Philosophical Intuitions Are Surprisingly Stable (guest post by Joshua Knobe)


There seems to be a very general pattern whereby the tensions in people’s intuitions tend to be surprisingly stable across both demographic groups and situations.

The following is a guest post* by Joshua Knobe, professor of Philosophy, Linguistics. and Psychology at Yale University. A version of it first appeared at The New X-Phi Blog.


[Kenneth Snelson, “Rainbow Arch”]

Philosophical Intuitions Are Surprisingly Stable
by Joshua Knobe

When it comes to many philosophical issues, people feel conflicted or confused. There is something drawing them toward one intuition but also something drawing them toward the exact opposite intuition. This tension seems to be an important aspect of what makes us regard these issues as important philosophical problems in the first place.

In a new draft paper, I argue that experimental philosophy research over the past decade or so has shown us something very surprising about these issues. It has shown that the tensions in people’s intuitions are themselves stable. In particular, these tensions seem to be surprisingly stable both across different demographic groups and across different situations.

To illustrate, consider the problem of free will. Existing studies on people from Western cultures indicate that there is a tension in their intuitions. There is something is drawing them toward compatibilism but also something drawing them toward incompatibilism. More recent studies have shown something very surprising about that tension. The tension seems to itself be stable across cultures. In other words, it’s not as though there are other cultures in which just about everyone thinks that compatibilism or incompatibilism is obviously right. Rather, people across numerous different cultures seem to find this issue confusing, and in much the same way.

The core claim of the paper is that a whole series of different studies, in completely different areas of experimental philosophy, have been providing evidence for that same conclusion. There seems to be a very general pattern whereby the tensions in people’s intuitions tend to be surprisingly stable across both demographic groups and situations.

Just as a quick teaser, I thought it might be helpful to include some data about the surprising ways in which experiments over the past ten years or so have shown intuitions to be stable across situations.

  1. I used to believe that you could change people’s moral intuitions around by putting them in situations that affected the degree to which they experienced disgust. So I thought that moral intuitions could be affected by washing one’s hands, drinking a disgusting beverage, or just being next to a hand sanitizer.

Amazingly, all of those effects have failed to replicate. It now looks like intuitions are not affected by washing one’s hands (Johnson et al., 2014), or by drinking a disgusting beverage (Ghelfi et al., 2020), or by being next to a hand sanitizer (Burnham, 2020). Moral judgments seem to be a lot less sensitive to manipulations of the situation than many of us thought they were.

  1. I also used to think that people’s epistemic intuitions could be shifted around by manipulations of the vignette they saw previously. The thought was that a confusing vignette would look a lot more like knowledge when it came directly after something that was obviously non-knowledge and a lot less like knowledge when it came after something that was obviously knowledge.

That effect, too, has failed to replicate. Here are the latest results from Ziółkowski et al.

  1. Finally, a large body of evidence suggests that people are drawn toward one moral view by System 1 processes and toward another moral view by System 2 processes, so I used to think that any manipulation of the situation that increased System 2 cognition would shift people’s judgments around.

An important study seemed to suggest that there was indeed such an effect, but once again, that study has failed to replicate. Here are the results from Cova et al. (2018):

I am very uncertain about how to explain all of these results, and I remain agnostic within the paper itself. But it does seem that we can’t just keep philosophizing about the effects we used to think existed. We need to start engaging in a more serious way with the growing body of evidence that suggests people’s intuitions are surprisingly stable.

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