Abusing the Being-Knowing Distinction


Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

Here’s a caricature of a familiar exchange:

Smith asserts P. Jones asks “yes, but how do you know P?” Smith says “Bah!” and “Do not confuse epistemology with metaphysics.”

In defense of Jones, consider these principles Jones can appeal to:

(A): It is observed that P. Scientific theory T explains P. But scientific theory T is inconsistent with the fact that P was observed. Too bad for T!

(B): It is intuited that P. Philosophical theory T explains P. But philosophical theory T is inconsistent with the fact that P is intuited. Too bad for T!

(There are weaker principles than A and B that Jones might appeal to. I have in mind here principles in which T is consistent with P but fails to explain the perception of/intuition of P, or, alternately, leaves utterly mysterious the explanation of the perception of/intuition of P.)

Example of A: I observe that a bright light has just flashed outside my apartment window. T = A nuke exploded just outside my window. T would explain a flash of light. But it certainly would not explain a flash of light observed by me. T instead implies my destruction and thus failure to observe that P. Too bad for T!

Examples of B? Clear examples are going to be a bit harder to come by, since the concept of intuition is much less clear than the concept of observation. Let’s stipulate a definition of intuition.

Intuiting P means believing P not as a consequence of observing that P and not as a consequence of any learned theory that includes or entails P.

So, if P is believed simply as a consequence of learning a language, and knowing a language isn’t knowing any theory, then that would be intuiting P. Also, being born believing P would count as intuiting P.

I’ll save the B examples for a later post. Brain Hammer readers are invited to provide their own in the comments.

12 Responses to “Abusing the Being-Knowing Distinction”

  1. Hi Pete,

    I’m wondering if following would work for your second case:
    -It is intuited that 1+1=2
    -Russell and Whitehead gave theory of why 1+1=2 in Principia Mathematica
    -If 1+1=2 was true *because* of the logic in Principia, nobody could’ve possibly intuit its truth.

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tanasije,

    That fits the form. But is “1+1=2″ really intuited? Isn’t it instead believed as a consequence of a learned theory that entails or includes it?

  3. Hi Pete,
    It is a problematic issue, and I must admit I don’t have any clue of how to approach the question, except by claiming that I can intuit it without either:
    a)thinking of any formalism/theory
    b)reducing in to definitions (e.g. defining 2 as 1+1)

  4. Anibal says:

    I believe á la Immanuel Kant: space and time are intuited and “rarely” observe, so even without an established theory of dynamics, nuclear forces etc. we can predict that a nuclear explosion outside our windows, a fortiori, it must have an extended existence in time and physical location (prior to our best efforts in reflection to understand it).

  5. Pete Mandik says:


    I’d be more inclined to think that people believe 1+1=2 because they learned it (by being taught it), not because they intuited it.

  6. Pete Mandik says:


    I’m interested here in various claims concerning the intuition of the truth of propositions, so if anyone were to claim that space and time are intuited, I’d want to know what propositions about space and time are intuited. Further, the history of math and physics since Kant makes it very hard to take seriously that various propositons about space/time (like whether they are continuous, absolute, curved etc.) are intuited, instead of elements of or derivations from learned theory.

  7. Pete,

    In the light of the issue of intuiting 1+1=2, I wonder if the principle B would be as useful as A, as it seems that claiming that something is intuited falls back to the problem you want to address (Smith:”1+1 IS 2!” Jones:”How do you know?” Smith:”Bah! Don’t confuse epistemology with a priori thinking”).

  8. Anibal says:

    Ok, right, but setting aside that there are non-euclidean geometries such as Reinmann, Gauss or n-dimensional accounts and polivalent logics beyond aristotelian classical logic… what about the folk concepts of space/time independently that Smith and Jones know something about quantum mechanics? They have to posess an intuited non-cognitive mediated notion of space and time (minimally conceptualize at least ,prior to any learned theory) to talk about reality,events extended in time and space, objects with positions that change, and persons; which further can be enrich it with real empirical content but a general pretheoretical characterization of things before science must exist, just to start to do science allowing Jones and Smith initial understanding.

  9. Pete Mandik says:


    I’m prepared to grant that something spatial/temporal is innate in humans (and lots of non-human animals). But what beliefs about space/time are innate? What propositions about space and time are innately believed? If there are none, then whatever intuitiveness there is to space and time, it is not the intuitiveness that I’m interested in here.

  10. Anibal says:

    Ok, you win dialectically, it is an unresolved philosophical question the genetics of beliefs.

  11. Tad says:

    Pete -

    I’m having trouble understanding what you’re after, on one level at least, partly b/c I think that ‘intuition’ is still too indeterminate, despite your valiant efforts, to give enough constraints. I’ve been wracking my brains trying to come up with an overly ambitious philosophical theory that might undercut the very intuitions which provide it with a domain of data to be explained, but I constantly run up against the question: what, exactly, is an intuion? It’s innate or analytic (learned as a consequence of learning a language). Ok, so can we think of a philosophical theory that precludes the possibility of innate knowledge or analytic truth? I suppose extreme Quinean empiricism might be a candidate. Ok, so does extreme Quinean empiricism provide explanations of phenomena that can only be intuited?

    I guess the problem here is that extreme Quinean empiricism seems to rule out all intuitions, and I think you were looking for something more subtle: a philosophical theory that accepts the possibility of intuition in principle, but just happens to rule out (unobviously) the possibility of intuiting the very phenomena that it seeks to explain, and which could only be discovered through intuition. I don’t think extreme Quinean empiricism would even countenance the possibility of phenomena that could only be discovered through intuition in your sense. So we need a different theory - a theory comfortable with the possibility of intuiting phenomena, but which overlooks the fact that it’s incompatible with intuiting some phenomenon it seeks to explain, yet which can only be acquired through intuition.

    Is this one way of understanding what you’re after?

  12. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tad,

    I think you hit the nail right on the head. Very elegantly, to boot.

    I haven’t yet satisfied myself that I have any good examples, but the class of examples I have in mind are realist theses that (i) postulate some verification-independent entities, (ii) defend the existence of those entities on the basis of the realism in question being “intuitive,” and (iii) leave me scratching my head wondering how the hell the existence of such entitites could be “intuited.”