Thursday, September 08, 2005

knowledge by intuition

Usually when we think of justification, we think we have good reasons for thinking a thing is true. In other words, we infer it from reliable premises. But how do we know the premises are true? If we are not justified in believing the premises, then we cannot be justified in believing what we have inferred from the premises. Then we need further premises in order to say that we are justified in holding the original premises. One of two things can happen now. We can either get ourselves into an infinite regress trying to justify our premises, or we can arrive at some premises that we can know without having to prove them. If we get ourselves into an infinite regress, then we know nothing. So if we know anything at all, there must be some things we know but for which we have no proof.

That brings me to the first way we know things. We know them by intuition. I mentioned this in class the other day, and from the laughter that resulted, I was afraid I was being misunderstood. What I mean by intuition is not the same thing as when you think of women’s intuition, which is a subjective hunch that a certain thing is true. I’m not talking about the ability to draw conclusions based on some special kind of insight. What I’m talking about is immediate knowledge upon reflection. It’s the kind of knowledge you are immediately aware of without inference. If any of you have read Rene Descartes’ meditations, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Descartes was able to hypothetically doubt everything about the external world by assuming that there could be an evil genius deceiving him to give him sensory perceptions of a world that doesn’t really exist. The one thing that Descartes was not able to doubt, though, was that he was thinking. He may have been mistaken about what he was thinking, but he could not be mistaken that he was thinking. That he was thinking wasn’t something that he inferred from something else. It was something he knew immediately upon reflection.

There are many things we can know in this way even if we doubt everything else. We may doubt that our sensory perceptions are giving us true information about the world, but what we can’t doubt is that we are perceiving. Suppose I tell you that my hand is injured, and you ask me how I know. Then I say, “Because it hurts.” “But how do you know it hurts?” “Because I feel it.” “How do you know you feel it?” At this point, I’m at an impasse. I don’t infer that I feel it from something more basic. I know I feel it simply because I feel it. I’m immediately aware of my own feelings. [I borrowed this analogy from Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-air by Greg Koukl and Frank Beckwith.]

So intuitive knowledge is a priori knowledge. It is knowledge we have upon reflection, but which is not inferred from anything prior. Without intuitive knowledge, it would be impossible to know anything else, since everything else we know is inferred directly or indirectly from what we know intuitively. Otherwise, we would have no knowledge. One of the things we know intuitively is logic, and that brings me to the second way we know things.

[Some day, I'm going to go into more detail about intuitive knowledge. I'm going to get more specific about what we know intuitively. It was some time after I wrote this that I began to break intuitive knowledge into three categories--things we know due to first person subjectivity, things that are rationally grasped, and things we know simply because of how a normally functioning mind works.]

Next: Knowledge by deductive reasoning, part 1


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