Intuitions and illusions: From explanation and experiment to assessment

In Eugen Fischer & John Collins (eds.), Experimental Philosophy, Rationalism, and Naturalism: Rethinking Philosophical Method. London: Routledge. pp. 259-292 (2015)
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Abstract

This paper pioneers the use of methods and findings from psycholinguistics in experimental philosophy’s ‘sources project’. On this basis, it clarifies the epistemological relevance of empirical findings about intuitions – a key methodological challenge to experimental philosophy. The sources project (aka ‘cognitive epistemology of intuitions’) seeks to develop psychological explanations of philosophically relevant intuitions, which help us assess their evidentiary value. One approach seeks explanations which trace relevant intuitions back to automatic cognitive processes that are generally reliable but predictably generate cognitive illusions under specific vitiating circumstances. The paper develops and experimentally tests such an explanation for intuitions at the root of a historically influential paradox about perception (‘argument from illusion’). The explanation traces these intuitions to stereotype-driven amplification, an automatic process routinely involved in language comprehension (e.g., understanding philosophical case-descriptions). Distributional semantics analysis and a forced-choice plausibility ranking task are employed to establish the relevant verb-associated stereotypes. The paper argues that the inferences facilitated by these stereotypes are generally reliable, but shows that vitiating circumstances obtain in the formulation of the targeted paradox. On this basis, the paper explores two complementary strategies for assessing the evidentiary value of intuitive judgments.

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