Do We Have Intuitive Knowledge?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Philosophers who study how we know things (epistemologists) have long debated whether we have innate or intuitive knowledge.  This kind of knowledge is often referred to as a priori knowledge.  It is knowledge that one has prior to or independently of sense experience. It cannot be proven by experience.

The debate over a priori knowledge is important to Christians because atheists, agnostics, and naturalists often deny the existence of most kinds of a priori knowledge and claim that we can only know what we observe with our senses.  For example, do we know that raping little children for fun is wrong?  Most people would say “yes” and in a poll I ran last week on the blog, 89% did answer “yes.”  Now, this is hardly a scientific poll, but the results, I think, are still indicative.

This is an example of a priori knowledge, because we don’t come to this conclusion by observing the world around us – we just know intuitively that raping little children for fun is wrong.  Philosopher Louis Pojman lists eleven examples of propositions that have been proposed as a priori knowledge by epistemologists:

  1. If John is taller than Mary and Tom is taller than John, Tom is taller than Mary.
  2. 5 + 7 = 12
  3. Nothing is both red and green.
  4. Some sentences are not both true and false.
  5. If Socrates is a man and all men are mortal, Socrates is mortal.
  6. Every event has a cause.
  7. All bodies are extended.
  8. A greatest possible being necessarily exists.
  9. It is wrong to harm people just for the fun of it.
  10. If I believe I exist, I exist.
  11. Not both p and not-p.

These propositions represent several different categories of knowledge: mathematics, knowledge of “greater than,” laws of logic, morality, deductive logic, causality, knowledge of space, knowledge of God, and introspective knowledge.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga holds that a priori knowledge, besides being true, must fulfill four conditions:

  1. The proposition p must be believed and believed to be necessarily true.
  2. You must be able to form the belief immediately upon understanding it.
  3. The proposition p must not be believed on the basis of perception, memory, or testimony.
  4. The belief must be accompanied with a certain phenomenal feel, what the rationalists call intuition.

What do you think?  Do you think certain kinds of knowledge are built in to human beings, that we just know some things intuitively?  If so, what kinds of things do you think we know intuitively?

I’ve given you 11 examples of what some philosophers have considered to be a priori knowledge, but I’d like for you to vote in the poll below.  The assignment is easy: tell us which of the 11 propositions, once you’ve read and understood the terms in them, are intuitively obvious or self-evident.  I look forward to seeing the results.

  • ROMANS 1:19
    ” 16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

    Unbelief and Its Consequences

    18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

    24Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. ”

    The Scripture provides the ONLY grounding for Epistemic Certainty.

  • Dennis

    I think you are overrating your mind.
    This is how we got it: At some point in our evolution, it was purely based on instincts (or emotions if you will).
    They had one purpose, staying alive, and keep life alive.
    Hate = for eliminating danger.
    Fear = for avoiding danger.
    Love = for security, safety, but also offspring.

    But overtime (a couple of 100.000 of years), we got much better in reasoning, we learned to deduce, to think logically.
    However: the basis of emotions stayed the same. We still have them, and they are very strong.

    They often overlap, it’s hard to tell where emotion starts, and where reasoning begins, (logically, they both originate from the same place, our brain, but let’s call that our mind).

    Think of emotions as colored lamps that shine on your reasoning. If you are in love with something or someone, all your thought about it will be coloured pink, if you hate something, your thoughts about that thing or someone will be coloured black.

    Sometimes they conflict: you have fears that are unreasonable, your emotions tell you to run away for safety, but your reasoning tells you it’s unfounded and illogical to run away. Or you’re an addict, your emotions make you ‘love’ the drugs, while with reasoning you know they are actually bad for you. Or you want to have sex with someone other than your wife, even though you know with reason this will get you into trouble with misses wife.

    Emotions are still our basis, and they are very strong, (they are our instincts). And they have a purpose, they keep us alive. Emotions are life itself speaking to you, telling us what it thinks is the best way to keep you alive and stay alive. Even though they are sometimes ‘wrong’ or illogical.

    The funny thing is, religious people don’t realize this, they often call thoughts in their mind ‘God’ to assign more value to them, so they can win from ‘wrong’ (or illogical) emotions, or vice versa, call some emotions ‘God’, just how it suits them. Fact of the matter is, their religion has the pink coloured lamp shining in their minds. They love God, or Jesus, and they cannot ever think reasonably about it because the pink lamp blinds them.

    This is also what your ‘Intuitive Knowledge’ essay enthrals. Yes, we have ‘Intuitive Knowledge’ we call it emotion or instinct, and it’s life itself speaking to you. The rest is learned with logic and reasoning.

  • Vincent


    How are we meant to understand something without the use of perception?
    “3.The proposition p must not be believed on the basis of perception, memory, or testimony”

    For example – question 1- who’s taller – surely tallness can only be understood once a person has seen varying degrees of height?
    Please explain?

  • Bill Pratt

    It’s true that the concept of tallness is learned from perception, but once you understand that concept of tallness, you intuitively grasp the truth of the conclusion of example 1 without ever needing to see any of the people mentioned. You need no direct empirical proof to see the truth of it. You intuitively grasp that it must be this way. That is the argument, at least.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “This is an example of a priori knowledge, because we don’t come to this conclusion by observing the world around us”

    How is opposing the rape of children not affecting by observation? I observe that rape causes distress, I observe that children aren’t emotionally or physically ready for sex, and further cannot form decisions regarding consent.

    Given that I value the well-being of children, given that I have empathy for others and can relate my own feelings to the way behaviour affects others, I can oppose rape.

    Two conclusions –
    1) My opposition is at least partly informed by observation
    2) My opposition is not affected by whether or not a God exists.

    “Is it wrong to harm people just for the fun of it”.

    What do you mean by ‘wrong’? By my definition of ‘wrong’, yes it is.

    If you’re defining ‘wrong’ simply as ‘things God opposes’, then you’re returning to the same circular problem of defining morality purely in terms of the nature of God. If the word ‘good’ in the phrase ‘God’s nature is good’ simply means ‘God’s nature’, then the sentence carries not additional information to simply saying “God’s nature is God’s nature’.

    As for having ‘intuitions’ that things are wrong, this changes over time. The majority of people used to intuitively feel that slavery wasn’t wrong. Children often do terribly cruel things. As they get older most kids develop a more empathetic sensibility. But taboos against rape and murder are what one would EXPECT a social species such as ours to evolve, as such strong feelings against them would be of great benefit to our survival.