Racing Season, Election Season, and the Role of Intuition in Making Some Sense Out of It All

"In the great boardinghouse of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean. Indeed, we should view them with scientific suspicion if they do." --William James, "The Will to Believe"

One of the reasons I so admire James' view on things is that I think he's got his epistemology right. He understands that as knowers, thinkers, and understanders of reality we are vastly limited. Experience is pretty much chock full of uncertainty, vagueness, chance, and openness. Things hardly ever come out even or add up exactly. The truest confirmation of this fact is the feeling of pleasure that we get when our preconceptions about what's about to happen are actually fulfilled. If we were good predictors of the future and had a clear and firm grasp on reality, that satisfaction would be unwarranted.

The attitude of science -- by which I mean no more and no less than the attitude of intelligent inquiry -- is therefore suspicious from the outset of neat conclusions. In a prior life, I was a physics teacher, and the best sign that students were fudging their lab numbers was that they came out too well. In the lab, we left the realm of theory, where F always equalled (ma) and entered that great boarding house of nature with its marvelous multitude of variables, most of which seem especially placed to muck up the data.

At the time I was more focused on the outcome of each lab, whether the students made connections between the equipment and the concepts, and whether they could follow the instructions. I see more clearly now that much of what I was doing in that lab with those high school students was introducing them to the true difficulty involved in drawing conclusions in the real world. It's often said that the best thinkers rely on facts and evidence for their arguments. But isn't it the other way around? Aren't the best thinkers the ones who start out suspicious of settled conclusions and intent on remaking the facts?

I suppose my mind settled on these thoughts this morning for two reasons. The first is that it's racing season, and runners everywhere are all a-flutter trying to determine in advance what the training they have done this summer really means. We want to draw clear conclusions from the cold facts of training. So, we pore over our running logs looking for signs and indications, a few solid facts that can peg marathon pace for us. It's a doomed project from the start because as we all know, we had good days and bad, and we weren't really racing those workouts anyways. In the end race pace is an intuition, not a conception. What the work does is add up to a feeling that I can hold this effort for this sort of race. That feeling is not the result of an argument; it's more like a built capacity, the product of work and experience not conscious reflection. The very best racers--Sammy Wanjiru comes to mind--run intuitively. [Definitely check out this piece on Wanjiru from Toni Reavis.]

The second reason I've been mulling these things is that it's political season. The last debate was a total snooze-fest, and I think it's because both Romney and Obama overestimated the role of facts and evidence in decision-making. Their responses to each other and to the questions were, in a sense, too heavily loaded with facts, and too often the evidence for their views was presented in a way that made their argument too neat. Like James, my tendency was to view all the numbers with suspicion because I know that in reality the political process will disrupt all plans--as it should! Our political choices are very rarely a consequences of weighing arguments or evidence. They are, instead, the culmination of many experiences. We choose, in other words, on the basis of intuition rather than reason.

That our intuitions are not wholly rational does not mean that they are ill-informed. On the contrary. Political intuitions are a consequence of our temperaments, but they are also formed through direct experience, through habits and encounters, and indeed through the work of living. Jonathan Haidt describes this well. We know who we will vote for in the way that we know what pace to run in the early stages of a marathon. The choice is not conscious and reflective; it is deep and intuitive. It is not based on reasons or arguments, but on effort, choices, and experiences.

None of this means that we shouldn't try to find facts, give evidence for our claims, or scrutinize the rational basis of our decisions. These are all essential ways of developing good intuitions. But we shouldn't neglect the role of intuition in intelligence when considering the important choices we make this fall -- and also, as we are forced to come to terms with the fact that half of America, more or less, will make a different choice than the one our own intuition says is the smart one.


  1. This reminds me of the quote from physicist Niels Bohr, who is supposed to have said that science is like washing up - dirty plates, dirty water, dirty dishcloth ... and yet somehow at the end, clean crockery! Thank you for another thoughtful post. Evidence and intuition. Lots to mull over.

    1. Chris, thanks for the comment and for reading, as always. Cheers!

  2. "In the end race pace is an intuition, not a conception."

    That thought is sort of a relief to me. I'm not running a marathon this weekend, but the Detroit half is my first race since February and I have NO idea how fast I should try to go. Just going to try to enjoy being sort of "back."


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