Monday, August 20, 2007

Foundational Intuitions

I was thinking about the role intuitions play in philosophy and I found a nice paper by Steven D. Hales called “The Problem of Intuition”, which was published a few years ago. It contains a discussion of the role of intuition in philosophy and then presents an argument that philosophy is unavoidably founded on rational intuitions which have no external justification. This need not be viewed as a bad thing if we accept that some propositions can be self-justifying: they are the intuitive axioms upon which further reasoning is grounded. I thought Hales’ analysis in the paper made sense.

It’s worrisome, of course, that many of us seem to bring conflicting intuitions to philosophical debates. Yet I think we can still hope that we can find a secure shared foundation of at least some intuitive axioms.

So, what are they? What are yours? Famous philosophers of the past tried hard to base grand philosophical systems on carefully considered intuitive first principles. That style of philosophy is rare today. The long history of scientific advances overturning common sense intuition about empirical facts has inspired some philosophers to extrapolate further and argue that many of the deep intuitions we all presuppose in our daily lives are actually wrong and the result of illusion.

Two bedrock intuitions I view as axiomatic have been called into question by philosophers of a naturalistic bent. I maintain that there is no scientific finding or valid inference from the sciences that contravene these.

1. First-person experience is real. Because experiential facts accompany or precede all facts, experience cannot be completely grounded in non-experiential facts.

2. Possibilities are real. The future is open.

In considering these two I’m not saying that our common sense intuition about the nature of the conscious self and free will is accurate. Cognitive science and neuroscience will continue to reveal deep flaws in our “folk” conceptions of self and will. This is to be expected given that we are complicated composite organisms. But it is a mistake to infer from this that the axioms above are false.


Mike Wiest said...

Schopenhauer has a fun and extended polemic against the widespread desire in philosophy and science to replace intuition with "proofs."

"It is...a prevalent but perverted opinion that the scientific character of knowledge consists in greater certainty...[but it] is to be found not in certainty, but in the systematic form of knowledge, established by the gradual descent from the universal to the particular. This way of knowledge...makes it necessary that much is established by...proofs. This has given rise to the old error that only what is demonstrated is perfectly true, and that every truth requires a proof. On the contrary, every proof or demonstration requires an undemonstrated truth.... Therefore a directly established truth is as preferable to a truth established by a proof as spring water is to piped water."

"No science can be capable of demonstration throughout any more than a building can stand in the air. All its proofs must refer to something perceived, and hence no longer capable of proof, for the whole world of reflection rests on, and is rooted in, the world of perception. All ultimate, i.e., original, EVIDENCE is one of INTUITIVE PERCEPTION."

He has a lot more like that, and of course he has his own set of foundational intuitions...

They included "the principle of sufficient reason," which says that every event has a cause. This idea is more subtle than it at first appears, because it does not say for example that one can give a causal explanation for basic properties of the universe or its laws. But it would appear to conflict with the standard interpretation of the randomness in quantum mechanics as being irreducible. I would like to find a modern discussion of this idea...

Another obvious truth that is perhaps called into question by quantum mechanics is the principle of non-contradiction. I'd like to find a mature consideration of whether we can salvage these. There is a tendency to just say get used to it about these interpretations of quantum mechanics, but its not clear that we can still reason consistently about the world if we allow actual contradictions anywhere.

Personally, I take it for granted that I really am conscious. Or at least that something is.

Mike Wiest said...

Here is Shopenhauer's most basic intuition and the starting point of his philosophy:

'"The world is my representation" is, like the axioms of Euclid, a proposition which everyone must recognize as true as soon as he understands it, although it is not a proposition that everyone understands as soon as he hears it.'


"Realism, which commends itself to the crude understanding by appearing to be founded on fact, starts precisely from an arbitrary assumption, and is in consequence an empty castle in the air, since it skips or denies the first fact of all, namely that all that we know lies withing consciousness."

...and realism leads to materialism...


Steve said...

I love the first quotes from Schopenhauer: he wouldn't have been surprised by developments like Godel's incompleteness theorems!

I've actually spent a bit of time trying to think about the PSR in light of quantum theory, but haven't got very far. Events need more than just antecedent events as causes in a quantum world. They need propensities (which are shaped by antecedent events but have an irreducible probabilistic nature) and then they need a spark of spontaneity (or something) which gives you a measurement. I guess you have to revise what you mean by SR to salvage the PSR.

I'm not sure if I think quantum indeterminism has a lot to say about non-contradiction if non-contradiction is about concrete events, rather than the possibility space for future measurement events.

"The world is my representation" I don't like as much. Maybe "the world is the causal nexus in which I'm embedded."?

Mike Wiest said...

Re: sufficient reasons: in my current understanding of SR, due entirely to Shopenhauer's exposition of the idea, I think irreducible probabilities would flatly contradict the PSR, because they imply that something happened without a cause.

The only way I can see to (potentially) make QM consistent with the PSR is roughly to postulate that the irreducible uncertainties of quantum events arise from causal entanglements with events that are in the future in our frame of reference. Then the randomness is really fundamental and inescapable because no one can escape his frame of reference--but at the same time those events do have causes, just not in the naive time-ordered sense of cause. You might call it local indeterminism with global mutual determination, or something like that.

I wonder if this conflicts with your foundational intuition #2? I must admit that my intuition of my own freedom or that the future is open is somewhat weak. Because of QM, I don't think freedom would necessarily conflict with physics, and I do give my feelings of freedom some weight; but it does not seem inconceivable to me that my thoughts and actions are the product of unseen machines.

Can you describe why intuition #2 seems unassailable to you? Or what seems like evidence for it?

Re: "the world is the causal nexus in which I'm embedded." I understand why you resist "the world is my representation," but Schopenhauer cannot accept your reformulation. This might be the hardest step in his philosophy to swallow and it's basically there on page 1 or so (and he doesn't really answer objections until volume 2). Basically he argues that our ideas of objects in spacetime and causal relations are our subjective constructs, the product of our brain-process, to be distinguished from the "thing-in-itself." I think most of us would now be able to agree with him that we construct our own little worlds in our heads, but we tend to think that the real world of objects exists in an independent, real spacetime (or causal nexus) outside our heads.

But Schop argues in a number of ways that the idea of objects in spacetime without a corresponding subject involves a contradiction, basically because spacetime is invented by our brain, and when you try to conceive of objects existing without a subject you realize you are doing exactly the opposite... Anyhow I think his scheme is able to account for the consistency among different people's various perceptions of external objects.

Unlike Kant, though, Schop thinks we CAN know the true nature of the thing in itself....

Steve said...

I apologize for only briefly responding now - maybe I can add more later - this is thought-provoking stuff.

I'll think about your suggestion re: QM and PSR.

#2 seems clear to me because without it there is no WORK for the experiential process to do. Why have the experience of resolving possibilities into actualities if there is no real indeterminism in our present? What kind of pointless illusion would that be?

I think the difference with Schop on representation vs. causation may possibility be resolved if we use an updated versoin of causation along the lines we have discussed. (?) Subjectivity and experience are an irreducible part of causation, contra the traditional view criticized by Schop. I agree with the criticism of traditional realism re: objects in spacetime.

Mike Wiest said...

Good, I think you're right, and I overstated Schop's difference with your formulation. He explains that his short formula ("this world is my rep") is "one-sided," and that it is just as true to say there is no subject without an object. He also says "it is true that space is only in my head, but empirically my head is in space." "In spite of all transcendental ideality, the objective world retains empirical reality." Etc. I wonder if relativity and quantum sort of confirm this in that the science of the object (physics) was forced to bring in the "observer."

He also mentions a few times that this is difficult to grasp...and I can't deny that.

Re: indeterminism...That motivation does seem pretty strong... Schop's view on this is also subtle.

I'm working on a brief summary of Schop. As you might imagine, it's a bit more challenging than I anticipated. Also it turns out some essential responses to objections are in Vol 2, which I now own...