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.

4 responses to “In Defense of Intuition

  1. Quite right. One of the common recommendations for creative problem-solving is to think a while about a problem, then put it aside. Some hours later, maybe even after a day or two, a creative solution may suddenly crystallize. According to famous anecdotes throughout history, this kind of intuition has been extremely important to various mathematicians and theorists. I read once that the bed, bath, and bus are three places that a deep thinker ends up doing some of their best work.

  2. Here’s another comment from Buddhist perspective.

    There is a difference between “understanding” and “knowing”.

    You can explain the concept of color to a blind man, in terms of electromagnetic waves for example, and he will understand that; but he won’t be able to see it, even in his mind. He “understands” color, doesn’t “know” it.

    In the same way, science can help us to understand a lot of things. But there are some facts, as obvious as they are, that we still can’t know, in this intuitive way.

    For instance:

    We can understand that, from a cosmic perspective, we are less than atoms inhabiting a speck of dust floating in the cosmos. But that knowledge won’t stop us from fighting for small things like religion, politics, and oil.

    If we truly knew the real value of things, we wouldn’t fight for anything.

    As the Buddha puts it:

    “Just as a bird, wherever it goes, flies with its wings as its only burden, so too the monk becomes content with robes to protect his body and with almsfood to maintain his stomach.”

    Do we need anything else?

  3. I agree that intuition can provide some very useful information. I’ve studied brain a bit and it’s so complicated and capable that we’re just starting to understand it.
    That’s why it’s quite believable that our subconscious can process so many information which we cannot logically address in the amount of same time. Multiple researches, books and articles were done on the topic so I’m including mine too:

    Into the realm of intuition

    Thanks for the good article and the example of Intuition used. It’s always motivating to see that it works.

  4. Pingback: Spiritual Discernment | Path of the Beagle

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