Gut feelings

It occurred to me the other day that we reason with our gut much more often than we let on. I think it is regrettable that intuitionism is taken as seriously as it is - intuitions ought only provide a useful check for a line of reasoning rather than a trump card - and I favour critical rationalism but I have recognised a form of reasoning which can often be "ret-conned" as critical rationalism but when examined takes the form of post-rationalising a gut feeling. Example: in my professional work as an architect I often have to deal with suggestions that I "just know" are a bad idea and find myself constructing a line of reasoning to show that it is indeed a bad idea. If it's the case that, upon reflection, there isn't a good reason for my initial instinct, I'm happy to defer to reason but the point is that for every properly set out chain of reasoning leading to a conclusion a lot of the time there's probably an initial gut feeling which inspired the argument in the first place.

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listening to gut feelings can be rational

We are the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Every single one of our ancestors managed to bring a new generation into existence.

Most of these ancestors weren't human, and weren't rational. And yet, they made good decisions. Or, at least, good enough decisions. On average, decisions better than those of their peers.

In short: we've got a huge amount of wisdom built into the intuitive portions of our brains: these areas gather tons of data, compare it to patterns, and winnow down conclusions.

The rational thing, when you have perfect data, is to use the data in a rational process.

The rational thing, when you have imperfect data, is to listen to the other parts of your brain that are amazingly well tuned to operate on imperfect data.

I (like you, I imagine) wish that the algorithms that these other parts of our brains used were more transparent, and available for inspection and introspection, but they're not.

That does not invalidate either their effectiveness, or the wisdom of using them as a resource.

Oh sure, I think intuitions

Oh sure, I think intuitions are valuable, but too often they are used as the end point of an argument - thought experiments are typically contrived to generate a gut feeling that something is wrong when this intuition ought really only be cause for further investigation - sometimes it's the intuition that ought to be trashed. I would take issue, however, with your comment about this evolutionary "gift".

First off, many of our intuitions have nothing directly to do with "nature" but are as a result of learned internalised patterns. I have a huge range of architectural intuitions that I avail of in my professional work. It happens to be the case that my father, grandfather and great-grandfather were architects but these intuitions were not gifted to me by them (if so my brother would share them) but are as a result of training and experience. Our most useful evolutionary gift is the ability to absorb routines so as to become second-nature.

Secondly, the interests of our genes are only loosely aligned with our own and the function of those intuitions gifted us by nature was to preserve our genes on the African Savannah thousands of years ago and are not necessarily suitable for maintaining our own interests in the contemporary environment - many (all?) of our cognitive biases work against our interests. I would counsel, as default, suspicion rather than deference to our innate intuitions.

I wouldn't be so dismissive

I wouldn't be so dismissive of biological/physical intuition- the whole point of a distributed neutral network such as our brains (and indeed most biological systems) is to compute very complex problems quickly in an emergent fashion. Human brains don't do serial calculation very well, but old "hard" problems (like the traveling salesman problem) are easily solved by biological systems in very rapid order (see the oligonucleotide experiment that solved the traveling salesman via DNA annealing).

I think part of the confusion may be the difference between a learned habit and actual intuition, which I'd call emergent computation for lack of a better term. If its just your habit to say B after A, then yeah, thats not particularly useful, but if its I see fhqwhgadsqjhwjehdbajehdlkjaksjfvd and think Strong Bad, that's intuitive.

Learned habits and innate

Learned habits and innate intuitions function remarkably similarly in practice - it's often much easier or quicker to come up with a decision or reaction to something than it is to construct the rationale for that decision/reaction. It's not difficult to reconstruct that rationale but it is difficult, at least initially, to distinguish between an innate intuition that doesn't have a decent rational basis (or more correctly works from a different rationale) and a "learned" intuition.

As far as your genes are concerned, they would prefer you lived a short brutal life of unremitting misery so long as you managed to generate a sufficient number of offspring to keep the line going, than a long, content and prosperous life with few or no offspring.

As a geneticist by training

As a geneticist by training I cringe whenever I hear anthropomorphic traits ascribed to genes, which are neither "who's or whom's" nor have any wants, desires, plans, schemes, preferences, etc. This was a particularly bad habit among the population geneticists who interacted mainly with numbers than with actual genes. Those of us on the molecular side rarely succumbed to the "genes want x" or "genes prefer y" method/style of argument and description. Genes are simply a collection of DNA, methyl groups, some sugar attachments from time to time, which contain data. Its as ludicrous to suggest or write as though your hard drive wants X or Y as to suggest and speak as though your genes want anything. I blame Dawkins for this rubbish mode of thought.

But thats my pet peeve.

Anyway, I'm not sure that your bit above isn't a distinction without difference; You seem to be demanding a great bit of intuition and also explicitly excluding it from reason (rationality), which I think goes too far in either direction. For example, say you have a bunch of small blocks that are all cubes save for one rectangular solid (whatever the hell you call a rectangle 'cube') andyou need to find the odd block out. One person goes through block by block until they find it; another took a look at it, and via pattern recognition immediately spotted the odd block and picked it out. If I'm reading you correctly, even though we've stipulated that the latter individual's mind used pattern recognition to find the odd block, you're telling me that only the former individual was using rationality. The truth would be that they both actively used their minds to solve the problem, just in different ways, but with your response it would seem you'd be compelled to deny rationality to the pattern-recognizer anyway.

Which is separate, too, from a 'bayesian' sort of intuition. I lack the statistical vocabulary to properly describe it, but suffice it to say that given situation X, you have prior belief Y, and then you make a judgement based on your priors, which is functionally different from the earlier type of intuition, which I think you're also kind of slagging, though ironically a bayesian approach to things is arguably even more 'rational' than relying on 'emergent computation' of the pattern recognition sort.

Oh come on, you can't

Oh come on, you can't seriously think I (or anyone using such phrasing) mean to anthropomorphise genes any more than I think there's such a person as Mother Nature. This is just the popular convention and a more understandable way of framing the apparent rationale gifted us by nature.

I'm not demanding anything from intuition - I'm just making the point that we have a whole bundle of intuitions and it is sloppy to imagine they are restricted merely to the cognitive biases nature bestows upon us. I'm also claiming that intuitions offer a clue or a useful pause or check on any given lines of reasoning but that it is a frequent trap to fall into to assume that one's intuitions ought trump reason. To put it another way: if something "feels" wrong, it doesn't mean it is wrong, it just means it might be wrong.

The truth would be that they both actively used their minds to solve the problem, just in different ways, but with your response it would seem you'd be compelled to deny rationality to the pattern-recognizer anyway.

Perhaps we're talking past each other - it's certainly "rational" to use pattern recognition. I don't see where I claim that a certain methodical process is the only "rational" way of doing things. I'm talking about gut feelings which suggest a possible conclusion in the absence of an obvious reason for that conclusion - what's rational is to try and see if such a rationale does indeed exist. What's not rational is to put such faith in your gut not to bother reconstructing the rationale.

To use an example from my own profession - serendipity plays a big part in design. It's often the case that in the design process there's something which nags at you, it just looks wrong and you can't quite put your finger on what it is. It's worthwhile trying to figure out why that is. Conversely, sometimes, something just "feels right" - again it's worth trying to figure out why rather than plow on ahead and assume it is right. There might be "wrong" reasons for it to "feel" right.

My gut feeling says you're

My gut feeling says you're right.