Intuition is a feeling or thought you have about something without knowing why you feel that way. It’s a function of the unconscious mind — those parts of your brain / mind (the majority of it, in fact) that you don’t consciously control or perceive. It’s synonymous with “hunch” or “gut feeling.”
Intuition has a complicated role in philosophy and science. On one side, intuition is not a reliable source of information. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean it’s true! That’s the whole point of doing experiments, collecting evidence, and making reasoned arguments. So intuition is held in some suspicion by philosophy and especially science.
However, intuition is also extremely important to science and philosophy. For example, intuition inspires scientists to design experiments and collect data that they think will lead to the discovery of truth; all science begins with a “hunch.” Similarly, philosophical arguments depend on intuition as well as logic. Logic is a powerful machine for dissecting and evaluating ideas, but you have to have some kind of “raw material” to feed into that machine, and often that’s where intuition comes in.
In short, intuitions are sometimes unreliable and must be tested—at least if you want to know the truth— but without them we would be unable to develop new insights and knowledge.
II. Types of Intuition
You can have intuitions about anything. But, some certain types of intuition have particularly interested philosophers in the past:
Some argue that our moral ideas must be founded, ultimately, on intuitions.
You probably (hopefully!) think it’s wrong to torture animals for fun. But why?
You’ll probably say something like “because animals can feel pain and it’s wrong to create unnecessary pain in the world.” But why is that wrong? Eventually you’ll run out of justifications and have to rely on moral intuition; something is wrong because it just seems wrong, and you have no way to justify it to someone if they truly don’t see it for themselves. But not all philosophers agree; some look for rational foundations to morality.
This is closely related to moral intuition and our intuitions about fairness. Basically, the question is: what kind of society do you want to live in? Some people want to live in a society of constant competition, believing that this allows the “best” individuals to rise to the top, which is better for everyone. Others have the intuition that this sort of competition always favors those with unearned advantages such as inherited wealth, good looks, or sheer luck in business. There may be no objective basis for testing one intuition against the other; it may just be a question of what you value. That’s why political arguments so often end in deadlock. If our intuitions are vastly different and we want vastly different things, there’s no way for us to agree on politics.
Interpersonal intuition is the ability to understand, just by instinct, what others are thinking and feeling. It’s one of the most useful life skills because it enables you to work well with others and build beneficial relationships. However, this sort of intuition is rarely used in philosophy.
But perhaps it should be! After all, philosophy is all about arguments, and no matter how abstract an argument gets it’s always driven by actual human beings. So maybe some philosophers’ arguments would be more nuanced and more persuasive if they had more interpersonal intuition!
III. Intuition vs. Observation
An intuition is something that happens inside your head and guts; it’s a feeling. An observation, by contrast, is something that you see in the world. So it might seem like these are opposites, and in many ways that’s true. Notice, however, that an intuition is still a kind of observation! It’s just that it’s an observation about yourself and your feelings / instincts, rather than an observation about the world around you. That explains why intuitions are useful for science, but can’t be relied on.
So one difference between intuition and observation is in how they’re used. As we discussed in the first section, intuitions can give you an idea for investigation. Observations, on the other hand, provide the data you need to draw conclusions and back them up with evidence. Then, when it’s time to interpret the evidence, intuition comes back into the picture since, usually, many interpretations are possible and you use intuition to decide which one “makes the most sense.” So, ideally, you should alternate between intuition and observation, so that they support each other.
IV. Quotes about Intuition
“Life is really very simple. In each moment, we have the opportunity to choose between saying “yes” or “no,” to listen to our intuition, to listen to our true inner voice, the Existential voice within ourselves. When we say “yes,” we have contact with Existence and we receive nourishment, love, joy, support and inspiration. When we say “no,” we create a separation from life.” (Swami Dhyan Giten)
Many self-help authors and New Age writers stress the importance of intuition above all else. In their view everything in life is a matter of trusting one’s intuition or “inner self.” In this quote, Swami Dhyan Giten presents this sort of view, strongly emphasizing the value of intuition (but not acknowledging the possibility that intuition can, at least some of the time, be wrong!)
“A misleading perception or false belief is increasingly being perpetuated that the unconscious or the intuitive is all that really matters in any spiritual endeavor, and that the conscious, rational, logical, analytical mind is the mortal enemy of spiritual awareness and soul growth.” (Anthon St. Maarten)
This quote directly challenges the sort of views expressed in Quote 1. Anthon St. Maarten argues that the conscious mind also has a role to play in life and spirituality. For him, consciousness and intuition should work together rather than one at the expense of the other.
V. The History and Importance of Intuition
Intuition plays an important role in many of the world’s religions, since it’s the basis for religious experience and faith. When people have spiritual experiences, they usually can’t explain exactly what happened to them; they can’t necessarily justify or account for their revelation; they just know it. The same thing, of course, is true of the spiritual experiences that occur to non-religious people.
Philosophy is also based on intuitions; since philosophers typically don’t do experiments or field studies, they have to rely on abstract arguments to arrive at philosophical truths. But what is the foundation of these arguments? In most cases, it’s some kind of intuition. The intuition may be supported by logical arguments, but then what’s the support for those arguments? As in the case of moral intuitions, the chain of justification has to end somewhere–usually in an intuition (ideally one that the arguer shares with her audience so that they can come to an agreement.)
VI. Intuition in Popular Culture
“This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct.” (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars)
In Star Wars, the Jedi are intuition masters; it’s their primary method. In addition to using the Force to move objects around, they also “sense” the presence of other Jedi. And they fight intuitively, sensing when a laser bolt or light saber is coming their way. Throughout the movies, you’ll hear phrases like “search your feelings” and “trust your instincts” indicating that the Force must be known and used through intuition rather than conscious thought.
In Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck has an intuitive knack for flying. She’s so good that she doesn’t even need to know the controls for the specific machine she’s using; she just seems to intuit them. She even manages to control alien spacecraft whose controls were not designed for human beings — a skill that allows her to survive in situations where anyone else would be killed.
What Counts as Moral Justification?
As we saw in section 2, moral justifications may always, in the end, be based on moral intuitions. You can have a long chain of justifications or just a short one, but at the bottom there’s always an intuition (most philosophers say). For example, imagine this kind of conversation:
- It’s wrong to torture animals for fun.
- Because animals can feel pain and you shouldn’t cause unnecessary pain.
- Why not? It’s fun!
- It doesn’t matter. You should treat others as you would like to be treated!
- Because it’s the right thing to do! [INTUITION]
Like all moral arguments, this one rests on a moral intuition. It happens to be a good one! The Golden Rule appears in all of the world’s major religious traditions and moral cultures, and has helped human beings treat each other ethically for thousands of years. But it still seems to be an unjustifiable intuition, according to most philosophers.
Interestingly, Buddhism argues for a rational basis for the Golden Rule, in its principle of interdependence–the observation that all beings are interdependent, which seems like a potentially rational justification for the Golden Rule. However, this is not recognized by many Western philosophers.
Here’s another, much more disturbing example:
- You are morally obligated to give me all of your money.
- Because I’m stronger than you, and you should always obey the strongest.
- Why? Just because you’re strong doesn’t mean I have no rights!
- Yes it does. Might makes right. [INTUITION]
This is the same sort of argument as before, but now with a bad intuition for its basis! At least, most people would agree that it’s a bad intuition because it seems dangerous and unfair. But how can we know that it’s incorrect?
Philosophers have tried for centuries to figure out an objective basis for ethics, something more solid than intuition. Others say we should accept that there’s no other possible basis, and instead try to find some concrete agreement on what intuitions to accept; they say, for example, that we should have conferences where representatives of all the moral and religious traditions come together and work out a system of universal ethics. (That’s the sort of thinking that reinforces human rights declarations.) But so far no one knows whether any of these efforts will work out.