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Reason and Intuition: Is There Really Any Difference?

November 22nd, 2009 1 comment

My sister just sent me the link to this discussion by Razib Khan on reason and intuition–timely, because it refers to Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter, who I just saw (and spoke to briefly) when he spoke at University of Washington last week on his book tour. (I found him engaging, interesting, and well-armed with fascinating facts and anecdotes, but he didn’t deliver any aha! moments for me–I’m definitely the choir, and he’s definitely preaching.)

My sister thinks Khan “gets it just about right,” and I certainly hesitate to question her sagacity. (She is older hence certainly wiser, after all.) But I came away from the post distinctly less satisfied. My basic problem: Khan–like almost everybody else that I hear discussing this subject–doesn’t seem to have any idea what he actually means by “intuition.” It’s tossed around generally in contradistinction to logical, syllogistic thinking (which is often referred to–in another example of poorly or un-considered thinking–as “linear” thinking).

To put the parenthetical aside first: logical thinking about any reasonably complex subject or problem is rarely linear. While portions of the thinking will certainly include “A leads to B which leads to C,” it also almost always includes some type of recursion and (I haven’t studied this so can’t give a good list) a variety of other decidedly nonlinear cognitive tools.

Returning to intuition, though: a definition by negation (“it’s non-logical, non-linear thought”) is useless even if “logical” and”linear” were accurate and clearly understood, because intuition can then encompass anything that isn’t that one thing. Khan exhibits this in spades. He suggests that intuition might be:

  • Innate knowledge: “These stances encapsulate the wisdom of evolution (e.g., aversion to sibling-sibling incest) and/or society (again, aversion to sibling-sibling incest).”
  • Surmise based on casual observation: “folk physics”.
  • Easily understandable explanations that are in accord with everyday experience: “Science allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive their theories are.”
  • Knowledge so ingrained through practice as to feel automatic: “Specialists in technical fields often develop domain-specific intuitions through long experience.”

There are almost endless other possibilities. (Ones you hear often involve “humaness,” “empathy,” “holism,” etc., all of which seem to grope toward something that does seem right for the definition.) Some may stand up as good definitions of intuition. But if the writer/thinker hasn’t done the thinking to even know what he’s talking about when he uses the word–or has only employed wooly, half-hearted noodling without nailing down what he means–the writing doesn’t yield much light.

I’ve always thought of intuition–in an almost equally useless definition–as “back-brain processing.” It’s the stuff we’re all familiar with, embodied in the phrase “lemme sleep on it.” We know that the mind (and the brain, though in a different way) is made up of a whole lot of semi-autonomous modules that are good at particular things. Consciousness–which is sometimes (inaptly) called “the executive function”–is only one of those modules. The operations of those modules are most often completely opaque or downright invisible to other modules–including the “conscious thought” module. For instance, we can’t perceive or much control the modules that handle various types of visual or spatial processing, even though (see Pinker’s How The Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought) those very modules and a whole lot of others are being turned to task for us (even) when we think we’re thinking consciously and “logically.” A lot of thinking, of any type (including logical thought), is farmed out to the back brain.

And those back-brain modules are no slouches. They use the same kind of complex, recursive, and yes, linear cognitive techniques that the “logical” mind does. (They may only use one or two techniques each–some use this a lot, some use that…there’s a big toolbox to draw from.) All that processing may emerge in the consciousness module with the appearance (to us) of logic and linearity, or it may appear as a flash of “intuition.” But it’s the same mass of modules that’s doing the grunt work down deep.

Now maybe “intuitive thinking” refers to a method that employs particular mind modules more, or in different ways from, those that are used for “logical thinking.” Fair enough. But I don’t know what those methods and modules might be, and I’m quite certain that 99.999% of people who talk about “intuition” don’t know either. Also fair enough–you shouldn’t be required to know intimately how the mind works to think about the issue–especially as we (even cognitive scientists) still have very little understanding of how the mind works.

But scientists are, finally, learning a hell of a lot these days–actual knowledge, tested by controlled experiments that can overcome our innate predilection for self-delusion, as opposed to the armchair surmise that has constituted the stuff of psychological “knowledge” since Freud started the courageous effort to plumb our deepest mystery. (As Steven Pinker has pointed out, the brain/mind is actually going from the status of “mystery” to the status of “problem that can potentially be solved, at least in parts.”)

It was some of that experimental knowledge–delivered in a talk by Jonah Lehrer that I attended, and in his book How We Decide–that started to crystalize the fuzzy notion I’ve always had of intuition as back-brain processing. He explains that we learn through a dopamine-feedback system. We make predictions and when they turn out right, we get a little dopamine hit. Feels good. When we get them wrong, though, the pusher holds our fix, and it feels really bad. (This goes a long way toward explaining why humans will go to such extraordinary lengths–destroying relationships with loved ones, etc.–to avoid [the self-perception of?] being wrong.) Our decisions are always based–at some fundamental level–on how something feels. (This is not an endorsement of “just trust your feelings”; see “fundamental level” in the last sentence.)

Lehrer also points to a set of experiments that seem to show that when we think we’re making a decision in our frontal cortex, in fact the decision has already been made, milliseconds before, elsewhere in the brain. (Though Daniel Dennet does a fairly convincing job of discrediting these experiments in Freedom Evolves.) The message that goes to our so-called “executive function” is not in the form of a thought, it’s a feeling: feels good, or feels bad. That’s how the back brain communicates the already-made decisions to the front brain–through pleasure and pain. (How else could we possibly know what we “want”? How could a nematode know that it wants food, or learn how to get it, aside from a pain/pleasure feedback system?)

In short, what feels like conscious decision-making really isn’t. We feed the problem back into our back brain, and ask it, essentially, “how do ‘I’ feel about this?” It responds with a “Tarzan feel bad” or “Jane feel good” signal strong enough to emerge into, be felt by, our consciousness module.

This does not negate the value of logical thought, but it casts our control over that process in a very different framework. We don’t (just?) control our “impulses” on their way out of the back-brain/id/reptilian brain/whatever you want to call it, as in the Freudian and other psychological models. Quite the opposite really: Our real power is in what we feed back into that massively multimodular brain. We can deliver it the information, experience, and experimental results (including feelings that emerge from that back brain itself, further processed consciously) that it needs to make smart decisions, or we can feed it pablum and pap, well-processed or not. It’s a true garbage-in-garbage-out situation. We can, to some extent, manage the process that sometimes looks (to us) like logic and sometimes looks like intuition, but that is mostly made up of the very same back-brain stuff.

In other words: intuition is reasoning. And logical reasoning–except of the simplest sort–inevitably relies on intuition.

At this point I think I should throw the baton to a writer who has done his thinking damned carefully (though without the benefits of experimental knowledge that we have). In a long-favorite passage of mine, Milton in Paradise Lost has the Angel Raphael (speaking to the as-yet-unfallen couple of their blissful state) comment on two types of reason:

Discursive, or Intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours

Raphael knows: humans aren’t very good at intuitive reasoning. It’s the stuff of angels. (Partly because we’re forever polluting it with various combinations of the stuff that Khan vaguely thinks of as “intuition.”) We should should stick to the the lowly, earthly discursive stuff that our measly frames are fit for.

But when we do achieve it, that divine intuitive reasoning, the results are downright angelic. Even heavenly.

This is all still feeling like pretty loosy-goosy thinking to me. But I hope it at least shows an effort towards actually knowing what I mean when I talk about “intution.” I think I’m gonna have to sleep on it.

The Problem with “Socialism”

October 22nd, 2009 10 comments

As an attack term, “socialism” packs a lot of wallop. But that’s mainly because it’s used to attack things that aren’t actually socialism.

Socialism, defined: “various theories of economic organization advocating public or direct worker ownership and administration of the means of production.”

But when attackers go after “socialistic” policies, they’re usually imprecating against something else entirely: government redistribution of wealth and income. (Via education, health care, infrastructure, direct transfers, etc.)

“Look at the USSR,” they say. “Socialism failed!” And it did. Government ownership of the means of production has been soundly discredited by history.

But they’re not attacking such systems. They’re attacking redistribution. And that policy has been resoundingly endorsed by history. Of all the thriving, prosperous countries in the world, there is not one that does not have massive doses of redistribution.

By their very usage, the attackers define the “socialism” that they’re attacking as redistribution. But their evidence for its perfidy? Another “socialism” entirely: government ownership of the means of production.

I wish I could redefine words:

“Communism” is government ownership of the means of production.

“Socialism” is government redistribution.

But I don’t think I’m going succeed in revising all those dictionaries out there.

What’s a better word for an economic system that includes significant redistribution? One that doesn’t include the word “social”?

Financial services, by the way (including insurance, including health insurance), are not a “means of production.” They’re a (necessary) catalyst to production.

Best Line of the Week: Not-So-True Conservatives

May 25th, 2009 Comments off

Okay, so the week happened to be more than two years ago. But it’s the best line of my week:

The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government.

True Conservative Values, and Torture

April 25th, 2009 Comments off

In my earlier post I didn’t give Jim Manzi sufficient credit.

He argues that a systematic government policy of torture (as distinguished from the torturous acts that Americans have engaged in over the centuries) is 1. a radical break with American tradition, and 2. because of 1, is quite possibly (I would say definitely) damaging to American strategic interests.

Here’s the money quote, which I endorse wholeheartedly:

I am looking to tradition, settled practice and the wisdom of our forebears for guidance in a difficult situation. Among other things, this strikes me as the obviously conservative approach.

Gaming McCain’s Game

September 26th, 2008 Comments off

Some people think the McCain bailout/debate maneuvering has positioned him to trap Obama:

McCain's way out? – First Read – msnbc.com.
So what if McCain shows up and tonight and says, ""I'm
sorry I couldn't sign on to this Washington-Wall Street plan that I
worried was putting an even bigger burden on taxpayers
than this mess
already has. Now, Sen. Obama, I understand that you are confident in
these folks in Washington and New York
who have everyone convinced this
is the only plan. And I respect that, but I am hearing from people all
over the country who don't get this plan and don't understand how it
will work. And why should they trust a group of folks in Washington and
New York who broke this system to fix it?"

So here:

Obama:

"Nobody seems to have any idea what your position is on this plan—a plan that we'll be living with for a generation. So…were you not for it before you were not against it? Are you going to decide what your position is in the next fifteen seconds?"

Checkmate.

More Great Minds: Lincoln on “Conservatives”

August 30th, 2008 Comments off

From the Cooper Union speech. Emphasis mine.

“But you say you are conservative – eminently conservative – while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live;” while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new. True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be. You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers. Some of you are for reviving the foreign slave trade; some for a Congressional Slave-Code for the Territories; some for Congress forbidding the Territories to prohibit Slavery within their limits; some for maintaining Slavery in the Territories through the judiciary; some for the “gur-reat pur-rinciple” that “if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,” fantastically called “Popular Sovereignty;” but never a man among you is in favor of federal prohibition of slavery in federal territories, according to the practice of “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our Government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge of destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations.”

One contemporary commenter described the speech’s “sledgehammer logic.” If you haven’t read it (lately), do.

So-called conservatives continue to dig in their heels to this day, denying the very principles upon which our country was founded, in a centuries-long effort to turn back—and turn their backs upon—those very principles.

To again quote the speech that made Honest Abe the President of the United States:

“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government.”

WSJ: Obama, like Reagan, “changes the trajectory”

March 2nd, 2008 Comments off

Barack Obama caught all sorts of grief from small-minded lefties when he said that Reagan “changed the trajectory” of America, and that Clinton didn’t.

That was actually a serious understatement.

When Clinton announced in his 1994 State of the Union that "the era of big government is over" (and then repeated it later in the speech in case anyone missed it), he did more to bless the Reagan legacy and belief system—and cripple the progressive movement—than any so-called conservative could have asked for.

Now we have the Wall Street Journal likening Obama to Reagan in his power to inspire and bring about change. (Hat tip to RBC.) Question for Hillary supporters: is this A Good Thing?

OPINION
Obama and the Power of Words
By STEPHEN F. HAYES
February 26, 2008; Page A19

These are words that move and uplift, that give hope to the hopeless. These words inspired millions of voters nationwide to join the grand experiment called democracy, casting votes for their candidate, their country, their destiny:

"More than anything else, I want my candidacy to unify our country, to renew the American spirit and sense of purpose. I want to carry our message to every American, regardless of party affiliation, who is a member of this community of shared values . . . For those who have abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!"

So Ronald Reagan proclaimed on July 17, 1980, as he accepted his party’s nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, Mich.
[Ronald Reagan]

Earlier that day, the New York Times ran a long profile of Reagan on its front page. The author, Howell Raines, lamented that the news media had been unsuccessful in getting Reagan to speak in anything other than "sweeping generalities about economic and military policy." Mr. Raines further noted: "political critics who characterize him as banal and shallow, a mouther of right-wing platitudes, delight in recalling that he co-starred with a chimpanzee in ‘Bedtime for Bonzo.’"

Throughout his campaign, Reagan fought off charges that his candidacy was built more on optimism than policies. The charges came from reporters and opponents. John Anderson, a rival in the Republican primary who ran as an independent in the general election, complained that Reagan offered little more than "old platitudes and old generalities."

Conservatives understood that this Reagan-as-a-simpleton view was a caricature (something made even clearer in several recent books, particularly Reagan’s own diaries). That his opponents never got this is what led to their undoing. Those critics who giggled about his turn alongside a chimp were considerably less delighted when Reagan won 44 states and 489 electoral votes in November.

One Reagan adviser had predicted such a win shortly after Reagan had become the de facto nominee the previous spring. In a memo about the coming general election contest with Jimmy Carter, Richard Whalen wrote Reagan’s "secret weapon" was that "Democrats fail to take him very seriously."

Are Republicans making the same mistake with Barack Obama?
[Hillary Rodham Clinton]

For months now, Hillary Clinton has suggested that Mr. Obama is all rhetoric, no substance. This claim, or some version of it, has been at the center of her campaign since November. One day after losing to him in Wisconsin and Hawaii — her ninth and tenth consecutive defeats — she rather incredibly went back to it again. "It’s time we moved from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions," she said — a formulation that could be mistaken for a sound bite.

As she complained about his lack of substance, tens of thousands of people lined up in city after city, sometimes in subfreezing temperatures, for a chance to get a shot of some Mr. Obama hopemongering. Plainly, her critique is not working.

And yet, Republicans are picking it up. In just the past week, conservative commentators have accused Mr. Obama of speaking in "Sesame Street platitudes," of giving speeches that are "almost content free," of "saying nothing." He has been likened to Chance the Gardener, the clueless mope in Jerzy Kosinski’s "Being There," whose banal utterances are taken as brilliant by a gullible political class. Others complain that his campaign is "messianic," too self-aggrandizing and too self-referential.

John McCain has joined the fray. In a speech after he won primaries in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland, Mr. McCain said: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude." After Wisconsin, he sharpened the attack, warning that he would expose Mr. Obama’s "eloquent but empty call for change."

The assumption behind much of this criticism is that because Mr. Obama gives a good speech he cannot do substance. This is wrong. Mr. Obama has done well in most of the Democratic debates because he has consistently shown himself able to think on his feet. Even on health care, a complicated national issue that should be Mrs. Clinton’s strength, Mr. Obama has regularly fought her to a draw by displaying a grasp of the details that rivals hers, and talking about it in ways Americans can understand.
[Obama and the Power of Words]

In Iowa, long before the race became the national campaign it is today, Mr. Obama spent much of his time at town halls in which he took questions from the audience. His answers in such settings were often as good or better than the rhetoric in his stump speech, and usually more substantive. He spoke about issues like immigration and national service in a thoughtful manner — not wonky, not pedantic, but in a way that suggested he’d spent some time thinking about them before.

More important for the race ahead, Mr. Obama has the unique ability to offer doctrinaire liberal positions in a way that avoids the stridency of many recent Democratic candidates. That he managed to do this in the days before the Iowa caucuses — at a time when he might have been expected to be at his most liberal — was quite striking.

His rhetorical gimmick is simple. When he addresses a contentious issue, Mr. Obama almost always begins his answer with a respectful nod in the direction of the view he is rejecting — a line or two that suggests he understands or perhaps even sympathizes with the concerns of a conservative.

At Cornell College on Dec. 5, for example, a student asked Mr. Obama how his administration would view the Second Amendment. He replied: "There’s a Supreme Court case that’s going to be decided fairly soon about what the Second Amendment means. I taught Constitutional Law for 10 years, so I’ve got my opinion. And my opinion is that the Second Amendment is probably — it is an individual right and not just a right of the militia. That’s what I expect the Supreme Court to rule. I think that’s a fair reading of the text of the Constitution. And so I respect the right of lawful gun owners to hunt, fish, protect their families."

Then came the pivot:

"Like all rights, though, they are constrained and bound by the needs of the community . . . So when I look at Chicago and 34 Chicago public school students gunned down in a single school year, then I don’t think the Second Amendment prohibits us from taking action and making sure that, for example, ATF can share tracing information about illegal handguns that are used on the streets and track them to the gun dealers to find out — what are you doing?"

In conclusion:

"There is a tradition of gun ownership in this country that can be respected that is not mutually exclusive with making sure that we are shutting down gun traffic that is killing kids on our streets. The argument I have with the NRA is not whether people have the right to bear arms. The problem is they believe any constraint or regulation whatsoever is something that they have to beat back. And I don’t think that’s how most lawful firearms owners think."

In the end, Mr. Obama is simply campaigning for office in the same way he says he would operate if he were elected. "We’re not looking for a chief operating officer when we select a president," he said during a question and answer session at Google headquarters back in December.

"What we’re looking for is somebody who will chart a course and say: Here is where America needs to go — here is how to solve our energy crisis, here’s how we need to revamp our education system — and then gather the talent together and then mobilize that talent to achieve that goal. And to inspire a sense of hope and possibility."

Like Ronald Reagan did.

Mr. Hayes, a senior writer for The Weekly Standard, is the author of "Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President," (HarperCollins, 2007).


Admitting I’m Wrong: “Insurgents”

January 4th, 2005 1 comment

If there’s one thing I admire, it’s people who are willing to acknowledge when they’re wrong. In that spirit, I must concede my sister’s point: "Insurgent" comes from roots meaning "rising up," not my assumed meaning of "surging in."

Dictionary.com definitions for "insurgent"

So, it’s a perfectly accurate word to describe the anti-American (and quite arguably anti-Iraqui) fighters in Iraq.

But I still think there’s Rove-spin behind it.

Why Are They Called Insurgents?

December 30th, 2004 Comments off

The single most successful piece of Rove-spin, ever, has been the promulgation of the word "insurgents." Everyone uses this word, competely thoughtlessly, and so the pervasive sense is that these people are "surging in" from some unspecified outside place. Aren’t we the insurgents?

Make it stop!

Most of the attacks against the US-led forces in Iraq are by native Iraquis. Outsiders have gravitated in, sure, but the proper word for the bulk of these fighters is rebels, or militants. I’m not saying they’re good (good God no), but they ain’t insurgents. Let’s opt for reality-based language.

So bloggers, let’s get it started–stop using the word "insurgents." Maybe the mainstream press wil cop a clue and do likewise.

How Dare They Call Themselves Conservatives?

December 13th, 2004 Comments off

If this blog has any purpose beyond the typical one (nourishing the cherished personal delusion that other people might actually be interested in what I have to say), it’s spin–crafting a coherent rhetoric that can convince reasonable "conservatives" to come over, to support traditional American progressive values, programs, and policies.

I am not the person to deliver that rhetoric to the mainstream, or to do that convincing. As a Seattle liberal atheist Jew, I’m lacking what in rhetoric is called the "ethical position" from which I can speak to those people convincingly. And I have too great a fondness for hyperbolic speech, smart-ass comments, and cheap shots; I don’t want to rein that in here. (See: "cherished personal delusions," above.)

But others, I hope, can make use of what develops here to draw together the progressive community under a clear, coherent message. That single-message consistency is what won George Bush a second term. And it is glaringly absent in the progressive community.

The message I espouse–the single "on message" centerpiece on which a coherent and convincing progressive platform can be built–is, I believe, conservatism. Admittedly, it’s an exercise in rhetorical jiu jitsu. But that kind of rhetorical technique only works if it’s based on convincing truth. And it is certainly true that the current administration is about as far from "conservative" as it can get.

Why is this approach attractive? Almost everybody likes to believe that the way they were brought up was the right way. ("Hey, my daddy whomped me, and I turned out just fine!") And the old truism is true: the older you get, the more you’re like your parents. The aging baby boomers are getting more conservative. They’re saying so out loud, and with pride. (Don’t get me  started on "pride"; suffice it to say, it’s a sin.)

Even if we don’t attempt to spin ourselves as conservatives (though we are, and I think we should), one thing we can do very effectively is deny that moniker to those who currently lay claim to it. Because they have absolutely no right to call themselves conservatives. The shouldn’t be called neo-cons. They should be called non-cons.

They are incredibly vulnerable here, and we can capitalize on that vulnerability with a constantly repeated assault on what we (spin doctors that we are) won’t actually call hypocrisy.

Let’s start with fiscal policy. The deficit and the debt are spiraling out of sight to a degree unheard of under any previous administration. As former Republican representative Joe Scarborough (one of many Republicans excoriating the Bush fiscal policy) says in Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day, "During Bill Clinton’s two terms and a G.O.P. Congress, federal spending grew at a rate of 3.4 percent, whereas government spending has grown at a dangerous 10.4 percent clip during George W. Bush’s first term." The non-con’s borrow-and-spend policy is not conservatism, it’s profligacy. ("Profligate"and "prodigal" are good words to use, spin-wise. They have great biblical associations, and they are not the kind of sins that conservative Americans like.)

It doesn’t take an expert to know that the current policies will leave our children (not to mention their children) bankrupt. That hardly embodies "conservative" values.

Corporate welfare. Americans hate corporate welfare. The non-cons are dishing it out faster than anyone in history. (As one player said to his teammate in M*A*S*H [the movie] when he told him a juicy tidbit about an opponent’s sister during the football game, "Use it!")

Environmental issues. Conservatism, one would think, should be based on conservation. But the non-cons are intent on squandering the wealth of our country’s resources during our lifetimes, leaving our descendants environmentally bankrupt. Again, profligacy and prodigality are the opposite of conservatism and conservation. A large majority of Americans are strongly behind conservation. Use it.

Civil liberties. The non-cons are actively moving us toward a radical, heavily-controlled and -monitored society like those of Saddam and Stalin. Stalin is not conservative.

International relations. That same radicalism has squandered the moral authority that gives us power in the world. Without that true moral authority, we do not have the power to convince our friends and coerce our enemies. No amount of military might will preserve this nation if the whole world hates us. Squandering our moral capital for a radical agenda is not conservative.

These are just examples. The non-cons are vulnerable to charges of profligacy and prodigality in just about every area.

Use it.