So long as we confine our speculations to trade, or morals, or politics, or criticism, we make appeals, every moment, to common sense and experience, which strengthen our philosophical conclusions, and remove (at least, in part) the suspicion, which we so justly en- tertain with regard to every reasoning that is very subtile and refined. But in theological reasonings, we have not this advantage; while at the same time we are employed upon objects, which, we must be sensible, are too large for our grasp, and of all others, require most to be familiarised to our apprehension. -David Hume
Luke over @ CommonSenseAtheism once posted something about his skepticism that intuition is a reliable source of information. We are here talking about “intuition” in the sense of gut feelings, not beliefs that are caused by a process of explicit reasoning. Below is a modified version of a comment I left on that blog post:
I used to be a sort of “intuiton skeptic” as well. I’ve now changed my mind (somewhat).
Daniel Dennett describes intuition as “when you know the answer to something, but you don’t know how you know it.” This requires a bit of unpacking: There have been experiments done on people who literally see the world in black and white; they can’t see color. Nonetheless, some of these people are able to tell the difference between red and green without actually experiencing that color. The cognitive science behind this is that some parts of the brain recieve information about color from eyes, but that information never fully makes it into the “stream of consciousness”; The “stream of consciousness” recieves the knowledge that object X is green, but it does not have the actual experience of seeing green.
Intuition, in some cases at least, may be an example of a similar phenomenon. Some part of your brain has correctly understood and reasoned the correct conclusion, but only the conclusion (and not the actual process of reasoning) makes it into your conscious experience. Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking that is highly relevant to this. He describes an expert in Greek artifacts (I believe?) who “just knew” upon examing an artifact for a few seconds that it was a forgery. In fact, when I first read Ray Comfort’s “special introduction” to the Origin of Species, I “just knew” that Ray Comfort did not write it, though I could not put my finger on any explicit reason for thinking so. A bit of google research confirmed my intuition.
In my own life, I have observed that intuition is right more often than not. Intuitions are not “properly basic beliefs.” Rather, we should grant intuition some epistemic weight only because intuition is inductively supported as a source of knowledge that is correct more often than not.
Intuition, however, is not infallible, or even close to infallible. Intuition can lend only weak epistemic support to a claim. As we have observed, intuition can go horribly wrong sometimes. Don’t believe me? Check out the Monty Hall Problem.
Further, we must be cautious about applying intuition to solve problems that lie far outside of our experience. Example: I’ve read that when people are trained as airplane pilots, they are cautioned NOT to trust there intuitive feelings about which direction is “up” and which direction is “down” when they are flying their planes. Flying a plane is so different from anything else we humans ordinarily do that our intuition is simply not able to provide reliable information in that situation. Hence, we ought to be extremely cautious about “going with our gut” to solve a problem if that problem is one that lies far outside what we humans are used to thinking about.