The Role of Intuition

by guest blogger Randy Everist

What role does intuition play in an argument? What about in a debate? Are there good reasons to trust our intuition? All of these are good questions. In the recent William Lane Craig-Peter Millican debate, the issue of whether or not we can trust intuition was raised. Millican thought rational intuition to be unreliable, whereas Craig supported it.

The role of intuition, as Craig mentions often, is that of knowing some premise to be true rather than showing that premise to be true.[1] Once I understood this principle, along with the value of intuition as knowledge, I have come to recognize its power. We do not have to then show a particular intuition as true, but instead it is how we know it is true. As for its role in debate, this does mean that if a particular person does not share the intuition, he or she may not accept our argument or premise. This is where discernment is needed. In the setting of an “offensive” argument, intuition should only be used where it is a highly-regarded or shared intuition. This is what is at work, primarily, in the second premise of the moral argument. That objective moral values exist, is, for most people, intuitively known and perceived as true. This makes it a valuable tool to use.

This brings us to our next point. Sometimes intuitions, though strongly held, should be abandoned. When should an intuition be abandoned as knowledge? When there is evidence sufficient to overcome that intuition supporting the falsehood of that intuition. Notice what this entails: in order for us to say, for example, that objective moral values do not exist (even if we strongly intuit there are such values), we must have some strong evidence suggesting this intuition is false. What could that be? The only thing I can think of that is plausible is God’s non-existence. Since that is the very issue in the question of the moral argument, however, this would be question-begging.

Some people, like Millican, find intuition to be either non-existent or untrustworthy. But why think so? Millican offers the following as a critique: some people have been incorrect regarding intuitive beliefs, therefore intuition cannot be trusted. The problem with this is that it does not follow because one particular belief is incorrect, then my belief is incorrect. Imagine criticizing thinking because some people have had thoughts that are incorrect! Not only is it incorrect to say that because some people have had false intuitions that my intuitions are untrustworthy, it does not follow that even if some of my intuitions turn out to be false, that other of my intuitions are incorrect or untrustworthy. Only if some issue of dependence could be constructed (like, for instance, if I were known to be totally insane, or if there was no a priori knowledge possible. For a treatment of the latter claim, please see my article on intuition here.) would we have some reason to think intuitions are untrustworthy. Each intuition must be dealt with on its own merits. If one intuits something, only in the case there are reasons to think the intuition is false should he abandon it.

One last issue: what of two competing intuitions? Remember, we do not “show” via intuition (except in cases of commonly-held intuitions, which is not applicable here). Secondly, both cannot be said to know these things. If they are truly in competition, then only one of them can be true, and hence only one of them knows. Which one is wrong? Let the evidence decide. Intuitions can be validated or discredited by the evidence. But in the absence of such external justifiers or defeaters, one is justified if he truly holds the intuition (that is, the belief held independently of experience).

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith 3rd ed., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 43. Here Craig appeals not as much to intuition as he does the biblical concept of the witness of the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:16). I agree with this assessment as well, and apply the distinction as similar because of the internal nature of the knowledge.

About Randy Everist: “I earned my Master of Arts in Religion from Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA in the summer of 2011. I would love to earn my PhD in either philosophy of religion or theology. My heart’s desire is to help brothers and sisters who have genuine questions about the faith that they either have not been able to ask or to which they have not received adequate answers.”  Randy Everist  blogs at his website, Possible Worlds (Randy Everist) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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