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

A(nother) Puzzle About Appealing to Intuition?

This is a revised version of an old post about a problem with appealing to intuitions. Many of the original premises were overcomplicated and controversial — and, looking back, I am not even sure that the argument is valid…wow, that’s embarrassing. In this post, I try to make the argument less complicated and less controversial. The new argument yields a new conclusion, I think.

P1. The truth-value of a non-contingent premise is not contingent on anything. [Tautology]

P2. Our intuitions and our ability to imagine (i.e., “conceivability“) are contingent on cognitive capacities [assumption].

P3. Our cognitive capacities are contingent on our physical properties [assumption].

C1. Our intuitions and ability to imagine is contingent on our physical properties [P2, P3: HS].

P4. Whether a non-contingent premise seems true is contingent on our intuitions or ability to imagine [Assumption].

C2. Whether a non-contingent premise seems true is contingent on the our physical properties [C1, P4: HS].

P5. Whether a non-contingent premise is actually true is not contingent on our physical properties [P1 restated].

C3. Whether a non-contingent truth seems true is not (the same as) whether a non-contingent truth is actually true [C2, P5: HS].

P6. A premise is sound if a premise seems true [assumption].

P7. A non-contingent premise is a kind of premise [uncontroversial].

P8. A non-contingent premise is sound if a non-contingent premise seems true [P6, P7: HS].

C4. Whether a non-contingent premise is sound is contingent on our physical properties [P8, C2 HS].

P9. Our physical properties are contingent [assumption].

C5. Whether a non-contingent premise is sound is contingent [C4, P9: HS].

If this is right, then the soundness of non-contingent premises is a contingent matter (C5). This might do violence to some descriptions of ‘sound’ and ‘contingent’ — i.e., descriptions which require that being sound and non-contingent (conjunctively) implies, well, being sound…non-contingently. So either there is a problem with this argument or we have some reason to reject certain descriptions of ‘sound’ or ‘contingent.’

As for problems with the argument, I foresee a couple. You might see others.

1st Problem. I have a feeling some will worry that I have made soundness too weak (P6: a premise is sound if a premise seems true). I considered making it stronger by making soundness a function of whether a premise is actually true, but I thought this would make soundness judgments epistemically impossible. With the exception of tautologies, I don’t think we can know whether premises are actually true. After all, to test whether a premise is true, we would need to compare the premise to what is actually true. So the claim that we can come to know whether a premise is true presupposes that we already have access to truth. That seems question-begging. In order to avoid this question-begging, I have opted to weaken my description of soundness.

But let’s assume for a moment that I make soundness about actual truth. It seems that if I do this, then we get a new unsettling conclusion: we cannot know, except perhaps by accident, whether a premise is sound. That might be even more unsettling than the current conclusion — and it’s pretty close to my former conclusion.

2nd Problem. Another worry is that I have not been terribly clear about what I mean by ‘truth.’ Perhaps I’ll address this worry in my next round of revisions to the argument.


Image credit: “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

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