When you have choices in life how do you, (or I) know which is the correct path to follow? How do we know what is the ethically right thing to do? Religions have in all ages been dependable guides to turn to when we aren’t sure. As an atheist we have, to date, no such option. As Syntheists we can change that, in the future. Today we have two available options, our reason or our intuition. In two articles I’m going to attempt to argue that neither is good enough. This article is about the problems of placing to great a trust in our intuition.
Do you usually go with whatever feels right to you in your heart? Go with your gut feeling? Your intuition? Do you trust your intuition? Should you trust your intuition? What is intuition?
noun \ˌin-tü-ˈi-shən, -tyü-\
The power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.
On the question how we came to learn about whatever it is we intuit nobody is quite sure. You can easily do this experiment with your own mind. From any collection of things quickly and without reflection reach out and grab whatever speaks to you the most, and then ask yourself how that line of reasoning went. Why that and not another?
If we ask a neuroscientist where it comes from their answer will also be, “we’re not quite sure”. But we do know through psychological research that there are patterns to intuition.
- When we intuit we tend to think in extremes, (called Law of excluded middle). If there are more than two options any option in the middle is automatically dropped from our attention. We become blind to subtleties.
- We also exaggerate the importance of minor flaws or draw overly strong conclusions from minor details, (called Reductio ad absurdum).
- Evidence that goes against what we already believe feels wrong (confirmation bias).
- There’s our tendency to go with whatever it is we saw first, (anchoring).
- We pay attention to whatever has the most dominant stimuli more than we would after closer reflection (Attentional bias).
“When you expand your awareness, seemingly random events will be seen to fit into a larger purpose.” –Deepak Chopra (New Age guru)
The complete list is quite long and is linked to at the very end of this article. It’s not a flattering read. Yes, it can be trained to get better. But it still won’t beat deliberate introspection. I think I’ve made my point. Intuition is a terrible method by which to make important decisions in life. But that’s not what it’s for. We have the ability to intuit because it’s a quick method by which to make good-enough decisions without taxing the brain more than necessary. Without it we wouldn’t be able to function in our day-to-day lives. Evolutionarily it’s a compromise necessary to keep us alive in tight spots. There are simply too many decisions to make in our ordinary lives for it to be practical to think through every decision in detail.
Intuition also has a place when we are trying to be honest with ourselves regarding our emotional states. We have a tendency to lie to ourselves, to over-think personal issues and rationalise, to decide what we should feel rather than what we actually feel. In those cases using our intuitions and analysing them can be useful for attaining self-understanding. Those usages are not what I’m arguing against in this article.
I’m arguing against seeing intuition as some sort of superior knowledge, “more pure” or better informed knowledge. All research shows that it is inferior compared to deliberate introspection and careful reasoning. And if you think I’m stating the obvious. I can assure you that I am not. I also don’t want you to think that I’m picking on New Age in particular. The problem of overt trust in our intuitions is found everywhere in our societies. Below are some non-New Age examples.
“Listen to your intuition. It will tell you everything you need to know.” -Anthony J. D’Angelo (musician)
The civil disobedience movement that ended US racial segregation and British rule in India are both a direct result of human intuitions being put on pedestals, and was acknowledged as such by its leaders. More on that later in this article. Martin Luther King didn’t argue against segregation on ethical ground. But because it felt bad… in his heart. Likewise Ghandi wasn’t against British rule because it was inherently racist and undemocratic but because he felt in his gut that self rule for Indians was the right way to go. This was also the theme of the Nüremburg trials of Nazi war criminals. Every human was expected to have an inner conscience that guided us toward doing good. The Nazi War Criminals were bad because they had ignored what we all “knew” their intuitions told them to do.
You might think all of this sounds great. The results sure were for the better. But I base that opinion on ethical grounds. In the above examples, what I am trying to demonstrate, is that they were all examples of instances where we’re expected to listen to the voice of God in your heart, ie our intuition rather than what we thought was the right thing to do by reasoning about it. It simply asserts that everybodies intuitions are the same or similar. But they’re not. We know they’re not.
“If prayer is you talking to God, then intuition is God talking to you.” –Dr. Wayne Dyer (motivational speaker, self-help author)
Intuitions can go either way. Racists have never had any arguments other than that it feels right “in their souls”. That was as true for King’s and Ghandi’s opponents as it was for their supporters. The same can be said about many Nazis. It is also contemporary. I’m thinking of the rampant homophobia in the world today. I’ve yet to hear a coherent argument against gay marriage that doesn’t violate the modern democratic principle of freedom of religion. Yet, that doesn’t stop nominally pro-democratically minded to completely turn off their higher faculties and try to block gays from it anyway. If you think rampant sexism is a problem in this world you can bet that the intuitions of the sexist minded will re-enforce and confirm sexist ideas making the problem worse. That will certainly be the case if sexists are encouraged to open up their hearts, feel inward and listen to what the “universe tells them in their soul”.
“We live in a culture that doesn't acknowledge or validate human intuition and doesn't encourage us to rely on our intuitive wisdom.” -Shakti Gawain (New Age guru)
The biggest problem of arguing for anything on what “your heart” tells you is that, if somebody disagrees with you have no other recourse than violence. As often is the case. There is simply no foundation from which to have any discussion, no room for compromise or mutual respect and understanding.
If all people would stop trusting their intuitions as their prime foundation for taking decisions I’m convinced all extreme right-wing political parties all over the world would disappear tomorrow, as well as homophobia and sexism.
If you only take away one thing from this article it’s the insight that your intuition, although often useful, is an inferior method by which to take important decisions that are in your own best interest.
So where did the modern idea that our intuition is a superior form of knowledge come from? Which person did Martin Luther King and Ghandi both name as one of their greatest inspirations? For this we need a little history lesson. A history lesson that I think is especially interesting for religious atheists.
Religions have in all ages been repositories for practical solutions to everyday problems. What we might call wisdom. These were disseminated through society via priests and rituals. Often in the form of taboos. The religious community was a source of strength and practical support in times of need. A much needed safety net.
When the Enlightenment swept the Western world in the 18’th century organised religion was arguably its main target. All figures of authority were attacked, but mainly priests. The role of teaching the lessons on how to live one’s life and approach the world was taught by Christian clergy. Above all, the church had a monopoly on saying what is True. Over time they had transformed this role into power, real political power which they often abused.
The reformation did break the power of the pope to dictate its teachings to the masses. But didn’t do much to change the basic structure of how people learned them. It was still top down from religious authorities according to stiff and often outdated dogma. The Enlightenment wanted to sweep it all away with one fell swoop.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." -Thomas Jefferson (American revolutionary)
Individualism and Self Reliance became the war cries. No longer were we going to bow to the whims of authorities to take advantage of us and exploit us. The church was increasingly seen as nothing but a tool of those in power to control us. We alone would be the master of our lives, and would rely on no support other than from our immediate families.
If we are to stop relying on any external support in our lives, it raises the question of what to replace it with. I think we’ve all have come across moments in our lives where just muddling along as we always have just won’t cut it any longer. The times when we realize that we need to work on some aspect of our lives or be doomed to repeat earlier mistakes. So if not to priests, where should we turn for support and answers to help guide us?
One option is to turn to rationalism. People should learn to think for themselves. Be taught to think critically. Go to universities to learn facts with which to draw their own conclusions. Be guided by what their own reason dictated is ethical. Not be spoon fed ready-made answers.
“Synchronicity is choreographed by a great, pervasive intelligence that lies at the heart of nature, and is manifest in each of us through intuitive knowledge.” –Deepak Chopra (New Age guru)
The other path to truth is to follow what feels right in your heart, one’s intuition. As we’ve already discussed, this is simply a bad idea. Yet it came to be extremely influential. In the Enlightenment this is the path that later led to 19’th century romanticism, the reaction against rationalism. To capture the implications of this school of thought I think it will be most informative to pick a few thinkers and focus on them.
In the fledgling state of USA Ralph Waldo Emerson formulated his ideas (Transcendentalism) borrowing from Hindu religious texts to expand Enlightenment ideas of personal liberty. His ideas came to have a powerful influence on the rights and roles of a citizen in a modern democracy. Yes, this is the guy both Martin Luther King jr and Ghandi said was a direct inspiration to their movements. Not only of course. They both had many other role models but both gave a prominent place to Emerson.
In Emerson’s essay Self Reliance he argues against all conformity. Emerson’s concept of self reliance is based on only relying on one’s own interpretation of reality, or Truth. One must turn inward to one’s intuition for guidance, only. Never trust any authority that your gut feeling isn’t okay with. Never accept any hierarchy if you don’t feel okay with it, regardless of where on the ladder you find yourself. And never join a flock where you ever have to compromise. Any and all norms are seen as problematic. If what a teacher tells you in school doesn’t feel right “in your soul”, it should be dismissed.
According to Emerson, how do we know that what our intuition tells us is true really is true? He believed that we all had divinity within us. The all knowing omnipotent God lives inside us all. He called it “The Over-Soul”. As atheists we can dismiss that one out of hand. And it won’t come as a surprise that all thinkers in all ages who have stressed the importance of following one’s intuition has had to fall back on woo. Which in practice means saying; “if you don’t agree with me you just aren’t honest with yourself enough”.
Emerson’s ideas have not only survived into the modern world, they are stronger than ever. Here is a video by the popular New Age spiritual guide Deepak Chopra on this very topic. He simply regurgitates old myths, reconfirming popular and false beliefs. Yet, Chopra managed to write an entire book on it called “The power of intuition”. It successfully ignores all the world’s available research on it. He shamelessly sprinkles it with irrelevant neuroscience to make it sound like it isn’t nonsense. For example, (at 00:22) he mentions that the prefrontal cortex lights up when we intuit. He makes no effort in explaining why this is relevant or what it allegedly proves.
The book that first coined the phrase “New Age” and arguably started the modern movement was “Living in the Light” by Shakti Gawain. This is how she views intuition:
“There is a universal, intelligent, life force that exists within everyone and everything. It resides within each one of us as a deep wisdom, an inner knowing. We can access this wonderful source of knowledge and wisdom through our intuition, an inner sense that tells us what feels right and true for us at any given moment.” -Shakti Gawain (New Age guru)
She repeats throughout the book how our intuitions is a superior form of knowledge without bothering to explain why or how.
Is following one’s intuition bad?
Of course not. If we did that we’d also ignore out feelings. If we ignore our feelings we are bound for a life of misery. it’s healthy to understand and accept that our emotionally loaded intuitions rarely are particularly smart or rational. It’s also important to understand and accept that other people’s intuitions aren’t smart or rational either. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge when people staunchly hold irrational positions. Especially not to their face. Nobody wants to be called an idiot.
“Your intuition will tell you where you need to go; it will connect you with people you should meet; it will guide you toward work that is meaningful for you - work that brings you joy, work that feels right for you.” -Shakti Gawain (gives some good advice for a change)
This is where religions like Syntheism can come in and give us guidance. Again, like religions have in all ages. But today we won’t have blind trust in priests or have to go mining ancient holy texts for the scraps if wisdom that still might be relevant today. Since Syntheists don’t believe church leaders have gained their authority from a god, but based on track-record we have a structure by which to prevent abuses of power. By using insights gained by modern psychology we can incorporate modern therapy methods and mechanics. Over time the wisdom collected in the church will evolve and grow, and yet again be the guide and help we need to protect us from misguided overt trust in our intuition.
Syntheism is still in its infancy, and we have neither priests or any kind of organisation or system that can act to collect and spread collected wisdoms. But it’s my hope that once we’ve now seen the need we will start giving it some serious thought.
Resources for further reading
If you would like to know more here are some links to some actual science. There is quite a large body of research to dig into. The below barely touches on what there is.
Interview with Daniel Khaneman on intuition: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/interview-with-daniel-kahneman-on-the-pitfalls-of-intuition-and-memory-a-834407.html
The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, Gary Klein (2004)
Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein (1999)
Decision-Making Barbara A Mellers, (2006)
C.R. Hamilton Paths in the brain, actions of the mind (1998)
R.W. Sperry “Cerebral Organization and Behavior: The split brain behaves in many respects like two separate brains, providing new research possibilities, 1961
Miller, Charles E., III, Emotional/rational decision making in law enforcement, 2004