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How limited is our intuition?

  1. Mar 10, 2005 #1
    I definitely do not know anything about philosophy so i am asking, is philosophy essentially built on intuition? And are counter-intuitive arguments essentially wrong in the philosophical sense? Of course, it boils down to the question on what is intuition, we have things such as QM which are essentially counter-intuitive. QM cannot be formulated philosophically, the processes to formulate the outcome (such as the math) are intuitive but the outcome might not be.

    Take the simple superposition of states principle, an unstable nuclide can exist in a state where it both decays and do not decay. Counter-intuitive, yes. So,.........from the viewpoint of philosophy is QM wrong? If mother nature is indeed counter-intuitive if we probe deeper into it, would philosophy still be lagging behind by the constraints of human intuition and the natural sciences overtake it with intuitive processes which ultimately have the potential to explain the counter-intuitive?

    This post might be a little biased though, because like I said, i am not a philosopher and do not know much about the subject and its practices. Hope to hear what the philosophers have to say.
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  3. Mar 10, 2005 #2


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    Here's my take; it will probably not satisfy most who post here. Philosopher do careful reasoning from their premises. But those premises themselves are derived from the philosophers' own intuitions and insights, and have no more force than you would seriously give to any intelligent person's unsupported word. This is why there are so many schools of philosophy, which cannot agree and whose followers ofter disdain each other. Philosophy resembles art more than science.
  4. Mar 11, 2005 #3
    Everybody reasons from premisses. Most people do it unconsciously; philosophers know what their, and other peoples premisses are. What are your premisses ?
  5. Mar 11, 2005 #4


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    The only arguments that are "wrong" in the philosophical sense are invalid arguments and arguments made from demonstrably false premises. Many philosophers tacitly rely on their own intuition, but they will generally deny that they are doing so, which seems to indicate that at least a quorum can be formed that agree that one should not argue from intuition alone.

    I'd like to think that a mathematical formulation is not intuitive, but rather formal. When you know the math well enough that it is second nature, it might seem from your point of view that one equation follows intuitively from the other but, in fact, it follows deductively, just as the steps in any good philosophical argument should.

    This very much depends on the school of philosophy you are referring to. Traditional rationalists likely would not have accepted a counterintuitive basis for any theory of nature, as it did not conform to Descartes' "natural light of reason." I don't think anybody is still a rationalist in that sense, however; at least not anybody in the mainstream. Most of philosophy is empirically naturalistic at least. Metaphysicians, and in some cases ethicists, might continue to stick with rationalism, but when dealing with the natural world, almost any philosopher will agree that the proper way to attain knowledge is empirically.

    I doubt there are very many "philosophers" that post here. Most are laypersons and a few are students. If there are any professional philosophers posting here, there aren't many.
  6. Mar 19, 2005 #5


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    No intuition, no philosophy, no physics... (A great, great book dealing with some of this is by Jaques Hadamard, the world class French mathematician, "The Psychology of Mathematical Invention" Dover. He interviewed many leading mathematicians, including Einstein, about their work and creativity. He concludes that intuition is central to any form of problem solving be it mathematical or not. Then, in our time, there's important work by Howard Gardner of Harvard, pointing out, among other things that there are multiple forms of intellegence)

    While it is fashionable in some circles, the idea that a particle in a superposition of stable and nonstable states "exists" in both states is nonsense. QM provides a mechanism for computing probabilities-- it could be A, or it could be B and until we measure, we don't know. Why mess with our language, and very fundamental notions of human perception unless absolutely necessary. A few hundred years of practical probability and statistics has worked just fine, with superpositions in some cases, without this very peculiar and unnecessary view.

    Reilly Atkinson
  7. Mar 20, 2005 #6
    There doesn't seem to be any reason to say that the notion of superposition is counterintuitive. Not everybody finds it counterintuitive, so whether it is or not is a matter of personal opinion. You have to bear in mind that the notion of superposition is central to most 'Eastern' philosophical/metaphysical systems, and has been for thousands of years. But these systems use the term 'non-dual' instead, and so it might be said, in a roughly equivalent use of language, that a particle in a superposition of stable and non-stable states is in a 'non-dual' state (not in one or the other state unless or until it is conceived or observed), or in an indefinable state. As in these systems it is argued that the fundamental nature of reality is non-dual it is not a counterintuitive result that matter in its fundamental state is found to have non-dual characteristics. In this view it is argued that in its fundamental state consciousness also has non-dual characteristics, and is neither one thing or the other. Hence the indefinability of the Tao, which is a superposition of all possible states of matter and mind, matter and mind being themselves indistinguishable, superposed states in the final analysis, (unless and until they are conceived or observed as being distinct). Something like that anyway.
  8. Apr 22, 2005 #7
    Oh, do they really? I am afraid I need a little more evidence than what you provide.

  9. Apr 23, 2005 #8
    our intiution is both what lets us achieving a point, but also stops us from going further away.

    Our knowledge, our memory, our logic and our intiution all come together when we create. Of course, via the most important part here,: imagination.
  10. Apr 23, 2005 #9


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    ... and where does intuition, imagination, creativity, inspiration, and so on come from?

    The day-to-day work of 'doing' physics (or philosophy - does one 'do' philosophy?) certainly involves intuition (as well as a great deal of 'turning the handle', reminds me of Edison, you know, 99% p and 1% i).

    When it comes to 'writing it up for publication', the initial sparks and wild ideas don't make it into print (some of the excitement does occassionally come through though). It may be that, formally, intuition plays no part - perhaps we will be able to get robots to do physics one day, just as we are beginning to get software to 'do' mathematical proofs?

    Now, how could we investigate the role of intuition in science, scientifically?
  11. Apr 23, 2005 #10
    refering to your last question, you don't. Science doesn't study science, philosophy does. so you would look the role of intuition in science in a philosofical way.

    To the rest of the post, well, I think you are taking intuition into another much bigger dimension that I was. Of course intiution is all, if you look it in that way, because how to we know something? we use intuition to belief it. But it is the nearest to truth we can get. Also, if you look at it, it isn't really defined which is more fundamental and basic,: intuition or logic? you use each other to use each other.
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2005
  12. Apr 23, 2005 #11
    I don't think philosophy is entirely intuitive. In order to make an argument the ideas must be rational, communicable. Communication is as vital to philosophy. There are personality theories that explore the subject of intuition in the human thinking process. My favorite is Carl Jung.
    Then again, you could certainly find other opinions from qualified sources that disagree. It is intuitive after all.
  13. Apr 24, 2005 #12
    I was reading a Spanish book about Einstein, and I came to a quote of himself:
    "There is no logical path that takes to the recognition of the fundamental laws, and only the clues of the intuition do it"
    Well, translating from Spanish to English, it may not be exact. But to acheive his two theories of relativity he didn't look at his epirism as Faraday, or at logics as Maxwell, but at imagination, inspiration and intuition.
  14. Apr 25, 2005 #13


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    OK, I'll bite ...

    Proposal for a scientific investigation of the role of intuition in science (inital draft; high-level discussion/outline only)

    1) spend some time coming to grips with 'intuition'; produce a working/operational definition.
    2) select a well-constrained subset of the output of 1).
    3) select a well-defined, bounded area within science, as the field of phase I study - perhaps some friendly astrophysicists down the corridor?
    4) buy these friendly folk several bottles of their favourite plonk, get them talking freely about 'intuition', 'astrophysics', etc; record, write up, analyse
    5) over the weekend, formulate the outline of a simple hypothesis, focussing on unambiguity (?) of criteria and ease of (objective) testing
    6) turn the handle, again, and again, and again
    7) write up the results, submit to {insert the name of your favourite peer-reviewed journal here}.
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