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.