Monday, October 27, 2008

"The only real valuable thing is intuition." --Albert Einstein

[The following is a part of an online conversation I'm having with Tim, a friend from 30 years ago who now teaches in a seminary in the Midwest, with whom lately I've engaged in long discussions of faith, religion, reason, knowing, connecting, etc.]

One problem with being intuitive is (1) you learn to repress it as you learn that reason and logic are the preferred tools for convincing others you're right (unless you're blessed in being surrounded only by people who trust your gut instincts as much as you do), and (2), despite the way that the SciFi Channel and new-age, transcendental philosophies portray intuition, it seems to be no less fallible than any other way of knowing.

My "wiring" may be intuitive, but my programming is linear, detail-oriented, fact-based empiricism.

And while my attempts to make choices "by the book"--drawing up pro/con columns and weighing evidence--have been mixed in their results or accuracy, so have been my attempts to follow intuition. Successes and failures, both ways.

I guess what I mean by "knowing intuitively" is that I let intuition have the last word. This is different from letting intuition have the first word--which basically is to start with a prejudice and then attempt to rationalize it.

Let's say I have a "feeling" about someone I've just met--a feeling of distrust and uneasiness. What I do next is run through all the available evidence about that person's trustworthiness, evaluating as I go. But in the end I go with what seems "truest" to my "heart"--though this impression is not necessarily the same as the "feeling" I started with--rather than simply weighing the proofs on some sort of scale and going with the preponderance of evidence.

Does that make sense? (Possibly the question I ask others most frequently.)

As I said, my intuitions prove wrong at times--but nevertheless they are the things I go with. In the end. On many occasions I have been presented with all kinds of sensible evidence that would suggest a certain course of action--but because somehow the evidence doesn't "click" or "ring true" to me, I willfully take a different--even opposite--course of action, which seems to fit ...

... kind of like when I shop for shoes. I have high insteps, so occasionally all the usual measurements indicate I should wear a size 9.5 shoe, "C" width or whatever. But in the process, rather than simply trusting the math, I try on four or five different pairs of shoes of different sizes, and end up buying the ones that feel right to me, regardless of the size label--though the measurements do provide guidelines, but only up to a point, and never all the way up to the moment of decision.

So 25 years ago I quit a teaching job in my second year because, in the nicest way possible, the administration asked me to stop using a textbook which some religious conservatives found offensive (because, in an essay I never assigned, the words "clitoris" and "vagina" appeared in support of an anti-pornography argument). Suddenly, and in spite of the fact that the administration was happy to back down and do just as I pleased to address the complaints, it no longer felt right for me to be there.

So my decision was based, ultimately, on what suited me at the moment I had to made a decision ... even though I was very aware of how foolhardy it is to quit a job without even a prospect of another one waiting behind it.

(In fact, my next job took its sweet time showing up--I got hired and moved just 10 days before the beginning of the fall semester. Still, at no point did I have second thoughts about the rightness of this decision.)

I would like to add, though, that apart from personal choice, it seems entirely right to me that reason and sound argument should rule the day. As a private individual, I would trust my intuitions as to whether I should, say, participate in a war. But as a member of the public, I think it's my obligation to make a clear, well-qualified statement of my position on the war and then put it to the test by examining relevant facts and possible counter-arguments.

This is my duty as a citizen of a democracy.

But as a subjective free agent I will ultimately go with what "feels right" to me.

And, as I have already suggested, my feelings are no more accurate than my arguments--but, to this day, I have never regretted an action made on impulse, but I have had occasions where I came to regret doing the sensible, reasonable thing based on a clear-eyed understanding of my circumstances.

I think the reason is that reason and caution tend to say "no," while imagination and impulse tend to say "yes"--and "yes," almost always, for me anyway, is the right answer.

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