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Intuition (Pt. 4): Is intuition a paranormal, psychic event?
The immediacy of intuitive processes begs the question.
You look at someone and you know he’s a creep. You look up and are certain you’ve been here before. You feel a breeze and it brings to mind someone you haven’t heard from in decades. The next day she calls. You stand in line for an hour and then a woman with piercing eyes flips a few cards and tells you things about yourself that you’ve never shared with a soul.
Whether through you see it in a crystal ball or a dream, expectations are set and they come true.
The scientific method demands that we adhere to theories that are based on the simplest assumptions. Why use the scientific method? Well, it’s been pretty successful in developing theories that predict the behavior of physical process over the last 150 years, so why not?
In this series, I’ve built the case that intuition is a pre-reflective thought process which is enabled through training. The examples I’ve used included the act of reading, what we expect from a cup of coffee, the experience of love at first sight, and a personal observation of physics students learning quantum mechanics and relativity.
What about clairvoyance and ESP?
When one person reads another’s thoughts or accurately predicts the future, even specific future events, isn’t it possible that the talent resides not in some sort of psychic art, but in the intricate pattern detection abilities of that person?
Nature performs enough miracles by assembling small sets of specific pieces into arbitrarily complex systems: an atom, a star, a leaf, a human being, a big dog. People perform miracles in the same spirit. The thing you’re reading from right now, your favorite novel, movie or song, the power grid, credit default swaps - okay, maybe not credit default swaps. We make messes too.
If you agree that these incredible events could possibly be described by a complex combination of mundane processes, then the scientific method demands that we so describe them until we come upon something that unquestionably, reproducibly contradicts the underlying assumption. Only then does the situation demand a more complicated root assumption.
Here’s an example of the method. By 1879 a theory of electrodynamics had been formulated and tested. It was considered complete. Sure, there were some loose ends that needed to be tidied up, but that’s always the case. Physicists, well known for our arrogance (born of success, we quietly claim), refer to this part of the process as “mere chemistry.”
One of those loose ends was a simple thought experiment: if two charges are at rest then they experience an electric force between them. But if the two charges are traveling at a uniform speed relative to the observer, then the observer sees a different electric field as well as the introduction of a magnetic field. That was weird enough, but it turns out that all hell breaks loose as the speed of the charges approaches that of light – the theory then predicts crazy things that don’t happen. At that point more complex assumptions are required.
Einstein did not intuit relativity.
He focused his formidable thought processes on the contradictions of the “classical” theory, incorporating new observations from related fields until, at last, he came upon the utterly unintuitive postulate of special relativity. Following this discovery, he developed a new intuition that led to new theory of gravity, general relativity.
Many fortune tellers are frauds, but most of them are sincere.
That is, they sincerely believe that they possess incredible powers. Their belief is built on their experience. Whether it’s a curse or blessing, if you look at someone and realize in the instant that this person will die of cancer in a year – and it happens, it will affect how you detect patterns. Even if that one event was random, you’ll start seeing more patterns. Now, if your predictions are wrong most of the time, you’re likely to divorce yourself from the notion that you have psychic powers, and probably with a sigh of relief. But if you’re right every time, even about things that seem impossible, like knowing someone will win the lottery or recognizing the deep held secrets of a total stranger, it would be irrational not to believe that you had something going for you.
These events do not preclude the possibility that such psychic-seeming talents derive from pattern recognition talents and so, there is no reason to tread toward the water of nonphysical, supernatural phenomena.
Are these people any less special, any less talented, than if their abilities are ascribed to some sort of psychic art?
Of course not, so why are people compelled – with 40,000 years of history as demonstration – to reject the simple description in favor of the spectacular?
People are significance investors.
We invest significance in everything we do. It might be the greatest virtue of Homo sapiens. You look at a puppy and your heart is swept up in the simple innocent, cuddly, cuteness. We see sprites and leprechauns, we read horoscopes and feel the presence of angels. And why not? Significance investing is fun.
On the other hand, we are ultimately mammals and our gut reactions, our intuitions, are built on a legacy of physical evolution that can lead us to stray in our culturally dominated world.
A country is attacked by a bunch of thugs and, rather than consider the crime and go after the criminals one by one, defusing the situation, we react precisely the way that our forebears would.