Intuition: a logical interlude

I’m still working on the continuation of my MBTI & Temperament-themed posts, but in the meantime an article on Mercatornet caught my eye:

Whenever someone makes a claim to you about politics or morals — anything from “Morals are all relative anyway” (which you might hear at the corner convenience store) to “No one should be required to surrender his autonomy” (which you might hear at a political theory conference) — ask these three questions.  (1) What do you mean by that?  (2) How do you know it’s true?  (3) What difference does it make?

When you ask the second question — “How do you know it’s true?” — the person to whom you are speaking should reply by giving a reason for his claim.  The reasons are the premises; the claim they are supposed to support is the conclusion.  Taken together, the premises and the conclusion make up an argument.  Here are three tests for arguments.  (1) Do the terms used in the premises have clear meanings?  (2) Is the reasoning free of fallacies?  and (3) Are the premises true?  If it passes all three tests, you can be sure that the conclusion is true.  But if it fails even one of the three tests, you know no more about whether the conclusion is true than you knew before.  Arguments that pass tests 1 and 2 are sometimes called valid whether or not they pass test 3.  Bear in mind, however, that a valid argument with false premises may still have a false conclusion.

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

The author is a natural law theorist, and I’ve enjoyed his work in the past. In fact he’s quite an interesting guy with the slightly intimidating name of J. Budziszewski, a Professor of Philosophy in Texas.  In the article he runs through a set of common fallacies. But what caught my attention was the last line quoted above.

Since I started looking at the Four Temperaments, I’ve wondered whether there might be temperamental differences or nuances in how people present theories, or which theories they subscribe to.

For example, my late PhD project involved looking at the Intellectualist and Voluntarist controversy throughout the history of the free will debate. The heart of the debate is whether the will is subordinate to the intellect or vice-versa.

It occurred to me that the temperaments might play a role in how people respond to this issue, albeit probably not to the objective answer. That is, I don’t think temperament means some people’s intellects are subordinate to their will, while in others the will is subordinate to the intellect. Rather, I think that some people might seem to subordinate their intellect to their will, or others might appear to be wholly subordinate to their intellect.

Let’s say voluntarism is true, but philosophy has historically attracted a great many very rigorous thinkers, people who are inclined to adhere very closely to their own reasoning, valuing coherence between beliefs and actions, and so on. These people might provide exceptions to the voluntarist rule, apparent counter-examples of individuals who seemingly can’t help but will according to their intellect.

Well, it’s possible anyway.

But what caught my eye in Professor B’s post was that final line:

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

A good philosopher should indeed be ready to go where evidence and reason lead. But in my experience, “just knowing” is more significant than it appears. To be fair, some people “just know” because they are too stubborn or too afraid to consider the possibility that they are wrong. For them, “I just know” really means “I want to believe”.

But for others, “I just know” means an intuited gap in the logic. It points to a flaw that the discursive intellect may be yet to identify or clarify. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t verify the intuition, or that it will necessarily end in vindication of our original position. Sometimes it points to a hidden assumption that is tripping us up, or an expectation that may be holding us back.

Yet there are also occasions when intuition points to the broader errors in the other side: the flawed motives that might underlie a perfect strategy; or the difference in worldview that renders fine-grained debates redundant.

This is something I’ve learned from examining my own processes. I’m quite familiar with my own ways of thinking, learning, and solving problems, enough to know that the standard-issue approaches are rarely a perfect fit.

So I wouldn’t encourage everyone to stick to their “just knows”. It’s the kind of thing you earn after learning how to change your mind to suit the evidence, after all the hard work of self-examination.
But maybe it’s also an N thing? In MBTI terms, if intuition is unevenly distributed within the population then we can’t presume that everyone should follow the same approach. Some people just won’t get it, others need to learn to trust it.

This is certainly the general message of the Four Temperaments: as a Melancholic you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to be like everyone else, and still fail at it miserably. Ironically, that waste and struggle and (hopefully) realisation are also part of what it means to be a Melancholic.


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