"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Intuition and Common Sense

In today's edition of Tech Central Station, your faithful correspondent tackles the matter of the scientific value of common sense. There is more to this question than is perhaps immediately apparent. It goes to the basic question of how people find truth.

I think that most people operate on intuition most of the time, by which I mean that the brain continuously processes huge amounts of information, quite logically and rationally, far more quickly than we could possibly do consciously. We use a variety of terms to describe this activity, such as "sleeping on it," something "percolating," or a problem being "in the back of my mind."

This is the process classically known as intuition, and it is a truly valuable concept. It is simply the way the human brain operates. It should not be seen as some sort of spooky, New Age concept but instead as a highly scientific and testable proposition. The fact that a person can come to an absolutely correct and ultimately provable conclusion about something but not be able to outline (at least immediately) the exact process of reasoning by which the conclusion was reached—that is the working of intuition.

Of course, intuititively derived conclusions can be dead wrong and even dangerous, so testing each such proposition, through use of reasoning and evidence, is an essential part of the process of accumulation of knowledge. Nonetheless, intuition can be a valuable way of pointing people toward truths.

The Enlightenment, and especially the flowering of its concepts that occurred during the twentieth century, elevated philosophical Rationalism to a position of not just preeminence but actual dispositiveness, and tended to chase away other ways of acquiring knowledge. This is a mistake, however, given that, as noted earlier, intuition and rationalism can work together to advance human knowledge more quickly and reliably than either can do alone.

Intuition, I believe, is the process that often operates behind the development of what we call common sense, and the sense behind the latter concept is the subject of my Tech Central Station article for today.

Some brief excerpts:

One of the major principles of life that was discarded during the past half-century, and particularly during the last quarter-century, was the deceptively simple notion we call common sense. The idea that there could be such a thing as true folk wisdom was increasingly disdained, to be replaced by a usually laudable desire for scientific evidence and an often excessive regard for experts. . . .

There is much folk wisdom that is quite wrong, to be sure, but it is important to remember where much of it comes from: several-thousand years of trial and error by humans very much like ourselves, in genetic terms at the very least. . . .

But we should always have respect for propositions that prove true even though we aren't quite sure why. . .

Which brings us to a fascinating article in the New York Times, on the matter of colic in infants. Colic is the prolonged, unexplained crying that some babies habitually do during the early months of their lives. Scientists, the article notes, are in great disagreement over the causes of colic, and equally discordant over what parents should best do about it.

What is particularly interesting about this as regards common sense is the solution suggested by a doctor who has studied the problem and come up with a five-step treatment that seems to do wonders in quelling infants' crying jags. It is an excellent case of human experience over the ages being codified into common-sense truths that are nonetheless true despite being difficult to prove in logical, scientific terms. . . .

1 comment:

Evanston said...

Epistemology is a fascinating subject, the role of "common sense" and various types of intuition being major subsets. Thank you for this article!