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?

Hypotheticals, egoism, intuition and Heumer

Via this debate on Aristotle The Geek’s blog, I came across this critique of Ayn Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics” on Michael Heumer’s website. After reading through the mind-numbing (primarily because of its length) critique and disagreeing with it, I took a look at some other pages on his site and found this critique of egoism. Heumer is a self-described intuitionist (I will have to read more on his precise views on intuitions) and he constructs a hypothetical in which he claims that an egoist would have to murder a person for a very minor benefit. Then he claims that since it is self-evident that murder is wrong egoism cannot be true.

Consider the nature of his hypothetical

I just happen to have in my pocket a hand-held disintegrator ray, though. The gun will quickly disintegrate any person I aim it at. It is believed that victims of disintegration suffer brief but horrible agony while being disintegrated, but after that, no trace of them is left. …then I see this homeless guy ahead, just wandering down the street. …Assume that I live in a society in which homeless people are so little respected that my action is both legal and socially acceptable. Homeless people are regularly beaten up, set on fire, etc., with impunity. Passers-by even regard it as an amusing entertainment. So I will not be punished for my action. (emphasis mine)

Heumer claims that the fact that the events in such a hypothetical might never come to pass does not mean that we can reject the hypothetical itself (as he claims several Objectivists do). And he is right. There is nothing wrong with using hypotheticals to test theories. In fact, without the use of hypotheticals, I don’t think anyone can arrive at any useful abstract ideas. Though there is nothing wrong in considering the hypothetical, Heumer’s arguement simply does not hold. First, no rational egoist will actually murder a homeless guy on the street to save a couple of seconds (more on this later). Second, even if I grant Heumer – here is another hypothetical! – his claim that an egoist would have to murder the homeless guy in his hypothetical, Heumer’s intuitionism is not enough to reject egoism. Heumer’s intuitions did not arise in a world where the kind of events in his hypothetical ever happen (note the emphasized lines above). Therefore his intuitions are ill equipped to deal with his hypothetical. In fact, this is always true. Any intuition, by its very nature is ill equipped to deal with unusual situations. This is so irrespective of the source of the intuition – whether it be evolution or culture or experience.

Consider another hypothetical. Suppose Heumer actually lived in a society like the one he describes. Moreover, suppose that his ancestors also lived in such societies over the last 20000 years. As Heumer writes (correctly), the person framing the hypothetical gets to stipulate what goes on in the hypothetical. So I can very well stipulate this. What would Heumer’s intuition be if he grew up in such a world? Would it still be that murdering a person to save a couple of seconds is wrong? I don’t think so. Heumer’s hypothetical – far from being a proof that egoism is wrong – is actually a proof that intuitions are of limited use (at best) in judging an idea. Intuitions can tell you that a particular idea needs more or less thought. They cannot tell you whether a particular idea is right or wrong.

Would a (rational) egoist actually commit a murder to save a couple of seconds? Rand’s egoism (which is what Heumer is targeting) requires a person to be always rational. Rationality does not mean that one should weigh all the possible consequences of every conceivable action – presumably by assigning probabilities and utilities and then calculating some sort of expected utility. Rationality means that man must recognize that he cannot do such calculus because the world is an extremely calculated place. Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions. Rationality means that man must not waste his time attempting to do some impossible calculus (calculating all the probabilities is impossible) to save a couple of seconds.

Finally, here is another hypothetical for Heumer (and for all those who like to create absurd hypotheticals to “prove” that egoism is wrong). Suppose that you are walking down a street with a gun in your pocket and see a person sitting on a bench just next to you with a bag beside him. You see a young boy in the window of a house on the other side of the street. The boy shouts and tells you that the person on the bench is actually a terrorist, that the bag beside him contains explosives and he is about to detonate them. What should you do? The challenge: based on your intuitions, tell me what you would do. Would the answer be the same if the location in the hypothetical were
a) a road in a peaceful village in rural America
b) a road in Pakistan on which the Pakistani president is due to travel
c) the road outside your own house with the boy being your neighbour’s son
(Hint: Does morality apply to such situations?)

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