Part of the sequence: Rationality and Philosophy

In this series, I have examined how intuitions work so that I can clarify how rationalists1 should and shouldn't use their intuitions2 when solving philosophical problems. Understanding the cognitive algorithms that generate our intuitions can dissolve traditional philosophical problems. As Brian Talbot puts it:

...where psychological research indicates that certain intuitions are likely to be inaccurate, or that whole categories of intuitions are not good evidence, this will overall benefit philosophy. This has the potential to resolve some problems due to conflicting intuitions, since some of the conflicting intuitions may be shown to be unreliable and not to be taken seriously; it also has the potential to free some domains of philosophy from the burden of having to conform to our intuitions, a burden that has been too heavy to bear in many cases...3

Knowing how intuitions work can also tell us something about how we can train them to make them render more accurate judgments.4


Problems with intuition

In most philosophy, intuitions play the role that observations do in science: they support and undermine various theories.5 Conceptual analyses are rejected when intuitive counterexamples are presented. Moral theories are rejected when they lead to intuitively revolting results. Theories of mind and language and metaphysics rise and fall depending on how well they can be made to fit our intuitions, even in bizarre science fiction hypothetical scenarios.6

But why trust our intuitions? Our intuitions often turn out to contradict each other,7 or they are contradicted by empirical evidence,8 or they vary between people and between groups of people.9 Compared to scientific methods, the philosopher's use of intuitions as his primary tool doesn't seem to have been very productive.10 Also, we can't calibrate our intuitions, because wherever we have a non-intuition standard against which to calibrate our intuitions, we don't need to use intuition in the first place.11 Moreover, philosophers have typically known very little about where their intuitions come from, and why they should trust them in the first place!12

Defenders of intuitionist philosophy reply that we can't do philosophy without intuitions.13 Others point out that we have similar worries about the reliability of of sense perception.14 But these replies do not solve the problem. As Talbot says,3 these responses "give us reasons to want to trust intuitions... but no evidence that they are particularly reliable or useful."

The way forward is not to give a priori arguments for or against the use of intuitions. The way forward is to explore what cognitive science can tell us about how our intuitions work (as we've been doing) so that we have some idea about when they work and when they don't.


What is intuition?

But first, what is this 'intuition' we're talking about? Definitions of 'intuition' abound.15

In 2008, Eliezer wrote a post about the 'intuitions' behind utilitarianism. He responded to a critic who used the word 'intuition' in a very broad sense - perhaps meaning all thoughts and seemings. But when we use the word so broadly, then the word is not so useful anymore - like the word 'god' after you've redefined it to mean 'a higher power'. When I talk about 'intuition', I want to talk about intuition in a more specific and useful way (as Eliezer would appreciate16).

But we don't need to argue about definitions. We can use stipulation. We can argue about the substance rather than the symbol.

For now, let's think of the thing we're investigating as the seeming to be true of some proposition due to an opaque mental process (and not memory or perception). After all, if intuitions were transparent, we could just point to the things that ground them as evidence, and the intuitions themselves would add no weight of their own to our evidence.3


When intuitions are useful

As we are discussing it, an intuition is a judgment that springs from the unconscious. And from where does the unconscious get its judgments? From evolution17 and from unconscious learning18 and from attribute substitution heuristics.19

Before considering how these sources of intuitions make them unsuitable for many of their popular uses in philosophy, let's acknowledge how effective intuitions are in some situations.

Familiarity with recent cognitive science has led many to conclude that "being more analytic and less intuitive should help you to develop more effective and rewarding solutions."20 But recent investigations have located a few circumstances in which intuitions outperform considered judgments.

In one study, basketball experts asked to make spontaneous predictions about the outcomes of a basketball tournament made more accurate predictions than those asked to deliberate carefully about their predictions.21 Other studies on intuition vs. deliberation have found intuition 'winning' on tests of certain kinds of face recognition,22 route recognition,23 and voice recognition,24 while deliberation 'won' on tests of subadditivity probability judgments,25 raffle-winning probability judgments,26 quantity estimation,27 picture recognition,28 conjunctions and disjunctions,29 and conditional inferences.30

Better-supported is a trend in research which finds that when selecting products to to take home with us, we end up feeling more satisfied with our choice if we made it using intuition rather than a conscious process of weighing pros and cons, costs and benefits.31

And if you're trying to avoid collisions or catch a baseball, you're better off acting on your split-second intuition than trying to calculate the physics of moving objects.32 

Some authors have suggested other, very specific domains in which intuition may surpass the accuracy of considered judgment,33 but these claims are not yet well substantiated.

You may have noticed that the domains in which intuition might excel are not particular relevant to solving philosophical problems. In the next post, we'll begin to examine the ways in which intuitions can lead us astray when doing philosophy.


Next post: Concepts Don't Work That Way

Previous post: Intuitions and Unconscious Learning




1 I use the term 'rationalists' as Less Wrong uses the term, not as the mainstream philosophical community uses the term. As Less Wrong uses the term, a 'rationalist' is someone devoted to the craft of refining their rationality by counteracting known cognitive biases and trying to make their beliefs and decisions track with technically correct beliefs and decisions (defined with reference to, for example, Bayes' theorem and decision theory).

2 In the preface of Plessner et al. (2009), the authors provide a handy list of search terms for those who wish to research the science of intuition on their own: "unconscious perceptions, 'blindsight,' pattern recognition, instinct, automatic processing, experiential knowing, tacit knowledge, religious experiences, emotional intelligence, nonverbal communication, clinical diagnoses, 'thin slices of behavior,' spontaneous trait inferences, the 'mere exposure' effect, the primacy of affect, 'thinking too much,' priming, feelings as information, implicit attitudes, expertise, creativity, and the 'sixth sense.'" They recommend the following sources as "excellent overviews" for studying these terms and ideas: Bastick (1982); Davis-Floyd & Arvidson (1992); Hogarth (2001); Myers (2002); Wilson (2002).

3 Talbot (2009).

4 Hogarth (2001, 2007).

5 Cummins (1998); Talbot (2009).

6 Talbot (2009) provides a nice little summary of how intuitions are used in philosophy (I've changed his citations to the original articles in some cases): "Intuitions about understanding Chinese are used by John Searle to argue against what he calls “strong AI” (Searle, 1980). In the philosophy of action, intuitions about playing video games are used by Michael Bratman to argue that we can try to do something without intending to do it (Bratman, 1987). Intuitions are used as counter-evidence against compatibilism (Bok, 1998). One of the most famous use of intuitions as counter evidence comes from epistemology: Gettier cases (Gettier, 1963). In metaphysics, intuitions are appealed to to argue for theories of causation (e.g., Lewis, 1973), and against them (by pointing out that they have counter-intuitive consequences, such as transitivity) (Hall, 2000). In ethics, Judith Jarvis Thomson uses intuitions about violinists and carpets to argue for her claim that abortion can be morally acceptable despite having a right to life (Thomson, 1971). Bernard Williams uses intuitions about killing rebels as counter-evidence against utilitarianism (Williams & Smart, 1973). In the philosophy of language, Tyler Burge uses intuitions about “arthritis” to argue for meaning externalism (Burge, 1979), and Saul Kripke uses intuitions about Gödel to argue against a descriptivist view of names (Kripke, 1972). This list goes on and on."

7 Suppes (1984); Cummins (1998).

8 Wisniewski (1998); Hastie & Dawes (2009); Gilovich (1991); Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky (1982); Nisbett & Ross (1980); Stanovich (2009).

9 Stich (1988); Weinberg, Nichols, & Stich (2001); Swain, Alexander, & Weinberg (2008).

10 Bishop & Trout (2004); Miller (2000). Talbot (2009) explains: "Consider the state of philosophy, they say. There is little agreement on most key issues, we have produced few theories that have been very successful or survived criticism, and philosophy has accomplished little of practical significance in the last few hundred years. There is nothing about the subject matter of philosophy that makes these results inevitable; most of us believe that there are answers out there to be found, and at least some philosophical disciplines can produce useful results. This gives us reason to think that we are studying the right stuff but in the wrong way. Some aspects of our methodology – logic and rigorous thought – are beyond criticism, and thus, they say, the blame for philosophy’s lack of success falls on our use of intuitions."

11 Cummins (1998); Talbot (forthcoming).

12 Cummins (1998); Wisniewski (1998).

13 Sosa (1998); Bealer (1998); BonJour (1998).

14 Sosa (1998); Pust (2000).

15 Bealer (1996) refers to intuitions as a priori seemings of the sort by which De Morgan's laws come to seem true to someone - intellectual seemings, not perceptions or imaginative seemings. Sosa (1998) defines 'intuition' as "noninferential belief due neither to perception nor introspection," but sees intuition as focused on abstract propositions: "At t, S has an intuition that p iff (a) if at t S were merely to understand fully enough the proposition that p (absent relevant perception, introspection, and reasoning), then S would believe that p; (b) at t, S does understand the proposition that p; (c) the proposition that p is an abstract proposition; and (d) at t, S thinks occurrently of the proposition that p (in propria persona, not just by description)." Williamson (2004) describes intuitions as "applications of our ordinary capacities for judgment" and says "when contemporary analytic philosophers run out of arguments, they appeal to intuition." Gopnik & Schwitzgebel (1998) say: "We will call any judgment an intuitive judgment, or more briefly an intuition, just in case that judgment is not made on the basis of some kind of explicit reasoning process that a person can consciously observe. Intuitions are judgments that grow, rather, out of an underground process... that cannot be directly observed." Goldman & Pust (1998) briefly refer to intuitions as "spontaneous moral judgments." Talbot (2009) calls an intuition "a relatively unreflective reaction that a proposition is true or false." Or, more precisely, he says "an intuition is the seeming to be true (although not necessarily acceptance of or belief in) of some proposition that is not a perceptual seeming, or due to conscious recollection, or due entirely to transparent mental processes." Hogarth (2001) says intuitions "are reached with little apparent effort and typically without conscious awareness. They involve little or no conscious deliberation." According to the 'associative learning' view of intuition, intuition draws on the whole stream of past experiences: Betsch et al. (2004); Betsch & Haberstroh (2005). Betsch (2007) offers a definition of intuition from this perspective: "Intuition is a process of thinking. The input to this process is mostly provided by knowledge stored in long-term memory that has been primarily acquired via associative learning. The input is processed automatically and without conscious awareness. The output of the process is a feeling that can serve as abasis for judgments and decisions." Note that the view of intuition from the heuristics and biases perspective (Kahneman & Frederick 2002, 2005) and from the associative learning view are generally not contradictory but rather complementary. Finally, also see surveys of opinion on the nature of intuition, for example Abernathy & Hamm (1995).

16 In his post, Eliezer responds to his critic's broad definition of 'intuition' like this: "Now 'intuition' is not how I would describe the computations that underlie human morality and distinguish us, as moralists, from an ideal philosopher of perfect emptiness and/or a rock. But I am okay with using the word "intuition" as a term of art, bearing in mind that "intuition" in this sense is not to be contrasted to reason, but is, rather, the cognitive building block out of which both long verbal arguments and fast perceptual arguments are constructed."

17 The field of evolutionary psychology is rich with candidates for evolutionarily adaptive psychological predispositions, some more thoroughly supported by the evidence than others. For an overview, see Buss (2011); Dunbar & Barrett (2007).

18 Hogarth (2007); Sloman (1996); Sloman (2002); Evans & Over (1996); Stanovich (2004); Mercier & Sperber (2009); Betsch (2007); Epstein (2007).

19 Kahneman & Frederick (2002, 2005).

20 Kardes (2002), p. 402.

21 Halberstadt and Levine (1999). For an overview of similar results, see Plessner & Czenna (2007). For older studies, see Ambady & Rosenthal (1992).

22 Clare & Lewandowsky (2004); Fallshore & Schooler (1995); Halbertsadt (2005); Schooler & Engstler-Schooler (1990).

23 Fiore & Schooler (2002).

24 Perfect et al. (2002).

25 Dougherty & Hunter (2003).

26 Windschitl & Krizan (2005).

27 Gilbert & Rappoport (1975).

28 Klimesch (1980); Silverberg & Buchanan (2005).

29 Kruglanski & Freund (1983).

30 Schroyens et al. (2003).

31 Dijksterhuis & van Olden (2005); Dijksterhuis et al. (2006).

32 Gigerenzer (2007), ch. 1.

33 Gigerenzer (2007); Gladwell (2005).



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Luke, this sequence of posts seems to touch upon (although from a very different angel) some of the same issues raised in my post Metaphilosophical Mysteries. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that post.

Next time, we'll examine in more detail why intuitions are so unsuited for use in philosophy.

A couple of possibly premature comments:

  1. If intuitions are unsuited for use in philosophy, what is suited? Until we have at least a rough outline of an algorithm for doing philosophy, how can we possibly avoid using philosophical intuitions? Or do you just mean that we shouldn't uncritically rely upon our intuitions in philosophical matters?
  2. It's sometimes claimed around here that some people (e.g., Eliezer) have better philosophical intuitions than others. Do you think this is a real phenomenon? If so, perhaps there is a source of "good" philosophical intuitions besides the three sources that you list, and we just do not understand it yet?

It looks like you and I are concerned with many of the same problems, and for similar reasons. I'll keep 'Metaphilosophical Mysteries', and also this comment, in my mind as I continue to develop this sequence.

I don't have anything to say off the cuff, though. When talking about something as fuzzy and misunderstood as intuition, I want to be extra super duper careful how I speak. I do that better in a post that has been edited and tweaked over several days or weeks than in a comment.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts as I continue my work on this sequence! We have similar background assumptions and thinking methods, but you have higher g.


Whoa, rather than link to the journal sites, you provided PDF copies of nearly all articles you referenced on your own site? That is awesome. Thank you. Double-upvoted, if I could!

And if you're trying to avoid collisions or catch a baseball, you're better off acting on your split-second intuition than trying to calculate the physics of moving objects.

On the other hand, if you're firing long-range artillery from a battleship, it's probably better to do the calculations.

Also, we can't calibrate our intuitions, because wherever we have a non-intuition standard against which to calibrate our intuitions, we don't need to use intuition in the first place.

Why exactly can't we calibrate our intuition generator by using the non-intuition standards? We could then use our intuitions in other contexts, where there was no standard.

I'll cover that a bit more in the next post. You can also check the work cited in the footnote.

I wonder what is the underlying reason why intuition works better than deliberate reasoning in some cases. Maybe its because in those cases considered judgments rely themselves on other intuitions that are less accurate, for example about the importance of certain evidence. In the basketball case, I can imagine that experts who are asked to deliberate carefully take into account information about injured players, or recent "trends", that turn out to be actually much less important than their intuition tells them.

Being more analytic and less intuitive should help you to develop more effective and rewarding solutions.

Analytical thinking would be more useful in theoretical problems, or in a world with no imperfections in all sorts of natural processes. Analytical thinking in a perfect world would be an algorithm against algorithm with perfect sync. But since our world is full of imperfections in all field from physics to language, intuition should be the smart tool to use in order to achieve harmony.


There have been lots of studies regarding problems with intuition. But, have there been studies regarding the intuition of people who are also excellent thinkers of the abstract? Or the intuition of skilled rationalists?

That does sound very controversial - but that's the point. I personally have slight confidence - be it intuitive if you wish - that the intuition of the entire population on average does not match the intuition of some filtered population. For an example Luke went ahead and said that you're better off catching a basketball using your intuition rather than calculating trajectories algebraically - and some people are really bad at catching basket balls, while others excel at it.

I think what you do intuitively can be changed to some extent and what results intuition produces varies between people, despite general tendencies. I also think that the brain does lots of work automatically, and it can really fit into some situations much better than deliberate thinking, in particular if A) You're under time pressure B) The task is hard to analyze, calculate

For an example if you were to figure out if a painting would be a "pleasant sight" for most people, more often than not, I think it would be a realm where you would have to use intuition. Although I guess that's circular logic, because the "pleasantness" of the experience is a product of intuition. But then there are good painters and bad painters, good critics and bad critics. There are good cooks and bad cooks.

I'm feel that not all people share similar intuition in terms of arriving at correct expectations or conclusions about the world just as there is variance in abilities of deliberate reasoning. Maybe that's just my intuition going wrong. Or rather I think I intuitively felt that was the case, then applied some superficial analogies and tried to extract additional information from them - primarily to support the intuition.

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This recent edited volume might be of interest.


Whoa, rather than link to the journal sites, you provided PDF copies of nearly all articles you referenced on your own site? That is awesome. Thank you. Double-upvoted, if I could!

I seem to recall a study that studied intuition in emergency situations such as fire fighters and ER doctors. What they determined was that the more experienced the person, the more likely the intuition was to be correct meaning that it probably wasn't intuition at all but the person's brain working on available data faster than the person was consciously aware of.

What they determined was that the more experienced the person, the more likely the intuition was to be correct meaning that it probably wasn't intuition at all but the person's brain working on available data faster than the person was consciously aware of.

I generally refer to "[the] brain working on available data faster than the person was consciously aware of" as "intuition". For the purposes of this sequence, are we excluding that and only using "intuition" to refer to information and subconscious thought processes derived from one's evolutionary rather than individual history?