Intuitions and a-priori knowledge

In a comment on my post on hypotheticals, Krishnamurthy asked:

When you say “Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions “, the question arises about how to arrive at those principles. If he cannot use his intuition, and if he cannot do the complicated expected utility maximization, then he can only arrive at the principles by evaluating the outcomes of his previous actions. But to evaluate he would need some principles to begin with. (on second thought, even to do expected utility maximization, he would need to make some evaluations). how does a human being find the principle to base his actions on ?

I hold that knowledge can never be a-priori. To see why, consider these questions

Does a digital balance know how to measure weight?
Does a computer know how to add numbers?
Does my heart know how to pump blood?
Do my eyes and brain know how to distinguish objects from each other?
Does a parrot that recites 2 + 2 = 4 know that 2 + 2 = 4?

My answer to all these questions would be no. There is no knowledge involved here. Knowledge, in the sense applicable to a human mind, involves the exercise of free will. An entity that does not have free will cannot have any knowledge. It is like a machine that does certain things because that is its nature. Since no exercise of free will can occur before one exists, knowledge cannot be a-priori.

Now consider the human mind. I believe that the mind is built with the capacity to use logic, but not with the knowledge of the laws of logic. This is a subtle point. What I am saying is that the mind has an inbuilt ability to determine whether something makes sense. But active effort is required to use this ability. And further effort is required to identify why it makes sense. Men obviously have been using logic for millenia. But it took Aristotle to identify the laws of logic. The operation of the laws of logic is part of the nature of the mind but the knowledge of the laws of logic is not. It takes active effort to grasp the laws of logic – to realize that when something “makes sense”, it is because that something is consistent with the laws of logic. The faculty that is capable of doing this grasping is reason. Man is born with the faculty of reason. But it is the use of reason that results in knowledge.

Recollect the time when you learnt the truth table for “p AND q” where “p” and “q” are propositions. How did you grasp that the truth table was correct? I did so by substituting actual propositions for “p” and “q” and verifying the values in the truth table. This indicates that knowledge of the truth table was not a-priori but the ability to verify particular propositions was. The truth-table was <i>induced</i> from the ability to verify particular propositions. More importantly, this also indicates that in the absence of any particular propositions, I could not have induced the truth table for “p AND q”. This is another reason that knowledge cannot be a-priori.

The ability to understand and evaluate propositions and to induce principles is inbuilt. If you want to call this ability intuition (I call it reason), I have no problem accepting the validity of intuitions, provided effort is made to express the result of this “intuition” in terms of the laws of logic, observations and any other principles one has already validated. But I don’t think this is what anybody means by intuition. For example, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines intuition as
1: quick and ready insight
2 a: immediate apprehension or cognition b: knowledge or conviction gained by intuition c: the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference
Note the parts I have emphasized. They all indicate that intuition is knowledge achieved without active effort and without the use of reason.

Does this answer your question?

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2 Responses

  1. Actually, no. In fact I haven’t understood the answer (after couple of readings). I understand your position that knowledge cannot be apriori. My question was that in order to make value judgements, one has to have moral principles. The choice of principles cannot be apriori, because if that were the case, then we do not act morally, only out of our nature, inevitably. The choice cannot be out of experience, since to evaluate our experience we would need some evaluation criterion/some more basic principle.

    One may argue that the choice could be made from history (historical evidence), but that is unreliable and definitely imperfect. Finally the choice could be arbitrary, in which case one cannot justify it, nor invalidate some other choice.

    Is there some other possibility I am missing ?

    Also, sorry for the delay in the response.

  2. Krishnamurthy,

    I understand your position that knowledge cannot be apriori. My question was that in order to make value judgements, one has to have moral principles.

    I think you are making a distinction between factual judgements and value judgements. If so, would you ask the same question about factual judgements? Does one need prior principles to make factual judgements? Since I have argued that knowledge is not a-priori, I hold that prior principles are not always required to make factual judgements. The use of reason is sufficient to make factual judgements as well as to induce principles from them.

    Now consider value judgements. Let me use a brief excerpt from Leonard Peikoff’s essay “Fact and Value”

    Objectivism holds that value is objective (not intrinsic or subjective); value is based on and derives from the facts of reality (it does not derive from mystic authority or from whim, personal or social). Reality, we hold—along with the decision to remain in it, i.e., to stay alive—dictates and demands an entire code of values. Unlike the lower species, man does not pursue the proper values automatically; he must discover and choose them; but this does not imply subjectivism. Every proper value-judgment is the identification of a fact: a given object or action advances man’s life (it is good): or it threatens man’s life (it is bad or an evil). The good, therefore, is a species of the true; it is a form of recognizing reality. The evil is a species of the false; it is a form of contradicting reality. Or: values are a type of facts; they are facts considered in relation to the choice to live.

    As long as one chooses to live (and I consider that a fundamental choice which cannot be further broken down), value judgements are just a kind of factual judgements. A factual judgement is a judgement about whether X is true. Substitute “Y (ultimately) helps me live” in place of X and you have a value judgement with the value in question being Y.

    You might also be interested in reading this post in which I consider the distinction between moral issues and “scientific” (non-moral) issues and argue that the distinction is essentially based on a person’s context and on the generality of the issue.

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