Monthly Archives: May 2013

In Defense of Intuition

In the last post‘s video, Pat Condell disses “intuitive knowledge” (2:30), poking fun at those who promote it as better and even morally superior to “boring old empirical knowledge”.

While I agree with Mr. Condell that calling one’s thoughts “intuitive knowledge” can be a way of disguising the fact that one has no knowledge at all, and while I agree with him that this is particularly a danger when dealing with the metaphysical, I would like to say a word in defense of intuition.

We often think of intuition in contrast to rational, logical thought. We are rational when we can give reasons for our conclusions, but intuition is “just” a hunch. I suggest that intuition at its best is also rational and in fact comes from years of careful, logical thought that have been internalized — perhaps internalized so deeply that one is not aware of one’s own reasoning.

What could be more logical and rational than computer programming? That has been my profession for over 30 years and, believe it or not, a software developer does form an intuitive sense about what makes good code. A good developer is able to detect what is called “code smell” — aspects of the software that may not be causing problems at the moment but are bound to cause trouble later. Most of the time, he can give a reason why the code stinks but sometimes he just has an intuition. His intuition is anything but irrational. It is a sense developed by years or even decades of experience and training.

Perhaps experience-based and knowledge-based intuition is highly rational thought that happens to occur in an area of the brain that is distant from whatever region is able to explain things verbally. (Would anyone with background in neuroscience care to chime in about that?)

It can be maddening to argue with someone who only has a hunch about something, for he cannot give any reasons for his position. Still, if he has deep knowledge about the field, I have a hunch that I should give serious thought to what he says.

Overriding Your Conscience

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark.]

I’ve been trying to stay away from atheist videos and blogs. They only get me torqued up about religion and I’m trying to move past all that. However, Pat Condell can be very incisive and, well, fun to listen to … so I dipped into one of his videos today.

A disclaimer: Mr. Condell makes no distinction between the various flavors of religion. In that respect, I don’t share his views. There are religions that seek transcendence (the subject of his video), yet do not have the attributes that are the real target of Mr. Condell’s ire. So, FWIW, here is Mr. Condell.

The part I wanted to discuss in this post starts at 2:57.

…surely if anything can be called intuitive knowledge, it’s a sense of morality: this sense of right and wrong that we’re all born with. … It’s called a conscience and it’s one of the many magnificent senses we’ve evolved with which to navigate and make sense of this infinitely rich and subtle world we’re lucky enough to live in.

Religion doesn’t give you a conscience, despite what it claims. It takes the place of our conscience by overriding it. … This is why religious people can often do inhuman things — things they wouldn’t dream of doing if not for their religion. Their conscience has been quarantined and supplanted with dogma, and dogma has no conscience because it isn’t human.

Again, not all faiths override your conscience. However, I think people in my own former faith are starting to be aware of the possibility. More than one person I know well has left evangelical Christianity primarily because it was trying to override their conscience by condemning homosexuality, which they knew to be just the way some people are, and not a sin. My acquaintances are not homosexual themselves, but they had gotten to know some homosexuals and see their situation through a lens other than evangelical dogma.

My church’s position on homosexuality was not a factor in my deconversion, but its insistence that the Bible is God’s Word even though it commands slavery and worse was the most important and final reason why I left. My conscience told me that if there was such a thing as right and wrong, the Bible was not a sure way to find it.

As a believer, I used to think that God’s ways are higher than our ways and that’s why religion had a right to override my conscience. Ultimately, though, I could no more deny my conscience than I could deny my sense of sight.

Geocentrism and Free Will

The first topic I wrote about in this blog was artificial consciousness. The last post, with its pictures of watches, has me thinking once more about the mechanisms of thought.

Everyone agrees that we think with our brains, but most people believe that there is more to thought than the mechanistic interactions of atoms in our skulls. After all, they argue, we have free will (what could be more obvious?). Nothing that operates solely by the laws of physics could result in free will, so there must be something more — a non-material spirit that superintends our thoughts.

As an aside, I note that some have argued that the randomness of quantum physics gives enough wiggle room in neurochemistry to allow for free will. I don’t buy it. What could be less free than randomness? Randomness might leave room for insanity, but not for the rational free will that most people feel they have.

What most people mean by free will is that they have a free choice in a given situation, and they could truly take one action or the other.

I suggest that there is no evidence for this beyond our strong feeling that it’s true. How could there be any evidence? Once we’ve made one choice, the other is forever unavailable, because that moment in time, with all its conditions, will never exist again. It is beyond the reach of any experiment.

In fact, there is evidence that we do not have a non-material spirit that is able to affect the physical world. I’m thinking of prayer studies, which have failed to demonstrated that prayer has any effect.

We feel that we have free will, but feelings do not constitute reliable evidence. After all, the feeling of knowing is merely a brain state. As I related here, that brain state can be induced by means ranging from drugs to self-delusion. We all know people with strong feelings who are dead wrong.

What makes our feeling of free will so hard to shake is that we are in the middle of it. I am reminded of the geocentrists of old (and today!) who, living on a giant ball hurtling through space at almost 67,000 miles an hour and spinning at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, were absolutely convinced that the ball was not only stationary, but immovable. (I do not mean to insult anyone who believes in free will. I only mean to say that I see a similarity with belief in geocentrism, which I am about to explain.)

How could geocentrists be so certain? It was because they were on that giant ball, moving with it. Plus, their bodies had evolved to be acclimated to the movement. If survival had depended on evolving sense organs that could detect movement through space, either they would have evolved or we would not be here to know that they hadn’t.

Because they lived on Earth, geocentrists had no clue that it was at the mercy of gravitational forces that were slinging it around faster than anything they had ever conceived of.

I think it’s the same with our perception of will. Because we are glued to our thoughts, we don’t realize that they are at the mercy of the laws of physics. We think we are the center of our will, when in reality we are just part of a much larger, possibly centerless, whole.