The Insightful Nature of Intuition
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
- Albert Einstein
When we think about knowledge, we tend to think about logic and experimentation. From an epistemological point of view, we think about rationalism and empiricism. Meanwhile, we praise science for being a reliable tool that we can use to discard untrue notions in favor of true ones. It is no wonder we do that, since science has been very reliable. It has allowed us to develop technologies and to improve our standard of living. It is in this context that we have cast aside intuition as something that is far too unreliable as a source of knowledge. While it is true that science has been very reliable and that intuition has not been necessarily reliable, I would like to take a moment to reframe the concept of intuition and argue that intuition can be a powerful source of knowledge which, when used effectively, could dramatically speed up our scientific investigations and improve science as a whole.
When we think about intuition, we tend to think about is as a passing feeling or a thought that just pops out in our heads. It is easy to dismiss intuition as unreliable as there is no clear and direct connection between the intuitive feeling or thought and the truth. Assuming that this intuitive experience is correct is dangerous, because it could simply be wishful thinking or random, and thus relying on intuition could lead us astray from the truth.
But intuition is more than just a random thought or feeling. It is the source of many inventions and breakthrough discoveries. Every “Eureka” moment, like the classical story of Archimedes and the bathtub, is an example of intuition at work. Intuition tends to be triggered by an experience or something that is said. The difficulty with intuition is that there is no apparent direct connection between the information intuition gives us and the truth. How exactly does it work, and how can we tell our intuitive sense is accurate?
One day I was in a class on theories of perception and my professor was talking about what was called the “sense datum” theory. The theory explained that the world we perceive is not the real one and that what we perceive is actually a “sense datum” world. This is how the theory explained how illusions and hallucinations happen, because what we perceive is not the real world. I immediately felt that this idea was completely wrong. I couldn’t immediately articulate why it was wrong, I didn't have the entire logical argument built. But it felt self-evident to me that it was. That is the essence of the intuitive sense. When you have an intuition, you have an immediate reaction to something that you are perceiving, rather it is something that you experience or an idea that you hear. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because in order to survive we have had to quickly adapt to our environment. To stop and think logically about what is happening is a good way to get killed. Thus, an intuitive sense was developed.
Having said all that, we have never stopped evolving. Our intuitive sense may very well have started as a means to quickly react to our environment, but the same sense can be used to speed up logical processes. In order to survive and thrive in modern society, one must be able to think logically. Hence, as we became increasingly logical, our intuitive sense started to develop into the logical realm of our existence. Many people, however, fail to develop this logical intuition because our society has been emphasizing logic and science ever since we put aside religion and spirituality.
Perhaps this is a good time to reconsider intuition. In the past century, science has started to struggle with logic and truth. The first struggles started with ideas of quantum mechanics that seemed illogical but were, nevertheless, evident from our experiments. More recently, it has become increasingly harder to reconcile the microcosm with the macrocosm and we are having problems trusting scientific investigation due to corporations’ involvement with the scientific process and their profit motive interfering with the process.
This brings me to the nature of intuition and how intuition can help us achieve a greater level of understanding. Intuition always involves a larger picture. Whenever we have an intuitive sense, it is always about the larger picture, it is always about the underlying connections between seemingly disconnected ideas. This is why intuition feels self-evident while at the same time remaining mysterious. We can sense the connections because we have made the connections in the past, but we are not currently aware of those connections. The trigger that caused the intuitive sense made the connection, but the mind can’t see the whole picture at once. In order to see the whole picture, one must step back and go through the connections. This is a skill that needs to be developed. One must be able to hold the intuitive sense by holding onto the trigger in the back of their minds while at the same time using it to make the connections in their conscious mind. Intuition, in this sense, works like a compass that leads us towards the solution we are looking for. Intuition must be unpacked with logic.
Intuition, therefore, is the source of wisdom. It is the connection of seemingly unrelated facts that have deeper underlying patterns and connections. These deeper patterns and connections form a larger picture. It is this larger picture that we sense when we have an intuition. The intuition IS the perception of the larger picture. This deeper connection has a lot more information than logic and thus it is hard to express it in words. Intuition is beyond words because it has more information than words can immediately express. Hence it feels self-evident but it can’t be immediately explained. Intuition is a form of knowledge that can't be immediately expressed in words because it is formed by a larger picture composed of connections between multiple interconnected ideas.
Intuition is exactly what science needs today. We are struggling with the disconnection between disciplines and even within certain disciplines, like physics. Since intuition is a form of knowledge that connects interdisciplinary ideas, it follows logically that if we incorporated intuition into the scientific method we could break through the struggle caused by the compartmentalization of science. We already use our senses when we perform experiments, we can simply incorporate some of our empiricist principles with intuition and use intuition to unify all disciplines.