Intuition vs. Rationality

To quote myself:

[I]ntuition [is] a manifestation of intelligence, not a cause of it. To put it another way, intuition is not an emotion; it is the opposite of emotion.

Intuition is reasoning at high speed. For example, a skilled athlete knows where and when to make a move (e.g., whether and where to swing at a pitched ball) because he subconsciously makes the necessary calculations, which he could not make consciously in the split-second that is available to him once the pitcher releases the ball.

Intuition is an aspect of reasoning (rationality) that is missing from “reason” — the cornerstone of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment’s proponents and defenders are always going on about the power of logic applied to facts, and how that power brought mankind (or mankind in the West, at least) out of the benighted Middle Ages (via the Renaissance) and into the light of Modernity.

But “reason” of the kind associated with the Enlightenment is of the plodding variety, whereby “truth” is revealed at the conclusion of deliberate, conscious processes (e.g., the scientific method). But those processes, as I point out in the preceding paragraph, are susceptible of error because they rest on errors and assumptions that are hidden from view — often wittingly, as in the case of “climate change“.

Science, for all of its value to mankind, requires abstraction from reality. That is to say, it is reductionist. A good example is the arbitrary division of continuous social and scientific processes into discrete eras (the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, etc.). This ought to be a warning that mere abstractions are often, and mistakenly, taken as “facts”.

Reductionism makes it possible to “prove” almost anything by hiding errors and assumptions (wittingly or not) behind labels. Thus: x + y = z only when x and y are strictly defined and commensurate. Otherwise, x and y cannot be summed, or their summation can result in many correct values other than z. Further, as in the notable case of “climate change”, it is easy to assume (from bias or error) that z is determined only by x and y, when there are good reasons to believe that it is also determined by other factors: known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Such things happen because human beings are ineluctably emotional and biased creatures, and usually unaware of their emotions and biases. The Enlightenment’s proponents and defenders are no more immune from emotion and bias than the “lesser” beings whom they presume to lecture about rationality.

The plodding search for “answers” is, furthermore, inherently circumscribed because it dismisses or minimizes the vital role played by unconscious deliberation — to coin a phrase. How many times have you found the answer to a question, a problem, or a puzzle by putting aside your deliberate, conscious search for the answer, only to have it come to you in a “Eureka!” moment sometime later (perhaps after a nap or good night’s sleep). That’s your brain at work in ways that aren’t well understood.

This process (to put too fine a word on it) is known as combinatorial play. Its importance has been acknowledged by many creative persons. Combinatorial play can be thought of as slow-motion intuition, where the brain takes some time to assemble (unconsciously) existing knowledge into an answer to a question, a problem, or a puzzle.

There is also fast-motion intuition, an example of which I invoked in the quotation at the top of this post: the ability of a batter to calculate in a split-second where a pitch will be when it reaches him. Other examples abound, including such vital ones as the ability of drivers to maneuver lethal objects in infinitely varied and often treacherous conditions. Much is made of the number of fatal highway accidents; too little is made of their relative infrequency given the billions of daily opportunities for their occurrence.  Imagine the carnage if drivers relied on plodding “reason” instead of fast-motion intuition.

The plodding version of “reason” that has been celebrated since the Enlightenment is therefore just one leg of a triad: thinking quickly and unconsciously, thinking somewhat less quickly and unconsciously, and thinking slowly and consciously.

Wasn’t it ever thus? Of course it was. Which means that the Enlightenment and its sequel unto the present day have merely fetishized one mode of dealing with the world and its myriad uncertainties. I would have said arriving at the truth, but it is well known (except by ignorant science-idolaters) that scientific “knowledge” is provisional and ever-changing. (Just think of the many things that were supposed to be bad for you but are now supposed to be good for you, and conversely.)

I am not a science-denier by any means. But scientific “knowledge” must be taken with copious quantities of salt because it is usually inadequate in the face of messy reality. A theoretical bridge, for example, may hold up under theoretical conditions, but it is likely to collapse when built in the real world, where there is much uncertainty about present and future conditions (e.g., the integrity of materials, adherence to best construction practices, soil conditions, the cumulative effects of traffic). An over-built bridge — the best kind — is one that allows wide margins of error for such uncertainties. The same is true of planes, trains, automobiles, buildings, and much else that our lives depend on. All such things fail less frequently than in the past not only because of the advance of knowledge but also because greater material affluence enables the use of designs and materials that afford wider margins of error.

In any event, too little credit is given to the other legs of reason’s triad: fast-motion and slow-motion intuition. Any good athlete, musician, or warrior will attest the the value former. I leave it to Albert Einstein to attest to the value of the latter,

combinatory [sic] play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others….

[F]ull consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness.


Related page and category:

Modeling and Science
Science and Understanding

Combinatorial Play

What is it? It’s the term applied by Einstein to the creative combination of (seemingly) unconnected theories to develop new, more general theories.  Combinatorial play often works subconsciously, while a person is asleep or engaged in a “mindless” diversion. The possibility of arriving at a solution to a problem by shelving it — even overnight — underlies the counsel to “sleep on it.”

Combinatorial play occurs in the absence of artificial deadlines, which hamper truly creative thinking. Such thinking occurs when a person with deep knowledge of a practical, professional, or scientific subject acquires a new insight about the subject by thinking in new ways (often subconsciously) about his knowledge — by making new connections from “old facts,” so to speak.

Related reading:
Thought for thinkers:’Follow your gut,’ study advises on big decisions
Let Subconscious Handle Complex Decision Making?