About a month ago, I posted about an article that presents some interesting experiments involving perception. You don’t have to click that link…here’s the relevant bit.
It turns out that there are many cases in which what people expect to see tricks them into thinking they saw it. For example, they had people watch someone throw two balls. The thrower then pretended to throw a third ball. Most people think they see a third ball that suddenly disappears in mid-air. They don’t even realize that a third ball wasn’t thrown. Their first thought is usually that the person somehow made the third ball disappear.
I started having some vague concerns about how these findings might impact recent attempts from in experimental philosophy to undermine the claim that intuitions can yield justified beliefs.
I decided that I need to start looking more closely at some of the experimental philosophy literature. In my search, I just discovered that Ethics Etc is doing a review of a new book out called Experiments in Ethics. Here’s the review of chapter one, chapter two, and chapter three. This book has just been added to my to do list. (My summer is going to be great!)
I’m want to look into this more before I really start mouthing off, but here’s my vague worry.
In the case of the experiment involving perception it seems that some mechanism stepped in and yielded a false perception. The existence of this mechanism isn’t enough to show that perceptions are generally unreliable. I bet there are other experiments out there involving perception. I think they’re going to be worth tracking down. They’re going to be relevant to fleshing out precisely what experiments involving intuitions should tell us about the general reliability of intuitions.
Many of the experiments (that I’ve come across) attempting to show that intuitions are unreliable seem to involve certain kinds of priming. If you prime people with certain kinds of questions or set up the cases in which they have certain expectations or assumptions about the cases, they’ll intuitions will vary. Set up the cases one way – they’ll have an intuition that an action is wrong. Set it up another way – they’ll have an intuition that an action is permissible.
The conclusion that some philosophers draw from these experiments is that intuitions are generally unreliable and cannot justify moral beliefs.
My suspicion (and it is merely that – a suspicion) is that it will be tricky to explain why these experiments involving intuition cut against the general reliability of intuitions, but the perception experiments do not cut against the general reliability of perception. That said – I think I should wait until I’ve looked into both sets of experiments in more detail before I say more.
(For those of you who know more about the literature, feel free to mouth-off in the comments.)