’ve now changed my mind (somewhat).

Daniel Dennett describes intuition as “when you know the answer to something, but you don’t know how you know it.” This requires a bit of unpacking: There have been experiments done on people who literally see the world in black and white; they can’t see color. Nonetheless, some of these people are able to tell the difference between red and green without actually experiencing that color. The cognitive science behind this is that some parts of the brain recieve information about color from eyes, but that information never fully makes it into the “stream of consciousness”; The “stream of consciousness” recieves the knowledge that object X is green, but it does not have the actual experience of seeing green.

Intuition, in some cases at least, may be an example of a similar phenomenon. Some part of your brain has correctly understood and reasoned the correct conclusion, but only the conclusion (and not the actual process of reasoning) makes it into your conscious experience. Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called “Blink” that is highly relevant to this. He describes an expert in Greek artifacts (I believe?) who “just knew” upon examing a statue, that the statue was a forged artifact. In fact, when I first read Ray Comfort’s “special introduction” to the Origin of Species, I “just knew” that Ray Comfort did not write it, though I could not put my finger on any explicit reason for thinking so. A bit of google research confirmed my intuition.

In my own life, I have observed that intuition is right more often than not. Intuitions are not “properly basic beliefs”. Rather, we should grant intuition some epistemic weight only because intuition is inductively supported as a source of knowledge that is correct more often than not.

Intuition, however, is not infallible, or even close to infallible. Intuition can lend only weak epistemic support to a claim. As we have observed, intuition can go horribly wrong sometimes (google “Monty Hall Problem” and see what I mean).

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Ex Hypothesi March 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Luke,

“Similarly, studies of the “intuitive” heuristics ordinary people accept reveal various gross departures from empirically correct principles.”

According to Quine, the law of non-contradiction is (LNC) not an “empirically correct principle” (due, I think, to some garbage about quantum mechanics). Does this mean we should jettison the LNC?

If yes, then explosion, or something near enough.

If no, then wtf is the *principled* distinction between those intuitions that are legitimate despite their empirical incorrectness and those intuitions that are illegitimate because of their empirical incorrectness?

If your answer is “whatever the scientists say”, then you’re begging the question. Any other answer puts you knee deep in, oh, wait for it, CONCEPTUAL ANALYSIS!

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mpg March 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Hey Luke,I used to be a sort of “intuiton skeptic” as well. I’ve now changed my mind (somewhat).Daniel Dennett describes intuition as “when you know the answer to something, but you don’t know how you know it.” This requires a bit of unpacking: There have been experiments done on people who literally see the world in black and white; they can’t see color. Nonetheless, some of these people are able to tell the difference between red and green without actually experiencing that color. The cognitive science behind this is that some parts of the brain recieve information about color from eyes, but that information never fully makes it into the “stream of consciousness”; The “stream of consciousness” recieves the knowledge that object X is green, but it does not have the actual experience of seeing green.
Intuition, in some cases at least, may be an example of a similar phenomenon. Some part of your brain has correctly understood and reasoned the correct conclusion, but only the conclusion (and not the actual process of reasoning) makes it into your conscious experience. Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called “Blink” that is highly relevant to this. He describes an expert in Greek artifacts (I believe?) who “just knew” upon examing a statue, that the statue was a forged artifact. In fact, when I first read Ray Comfort’s “special introduction” to the Origin of Species, I “just knew” that Ray Comfort did not write it, though I could not put my finger on any explicit reason for thinking so. A bit of google research confirmed my intuition.In my own life, I have observed that intuition is right more often than not. Intuitions are not “properly basic beliefs”. Rather, we should grant intuition some epistemic weight only because intuition is inductively supported as a source of knowledge that is correct more often than not.Intuition, however, is not infallible, or even close to infallible. Intuition can lend only weak epistemic support to a claim. As we have observed, intuition can go horribly wrong sometimes (google “Monty Hall Problem” and see what I mean).  

Agree. Naturalists/physicalists/materialists et al, too often throughout the baby with the bathwater. Of course intuitions are fallible, but surely they aren’t wholly fallible?

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Taranu March 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Ryan,
interesting comment. You’ve touched upon an issue that has been bothering me for quite a while. Do our intuitions turn out to be right more often than not?

I also keep in mind that not all intuitions are the same. I remember Luke made a distinction between basic intuitions (I think moral intuitions would go here) and heuristic intuitions (I think the intuition of the expert in Greek artifacts that you mentioned goes here). I also recall John Danaher’s review of Morriston’s paper “Must the beginning of the Universe have a personal cause?”. Morriston talks about a priori analytic intuitions and a priori synthetic intuitions.

From my experience the a priori ones are the most reliable, but I don’t know about the rest.

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cl March 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Luke,

I’ve been attacking intuitionism and conceptual analysis a lot recently, and some readers suspect it’s because I’ve been reading so much Eliezer Yudkowsky. But no, I’ve held such views for a long time.

Of course, except when it comes to desirism. There, you apparently grant Alonzo a free pass to draw whatever conclusion he wishes, no empirical evidence required. As just one of many possible examples, that “we” would be “better off” without trash tv and spectator sports.

Ryan / mpg,

Rather, we should grant intuition some epistemic weight only because intuition is inductively supported as a source of knowledge that is correct more often than not. [Ryan]

Agree. Naturalists/physicalists/materialists et al, too often throughout the baby with the bathwater. Of course intuitions are fallible, but surely they aren’t wholly fallible? [mpg]

I’m with the two of you.

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Zak March 21, 2011 at 8:01 pm

My gut is telling me no… but my gut is also very hungry.
-GOB Bluth

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Luke Muehlhauser March 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Zak,

Nice.

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TaiChi March 21, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Psychologists … have been pushed to abandon the view that we represent concepts with simple sets of necessary and sufficient conditions.

This is an odd charge to bring against intuitionism. If conceptual analysis fails as a method because the folk do not represent concepts in terms of necessary and sufficent conditions, then Gutting must be championing the intuitions of the folk as against conceptual analysis. But then he’s making precisely the opposite point to the one he thinks he’s making.

With regard to the use of intuitive judgments exemplified by reflective equilibrium .. Numerous studies of the patterns of inductive inference people use and judge to be intuitively plausible have revealed that people are prone to commit various fallacies. Moreover, they continue to find these fallacious patterns of reasoning to be intuitively acceptable upon reflection… Similarly, studies of the “intuitive” heuristics ordinary people accept reveal various gross departures from empirically correct principles.

Ok, but what is the lesson here? Not that the use of intuitions in philosophy are unacceptable or somehow defective (which is far too strong a conclusion to draw), but rather that intuitions are trumped by logic and scientific evidence. But we all knew that, and every philosopher accepts that, at least nominally.

I guess I’m just not too sure what the anti-intuition crowd is proposing which is new and interesting. Are there any examples you can think of, Luke, where this anti-intuitionism isn’t just the same old preference of logic and science to gut-feeling?

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Patrick March 22, 2011 at 4:12 am

As far as I can tell, the real, secret advantage of intuition as evidence is that your debate opponent might have the same intuition. And if you can get him to accept that his own intuitions, you no longer need to provide evidence.

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woodchuck64 March 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm

TaiChi,

Not that the use of intuitions in philosophy are unacceptable or somehow defective (which is far too strong a conclusion to draw), but rather that intuitions are trumped by logic and scientific evidence. But we all knew that, and every philosopher accepts that, at least nominally.

Logic easily disposes of libertarian free will and ultimate moral responsibility via something like Galen Strawson’s “basic argument”, yet the majority of theistic philosophers and even some nontheistic philosophers believe both concepts are still valid. Doesn’t that suggest there is significant reliance on intuition in philosophy in spite of logic (and perhaps in spite of evidence as well)?

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TaiChi March 22, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Woodchuck,
I’m quite sure you’re right that about their over-reliance on intuition. I’m also quite sure that the majority of theistic philosophers will tell you, not just that intuition supports the existence of libertarian free-will and dualism, but also that logic and science do nothing to cast doubt on these ideas. They might go further and explain that in these circumstances, intuitions win the day, as nothing defeats them.
But in that case, theistic philsophers take themselves to be playing by the same rules as the rest of us, and so do not support some distinctive position called ‘intuitionism’ which is worth criticizing. It looks to me as though the anti-intuition crowd have mistaken the doing of bad philosophy for the holding of some distinctive thesis which might explain that doing.

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bossmanham March 23, 2011 at 11:42 am

I know I probably sound like a broken record, but so do you, Luke ;)

At base we must rely on our intuitions to make any sort of epistemological process possible. When you say that your questioning of intuition has come about from studies in cognitive psychology, you are relying on all of the foundational intuitions that cognitive psychology relies on, such as the intuition that scientific inquiry leads to truth, that our minds are geared at attaining truth through this type of investigation. These, among others, are all assumptions one must accept and are not able to be studied by science. How do we know that induction is a viable means of gaining knowledge? Well it just seems like it is! That’s relying on intuition.

So I suppose you can continue to saw off the branch you’re sitting on, but you’re being irrational.

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bossmanham March 23, 2011 at 11:43 am

Also, it’s a logical fallacy to stipulate that just because some of our intuitions can be shown incorrect by cognitive psychology that therefore all of them are incorrect, or that intuition in general should be distrusted.

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Jay Q. March 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm

(I couldn’t agree more with the bossman. Even if there were a ‘like’ feature on this website, I might still write to say so.)

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cl March 23, 2011 at 9:55 pm

woodchuck64,

Logic easily disposes of libertarian free will and ultimate moral responsibility via something like Galen Strawson’s “basic argument”…

I’ve been reading me some Strawson lately, and I strongly disagree, but if you can lay out any argument[s] of his that you find persuasive, I’m interested. I’d like to be sure I’ve not given his basic argument–or it’s more cumbersome version–short thrift.

As an aside, I’ve also been pondering the differences between Strawson’s approach to morality, as opposed to, say, Luke’s. Hitler’s actions become equivalent to the Japanese tsunami in Strawsonian morality: ultimately blameless events necessitated by prior causal interactions. I certainly give the guy props for having the huevos to tout such a theory, but I don’t find it persuasive. Going in another direction, Strawson doesn’t think science is necessary or able to answer questions of ultimate moral responsibility, and claims we can see the falsity of ultimate moral responsibility just sitting on our couch. Contrast that to Luke’s approach, which would seemingly disapprove of arriving at such a conclusion while just sitting on the couch. Although, to date, desirism strikes me as a “just sitting on the couch” theory, because thus far, it’s normative claims have not been supported by a single shred of empirical evidence–which makes me all the more confused as to why Luke endorses it. His endorsement of desirism seems directly at odds with his stated penchant for empirical evidence.

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cl March 23, 2011 at 10:04 pm

bossmanham,

At base we must rely on our intuitions to make any sort of epistemological process possible. When you say that your questioning of intuition has come about from studies in cognitive psychology, you are relying on all of the foundational intuitions that cognitive psychology relies on, such as the intuition that scientific inquiry leads to truth, that our minds are geared at attaining truth through this type of investigation. These, among others, are all assumptions one must accept and are not able to be studied by science. How do we know that induction is a viable means of gaining knowledge? Well it just seems like it is! That’s relying on intuition.

I agree. Lately, I’ve been noting irony seemingly everywhere. In that vein, don’t you find it ironic that Luke lambasts a process which led to the concept of atoma 2,000 years before the process he endorses as superior? I mean, if we are to be impartial, there has to be at least some degree of validity in reasoning from intuition, right?

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woodchuck64 March 24, 2011 at 7:31 am

cl,

I’ve been reading me some Strawson lately, and I strongly disagree, but if you can lay out any argument[s] of his that you find persuasive, I’m interested. I’d like to be sure I’ve not given his basic argument–or it’s more cumbersome version–short thrift.

http://www.richmond-philosophy.net/rjp/back_issues/rjp4_strawson.pdf
I would be thinking of the Pessimist’s argument described throughout. I do recognize that many (most, all?) people who reject the argument do so because of their intuition that ultimate moral responsibility exists. But what I’m interested in is whether or not there is any problem with the premises/logic of the argument itself.

Going in another direction, Strawson doesn’t think science is necessary or able to answer questions of ultimate moral responsibility, and claims we can see the falsity of ultimate moral responsibility just sitting on our couch. Contrast that to Luke’s approach, which would seemingly disapprove of arriving at such a conclusion while just sitting on the couch.

I take Strawson’s argument as deductive from basic, obvious premises that libertarians and compatibilists alike agree with, and couch-sitting is appropriate for deductive arguments if you aren’t worried about the premises (much like doing math in your head). Of course if the premises are actually wrong, the argument fails.

Desirism, as you note, has some controversial premises that can only be resolved by more empirical evidence –for example, do “desires” really exist as we experience them? Luke has referenced this one before. — but, again, if you aren’t worried about the premises, it seems fine to see how where the deductive argument will go. From what I can see, desirism’s premises at least might be true, and that makes the deductive argument interesting.

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antiplastic March 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm

For a useful corrective to all the recent science-worship and a critique of analytic philosophy from a perspective closer to my own you should take 10 minutes to read this wonderful bit from Rorty:

http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/rorty02.htm

“The moral of my lecture will be that both the failure of analytic philosophy and the history of its autocritique give additional reasons to abandon, once and for all, the very idea that philosophy can be made into any sort of science. Both help us replace the assumption that philosophy should add bricks to the edifice of knowledge with the thought that philosophy is, as Hegel said, its time held in thought….

If analytic philosophy is to retain any hope of realizing its dream of scientification and full professionalization, then there must be meanings which stay fixed despite changes of usage, and intuitions which remain platitudinous despite cultural change. It is essential for this movement that historicism have its limits-that not every way of speaking and thinking be up for grabs, not every philosophical problem be a candidate for therapeutic dissolution.. For if all ways of speaking and thinking are potentially replacable, then the analytic puzzle-solvers will always be in danger of finding themselves parochial, time-bound, obsolete.

This is the principal reason why, within contemporary analytic philosophy, holism, contextualism, pragmatism, and historicism are viewed with so much suspicion. For the more meanings, concepts and intuitions seem to be at the mercy of history, the less hope there is that philosophy will someday attain the secure path of a science.”

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DaVead March 26, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Luke, I wish you’d withhold taking such strong positions without engaging with the arguments. You do well with this on some topics, and for that reason I respect your take on machine ethics and even areas of natural theology. But decrying intuitionism in this way just amounts to begging the question against the vast literature on modal epistemology. (Unless you have done your homework and you’re just cutting to the chase here; if so, cool.)

If anyone’s interested in some good defenses of apriorism and the evidential value of intuitions, check out the work of George Bealer, and also Tim O’Connor’s “Theism and Ultimate Explanation”.

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Luke Muehlhauser March 27, 2011 at 10:55 am

DaVead,

I’ve read both Bealer and O’Connor and disagree with them for basically the reasons I gave above. I do, however, think there are *some* uses for intuition – because we have evidence that those types of intuitions generally work. See Gigerenzer and Brian Talbot. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll write more about this in the future. Talbot also has good responses to Bealer (and BonJour).

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DaVead March 27, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Thank you. :)

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cl March 27, 2011 at 10:58 pm

woodchuck64,

Desirism, as you note, has some controversial premises that can only be resolved by more empirical evidence –for example, do “desires” really exist as we experience them? Luke has referenced this one before.

He has, and my response remains the same: this is a semantic issue that doesn’t change anything. Humans with brain states exist. This is the least of desirism’s worries.

As for the Strawson argument, I’ve got a post scheduled later this week, I think on Friday morning to be exact.

antiplastic,

Thanks for the link. I agree with you on the science-worship around here.

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Jay Q. March 28, 2011 at 7:23 am

So should I remain skeptical about any of the following propositions?

- All squares are rectangular.

- If Socrates is a man and all men are inconsiderate, then Socrates is inconsiderate.

(The second example is from Michael Huemer’s /Ethical Intuitionism/, chapter 5, which I highly recommend. Here’s a link to it: http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/5.htm )

Don’t ignore this question. If you attack all intuitions, you must defend your attack on all intuitions, not just say that you haven’t the time to address the likes of Bealer.

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