Thursday, September 13, 2012

Cappelen on Explaining Away Intuitions

The 6-page Chapter 5 of Herman Cappelen's Philosophy Without Intuitions is an argument against "Explain":
Explain: Suppose A has shown (or at least provided good arguments in favor of) not-p. If many of A's interlocutors (and maybe A herself) are inclined to sincerely utter (and so commit to) 'Intuitively, p', then A is under an intellectual obligation to explain why this is the case (i.e. why there was or is this inclination to utter and commit to 'Intuitively, p'). She should not full-out endorse not-p before she has discharged this obligation.
(The metasemantic character of this principle is because Herman thinks that 'intuitively' is context-sensitive, and that this is the only way to capture the attitude in its generality.) Against Explain, Herman considers various things that people might mean by sentences like "intuitively, p", and suggests that, for each of them, Explain looks pretty unmotivated. For example, when considering the idea that it means something like "at the outset of inquiry we believed or were inclined to believe that p", he writes:
When 'Intuitively, p' is so interpreted, it is hard to see any reason to accept Explain. Suppose a philosopher A has presented a good argument for not-p. The fact that some judge or are inclined to judge that p before thinking carefully about the topic isn't something that in general needs to be explained by A. The question under discussion is whether p is the case. The argument for not-p addressed and settled that question. (90)
As with so much of Herman's book, I'm in agreement with the main thrust here. In a paper I wrote on this topic a little while back ("Explaining Away Intuitions"), I said, along very similar lines to Herman's, that:

Widespread practice notwithstanding, it is not prima facie obvious why philosophers should, in general, be concerned with explaining intuitions, or with explaining them away. Intuitions are psychological entities; philosophical theories are not, in general, psychological theories. Ontologists theorize about what there is; it is quite another matter, one might think, what people think there is. Epistemologists concern themselves with knowledge, not with folk intuitions about knowledge.
If I’m to theorize about, say, the nature of reference, I should not feel at all guilty if I fail to explain why people like chocolate, or why the Detroit Lions are so bad. Why should I feel differently about the fact that some people think that in Kripke’s story, the name ‘Gödel’ refers to Schmidt? Th is psychological fact is interesting, and is, it seems to me, well worth explaining. But it is not clear why it should be the reference theorist’s job to explain it. His job is to explain reference, not to explain intuitions about reference.

Obviously, with respect to these passages, Herman and I are very much on the same page. However, I went on in that paper to make a major caveat, which I think Herman may be overlooking. Sometimes, considerations having to do with intuitions are relevant to the nonpsychological question, too. This may be so even if the evidence doesn't derive from intuition in any interesting sense. (In other words, I don't think that the plausible version of Explain relies on the truth of anything like Centrality.) I agree with Herman that if you have an argument that you recognize to be conclusive for a given philosophical thesis, then you don't have to worry too much about other people's intuitions. But sometimes you need to worry about those intuitions in order to be able to recognize that an argument is conclusive. Recognizing that an argument is a good one is a cognitive achievement, and intuitions can be relevant for whether this achievement is met. They might, for example, defeat one's justification for a given premise.

This observation isn't inconsistent with the letter of Herman's remarks in Chapter 5. In a footnote, he clarifies that his scope is limited: "[t]o make things simple, I assume that we have settled that not-p (or at elast made it sufficiently plausible for us to endorse it) and that all that remains a sa potential obstacle is the commitment to 'Intuitively, p'." But this isn't always—or, in the interesting cases, even very often—the case. As I wrote in my paper mentioned above:

Sometimes, for instance, a philosopher may be deliberating about a particular view, without being at all sure what to think. I find in myself conflicting intuitions, and don’t know which to endorse. If I can see that one of those intuitions is a member of a class that I’m likely to find appealing even if false, this might provide me with some reason to prefer the other. The Horowitz case provides a nice example: if I am in internal tension between (a) the thought that it’s better to do that which results in more lives being saved, and (b) the thought that it’s wrong to kill somebody in a way over and above the way it’s wrong to let somebody die, I may, if I’m convinced by her explaining‐away, discount (b) as the product of a general error in rationality.
So I think that by focusing on the cases where one has already identified a conclusive argument, Herman is probably not looking at the best candidates for situations in which consideration of intuitions might be interesting.

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