Intuition: The Black Box.

 A friend of mine said the other day that intuition is a justifier. Having an intuitive feeling that an idea is true, he says, gives you a reason to believe it. For example, I might have an intuition that humans have a soul. Just by being in tune with my intuitions, my belief somewhat justified.  
My friend is wrong.


“Intuition” refers to a range of subtly differing ideas. Sometimes it denotes the accurate gauging of situations, mostly situations which involve guessing the thoughts and feelings of others. Psychology defines intuition as “the act of looking inward on one’s unconscious thought process”. In philosophy, it’s simply used to refer to the way things appear to be.

Each share a key feature: in all three cases people believe something without being able to say why they believe it, or how they reached their belief.

Making Links:

Malcolm Gladwell has done some research into this in his book “Blink.” In essence, what he found was that sometimes humans ingeniously and inexplicably hit nail on head and draw accurate conclusions about things we could not have known given the evidence. We do this by picking up on very subtle signals which allow us to draw connections and relationships between seemingly disparate entities. But this process can go vastly astray. For example, many psychological tests have shown that we tend to find people with certain kinds of faces (round, soft featured, big eyes) more trustworthy than people with other kinds of faces (angular, small eyes).

So let’s say I get an intuitive feeling about a person: he seems trustworthy, though I’m not quite sure why. Should I trust this intuition? Well, no. Because it could be that my intuitive system is making a calculation that goes something like “big brown eyes= unlikely to break my confidence”. There is no real causal connection between how trustworthy a person is and how big their eyes are, the intuitive system simply creates this link.  If it can do this here, how do we know that our beliefs about the soul are not the product of a similar kind of reasoning?

In the relevant sense they are exactly the same- they are beliefs formed via a process that we cannot know is reliable. And that’s exactly the problem, we don’t know. When we use intuitive thinking we put something into a system inside a black box, the black box does something (god knows what) and then outputs conclusions that are right only some of the time. It’s scary because we cannot see what goes on inside the box, so we do not know exactly how and why it goes wrong, reducing our control on things all the more.

Evolutionary psychologists say that unconcious thinking  gets it wrong because the human brain is not a perfectly rational instrument.  There are plenty of quirks to our unconscious reasoning that are shaped by evolutionary factors which have no relevance to modern life. Psychoanalytic theory claims that our unconscious thoughts do not abide by the rules of logical sequencing, space and time, so leaps in logic will be prevalent.You don’t necessarily need to buy into either of these theories to agree with my argument, The point is that we put information into a black box system, the system does something mysterious and spews out something that is only right some of the time.

Not a Reason:

So where does leave us when it comes to the third kind of intuition, the kind that philosophy regularly deals with? Intuitions of the sort “it seems clear to be that we have an immaterial soul”.

A bad place, that’s where.

Intuition and philosophy are a risky combination. Philosophy bases its conclusions on reasoned arguments, and until we know what happens inside the black box, we should not let our intuitions supply us with reasons. Who knows what calculations it performed to get there, and whether these “reasons” are really reasons at all.

It’s not my intention to slate intuitive thinking on the whole. It can be a signpost to the truth. It suggests pathways, relationships, creative and scientific endeavours that our conscious reasoning alone might be pushed to do. There’s every chance that, when used correctly, intuition can speed up our intellectual world by years at a time.

Isaac Newton, who famously quoted that “intuition is the most valuable thing in the world”, is a brilliant example of the triumphs and pitfalls of intuitive thinking. On the one hand, we have his intuition to thank for modern physics: it gave us Special and General Relativity.  On the other hand, Einstein and his intuition staunchly refused to believe the findings of quantum mechanics, which have since been proven correct, drawing his theories in question along the way.

But Newton was a scientist, not a philosopher. It’s okay to embrace intuition in science, because we can rest assured that no-one is going to accept scientific truths because they seem intuitively appealing. When we do accept a scientific truth we support our belief by appealing to empirical evidence and mathematical equations thus sidestepping the unreliability of the ol’ black box. Intuition in this case is not a justifier; it simply points us in the right direction, and it’s very good at that.

If philosophers wish to be rigorous they should think as scientists think, at least in this respect. The fact that it seems clear to you that we have a soul, should not be the first premise in your argument; in fact you shouldn’t mention it in your argument at all..

If you do, you need to supply a reason why your intuition should be taken by the court as evidence, despite its unreliable nature. When you do provide a reason for your intuition, it stops being an intuition and becomes an argument in its own right. Crisis averted.

What You See is What You Get:

The friend I was debating with drew an interesting parallel between intuition and visual experiences. We accept people’s visual experiences as evidence all the time, and these are not always correct, so why not adopt a similar attitude towards people’s intuitive responses?

While I grant that neither sight nor intuition is an infallible process, I think it’s fair to say that sight is vastly more reliable. It is usually tied to something objective, and when it isn’t, we usually can give a reason why (we can explain away a man’s hallucinations by pointing out that he is on LSD). Visual experiences produce far fewer and less extreme discrepancies to begin with, and even then we have a means by which we can account for the majority of them. The same cannot be said for intuitive responses.

It is not uncommon for two people to hold opposite intuitive reactions (“of course we’re just biology!” vs. “it is clear to me we all have souls”) and the same rarely (if ever) happens with visual experiences. This is primarily because two people can never have “opposite” visual experiences; the concept of a contradictory visual experience does not make sense. But for the sake of argument let’s compare opposite intuitions with very different visual experiences. Our two friends are looking at a scene and each say: “Look, it’s a mountain!” vs. “Oh hey, it’s a beach”.

When have you ever known this to happen? If you have, and the people in question were sober, please call me. I can wholeheartedly promise you that vast disagreements of the intuitive kind happen far more often. This makes visual experiences a much (much, much, much) more reliable means of establishing the truth about the world.

Let’s examine a more realistic example:

Five people witness a robbery. Three report that the robber was wearing a black t-shirt, the other two claim that he was wearing a blue t-shirt. A police investigator can approach this discrepancy by asking why it might be that two people saw a different colour: was the light different from where they were standing? Are they colour-blind?

More and more discrepancies will be ruled out as these questions are asked and answered, until only a few remain, if any at all. We are granted this luxury because we understand how sight, as a biological process, works. Just as Intuition is one black box, we can see sight as a series of transparent boxes. Each box represents the input and output of sight in different conditions. So we could look into one box and see the relatively simple system of how we see the world when all things are equal. Next to it is a clear box containing a slightly more complex system which shows how people see things when they are on LSD. The next accounts for colourlindness. And so on. At the end of the line of clear box systems is a red box which we cannot see into. This red box represents all the visual outputs which are odds with the way the world actually is, but we have no idea why. I’m not sure if this box would ever be needed, I think that every visual discrepancy is in, in theory, accountable for. But for the sake of arguments, let’s say I’m wrong (I’m not a scientist, after all). The number of visual experiences put into the red box will be a minority, whereas the totality of intuitions are put into the black box.

Ruling out intuition on the grounds that it is sometimes wrong does not mean we are committed to ruling out visual experiences on the same ground.Sight is a more reliable  “reason-giver” than intuition, because we understand exactly when we can and cannot use it to support our arguments. When it goes wrong, we know why. With intuition we hit a brick wall. Two people have different intuitions. Bam. Game Over.

An objector could ask why we can’t apply the same method to intuition. Just as we might ask if a person is colour-blind, we might ask if there is anything in their past experience that accounts for their intuition? Through this we can get to understand the intuitive process in a similar way.

But if it’s come to this, the objector has already conceded my point. To even embark along this path is to admit that intuition is driven by subjective, rather than objective factors. Sight is always closer to the objective data, even in the case of the police investigation we can safely conclude that the robber wore a dark shirt, for example, or that he was not wearing a red shirt. We get nothing from the two opposing intuitive responses, nothing at all.

The same objector could also ask how we know that inutuition is not a series of different systems as well? Honestly, it probably is. But we have no way of knowing, and it makes no real difference whether we are dealing with one black box or lots of smaller black boxes inside one big one.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent:

Let’s say that the black box churns out true conclusions 50% of the time. Now, we have two arguments (A and B) against the intuition that we have an immaterial soul. Argument A provides a rational reason why we should not believe in the soul, and also offers an explanation as to why it intuitively seems like we have one, despite this. Argument B only does the former: it gives a valid argument, but fails to account for our intuitions. Argument A is the stronger only in so far as it provides more information. Argument B is still valid even though it fails to account for our intuition.

If challenged by the claim “why does it seem like we do have a soul, then?” a supporter of argument B is fully entitled to say “that intuition is probably wrong”. There is no reason to believe it is right, only the brute fact of the intuition itself. It would be far more rational, in absence of other evidence, to file this intuition under “people with big eyes are trustworthy” file. The black box has failed us.

In short, my friend was wrong about intuition. And why? He, quite literally, has no idea what he is talking about.


About Coral Waters

"To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is." -Einstein
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