A point raised in Dr. McCoy’s comment on the previous post, “Descartes and intuition,” deserves a fresh post in reply.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to knowledge, wisdom, and insight. We have to work at it. We gain the truths of science by experiment, the truths of philosophy by interpretation, and the truths of spiritual experience by faith. In each of these domains we are fallible.
That fallibility is often built into the concept of intuition. Thus we often say that our intuitions are vague, contradict each other, and change over time. The philosophers’ critique of intuitionism in ethics comes from those who believe that they have formulated an infallible moral principle which requires fallible intuition only to apply it.
But we sometimes have insights; and I use the word “intuition” to imply insight. By definition, an insight cannot be wrong; when we speak of knowledge, wisdom, and insight, we intend to refer to successes. Thus it is clear that we may err in claiming insight. But it is also an error to claim that we never know.
I am an intuitionist in the sense that I believe that no moral principle or system of moral principles reliably leads us to correct moral decisions. In the tough cases, making an excellent moral decision requires a prayer process which culminates in our reception of divine truth, beauty, and goodness. Often our receptivity is partial and our discernment is fallible—but not always.
Radical skepticism rejects the idea of truth, claiming that science is all revisable, philosophy is a matter of opinion, and religion is an illusion; beauty is merely subjective, “in the eye of the beholder”; and morality is just a tool of social power.
But radical skepticism subverts itself. It takes historical science to establish the fact that scientific ideas change. It takes a certain kind of philosophy to dismiss philosophy; the notion that philosophy is mere opinion is itself an opinion. The view that religion is an illusion implicitly claims insight into what can be seen from every religious mountain top. The skeptic who denies that beauty is real may be found expressing contempt (an aesthetic emotion which claims objectivity) for those allegedly benighted persons who believe that their aesthetic judgments may attain insight. And rejecting morality as a mere tool of social oppression is a moral protest, whose self-contradictory muddle hardly empowers us to protect the alleged victims.
With this observation, I rejoin my first post on skepticism and intuition.
Thank you, Dr. McCoy!
The photo is of David Hume, whose lucid and witty skepticism he wisely set aside at times, thus not so radical as the caricatured “skeptic” portrayed here.