Intuition is bunk

by Ben Ryding

This post is meant to be something of a prelude to a series of posts related to the idea that our intuition is too widely used in substantiating various philosophical claims.  A curious aspect of philosophical inquiry is the heavy role that intuition plays in forming assertions and arguments.  This is particularly evident in the realm of ethics, where thought experiments are used ad nauseam to tease out our intuitions about all possible edge cases for a given moral theory.  Intuition is often used as the sole force behind a serious philosophical argument.

Consider an example from philosophy of mind — Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument.  It is an argument which tries to provide evidence for Epiphenomenalism (and ostensibly disprove physicalism), the hypothesis that mental states are not physically reducible but are caused by physical states.  He uses the following famous thought experiment to substantiate this thesis:

Suppose that a woman, Mary, has lived in a room where she cannot perceive color since the day she was born.  Suppose further that she has spent her life studying the nature of color and our perception of it. She learns the exact brain states involved in the perception of color and the exact wavelengths of each color and how our faculties respond to and process them.  Finally, after she has attained full knowledge of the science of color perception, she is let out of the black and white room.  Does Mary learn anything?

At the end of the thought experiment, Jackson wants our intuition to be screaming out that she does indeed learn something, namely, she learns what it is like to experience color. Despite having all knowledge possible about the physical properties of color perception, our intuition tells us that she does not know what it is like to experience color until she escapes from the room.  Jackson wants to argue that something else must be going on when we refer to mental states and conscious experience, namely, he asserts the existence of non-physical mental states, called qualia, which are caused by the physical states of of brain.  In this way our conscience experience of the world can be explained in non-physical terms.

Although I agree that the intuitive force behind this particular thought experiment is significant, I cannot see a reason to make any positive assertions about the existence of qualia.  Perhaps it just is the case that Mary walks out of the room and learns nothing new; perhaps having omniscience about the physical properties of color experience really is sufficient to understand what it is like to experience color.  The work that Jackson has done here is important insofar as it outlines a plausible hypothesis that seeks to explain conscious experience, but it fails to give sufficient reason to abandon a more agnostic view about the mind and mental states.

The intent of this post is not to point out why the Mary experiment is insufficient to substantiate the Knowledge Argument, it is to more broadly assert that intuition is perhaps too widely held among philosophers (and the layman) as a tool for argumentation and as epistemic justification.

In later posts I’ll be exploring the intuition problem in the context of ethics and eventually devolve into a nihilistic crisis of sorts.