On Intuitionism

by Jason Stotts

Note: What follows here is the first draft of a philosophical essay on intuitionism that will appear in my forthcoming book Eros and Ethos in an appendix.  I’m publishing it here because I’d like feedback on it to improve the draft.  Please leave your feedback below as a comment below or email me at Jason(at)JasonStotts.com.

What I want to do now is to analyze the idea of intuition and of intuitionism to attempt to understand the phenomenon here and how it operates.  Through this, I don’t want to explicitly refute intuitionism, although I think this is a necessary consequence of our analysis, but rather, I want to show the underlying process that makes up intuition and pull back the veil on it, revealing it for what it really is.  It’s not that I think intuitionism is necessarily wrong, but it most certainly is not necessarily right and we need to consider the thoughts and beliefs we get from our intuition carefully.

Intuition has historically been thought to be the mind’s ability to have immediate access to the truth, without any conscious input.  As an example, you are reading a mystery novel and not thinking consciously at all about the book, when suddenly you just realize that you know who the killer is. Or, you’ve been going over and over a problem in your head and you suddenly have the answer days later when you’re about to go to sleep. This is, apparently, your intuition working to give you the truth even though your conscious mind did not know it.  Thus, intuition is taken to be some kind of direct access to truth.  Now, many have thought that this “direct access to truth” has a divine source and that their god or spirits were giving the truth to a person and this matches the attendant feeling of just knowing and being certain, as though the knowledge were given to us by the divine.  So, the question is, how does this happen?  How can we understand intuition as a real thing in the world without having to rely on explanation based in fantasy and wish?  In order to answer this, we need to take one step back.

I think my theory of emotions (cf. Chapter 2) precisely captures the connection of what we call consciousness and sub-consciousness.  Our conscious mind is the one that is in our control (or, perhaps, we think of ourselves as our conscious minds). It has powers like teleological judgment, abstract reasoning, integration, and differentiation, etc.  It would be inconvenient at best, and completely stifling at worst, to try to live our complex lives with all of our mental functions in our conscious control.  It would simply be too much to attend to at once.  To fix this problem, much of what we need to get through our days is automatized.  This is both natural and desirable.  For example, I need to think critically and engage when learning a new skill like driving.  Once I’ve mastered it, though, I barely need to consider the mechanics of it when I’m doing it.  In fact, once the activity is thoroughly automatized, attempting to consciously focus on it makes the action clumsy and awkward.  This is because our conscious mind has let go of the information and given it all to the subconscious mind.  Now, the conscious mind could choose to relearn it, but, again, there is only so much the conscious mind can hold at once, and so everything we choose to keep there must displace something else.  This should not be understood to mean that everyone has the same capacity in their conscious mind, since clearly we all do not.  What it does mean, though, is that when we learn and automatize a skill, it leaves our conscious mind and resides entirely in our subconscious.

When people talk about using their subconscious for different ends, and let us be clear that this definitely happens, what they have done is to program their subconscious with certain routines and let it operate as normal.  For example, any writer worth his salt knows that writing has two distinct phases: drafting (the putting of words onto paper) and editing (making that into good writing).  In drafting, the writer must let his subconscious freely bring forth his ideas in language.  This is because language is another automatized ability that we have.  Attempting to use language consciously is terribly inefficient and may even be nearly impossible for most language users.  If you doubt this, try to use language consciously: spell each word and sound it out as you go, make sure to conjugate each verb as you go.  Make a conscious choice about tense and make sure you can explain why you chose that tense and not another.  Make sure that you carefully choose each individual word and be able to explain why you didn’t choose any other.  The very enterprise would be prohibitively hard.  The good writer has worked long and hard to develop his writer’s voice and his presentation style.  It is not only what we choose to say as writers, but how we say it and how it affects our audience.  This, however, is far too much to think about consciously.  In fact, if a writer were to try, it would completely stymy the entire process and force the writer to plod along from word to word, with each sentence being an achievement.  It would be, in short, impossible.  The automaticity that our subconscious mind affords us is absolutely critical throughout our lives and this is especially clear for the writer.  For this reason, we utilize the great power of our subconscious.

The subconscious is not some magical thing, though.  Good writers are not born with the subconscious ability to write, this is a skill that must be mastered and perpetually practiced. We can program the subconscious different ways, the artist uses one routine, the writer another.  The man who walks is using one routine, the man who rides a bike another.  Our subconscious is capable of holding many, many, routines in it and every time we learn a new skill (subconscious routine), we add it to our subconscious.  Of course, if we don’t practice these skills, they may fade from our subconscious.  Our subconscious is not a permanent storehouse and I’m sure all of us have had the experience of trying to recall a previously mastered skill and finding ourselves out of practice or “rusty.”  When we need these previously mastered skills, when I need to ride a bike in the first time in many years, for example, I don’t consciously think about what to do, I rely on my subconscious to supply me with this information.  If it has been too long and the skill has faded too far, then I can supplement this with conscious learning, which allows me to use the skill and also re-sharpens my subconscious routine, helping me to do it again in the future.

Now, our subconscious is not limited to physical skills, but can also handle even complicated mental problems.  For example, have you ever been mulling over a very complex mental problem and then have the answer suddenly come to you later, when you’re doing something completely different?  This is your subconscious taking on the mental problem and working on it for you beneath the surface.  You need your conscious mind to live in the world and we can’t always be focusing on mental problems: we need to eat, get to work, bathe, etc.  Luckily we can quickly transfer this problem to our subconscious where our minds can continue to work on it, even while we’re consciously engaged in other tasks.  Of course, if you want to do this consistently, you need to develop a subconscious routine for this.

This ability to sub-consciously work on even very complex mental problems outside of our conscious mind is precisely what we call “intuition.”  Or, rather, it’s called intuition when our subconscious returns the answer to the question it’s been working on.  When we get this answer, it seems to just come to us without us having to consciously think about it (because we haven’t), and we know that it’s right.  This attendant feeling of truth, or correctness that comes with the idea, is because it, naturally, conforms to all the information we have about the issue.  In this sense, it necessarily fits given the information we have available to us.  This is why it feels like it’s definitely true: as far as we can tell, it is.  On the other hand, we may not have all the information.  For example, I may notice that my wife has started acting suspiciously, staying out late with friends, taking secret phone calls, and evading questions about her actions.  I might think nothing of it, then suddenly be hit by the intuition that she’s cheating on me.  And, given the information my subconscious has, it does fit.  So, I commit to confronting her after work, get home, walk in the door, and am met by a gigantic surprise party for my birthday.  Just because the intuition feels true and fits the information, does not mean it is true.  And this is the danger of intuitionism: our intuitions will always feel true and they will always conform to the information we have, but that does not mean they are actually true.

In a very real way, intuitionism is the deification of our own subconscious into an oracle of truth.  And this is absurd, because we all use our subconscious to store automatic routines, memories, and knowledge.  Our subconscious is the great machine right below the surface.  But it is not infallible.  We have all mis-recalled information we were certain of, forget skills at inopportune moments, and generally asked our subconscious for something that it wasn’t able to give us.  Just because we intuit something, does not mean it’s true.  We must use our conscious judgment to determine its truth by treating an intuition as a hypothesis and seeking more information in order to determine whether it is true or not.

Our intuitions cannot serve as a source of justification for a belief, they are based only on our own beliefs and the information available to us and have no necessary connect to reality. When we say that we intuit something, what we mean is this: I got this idea from my subconscious and it just “feels right” to me. This is entirely insufficient to determine the truth of the matter.  In case more refutation is needed, consider how different people have different intuitions: few philosophes seem to share intuitions about what is right and moral.  If intuition were a direct access to truth, this is impossible.  If, on the other hand, we are right, then this only makes sense as different people will have different beliefs and have different information available to them.  In fact, not only can we understand it from our perspective, it is a necessary consequence of our perspective.

Ultimately, intuition can be very useful in life, but it tells us only about our own beliefs and nothing necessarily about the truth.

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