intuition and instinct as valid empirical observations

6th April, 2007

C.S. Peirce (1839-1914)

“..consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the objects” from C.S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear

“…he had in mind that a meaningful conception must have some experiential ‘cash value’, capable of being specified as some sort of collection of possible empirical observations under specifiable conditions. Peirce insisted that the entire meaning of a meaningful conception consisted in the totality of such specifications of possible observations.” R. Burch, Charles Sanders Peirce, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2001 Edition).

The following thoughts come to mind:

Evolution has certain mechanical aspects described as adaptation and change manifest, observed, and studied in the form of physical attributes of a given subject (a species is the most common, but it seems that other phenomena may also be subject to evolution: i.e., the laws of physics). It seems to me that another aspect, or index of our evolution can be understood as the work we do collectively to understand the aspects of our experience that are not visible in the same way skeletal remains are visible.

As we try to develop meaningful conceptions, or increasingly accurate models of our experience perhaps we must learn to accept intuition and instinct as valid, empirical observations (in addition to other empirical observations). Yes, they are understood as subjective, and don’t perform well in the abstract world of the lab, but the issue may be that they are in fact collective and are an index of the here and now distributed among a group that, to be understood, require a method for expression and sharing, and this method will differ from the methods of fact based inquiry, but, to me, it is essential that we integrate this aspect of our experience. Presently we seem to prefer to simply dismiss them as subjective noise at best, and, at worst, to stigmatize them.

What is needed, I think, is a practice that incorporates the unknown as unknown (the intuited, instinctual, etc. as such, as opposed to converting them to facts) into any empiric understanding – in other words every meaningful conception doesn’t have to be based entirely on fact.

All of us understand the world via some mixture of the known (fact) and the unknown (intuition). We need to work to create models of our experience that are more accurate in their modeling of our actual experience – as opposed to systems which operate on how we think things should be. It seems that for some, the unknown is something that is proportionally, and perhaps rightfully, eliminated with the advance of factual information. The unknown is somehow the enemy of the known. I don’t understand that at all.

The unknown is an aspect of the known – one doesn’t exist without the other, and when we marginalize the unknown, when we ‘other’ it from our discourse we unwittingly limit our potential for deeper, more accurate and useful knowledge. I would argue that when we claim that we’ve figured it all out we’ve probably figured out a way to more successfully narrow our focus and ignore more. Our current culture of expertism seems to have stigmatized the unknown. How often do you hear a professional in any field, while discussing some aspect within their purview, admit to not knowing something or simply being wrong? How often have you spoken to someone traumatized into a radically: narrow, conservative, and homogenous lifestyle by the specter of the eternal faux pas in the omnipresent, deeply archived, and imminently searchable www? I had a long talk with an eloquent student on the train last week who expressed such concerns, “it’s not worth the risk of doing anything that might come back to haunt you, because everything you do is recorded, literally.” Whoa!

I wonder if we haven’t ritualized our marginalization of the unknown in practices like the lottery. Some casual research on my part suggests that the results seem impervious to intuition, instinct, and hunch – and seem very much to be the product of ‘pure’ luck, or, in other words, randomness – which is to say when the machine happens to spit out the same numbers you’ve managed to spit out, you win, and often the winners admit to either using the same set of numbers repeatedly, or using the quickpick option. Trying to intuit your way to the lotto jackpot, in other words, seems to be ineffective and teaches, I think, that playing hunches is for fools – or, at least, not how the pros do it. I should add that it may be the case that on smaller wagers (sports, for example) instinct and hunch may be effective – it seems though, that at the larger, lotto/mega-millions level one’s hunch seems not to work. To me, this indicates that we have figured out a system that, at specific scales, seems essentially immune to meaningful, instinctual observation. I wrote, ‘at specific scales’ – the systems, like the lottery, can be observed meaningfully and intuitively, but we choose to prize (literally) the scale that we can’t feel.

The intuitive, unknown, element of the lottery is its’ meaning, significance, message, affect, in general – its’ overall quality, or suchness within our experience at large. The “what does it tell us about our society and each other?” question that is an ongoing impetus for interaction and discussion, and doesn’t resolve to a specific set of numbers. The lesson of the lottery, perhaps, is that hunch based conjectures don’t have cash or real value, and as such, don’t work, so let the machine do it…. At least that’s what I’m wondering about today, and with our computer mediated culture I’m concerned that we’re becoming a bunch of fast-paced bottom-liners increasingly disinterested in what can’t be clearly: defined, repeated, transmitted, and used.

But we need our instincts and intuition, they are an essential aspect of who and what we are.

As I just heard someone say over the radio earlier today in regard to the Iraq war, “anybody can understand with facts, this war was sold to us via facts that turned out to be wrong, and we all bought them. Where are the people with good instincts, and why haven’t we been listening to them lately?”

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