“Michelangelo Creation of Adam” via Wikipedia [public domain]

An Argument against the reliability of intuition

I’d like to get some feedback on an argument. Here’s the rough outline of the premises.

  1. Our intuitions and our ability or inability to imagine (i.e., “conceivability“) are contingent upon cognitive capacities.
  2. Our cognitive capacities are contingent upon our material composition (e.g., the structure and function of our brains [Assumption].
  3. Our intuitions and ability (or inability) to imagine is contingent upon our material composition [1,2 HS].
  4. The seeming truth of many philosophical premises are contingent on philosophers’ intuitions or ability (or inability) to imagine [Assumption].
  5. The seeming truth of many non-contingent-truth-seeking philosophical arguments are contingent upon the material composition of philosophers [3, 4 HS].
  6. The truth of a non-contingent truth is not contingent upon anything—e.g., the material composition of the philosophers who seek it [Tautology].
  7. Premises that are contingent upon a truth-seeker’s material composition will be sound if and only iff the truth-seeker’s composition happens to be such that their intuitions and ability (or inability) to imagine systematically track non-contingent truths.
  8. A truth-seeker’s composition will be such that their intuitions and ability (or inability) to imagine tracks non-contengent truths only as a matter of (evolutionary) chance.
  9. If there exist non-contingent truths, then arguments that appeal to intuition and our ability (or inability) to imagine will lead towards non-contingent truths only as a matter of chance [7, 8 HS].

If our intuitions are reliable in any way, they will only be so by chance. Is this a problem? It is not obvious that it is, especially if it turns out that we do not have other more reliable judgments or methods upon which to rely (e.g., science, logical analysis, conceptual analysis, etc.). Also, it might be that intuitions have nothing to do with truth. After all, truth is probably a metaphysical concept (Laudan, 1996). It should not be surprising that intuitions, which I take to be cultivated and realized by physical processes, would have any systematically reliable bearing on metaphysical stuff.

You will notice that I have not offered arguments for the assumptions (denoted by “[Assumption]”).  Doing so would probably amount to…appealing to intuition. So, such a move seems suspicious at best.

With this über-meager defense, I invite you to weigh in.


Laudan, Larry. 1996. Beyond Positivism and Relativism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 77-87.


Featured image: “Michelangelo, Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo via Wikipedia. Public domain.


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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

4 thoughts on “An Argument against the reliability of intuition”

  1. If you get a chance, you should check out Herman Cappelen’s book Philosophy without Intuitions. It’s a relatively short monograph, that has a bit too many bullet points for my liking, but it does make some interesting points about the role that intuitions actually play in philosophy.

    If you want the gist of his argument (from page 1 of the book) here it is:

    “it is not true that philosophers rely extensively (or even a little bit) on intuitions as evidence. At worst, analytic philosophers are guilty of engaging in somewhat irresponsible use of “intuition”-vocabulary. While this irresponsibility has had little effect on first-order philosophy, it has fundamentally misled metaphilosophers. It has encouraged metaphilosophical pseudo-problems and misleading pictures of what philosophy is and how it is done.”

    1. Thanks John! I will definitely check out this argument as it might pose a serious problem to the thrust of the argument. And I appreciate you taking a minute to summarize the argument for me! As usual, you are a gentleman and a scholar!

      1. John: I looked into Cappelen’s book. Overall I think his project is an important one. One worry about his book, though, is that it’s sample size is hopelessly small to make generalizations about philosophy. If one wants to make his claim generalize to all of philosophy, then one would want to look at more than a handful of cases. So, in a recent draft, I have proposed that we do just that (I’ve posted the abstract to academia.edu here). This proposal involves exploiting some methods from computational corpus linguistics. I hope that someday someone, maybe me if I can find the time, will try this.

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