Imagine a person who spends their entire life sitting on the couch watching and rewatching Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. He does nothing else, gains no education, no relationships with other people, no family, no friends. But he, nevertheless, loves his life, he values everything about it. He is constantly offered the opportunity to do something different, and never chooses to do so. Indeed, his choices are not the result of a lack of information or imagination—he understands perfectly well what it would like to do something else. But he so loves watching the movie that he is simply unconvinced that any alternative would be better for him.
Is this person leading a good life, at least for his own sake? Many are tempted to say “no”. After all, this life is not at all well-rounded, it maintains no knowledge or genuine appreciation of the beautiful, does not engage rational capacities (beyond, say, the bare minimum required to rewind a VHS tape). But others say “yes”. After all, what more is required for the good life for a person that they value it highly, perhaps under conditions of full information?
It seems we may have reached “intuitive bedrock”. In so many areas of inquiry (though, perhaps, not all), philosophical argument ends up bottoming out in a mere clash of intuitions, of considered judgments. But what happens now?
Because these considered judgments will help determine the content and structure of our philosophical theorizing...[it would appear that we]...need to settle which of these intuitions are the right ones.
To put my cards on the table, this seems like an impossible task. Indeed, it’s a task that seems (almost by definition) outside the bounds of philosophical argument...But there’s an alternative. Rather than seeing ourselves as answering the “big questions”, as it were, we see ourselves as exploring how to construct alternative theories, what such theories must take on board, their relations and interconnections without settling which account of the “big question” is the right one.
I think Dorsey may be right about one thing--namely, that if and when we truly reach "intuitive bedrock", there may be nothing left for philosophers to do than explore alternative theories, examining their relations and interconnections, etc. However, I also want to suggest that the [admittedly brief] picture he draws of how and when "intuitive bedrock" occurs gestures towards some important methodological lessons.
Consider the history of science. In ancient Greek cosmology, different theorists had different intuitions about the fundamental nature of reality: some suggested everything is water, others that everything is air, others that everything is fire, and so on. At some point, they probably faced something that appears like the "intuitive bedrock" Dorsey mentions, as the intuitions that led Thales to believe everything to be air were fundamentally at odds with the intuitions that led Anaximenes to believe that everything is air, etc. But of course this was not a genuine case of "intuitive bedrock": there were further facts discoverable through observation [the facts that now inform modern science] for breaking the deadlock.
Similarly, consider the history of empirical psychology. In the early Twentieth Century, psychologists speculated about the nature of the human mind. Some people's intuitions led them to endorse Freudian ideas; others' intuitions led them to endorse Humanist ideas; others Behaviorist ideas; and so on. I remember studying these theories as an undergraduate, and marveling at not only how the different theories were merely based on intuitions, but also how the different theories could be gerry-rigged to "account" for the same observations [viz. if a person murders their father, a Freudian might explain it as an instantiation of the Oedipus complex; a Humanist as an instantiation of a misplaced desire to self-actualize; a Behaviorist as the downstream result of operant conditioning; etc.]. One can only imagine--and, I seem to recall--different theorists in these domains arriving at "intuitive bedrock." But of course it wasn't. There were further facts discoverable to set psychology straight: namely, the kinds of neurological, biological, and social facts that the rapidly maturing science of psychology is unearthing.
There is, I believe, a lesson to be taken from this--one that I think analytic philosophy needs to increasingly take on board if it is to be anything more than "mapping different possibilities" [in the manner Dorsey describes]; that is, if it is to be genuinely truth-apt. Let me explain.
Consider what distinguishes mature sciences--such as modern physics and psychology--from the immature sciences they once were [as described above]. Whereas ancient Greek cosmologists speculated about cosmology on the basis of how things "seem", modern physics and cosmology are based on the standard of common observation: the standard, very roughly, that "you don't get to assert something as a fact or observation unless it is widely--indeed, virtually universally--replicable." The same shift distinguishes the intuition-mongering psychology of the early-Twentieth Century from the maturing science of psychology today. Constructing theories on how things "seem"--as Freudians, Humanists, Instinct Theorists, etc., once did--is not longer considered okay. Instead, modern psychology insists on the standard of common observation: the standard again that, very roughly, "you don't get to assert something as a fact or observation unless it is widely--indeed, virtually universally--replicable."
I believe there is an important lesson to take away from this. Although I cannot recall precisely who said it, I believe it was Wittgenstein who once compared philosophical speculation to attempting to walk on a "frictionless plane." The basic problem with intuitive speculation--which Dorsey raises, and which appears to pervade many longstanding philosophical debates--is that people often have fundamentally different intuitions. So, without some further standard of truth--some additional standard of reliability or accuracy--philosophical speculation is just that: speculation which may or may not be truth-apt. In order to be truth-apt, we need some "friction"--some determinate, known-to-be-reliable standard where the "rubber meets the road", establishing correspondence between philosophical arguments and mind-independent reality. But, how can that be accomplished? Once again, I think the history of science shows the way.
In Chapter 1 of Rightness as Fairness: A Moral and Political Theory, I argue that philosophy must respect the same standard of common observation if it is to be genuinely truth-apt--for, as Dorsey notes, in its absence, inquiry often, indeed usually, devolves into opposing camps with opposing intuitions with nothing further to provide a reliable measure of which side is closer to the truth. :
- Firm Foundations: theories based on common human observation—or observations that are taken to be obvious, incontrovertible fact by all or almost all observers—should be preferred over theories based on controversial observations that may seem true to some investigators but not to others.
- Internal Coherence: all things being equal, and subject to Firm Foundations, theories with fewer or no internal contradictions should be preferred over theories with more.
- External Coherence: all things being equal, and subject to Firm Foundations, theories cohering with more known facts and observations should be preferred over theories cohering with fewer.
- Explanatory Power: all things being equal, and subject to Firm Foundations, theories explaining more facts and observations should be preferred over theories explaining fewer.
- Unity: all things being equal, and subject to Firm Foundations, theories unifying disparate phenomena, showing how they have a common explanation, should be preferred over theories providing more fragmentary explanations.
- Parsimony: all things being equal, and subject to Firm Foundations, theories that successfully explain phenomena with fewer facts or entities should be preferred over theories explaining the same phenomena with more.
- Fruitfulness: all things being equal, and subject to Firm Foundations, theories solving more existing theoretical or practical problems should be preferred over theories solving fewer.
Philosophers often use variants of some of these principles to evaluate arguments and theories. For instance, the method of "reflective equilibrium"--the common method of testing arguments and theories against "our considered judgments"--approximates external coherence and explanatory power. Yet, there is an important difference between the above principles and philosophical practice. Principles - are all subsumed under the principle of Firm Foundations--that is, the principle of common observation, which says that theories must be based not on intuitions that only some people share, but on observable facts that virtually all observers share.
At first glance, it may seem unclear how philosophy might be based on such a standard--for, isn't the very point of Dorsey's post that, on most if not all philosophical issues, not everyone agrees on bedrock premises? The answer, I believe, is: no. To see how, begin with the case of moral philosophy [the topic of my book]. G.E.M Anscombe once famously wrote, "it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking." The principle of Firm Foundations suggests that she was right. For although different philosophers may have different bedrock intuitions, there are facts of moral psychology that can be established through scientific means. I believe these commonly observable facts support a particular moral theory, but notice, even if I am wrong about the moral theory those facts best support, the overall approach suggests a way out of the general problem Dorsey discusses: namely, that when people have different intuitions, we can look to the empirical realm to see if there are further grounds for favoring one set of intuitions over another [in brief, I argue empirical facts of moral psychology strongly support founding moral philosophy not on moral intuitions, but rather universal means-end reasoning and mental time-travel, which science has found to be fundamentally implicated in planning and moral cognition].
Anyway, let us return to Dorsey's own example of the person, "who spends their entire life sitting on the couch watching and rewatching Clive Barker’s Hellraiser", to see how this might work. Is appealing to intuitions all we can do in determining whether this person lives a good life? No. Consider, after all, what science might find about normal human subjects: that we choose to do things, like develop friendships, careers, etc., because we have certain innate drives for those things. These naturalistic facts about human psychology lend support to the proposition that a good life for normal human subjects involves such activities--as failure to engage in those activities would thwart those people's drives. Now suppose, however, that empirical examination of Barker's Hellraiser individual found that they do not have the relevant drives--that their innate drives lead them to prefer watching the same film over and over again. The Hellraiser person does not live a good human live relative to the drives of normal human subjects, but he does live a good life relative to his own drives. Although this of course might not settle whether he lives a good life simpliciter, the standard of Firm Foundations holds that, absent any further information, we cannot arrive at any truth-conducive conclusions on that matter. But, so what? Notice: introducing naturalistic considerations into the picture would enable us to see that one type of question has truth-apt answers [whether someone has a good life relative to their own drives], whereas another type of question does not [whether they have a good life simpliciter]. That, I think, would be real philosophical progress, in much the same way that the realization that space and time are relative--and there is no answer as to where objects in space and time "objectively are"--was scientific progress.
To make a long story short, I think the lesson of Dorsey's problem of "intuitive bedrock" is that--whenever possible--philosophy needs to move beyond contested intuitions and find real bedrock: observational facts, establishable through common experience, that support one philosophical theory over another. Such bedrock may of course be very hard to find--but, as I think the above examples suggest, science can often point us in a more promising direction, if only we choose to pay attention to it. I've suggested before that analytic philosophy has often been too a prior-istic, and that the future of philosophy is natural philosophy: philosophy firmly enmeshed with the sciences. This, in brief, is why. Without science, all we have are intuitions--and intuitions just aren't good enough.