Experimental philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P063-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

3. The stability and warrant of intuitions

Evidence that people in different cultures have significantly different intuitions about a certain philosophical domain, say, knowledge, raises questions about the scope of philosophical inquiry into that domain. In addition to exploring how intuitions diverge among people, researchers have investigated how people’s judgements about cases can be affected by how the cases are framed. A simple experimental demonstration comes from switching the order of cases. Consider the ‘bystander’ moral dilemma: a train will kill five innocent people unless you flick a switch which will divert it onto another track, in which case it will kill one other innocent person. People’s responses to whether or not they would divert the train are affected by whether they were first presented with a moral dilemma in which five sick patients can be saved if the organs are taken from one healthy person (Petrinovich and O’Neill 1996). Similar order effects have been found for cases involving whether or not a person knows something (Swain et al. 2008). Their instability has been invoked as a basis for doubting the philosophical value of these intuitions. The order in which cases are presented seems philosophically irrelevant, yet it affects people’s responses to some cases. As a result, some philosophers have suggested that such fickle intuitions cannot be taken as evidence for philosophical claims, for the intuitions can be pushed in conflicting directions by philosophically irrelevant factors like order of presentation (e.g. Sinnott-Armstrong 2008); Swain et al. 2008).

Even for intuitions that are quite stable and universal, some experimental philosophers aim to use experimental results to challenge the philosophical significance of the intuitions. A common strategy is to attempt to discover the psychological origins of the intuition with an eye to undercutting its justificatory grounds. This general argumentative approach is quite old. Freud (1927) argued that the common belief in God, while perhaps true, is epistemically defective. For, he maintained, the common belief in God derives from wish-fulfilment, and wish-fulfilment does not provide good grounds for belief in God. On Freud’s view knowing where a person’s belief or intuition comes from might show that their belief is not justified, regardless of whether it is true. Experimental philosophy and allied areas of cognitive science might contribute to this kind of debunking argument by assessing whether the psychological origins of religious belief are such that people’s religious beliefs are typically unwarranted (cf. Dennett 2007).

Experimental philosophers have recently taken this debunking approach towards moral intuitions. Some research indicates that primordial emotional systems play a critical role in generating the moral intuition that it is wrong to push one person in front of a train in order to save five others. This has led some philosophers to maintain that we should discount this moral intuition in building our normative theory, for the intuition is based on a response that is based on simple emotional triggers (Singer 2005; Greene 2008). Such arguments are, of course, enormously controversial since it is a matter of debate whether moral intuitions should be discounted when they are based on emotional responses. But the basic kind of debunking argument might apply in other areas of philosophy as well; for it is reasonable to ask whether certain philosophical intuitions come from epistemically disreputable psychological sources. Experimental philosophy is poised to contribute to the debate by helping to discover the psychological sources of philosophical intuitions.

Citing this article:
Mallon, Ron and Shaun Nichols. The stability and warrant of intuitions. Experimental philosophy, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P063-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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