Opinion | Is intuition necessary for rigorous inquiry?

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It is no breakthrough to claim that our intuitions matter, that we should pay attention to them. Go to any creative industry or, in fact, even to most modern corporations, and you will most likely encounter that brainstorming is part of people’s work. In this activity, one is to record whatever immediately comes to one’s mind in regard to a given word or question. The rationale behind it is that one should be paying attention to one’s first thoughts and intuitions.

Moreover, many of us have had experiences of figuring out an answer to a question right at the beginning of some thought process and then disregarding it only to later realize, with regret, that it was the right answer. As folk wisdom says, we should listen to our gut, instincts, intuition.

But I want to argue for a more radical thesis: not only that paying attention to one’s intuition can be sometimes useful, but also that taking into account instinctual responses is necessary for any rigorous inquiry.

We often associate rigorous inquiry with something that fits formal parameters and requires great “computing powers” by the one who conducts it. Now, juxtapose this way of speaking about rigor with one other instance of how people used to use the word “intuition”: “feminine intuition.” It was meant to be a praise of sorts, but it implied also that femininity was opposed to rationality, reason, rigor. Rigor and intuition were opposed.

I was never quite sure why it would be inappropriate for me, as a man, to have this superpower called intuition, a power of knowing things without an explicit thought process. When intuiting, one is simply so attuned to the world that one can come up with insights and judgments purely by feeling what is right. Reason might be advanced, but intuition seemed magical.

One friend of mine takes French philosopher Descartes to propose the following idea: In the end, what makes us take a piece of reasoning to be true is that it seems to us overwhelmingly true. We simply cannot conceive of the Pythagorean theorem as false. Even if we do not understand the exact reason for why it seems true, we take it to be true. However unbelievably and however unbearably simple it sounds, the final judgment of truthfulness is issued by our intuition.

A very similar idea can be found inside a common distinction taught to those who begin to learn philosophy: between “valid” and “sound” arguments. For an argument to be valid, its conclusion cannot be false as long as the premises are true. For the argument to be sound, each of its premises must actually be true.  

Usually, practically all energies in teaching how to argue in a rigorous, philosophical manner are spent on testing the validity of arguments: checking whether they follow a very small set of formal rules of logic.

But because there are few such rules, and they are very rudimentary, I see it as impossible for them to guide any serious inquiry that is to be about something. The rules such as “If A, then not not-A” are insufficient for expressing truths about things such as nature, love, inequality, history. They might reveal the falsehood of some arguments, but in most cases, they are not able to tell us if an argument is false or not. 

This is where the idea of soundness comes. Not only does an argument have to be valid, we are taught, but any single element of an argument must also be sound. But there are no strict rules of what makes something sound. This is, in fact, a curious expression, “to be sound.” I think it simply is a version of a relatively vernacular phrase: “sounds good.” If something sounds good, it speaks to us, it makes sense, it seems to be right. Accordingly, sound sentences or arguments are those that speak to our sense of truth. But precisely, to sense, intuition!

Truthful inquiry depends thus on our power of intuition. I often say to those who ask me how to pursue truthful and rigorous inquiry that if they put too much faith in the lessons of argumentation that focus on valid reasoning, they can win debating competitions and write acclaimed college papers, and yet never really ask themselves whether they are discovering something true.

There might be a reason for why although it is easy to learn as a student what makes an argument valid, the study of what makes something sound truly is practically left out from contemporary education. This I think comes from a misconception that it is inappropriate in our times to teach what truth is. It is right to be skeptical of teaching “truths,” dogmas, things that are unquestioned (like rules of validity…), but it is not right when one is not theorizing and teaching how one could master their own sense for truth, their own intuition.

I will give now a taste of practical principles that, when applied in life, can serve as a good school of our sense for truth. 

We can believe that whatever comes to our minds as a response to some query or even more vague stimulus, especially when we feel well and healthy, is true. We can then try to work out the consequences of such first thoughts, while taking as the first principle of our thinking “Don’t overthink!”. Our intuition should take the lead.

If in the process of developing and listening to our first thoughts, we start challenging ourselves with the thought of others, for instance, thoughts from the past, we should employ an attitude of good will and charitability, assuming that the authors of other thoughts had a healthy sense of truth and conceived things clearly. If we do our best to employ this second principle of thinking, the “doors” to truth of others will be opened before us. 

I think that both the first and the second principles of thinking connect with each other. I imagine this connection in the following fashion: not only thoughts of others, but also truth itself, is like Mimosa, a kind of plant that closes itself when it feels its bodily integrity is impaired by our touch. In the case of thinking, we can substitute touch with bad will. In order to develop a healthy intuition of what one’s truth is, to become a sensuous lover of truth, one must approach it with good will, like thoughts of others.

In one sense, there is nothing easier than knowing whether we have good will or good intuition. In another sense, these ideas seem to require far more theoretical effort in order to be understood than, for instance, basic understanding of what makes arguments valid. But no one said that rigorous inquiry will be easy and trivial!

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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