November 12, 2006

Reason vs. Intuition

A number of books of an academic or semi-academic nature have appeared in the last number of years on intuition. Many of them highlight the conflict between reason and intuition. However, I think for the most part this is a false dichotomy, one of the many reasons I do not like these books. Also they only tilt their hats to intuition, while their deeper subtext seems to be that intuition is not to be trusted.

Intuition and reason most often work together. In fact, evolution demands that this is so. If they didn't, we never would have been successful as a species. For the most part, the confluence of reason and intuition occurs below the level of awareness, so we are not aware it is happening. Instead we only become aware of the relatively infrequent situations in which the two conflict. Very recently I did encounter one of those situations.

There was a small chance that the furnace could be fixed. My intuition told me not to replace it, but my reason said yes. The old one was a converted coal furnace, the original in the house---which was built in 1926. They were called “snowmen,” because that's what they looked like all covered with asbestos. It's time, I thought. I don't want it to fail in the middle of winter, especially if I am away on a trip.

It was not easy to say goodbye to all the funky bells and whistles of my old snowman. In fact, I saved the wonderful old pressure gauge to put on top of my shiny new heat box as a masthead of sorts. I now have a new spiffy red furnace, half the size of the old one. But guess what ---it turns out that the pipes bang when the heat comes on, which did not happen with the old one.

I thought I would call the company that installed the furnace and ask them to try to fix the banging. But my intuition said no! I didn't know why, but it seemed a serious warning ---so I didn't call.

The banging has woken me up several nights running. It also regularly jams the voice activated word processor I use. This is silly I thought, why suffer like this? So yesterday I again decided to call the company. Again my intuition said no. But this time I called anyway. They said they would come today; here I sit waiting for the repair man.

What is going on? First of all, a matter of definition: I am calling this an intuition because it came through the same channel my intuition generally does and with enough force for for me to listen to its guidance. This is not a rigorous treatment of this complex and thorny issue, but it will do to begin with.

One possibility is that this dire warning about the furnace was based on some precognitive knowledge. Perhaps the furnace is a lemon, the company is not trustworthy, or the repair man will come and make things worse. I certainly cannot exclude any of these possibilities.

However there is another possibility that is at least as interesting and as instructive with respect to understanding intuition. I live in the house I grew up in (I have lived many other places as well). The deep steady purr of the furnace played base to my father's rhythmic snoring. Together they were the nightsong of the house. At an emotional level in some sense removing the old furnace means removing my father and his influence---for better and for worse---from the house. Thus what seems to be a conflict between reason and intuition instead may well reflect an emotional conflict between my loyalty to the past and moving on. I'm not sure this is the reason my “intuition” is kicking up a fuss--- but I do know I have a lot of emotion going on this highly symbolic act of replacing the furnace/father.

Emotion and what we call intuition are highly linked. Gut feelings or any bodily feelings connected to decision making are just another way of saying emotion---as the work of Antonio Damasio
has shown. This is what makes going with your gut a reasonable bet much of the time. It is also why ‘going with your gut’ cannot always be trusted.

But is ‘going with your gut’ intuition? It is certainly one of the components involved in intuition, and often an important one, yet not necessarily the only one. The best way to think of it is as one level of intuition.
The emotions that generate gut feelings are a double edge sword. They have an important role to play in decision-making and likely in all intellectual activity, but by the same token they can also lead us astray. This is especially true when these decisions are attached to unresolved emotional conflicts--- even if only symbolically. Most of the time, however, as Damasio's book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain shows, emotion and reason work together seamlessly.

Another of my complaints with books that stress the dichotomy between intuition and reason is that they do not provide even the beginning of a framework for thinking about or holding situations in which they seem to conflict. (One of them did say that we should train intuition to be scientific! But this seems to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.) We need a larger framework, since no one-size-fits-all or any other simple approach will do.

My book tries to lay a framework for understanding this very complicated issue by resonating in-depth experiential exploration with in-depth scientific exploration. This framework may not help anyone decide whether to replace a wonderful old furnace or not. But it will interest them in paying careful attention to their experience over time. It will also interest them in the broad scientific questions involved in unveiling this elusive mental capacity we call intuition. The two approaches to exploring intuition begin to bootstrap on each other in a very interesting way. More than in most areas, experiential understanding and scientific understanding of intuition must work together.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate and applaud you for posting your thoughts (as they did prove to be helpful), although I wish you had given some more information or examples concerning reason (you provided plenty for intuition). Also it would have been helpful if you had quoted some textual evidence from the books you mentioned. I see that you posted this in 2006, so it is doubtful that you will ever read this comment 10 years later, but regardless I have posted my feedback.

God bless!

Jennifer Larksachel said...

Impressive response, I do hope he responds but not likely after his disappearance.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me Jennifer what do you mean by "disappearance"?

Jennifer Larksachel said...

It has been kept hush but, word is that Lois Isenman has been missing for at least 4 years. But you didn't hear it from me, it is just a oddly, convincing rumor that has been buzzing around..

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I believe that but, speculation it is, I'll have to check back here just in case he does give some sort of response.

Jennifer Larksachel said...

By "response" I'm sure you mean, sign of life..

Anonymous said...

No that is not what I mean, and my apologies I said "he" but I meant to say "he/she".

Lois said...

Alive and well. Will get back to you in a bit-

Anonymous said...

Lois Isenman! Jennifer Larksachel how could you say that!? Wherever you heard about those "rumors" they must have been misdirected because here she is, "alive and well".

Jennifer Larksachel said...

Come now you cannot be that gullible, this "Lois" could be anyone, funny how this person said nothing else of his/her situation. I think we'd need to here more before we confirm this reply as set in stone.

Anonymous said...

Uh-huh, *hear* not *here*, by the way.