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February 09, 2006

Intuition and the Arts

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I was following an especially interesting commentsfest on a Razib posting over at GNXP when I found the following contribution leaping out of me. Not elegantly-put, to say the least. And certainly semi-off-topic where Razib's posting was concerned. (Sorry, Razib.) But I think I stand by it anyway. Actually I'm pleased with it -- it can be great fun to converse with hyper-smart people who have had little experience of the culture-game! It forces you to explain yourself in very basic terms while still respecting the overwhelming mass of IQ points in the room.

So I'm treating myself to a little copying-and-pasting. Here's hoping others don't find my efforts a complete waste of time. The general topic -- so far as I was concerned, anyway -- were the questions: "What can be hoped-for from the social sciences?", and "Are intuition and folk psychology our friends or our enemies"? Here's my scribble:

Am I sensing a general hostility towards intuition around here? If so: Not that intuition can't mislead us. But why view it as the enemy? Intuitions are often right, or at least helpful, god knows. And I'll take issue with the idea that they result entirely from experience. What experience has suggested to me is that intuitions often arise from some pre-experiential layer. BTW, aren't scientists often using their intuition and calling on their instincts? If not, then that's really scary.

But I'll speak up for folk psychology and common sense too. They may be something to contend with and be wary of where advancing-science is concerned. But where leading-a-rewarding-life is concerned, they're often far more helpful than science is. I mean, it's nice to get your inoculations and your dental work done, etc. I like heating and air-conditioning too. But you also need to know how to deal with your boss, who to avoid on the street, what your wife may be up to, when it's time to change jobs, etc. And there's little that science can do to help you with any of that.

And, since 90% of humanity is more interested in leading a rewarding life than in advancing-science, why not view intuition, folk psychology, and common sense in a more friendly and appreciative fashion? Perhaps they've evolved for good and understandable reasons, after all. They may be your enemies in the lab, but that doesn't mean they're "bad" in the abstract. It also doesn't mean they aren't often hyper-useful outside the lab.

I like Razib's idea of "constraining the sample space" where the social sciences are concerned. That seems useful, as well as semi-possible.

The prob with the social sciences is really the whole human factor. We aren't just wet machines. And so building probabalistic wiggle room into the equations, while better than not doing so, still misses a big part of life: the whole will/desire thang. We aren't just slightly-less-predictable ants, after all. We're actually out there making choices, taking conscious action, and altering contexts by doing so. In social life, butterfly wing-beats are *always* causing surprising storms and tornadoes elsewhere. That's the norm, except when it's not.

The art/culture sphere is a constant reminder of these maddening facts. (And this is part of the fun of following the culture-thing, at least if you've got a taste for it.) It's defiantly non-deterministic, and no one has ever come up with equations that are worth a damn so far as explanation and prediction go. Lots and lots of bright people have tried and are trying to come up with trustworthy rules and laws that can influence and/or predict cultural trends and tendencies, and the result has been ... Well, not much at all.

No one predicted that "Titanic" or "The Matrix" or the iPod would be the culture-altering huge hits that they've been, for instance -- yet those were three very big, very mass phenomena. How could they have been missed? Averaging-out individual differences would have made no difference. No one predicted that movies would lose their charm generally in 2005, or that the leap-to-digital would undermine people's attachment to movies. People thought digital technology would *correct* what's felt to be wrong with movies. It'd deliver perfect sound, perfect images, etc. Yet what seems to be happening is that the more that digi-tech seeps into the movie-thang, the more people are discovering they can do without movies, at least "movies" understood in the traditional sense.

Although there's certainly a lot that's routine in the culture sphere -- the endless pumping-out of pop music, for instance -- and there are certainly some very rough general rules (people like novelty, gossip, sweetness, personalities, heroes, rhythm, stories, figuration, and certain ratios better than others), it all boils down not to a science but to a body of seat-of-the-pants folk knowledge. Little of which can be absorbed via book-learning, by the way. Some people just seem to have better instincts and intuitions than others do -- they seem to have a gut feel for whassup in the culture. It may or may not be the case, btw. Maybe it's just random, like being the hottest investment guy on Wall Street for one quarter. Hard to know! But sometimes a person's "feel" seems genuine. But they all lose their touch eventually: something new always arises that they didn't seem coming. Life in the culture-world is a matter of learning, observing, absorbing, thinking you've got a grip on it -- and then being blindsided yet again.

Anyway, despite centuries of trying, that's the best anyone has done. Given the flukey nature of the cultural beast it's probably the best that anyone can hope for too. An argument can be made, in fact, that trying to comprehend and explain the cultural sphere in a truly-scientific way is *always* counterproductive -- that the magic will vanish when you apply scalpel and microscope. Analyze the magic, and the magic that is the object of your study just goes away, leaving you looking very foolish.

If there's anything to this -- and I think there is -- it'd seem to imply that to make any sense out of cultural phenomena, you *can't* lose touch with your guts, your hunches, your "feel" -- or with your intuition. Brains and analytical abilities don't hurt, of course. Well, they don't have to, anyway. But as I've often tried to point out around here, so far as culture goes brains and analytical abilities often aren't an unqualified help either. Without having a gut-level set of instincts and hunches and intuitions, you're lost where the arts are concerned. In culture, you *better* view instinct, guts, and intuition as your friends. Otherwise, no matter how smart you are, you'll never leave the starting gate.

Looking at this comment now, I find myself thinking what I often think when I visit GNXP, which is: God, how I'd love to force all these brilliant science-heads and brain-boxes to take a few years' worth of acting classes.

Curious to hear if anyone thinks I'm far-off in my thinking here, or if anyone's culture-experiences have suggested a completely different line of thought about intuition and analysis. Thanks to Razib and others for setting my sluggish thought-processes off on this tangent.



posted by Michael at February 9, 2006


I agree with you about artistic and cultural "touches". There's a self-referential element that makes the topic hard to analyze as well - artists who burst on the scene, right in tune with the zeitgeist, alter the very cultural landscape that they're working in. You could argue that Picasso's fame (for example) has lasted for so long because he helped to create a world in which Picasso would be famous. There are other artists who managed to kill off their own reputations by a similar process ("overexposure" is one word used to describe this).

A biological analogy: yeast, as any brewer or home baker knows, will if left to itself exhaust all available food (sugars) in a container and eventually kill itself off in its own waste products (ethanol, acetic acid, lots of other tasty stuff). In that situation, yeast slowly makes its environment more hostile to yeast. Lots of other organisms can do that, and we're involved in a multidecade argument about whether humans are in that category as well.

But in a broader sense, many organisms seem to end up making their environments more friendly for themselves and their kind. The long-ago switch from the Earth having a reducing atmosphere to an oxidizing one is a big example which seems to have been driven by life forms. (That was, on the other side of the coin, a disaster for the older order of creatures who had to hide from or adapt to the rising levels of poisonous oxygen).

Now that I think about it, looking at artistic and cultural movements in terms of microbiology makes more sense than I expected. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 9, 2006 1:31 PM

You're convincing me too! Jane Jacobs likes looking at cultural matters (economics, cities) in biological terms, or at least in an arty person's version of ecological terms. And evolutionary biology (at least so far as I'm able to understand it) certainly has its contributions to make, at least so far as some very loose generalizations go. So maybe a better distinction isn't between science and intuition, but between different scientific ways of understanding ...

Hey, various philosophers like to make a distinction between the more abstract and math-centric sciences (math, physics) and the messier ones: biology, ecology, oceanography, meteorology, etc. Some of them even argue that the wetter sciences get into trouble when they fall victim to physics-envy. Some critics of conventional economics say that conventional economics goes wrong when it succumbs to physics-envy too. (Some people even talk about physics-envy as a kind of macho disease, which is at least a funny idea.) Do you as a working science-guy find that a useful distinction to keep in mind?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 9, 2006 1:43 PM

I think Razib's notion that it is worthwhile to look at social things scientifically is okay. No harm is done if you simply study. But I get the creeps when results of such studies are then recycled as TRUTH. This is because most "social science" is non-experimental, and the experimental bits almost have to be narrowed to pin-head size in order to control for contaminating side-effects. That is, the results might be (just a tiny bit) true, but useless for most practical purposes.

A couple of random items: (1) The research behind the school integration court decision was flawed and the results were recanted by James Coleman who was the guy whose work was used in the decision. (2) Operant conditioning. B.F. Skinner for some reason was still a Big Deal back when I was in grad school in the mid-60s. Like Freud's work, it was (in my opinion) mostly junk, yet it was almost impossible to argue against Freudian or Skinnerian True Believers. (That is, your "resistence" was the result of this or that phobia or whatever. Or, you just think you have free will: Hah! you're simply unaware of the thousands of operants that in fact channeled you to your foolish delusion of independence!)

As for Razib, his examples of "intuition" in social matters strike me as weak. They ("TV causes violence" and "defeat will lead Muslims to reject their god") are simply examples of possibly incomplete information, not something I would call intuitive.

To me intuition is a complex, experienced-based means for making judgments or taking actions. It isn't the highly specific, superficial, potentially easily-refutable stuff like Razib cites. Social science will never be very scientific, given its subject matter.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 9, 2006 1:58 PM

A dirty secret of medicinal chemistry, at least the exploratory kind that I do, is that to a first approximation you don't have to use a single equation to do it. We make new chemicals with our hands, purify them, make sure that they're what we think they are, and see if they work or not.

But I don't want to give a false impression: what you do have to have is mathematical training, for the outlook it gives you on data. This is something so fundamental to a working scientist that it's easy to miss.

Working with graphs is a good example: graphical representation is so vital to science, but I remember National Review's William Rusher saying in a published piece that "there is no idea so simple that it cannot be rendered unintelligible to me in the form of a graph". He'd never make it in my lab. Recognizing nonlinearity, exponential growth and decay, correlations, statistical significance (and insignificance!) - we don't do any of this with equations on a blackboard (any more), but it's a scientific/mathematical way of looking at the world.

But you're right, one of the things you have to keep in mind is the limits to those tools. Ex nihilo nihil fit, and if you're applying all these tools to something that can't easily be measured (as happens with increasing frequency as you move from small molecules to biochemistry, to cells, to living animals, and then to humans), then you're at great risk of wasting your time. And kidding yourself.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 9, 2006 2:05 PM

First, let me thank you for turning me on to Jane Jacobs. What a fabulous babe! And I think she is a perfect example of someone who confounds any notions of social-science-as-compass. She shows us how someone with keen observational skills and a good heart can do "social science" in a way that is far more relevant than anything the social scientists come up with. Humans and their culture are far too complex in ways that make attempts at controlling variables seem absurd.

I think we need the social sciences, but not as much as the social scientists need the rest of humanity to need them.

Our culture is deeply ambivalant about science and largely misunderstands it. It's a basic epistemological problem.

My friend taught at an International Baccalaureate Organization magnet high school in South Florida for many years. He taught a "theory of knowledge" class that was the center piece around which all other classes were taught. Art, science, and culture are presented in their respective classes and then in the theory of kowledge class the basic questions that underlie all learning and knowledge are asked: "What do we know and how do we know it?"

So, for instance, the kids are exposed to material like Kuhn's book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" on the history of science and how culture influences the direction of scientific inquiry.

A class like this does some very important and I think powerful things. First and foremost, it addresses something that I believe is inherent and deep in all children which is a healthy mistrust of adults. It affirms their natural curiousity and skepticism. Furthermore, it addresses the very questions you raise in your blog posting. Instead of outrightly dismissing intuition and folk-knowledge, which is often the consequence (intended or not) of an education that
takes itself too seriously, everything about knowledge is laid on the table and the kids get to decide for themselves. The baby is safe in her bathwater.

And there is at least one more potentially very positive outcome of such a pedagogy: It is a forum in which we can find a culture-truce. Whether your expressed "kowledge" is derived biblically, scientifically, or intuitively, you have a space where your ideas can be shared, debated, and ultimately respected. And through our knowledge of knowledge, we can divide curriculua systematically, according to the nature and derrivation of the information contained in the subject. So, for instance, "intelligent design" can be taught in a philosophy or compartive religion class. It certainly can be discussed in a theory of knowledge class. It cannot, however, be taught in a science class as a body of knowledge and scientific inquiry that carries the same weight as evolutionary theory. (I actually love the idea of intelligent design and find it, in my own way, not at all incompatible with evolution. It's just not science, it's philosphical speculation)

The bottom line is that we "teach down" to our kids and force feed them a positivistic view of the world that doesn't acknowledge their complexity, creativity, and innate wisdom. Your blog posting seems to be, in part, a response to living in a world filled with adults who were raised with such an education. What do you think?

Posted by: chris on February 9, 2006 3:08 PM

One particular thing has always struck me when I think about my experience in medical school: the way in which some students transitioned well from classroom to patient care, while others didn't. You have to have a very good knowledge base to work with patients - the more you know, the better. Some of the kids I worked with, however, just couldn't make the transition from test to real life. To put it simply, they lacked common sense.

What do you suppose common sense is? What about that ability to take the theoretical and make it work in a messy, non-theoretical world? It's a skill, or talent, or intelligence (?) all it's own, isn't it?

Posted by: MD on February 9, 2006 5:47 PM

Donald -- I love your distinction between the scientific-investigation-of-something and TRUTH. Funny, isn't it? I mean, the way some people seem so determined to take the results of study, abstract it yet further, and then impose the abstractions on reality. I wonder if that's a natural thang or if some people are more prone to do it than others are. Paranoid overgeneralizer that I am, I lean towards the second explanation.

Derek -- Thanks for the inside dope. I've got one old bud who works as a marine biologist, and though he's brainy and can obviously handle the math and graphs (and that awful objective/impersonal language scientists are forced to use -- reason enough not to go into science right there), I always got the impression that the real reason he liked what he did was because it's like a combo of cooking, carpentry, and playing with animals. About as hands-on and messy as can be. Aside from all those papers and conferences and papers, of course ...

Chris -- Glad to hear you're enjoying Jane Jacobs. She can really make the heart swell, can't she? A little bit of sanity and love in the midst of all the craziness. You write: "I think we need the social sciences, but not as much as the social scientists need the rest of humanity to need them." That's one great line. And I love your idea of different modes of thought. I can't remember if you've run across some postings I've done about Michael Oakeshott and Stephen Toulmin, but you might get a kick out of looking into those guys too. Their thoughts run along lines similar to the ones you enjoy chewing over.


MD -- That's neat to learn about med students who can't make the leap to actual patient care. I think I've run into some of them as doctors -- yikes. And what a good question about common sense. I'm a huge fan of common sense -- I can't tell you how relieved I was when I started running across smart people (Oakeshott and Toulmin, for two) who didn't deride it or see it as something that needs deconstructing. But what is it? And where does it come from? I think experience has a lot to do with the shaping of it, but I (rightly or wrongly) don't think experience can explain it all. After all, some people have lots of experience and no horse sense at all, while others seem to be born with it, or at least give evidence of it at a very, very young age. But I can feel myself about to get all mystical, so I'll shut up now ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 9, 2006 6:20 PM

I do not think that intuition is the same sort of thing as the scientific method. Neither do I think that the scientific method is the same as statistics and numerical algorhythms. I think that intuition is a CONTENT, the sum of all those things a person can feel but not quite bring up to consciousness. As soon as a scientific hypothesis or a body of numbers are brought into the picture, the information is diminished, on purpose.

Methods are meant to narrow the subject and the inquiry enough to make them possible to investigate in some kind of orderly way. But intuition IS the subject matter, raw and simply felt rather than reasoned out. The best idea Freud ever had was the subconscious, but not all that other id/ego stuff which are hypotheses. The subconscious is something real -- inaccessible stuff that your brain has to be tricked into letting you know that you know. It has something to do with anatomy, I'm sure, and the fact that we mostly have to pattern things to think them consciously and we mostly pattern after things we already know or think we do.

I think the missing element for docs and others is simply openness to new experience, raw sensory material that is not yet patterned. A doc who won't listen might as well have chairs for patients. I just ran across one a few weeks ago -- an eye doctor in too much of a hurry to hear that I'm allergic to the novocaine they put in your eye for glaucoma tests. I had to almost wrestle him to make him listen. He's still angry about it. Why wasn't he listening? He was taking too many patients too quickly in order to make a lot of money. I wasn't even a chair -- I was a billing total.

I love Michael's observation about the marine biologist who likes his work because it combines cooking, carpentry, and playing with animals and I'm sure that a marine biologist with those likes is a damn good scientist.

I'd also like to bring up Erik Erikson's idea that some people are simply positioned by their life experiences to exemplify their times. You'll remember that he looked at Luther and Gandhi from this theoretical viewpoint.

So what exemplifies our times? "Desperate Housewives?" I hope it's not Bush, though it would be an interesting exercise to take a few pokes at it.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 9, 2006 7:26 PM

I think it's helpful to distinguish between three things:

- Positivism: the study of measurable, quantifiable results.
- Science: the empirical study of nature.
- Reason: the systematic integration of sensory data.

Lots of people would have you believe that positivism is the only form of science, and science is the only form of reason. This causes other people react by saying "Well to heck with reason then!" And so we have today's culture in a nutshell, don't we.

Personally, I think the nature of the academic set-up will always attract these kinds of people, with these kinds of views. So not only are they irrefutably circular, as Donald pointed out, but each generation of deterministic arguments has a replacement waiting in the wings for the day when they become too silly. Only changing the incentives of the system will permanently cure the disease.

(I also think the academic's obsession with "rigor" is a classic barrier to entry, keeping the competitive field limited to those few with the proper training, credentials, resources, etc. needed to do "rigor". But then I'm an awful cynic.)

BTW, did you ever read Clio And The Doctors by Jacques Barzun? He takes on physics-envy in the history department and leaves it laying on the mat like Sonny Liston. Brief book, well worth reading.

Posted by: Brian on February 9, 2006 9:49 PM

It's a common saying among organic chemists that you should never trust one who can't cook. There's a lot of the same kind of thinking when you're running reactions.

As for intuition, the best way I can think of to characterize it is distilled experience.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 9, 2006 9:58 PM

Carl Jung, who was, with Freud, one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, identified intuition as one of the four psychological processes, or functions, that human beings use to take in information about the world. (The other three are sensing, feeling, and thinking.) Jung's model of personality was adapted by two Americans, Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the most widely-used personality instrument in the world. Jung referred to intuition as "the ability to see possibilities inherent in a situation" or "the ability to see around the corner."
He wrote, “Intuition is not mere perception, or vision, but an active, creative process that puts into the object just as much as it takes out.”

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 9, 2006 11:50 PM

Oh, and as for acting classes, there have been plenty of famous scientists who already knew some of what there was to learn there. Many of them have been aware of the advantages (and disadvantages) of their public personae, and have used them consciously for effect.

Einstein, Feynman, James Watson, and contemporary chemist Barry Sharpless, just off the top of my head, are all Nobel prize winners who were/are very aware of how they're perceived in public and among their peers.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 10, 2006 7:49 AM

I have to cry foul over Derek's claim that big shot scientists who use their public personae for advantage are "acting." They may be putting up a public front but that's not the same thing as acting in the sense of an "actor" acting.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 10, 2006 8:16 AM

That's a good point, Mary. I think it involves some of the same skills, though, and it brings up the whole question of what an actor's work is as compared to what people do in day-to-day life.

In Feynman's case, he seems to have made a strong impression even when he was much younger (as witness Freeman Dyson's letters home describing him when they were both working on the Manhattan project). And his extracurricular interests (drum playing, samba music, and many others musical and not) certainly seem to have been genuine interests, not something he whipped up because they would make him intruiging.

But he certainly did realize the effect that his brilliant-fool persona had, and used it to his advantage (as a letter he wrote to his wife during the Challenger shuttle investigation makes clear). But it wasn't the only side of him available - his recently published selection of letters shows him being patient and helpful with well-meaning and curious laymen who wrote to him (much to the surprise of some of his colleagues, I gather, who had no idea that this correspondence existed).

Posted by: Derek Lowe on February 10, 2006 12:04 PM

I'll expand, but first I want to make the point that these matters are hard to talk about because the terms have a kind of continuity of meaning from the professional specialized to the popular and cynical. I think this is problem more marked in contemporary times in part because the media is so invested in the popular and cynical. Hardly anyone now defends the purity of the professional endeavor because they would sound like ninnies.

Acting -- to someone who accepts it as a profession -- is an art form in the pursuit of the Truth. An inner search for authenticity and a convincing virtual reality is the whole point. This means working with one's intuition -- and if one is a method actor, that means working through sense memories that can arouse inner emotional and image-bound states.

What you're talking abut is a debased sort of "acting" in which one pretends to be something one is not or something that is only a presentational fiction for some purpose, perhaps quite justifiable. But this is essentially a NON-truth, meant to block access to the more complex and inner world. It has more to do with politics than the arts, though there always has to be some cross-fertilizing. It has less to do with intuition than with strategy, often -- again -- cynical.

Scientists who undertake "teaching" in some form, whether public presentation or academic, generally have some "persona" they can put on in the process. It's often self-protective, I think. Would Einstein have wanted to see into his intimate life while he was still trying to convince us of his point of view on Time or the Atomic Bomb?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 10, 2006 1:42 PM

Finally I got over to see what Razib was on about and see that he began with Anselm's statement that God is that than which nothing can be greater. That means the discussion was already enclosed within the bubble of the Abrahamic religions, confined to monotheism. When the theos is posited to be a human, no matter how great, the whole enterprise is doomed from the beginning because of theodicy: the problem of a God that is supposed to be all-powerful but doesn't use that power to heal the world. No matter how loopy the logic gets about why, humans still end up outside God and suffering. There are mountains of folk ideas about why this should be so, plus a lot of seemingly logical constructs.

What if I take Anselm's claim and approach it in an Asian way: God is that than which nothing can be greater, not in the sense of power, but in the sense of inclusion? The sum of all that is, plus more beyond that -- "more" than we limited humans can conceive or measure: everything that has ever happened, everything that will happen in the future, everything happening in parallel universes, everything that potentially could have happened but didn't, and so on. Then, logically, we cannot be destroyed by either birth or death or transformation because we always remain "in" God. Our whole lives are existent simultaneously in God. But our obligation is to behave as well as we can because every action we take, every thought we have, is God -- we are creating God as we go, or at the very least participating and thus should strive to make a good God, a God we would want. This means excellent relationships internally to God -- as least as good as we can get them.

The obligation of the devout Buddhist is not to DO things but simply to be where one is as thoroughly and compassionately as possible. One should stay in relationship with as much of being as is possible, which means using all one's senses quietly and without interfering with other beings. Appreciate the universe. This is often done through the arts.

The other thread that was winding in and out of the posts, something like "how can a camera take a photo of itself?" is a legitimate and pressing problem. Now that we can "see" the brain thinking and detect much more detail about how the flow of electrochemical action moves through the body, we are more likely to find constraints and predeterminations dictated by the nature of the equipment. The sort of thing that Chomsky speaks of when he says that grammar is inborn, not learned. Introspection is becoming a far less trustworthy way of finding out "how" we think.

Incidentally, I was quite intrigued by the person who suggested that we may have co-beings living in our neurology tissue the same as we have co-beings (bacteria, etc.) living symbiotically in our guts. There is a fascinating book called "The Second Brain" that describes how the neural net around the intestinal tubes is regulated by the same chemicals as the brain -- because the brain evolved from the gut. Knowledge evolved from intuition, that "gut-feeling?"

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 12, 2006 1:32 AM

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