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Is There Such a Thing as Intuition? And Does It Solve All Problems If Adequately Used?

This is a topic I really don’t want to write on, but I have some friends that are getting too New Agey too fast, and I think that stuff is really problematic. It’s one thing to lie to yourself (I do this 99% of the time, “trust” me, it’s cool), but it’s another thing to think you know better than all previous traditions and conventions because you’re questioning and working with some ‘eternal life-force that is Mind’ or whatever.

Steve Olson, who blogs really well about a number of things, makes the claims that I find troubling right away in his post “6 Ways to Sharpen Your Intuition:”

Your intuition is a shortcut to productivity, insight, knowledge, innovation, and decision-making….

You Have The Ability To Solve Problems Instantly

Have you ever looked at a problem and known the root cause and the solution – instantly – without research? You’ve been taught to distrust that inner voice, right? So you test your intuition with empirical trial and your intuition is usually right, isn’t it?

You have the ability to solve problems instantly if you trust yourself. We all do. So how do we harness the power of our inner creator – the voice that cuts through all the bullshit and tells us the truth?

Now I’m conflicted about critiquing these assertions, because I personally feel that we have a mindset which stems from the conduct of science and we question way too much. If some people are beating another person, we may be prone to hesitate and go “there’s a reason for that,” instead of going “it is obvious that is wrong” and trying to stop it.

However, I don’t think what is “obvious” comes from intuition. Rather, it comes from tradition. We “know” life, liberty and property are the keys to happiness for each and every one of us, and that we must respect another’s rights to those things in order to have our own rights respected. That’s the cultural legacy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (although not the fundamental principle which makes sure the system works. That’s something based on a far more cynical assumption). It just so happens that tradition in our case overlaps with something common to being human, and so we feel our values reflect something greater, something that might be a principle underlying what is truly human, not just culture-specific. (Getting to the truth of what is truly human would require that we stand outside of being human, however – only if we were God would we be able to see who we are truly.)

Now you might say that ethical advice is not what Mr. Olson’s post gives; it is rather geared to giving us practical advice, the practical advice of getting solutions instantly instead of waiting for them. But that’s precisely where Mr. Olson’s post shines. Take note of his list of ways to sharpen one’s intuition:

  1. Use your natural empathy
  2. Allow yourself to feel your fear and flow past it
  3. Connect with others on an emotional level
  4. Shut down internal judgments
  5. Find Solitude
  6. Ask questions – lots of them

It is pretty clear from that list he’s promoting universal tolerance, and a patience that will make one ultimately very “intuitive,” so wise that one can actually see solutions instead of fighting to achieve them. The strength of his post is that in telling you there is a way of getting solutions instantly, it inspires you to act far better than one might possibly act in a purely self-interested manner, and can make one happy and ethical even as one works for practical solutions.

How could I possibly object to this? I must be some kind of total asshole interested in nitpicky points just to say I’m smart, right?

The deep problem isn’t just that I don’t like the starting point – I don’t think instant success or solutions should ever be a goal, we’re not animals or angels. And it isn’t that I object to little things all throughout his depiction of how intuition works, i.e. that “fear blocks intuition.” If anything is intuitive, it is fear, a subrational response that sometimes inspires the greatest achievements known to man in addition to some of the more cowardly responses. (For a potential link between fear and the very existence of justice, see the review of Batman Begins.)

I don’t even know that I object to his advice being contradictory – asking questions is a long way from making intuition get instant answers, in fact, some people might say that if you have to ask questions to sharpen intuition, there might be no such thing as intuition.

No, the big objection is if you want to appreciate the world and do something with your life, you have to start with appreciating others in the past, present and future. Productivity can’t be the highest goal, one has to work to appreciate.

His advice treats the appreciation as incidental. If you say the highest goal is something practical, then what if I have a wonder drug that shuts down the mind and makes us develop adaptations for whatever problems we confront? We’d be diverse and effective if this were the case – some people who hated others would hide like moles or chameleons, others would be able to shoot out spikes like porcupines in Mario Bros or Zelda (I forget which game it was), others who were more social would probably become wolf-like and get really good at jumping on those who weren’t quite part of the group and tearing them limb from limb.

All this “natural empathy” and “don’t judge” and “emphasize emotions” stuff is just too soft to deal with the fact that moral judgments are hard, and we frequently feel less than our best no matter what training. Emerson and the Transcendentalists tried to soften mankind in order to bring peace. But it was war that ended slavery in the Western World, and non-violent resistance – the bearing of immense suffering – that brought down Jim Crow. There are no easy solutions, and if you want wisdom, you have to work for it, and such work might be a sort of violence. The metaphor that animates the American republic is a martial one, and it is because we can go to war, and have gone to war, that France doesn’t speak German.

If you love, you have to fight. There is no way around this.

The wise person has to pretend that while he is capable of wisdom, he has no clue where it comes from: it might as well be divine (cf. Euthyphro). If he acts like it is intuitive, he may be right, but even in softness proves himself to be more arrogant than all of humanity past, present and future.

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4 Comments

  1. Isn’t intuition an internal judgment?
    This guy is right though. I was playing in a busy street one day and intuitively I knew that it was a mistake, but I doubted that and said, “how do I really know that it’s bad to play in the street?” So, I waited for proof! Well, let’s just say that I will trust my intuition from now on!

  2. The “inner voice” saying all the right things: Holy Spirit

  3. I think you’re over thinking it. I don’t think Steve says you should from now on only use your intuition and forget everything your learned from other means. I know exactly what he’s talking about, and I also believe in Science. Our wisdom comes from a variety of places. In the world we live in, a lot of people went too far as either believing only in Science or in what’s not considered Science. And truth is, we ought use both, we already do, in everyday life. Life is not black and white. Science can’t prove everything and I’m positive it will get there some day. Believing only in things that Science showed proof of is a very narrow way to live.

  4. I agree With PJ…

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