Bruce (kor27) wrote,


Note that in the following I'll be using the popular meaning of "intuition," as in "stuff that comes to me that I haven't examined consciously," as opposed to its real meaning of "stuff I know that was instilled in me at birth."

This is a subject I've been thinking about off and on over the last few months. I've had to deal with very serious comments like "My gut tells me that's wrong."

And they weren't even from Colbert.

In fact, it's a perfectly reasonable thing to say. I only start to have a problem when gut feelings are presented as incontrovertible proof.

So I thought I'd examine my opinions about the subject. Most of which are, of course, gut feelings, but at least ones that are the result of conscious observation.

The brain has a marvelous ability to learn behaviors at a non-conscious level. When, for example, a basketball player makes a free throw, he isn't busy calculating out how much force to apply to each arm in order to create an initial velocity that will result in the basketball following a correct parabolic arc.

Except he is. It's just that instead of consciously planning each throw, he's spent time repetitively training part of his brain to do the job for him.

I believe most, if not all "intuition" is of the same nature. If I see someone looking at me with pursed lips, I don't have to analyze what that means - I already have a feeling. This requires no conscious effort, and isn't in any way innate. I learned it as an infant - deaf people that haven't been socialized properly as infants have to be taught what it means.

It's an incredibly powerful ability. A huge amount of our day to day thinking is preanalyzed, packaged up, and handed to our conscious selves tied up with a pretty bow.

When one talks of someone's intuitive grasp of social affairs, one is, in effect, merely referring to the fact that they've spent a lot of time observing such things, and now can automatically - and remarkably accurately - infer reams of information from just a few observations.

The ability easily extends to other subjects. I can't count the times during my employment as an engineer when I just knew that a proposed problem solution was a bad idea - and, in those occasions where I was overruled, I was universally vindicated.

But then one comes to the limitations of the gut, a major one being that, as a non-conscious process, the reasons for the final result are not available. In my previous example, I was overruled multiple times simply because it's hard to convince people to change their plans just because one has a "bad feeling."

Then there's the extrapolation problem. If one were to take the basketball player in my first example, and put him in conditions under which he had not trained (say, an extremely expensive - and silly - court on the moon), his likelihood of success would be small. All of that training involved only one value for gravitational acceleration.

My point in all this is simply that while gut feelings are valuable, and should be given weight (especially in realms that fall within the gut-owner's expertise), they always should be taken with a grain of salt.

One can, in fact, view a lot of the advancement of science as the gradual victory of rational consideration over gut feeling. The gut says that gravity points one way, and the earth is flat. It also says the sun rotates around the earth.

There's quite a bit more that I'd like to say, but I'll likely save that for a later post. I will, however, mention that a lot of it was composed while sitting in front of the Central Park Alice statue. This felt rather appropriate, since Lewis Carroll, as a mathemagician, loved to screw with the dean of his college by proposing voting methods that seemed reasonable.

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