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← How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God

Zeuglodon's Avatar Jump to comment 24 by Zeuglodon

Comment 22 by aquilacane

Intuition appears to me to be a desperate survival skill that may or may not be useful based on the situation and is most likely not achieved through the scrutiny of adequate information. It’s a sort of faith.

To the individual organism, yes, but I think of it like this: those intuitions originate from the configuration of a person's brain, and from the brains of their fellow species members and their ancestors. Once, this configuration would have fitted into the environment in such a way as to be finely-tuned to deal with what was available. What we call paranoia in the big city, for example, might have been well-calibrated in the predator-filled savannah and ambush-friendly forests of Ethiopia during the time of australopithecines. Intuition evolved not as an alternative to analytic thinking but as built-in, context-sensitive, heuristic-reliant analytic thinking that required little to no conscious thought at all. In fact, intuition is simply analytic thinking done over millions of years. This would at least explain why it can go so wrong in particular situations.

Take, for example, "(malicious agent) detection devices". I can sit down and reason that predators will want to eat me when they're hungry, but I have the luxury of consulting books, TV programs, and the internet for information. I could describe the "predatory" technology in, say, a lion's body systems (stomach for digesting meat, sharp teeth for killing, powerful muscles for wrestling prey to the ground), but all I would need to know when facing one is that it wants to eat me and will have a chance to do so if I let my guard down. In other words, I need only suspect that there are malicious agents about.

In my 200,000-greats ancestors, fearing the environment in case of predatory ambushes is a rational built-in mechanism that has emerged by natural selection "debugging" the original designs over nearly countless generations. This mechanism makes sense in a context where lions and their kind exist and will use ambushes. Natural selection tailored our ancestors towards being appropriately frightened of their surroundings here. We would have been afraid of snakes and spiders for the same reasons or for similar reasons (they can ambush you, they're common enough to be encountered frequently, and their venom is dangerous).

However, within a few thousand years, cities have emerged and many old dangers have vanished. It is pointless being afraid of creatures like lions, spiders, and snakes in most cities, yet arachnophobia is more prevalent than the actual risks (as posed by most spiders) can justify, whereas city-goers are not "phobic" of guns, smoking, electric sockets, or cars on busy streets, which have a much greater chance of killing them.

This also means that our tendency to be paranoid about our environment can lead to us suspecting motives for bad things happening when no such motives exist. Most of us will never come across a cataclysmic meteor impact like the one in Siberia that took out an entire forest. Natural selection simply can't prepare us well for such rare events. So when they happen, some might fall back on intuitive processes and describe the meteor in terms more usually reserved for malicious predators. Even in fiction, a surprising number of monsters exist and cause trouble for no better reason than pure malice - possibly these creatures are the author's intuitions being projected onto the page, and made successful by their resonating with the audience's own intuitive understandings of threats and predators.

I think the principle of outdated miscalibrations can be applied to many seemingly "stupid" behaviours. What looks like lousy reasoning in one place may well have been excellent context-dependent insight in another. We may mock a gambler who thinks heads is due after three tails have landed, but once the same intuition might have told him that the rains would have to end after a few weeks, since clouds aren't randomly produced day by day and are dependent upon what's gone on before.

The other problem is that human evolution has opened up possibilities, and this species can create environments that it itself cannot adapt to, at least not quickly enough. It's like a strange runaway process caused by evolved human minds making it possible to do things that feed back into those same human minds, who respond according to evolved intuitions. So human ingenuity lead to many people creating cities that the human citizens then were born into and that the citizens treated according to their own intuitions! At the very extreme, we've created machines to get us into space, a place which our bodies are totally unprepared for.

As for the OP...

The results certainly look interesting, though I'm not committing to them yet. While "intuition" isn't enough to discredit the scientific merit of an idea, it is surprising when someone advances introspection (i.e. consulting intuition) in a debate about supernatural phenomena and apparently seems satisfied with this sole justification. Why does an answer popping up in the brain, and a conviction, have any bearing on what's actually going on outside? Yes, yes, I answered my question above, but I mean why do people apply it, consciously and deliberately, in places where it conspicuously doesn't belong? Cosmology, for example.

I can see why stopping to think about things would make some people hesitant, at least briefly. Most people seem satisfied with an explanation, especially when the phenomenon doesn't affect their lives much or doesn't have any particular urgency in it. Merely stopping to pay more attention to it would give the mind more time to get a grip on it, and even to chew it over.

Sorry for the long post. I'm in a chatty mood today.

Thu, 03 May 2012 22:36:10 UTC | #939459