Wednesday, March 30, 2005

On the Uselessness of Intuition;
An Untestable Hypothesis to Explain Creationism

According to the doctrine of logical positivism, statements that cannot be tested for truth or falsity are "meaningless."  My freshman philosophy professor referred to that as  "unfortunate" terminology, stating that statements can have meaning of a sort, even if they are not testable.  In the course of daily life, we often have to make important decisions even when we do not have the time or the ability to test all of our assumptions.  In fact, sometimes we have to make important decisions based upon assumptions that are impossible to test.  In such situations, we make our best guess and go from there.  From Answers.com:
in·tu·i·tion (ĭn'tū-ĭsh'ən, -tyū-)

1.  a) The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition; b) Knowledge gained by the use of this faculty; a perceptive insight.
2. A sense of something not evident or deducible; an impression.
Intuition may be defined as the practice of drawing conclusions based upon untestable propositions.  In many cases, the propositions underlying the intuition are not even known.  I would not go so far as to say that intuition is "meaningless," not do I intend to argue that intuition is useless.  (The title of this post is misleading; it is merely a teaser to get people to read a long and boring post that has nothing to do with current events.)  However, I would say that intuition is highly limited in its value.  Intuition does serve a valuable role, but in order to use it wisely, it is necessary to understand its limitations.

Much decision-making is based upon the process of pattern recognition.  That is, one inspects the current, specific situation regarding which one intends to make a decision.  One then finds some kind of best fit between the specific situation under consideration, and a general pattern.  Applying what is known about the general kind of situation, one then makes a guess about how to proceed in the current situation.  Usually, the more experience one has in the general kind of situation under consideration, the more likely it is that intuition will lead to a correct course of action. 

For example, let's say that a group of people all get lost in the woods.  They have to figure out what to do.  Usually, the person with the most experience being out in the woods will be in the best position to assume leadership. 

Intuition works the other way, too.  It used to infer characteristics of specific situations, based upon general patterns; it also can be used to infer general characteristics, based upon individual observations. 

The problem is that there are some situations in which one's experience is highly limited.  Indeed, there are some situations in which one's experience is nil.  In such situations, intuition is likely to lead to incorrect conclusions. 

Pick up an object, such as a corned beef sandwich from Zingerman's deli,  in one of your hands.  Raise the sandwich toward the ceiling several times, each time at a different speed.  You will not be able to detect any difference in the mass of the sandwich at the various speeds.  Your intuition will tell you that the mass of the sandwich is the same no matter how fast you are going.  Only when you actually start to eat the sandwich, will there be any perceptible change in its mass. 

#1 Who's Greenberg Anyway?
Zingerman's corned beef with chopped liver, leaf lettuce & our own russian dressing on double-baked jewish rye bread from zingerman's bakehouse.
$10.50 / $11.99

The reason that intuition is wrong about the relationship between speed and mass is this: we all spend all of our time traveling at a small fraction of the speed of light.  At such slow speeds, the increase in mass with increasing speed is insignificant.  This illustrates the most important limitation in the usefulness of intuition: intuition fails when one has limited experience. 

Great speed is one area in which we have no personal experience.  If we routinely traveled at speeds close to the speed of light, our intuition would inform us of the fact that mass increases with speed.  Other examples of this occur in the cases of great spans of time, or cases of systems of great complexity.  Now put down the corned beef sandwich, and consider the human brain.  There are about 1015 synaptic connections in the human brain, making it the most complex organ in the body; some say it is the most complex entity in the known universe.  Of course, the known part of the Universe is only a tiny fraction, and I'm not sure how meaningful it is to isolate the brain from the rest of the body and call it an entity in and of itself.  Even so, ten to the fifteenth power is a big number, big enough to indicate a very high level of complexity.

Now, try to use your intuition to figure out how the brain works.  If you are kind of geeky, you might imagine that it works sort of like a computer.  In fact, there are some similarities, so depending upon which aspect of the brain you are thinking about, you might make some accurate assumptions.  But probably not.  Since the brain is so complex, its function is outside the scope of your conscious experience.  Therefore, your intuition is not very useful.  Most people know this; few people try to use intuition to understand the brain; most people calmly accept the fact that it is too complex to understand.

Zingerman's Corned Beef
Cured especially for Zingerman's from Premium Gold Angus Beef by our friend, Sy Ginsberg. We cook over 1000 pounds in our kitchen each & every week! It's the tenderest, tastiest corned beef around.

For some reason, though, we see people who insist upon using their intuition in areas that are beyond its scope.  For example, consider very long stretches of time, on the order of 105 years.  A typical human lifespan is on the order of 102 years.  In seems clear, even fairly obvious, that it is not valid to use intuition to try to figure out how things work over time spans of 105 or more.  Consider vast volumes of space, such as the entire Universe, and vast stretches of time together.  Then listen to people say that they don't believe the Big Bang theory, "because it doesn't make sense."  OK, it doesn't seem sensible, intuitively.  So what?  Our intuition is useless when considering space and time that are beyond our capacity to perceive and experience.  Or take evolution.  Some will say that organisms are so complex, that there must have been a Creator.  They offer shards of evidence, and a simple mathematical model or two, but hardly anything suggestive, let alone conclusive.  What motivates these people?  Sure, some of them make a living by writing books and giving lectures on the subject.  That alone does not explain the popularity of creationist and intelligent design insurgencies. 

The mentality behind creationism/ID remains obscure.  Neuroscience has not yet been able to explain how an apparently-normal human brain manages to hold such bizarre beliefs.  I wonder, though, if it isn't this intuition thing.  Although intuition is not valid when applied to scenarios that are far beyond our experience, there is no alarm mechanism in the brain that alerts one to the futility of trying to use intuition beyond its scope. 

Various thoughtful, reality-based persons have tried to understand creationism/ID, mostly to no avail.  My hypothesis is that these conjectures flourish because, to some people, the conjectures mesh with their intuition.  After all, you can sit and look at a tidal pool for days, months, years, even decades, and never see a fish evolve into an amphibian.  Even though evolution is taking place all the time, the changes that occur over the course of a single lifetime are small.  Thus, person's intuition might well inform them that evolution is not sufficient to explain the origin of life.  Since there is no mechanism in the brain to alert one to the inappropriate application of intuition, the conclusion seems compelling, even though it has no validity. 

Now, if only I could come up with some way -- a way that is both practical and ethical -- to test my hypothesis...

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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I want to get back to this and argue a little. I'm really busy right now but it's stored in my mental to-do list.
I am always happy to hear from you, and I am curious to hear your argument.
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