Intuition Showdown

Two different colleagues have independently recommended The Matter With Things by Dr Iain McGilchrist, who is also known for The Master and His Emissary, published in 2009.

As a result of these recommendations, I’ve watched some 6 or more hours of video interviews with Iain, some of which are hosted on his own site, Channel McGilchrist, including this one. Before I get to the topic promised by the title of this post, I’ll say that I like Iain. I respect his intellect, his demeanour, and his approach. If you are a credentialist, his an Oxford-educated psychiatrist—so he’s no slouch.

Iain’s positions are well researched, informed, and articulated. I could listen to him for hours. In fact, I have. And yet I disagree with a fundamental position he takes on intuition. Allow me to build up to that.

My first recommendation was due to a reaction I shared that depicting left-right brain hemisphere as analytic-creative was overly reductionist and quaint. McGilchrist was recommended because he disagreed. But it turns out his disagreement was more in the way it was being portrayed. The answer was wrong because the question was wrong. In a nutshell, his contention is that we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing. I agree with this.

we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing

His point is that in cases where an experience (inputs) might be processed on one side versus another, the interpretation (outputs) would necessarily differ. To make a false analogy, the left brain might be performing an exponential function whilst the right brain might be performing an arithmetic function. So, if ƒ(left) = xx and ƒ(right) = x+x, then an input of 3 would yield 27 and 6, respectively. There is nothing wrong with either side, they just produce different results. In context, this difference might matter: How many feet across is that chasm I must leap. I say, ‘Oops’, as I am falling to my demise having underestimated the difference, having used the right rather than the left function.

False Analogy by the Numbers

So where is this showdown you are wittering on about? A little more setup.

Science is stereotypically an analytic function, which is the say it requires a lot of left hemisphere processing. Psychology—and keep in mind that I cast psychology as pseudoscience, or para-science when I am being more charitable—elevates the notion of intuition as not only having value but of being largely ignored by science.

Those who have been following me for a while, know that I am also critical of Scientistm™, the blind-faith devotion to the current state of science as being some infallible truth. But neither am I an advocate for metaphysical claims. This is what I feel Psychology™ is trying to do with intuition. It feels like they are not only trying to inject a metaphysical claim; they are simultaneously making a normative claim that you should have (and trust) intuition; further, they are staking out the territory to be able to say an absence of this acceptance is pathological, so this is a power play. We’ve got the tea leaf readers taking up arms against science.

Of course, I am being hyperbolic and polemic for effect, but this division exists. Iain is not the first to attempt to elevate intuition. A central idea that Jonathan Haidt tries to sell the reader on in his book, The Righteous Mind, is that we need to be more accepting and trusting of intuition. Even Malcolm Gladwell pushed this point in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

I do think that this will escalate. Even if it doesn’t materialise into a full-scale war, people will take sides—they already have—, and we’ll see more us versus them fingerpointing. Whilst I am not fully on the side of science, my propensity is to lean in that direction.

UPDATE: Even before I post this, I discover that I am behind the times with this prediction. In searching for a suitable image for this post, I find the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, which calls out pseudoscience presented as fact not only in the obvious realm of pop psychology but in the offices of practising psychologists. I have not read it, so I am not in a position to recommend it. I may get a copy for myself, if only just to have it on hand.

Before I end this, I also wish to anticipate a point of disagreement. I’ve encountered practitioners of ‘scientific psychology’ who vehemently defend their vocation as science. Without addressing this directly, let’s just raise the point that applying the scientific method and maths to a discipline doesn’t graduate it to become a science. I can apply this to Tarot or haruspicy. If fact, this is how, in general, social sciences became so-called soft sciences: ‘Look at me, mum. I’m using numbers’.

Where do you fall on the topic of intuition? Am I exaggerating and making mountains out of molehills?

Small Print (enlarged for texture): I’ve been approved as an Amazon.com Affiliate, so any links to Amazon are monetised. The purchase price to you remains unaffected, but I may be compensated for these purchases. If a purchase does not accrue to an affiliate, Amazon keeps the difference.

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