By Joel Furches
An old cop show is on. The detective and his partner are on the trail of a killer, but there is a disagreement between them. The partner points out that all of the evidence suggests that one suspect is the killer – but the detective has a gut-feeling about another suspect. The detective chooses to ignore the obvious evidence and follow his gut. In the cop shows, the detective’s instincts are always spot on. The obvious is always a red herring, and the suspect is always nabbed due to his keen insights.
This trope of police drama perfectly illustrates a tension that exists in the types of thinking processes people use. When a person comes to any conclusion, whether it relates to a romantic relationship, a financial investment, a jury decision, or what to have for dinner, they either do it analytically or intuitively.
“Analytic” thinking describes a thought process by which a person weighs evidence and reasons to a conclusion based primarily on a dispassionate use of logic.
“Intuitive” thinking, on the other hand, is defined as following one’s instincts, impressions, or feelings in order to make decisions.
One of the criticisms of the modern skeptic is that the more one moves in the direction of the religious, the more they move away from rational thinking and toward intuitive thinking. This is not without significant evidence to back it up. Besides the kind of “I feel peace in my heart,” and “the Spirit is moving me”language which is prevalent in religious communities, psychological studies have lent support to this idea. In their 2011 paper “Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God”, Shenhav, Rand, and Greene of Harvard University state:
“Some have argued that belief in God is intuitive, a natural (by-)product of the human mind given its cognitive structure and social context. If this is true, the extent to which one believes in God may be influenced by one’s more general tendency to rely on intuition versus reflection.”
The paper then goes on to provide the results of three separate studies which show significant correlation between intuitive-style thinking, and spiritual beliefs.
The opposite side - that analytic thought leads people away from religious belief - has been backed up by studies, such as the one summarized in Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan's paper "Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief" which highlighted several experiments where scientists prompted subjects to think analytically, and at the end, their religious impressions and beliefs had weakened.
Intuitive Thinking and Morality
Studies such as these have become a very tempting carrot to more outspoken skeptics - the ones who compare religion with so much vapid self-delusion. The unspoken (and frequently spoken) conclusion being that "if you just thought about it, you'd never believe it."
There is, however, one area in which the roles are oddly reversed: the area of morality.
The religious have a very rational grounding for their belief in morality: If the universe has a Designer, then morality is a function of design. Free-will, choice, justice, and intelligibility all flow from this concept of designer and design.
The more outspoken skeptics are often found criticizing the actions of religious believers using moral grounds to do so, as Robert Scheaffer does in his book The Making of the Messiah:
“The priest invents and encourages every kind of suffering and distress so that man may not have the opportunity to become scientific, which requires a considerable degree of free time, health, and an outlook of confident positivism. Thus, the religious authorities work hard to make and keep people feeling sinful, unworthy, and unhappy.”
Even more so are the criticisms leveled at God himself. As the now-famous line from Richard Dawkins goes:
"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
However, in order to come to such firm moral conclusions, one must exercise some kind of decision-making process. How does one decide, for instance, that jealousy, ethnic cleansing, misogyny, racism, etc. are “bad” things? Is this done using analytic or intuitive thought processes?
In point of fact, these are things which are rarely ever defended from a rational, analytic grounding. They are simply intuited.
At least one atheist, Louise M. Antony, attempts to ground morality in her article “Good Minus God”:
“We ‘moralistic atheists’ …find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.”
What Antony says here is that one person recognizes that another person has the same weaknesses that they do, and responds with empathy, ala “do unto others.” This is an entirely intuitive explanation for morality. There is no rational argument given behind why people should empathize and value one another’s equality rather than adopt, say, a hive mentality, where individuality is squelched for the good of society.
A very rational argument can and has been made for individual worth and personal morality from the idea of a Creator-God. That argument goes something like this: If a person has a Creator, that Creator gives them their design and purpose. They must answer directly to their Creator on how they act, and on how they treat his other creations.
It is significant to note that purpose, meaning, and morality have always been closely tied to religion – even those religions, such as Buddhism, that don’t admit to a personal God.
Divorced from the concept of God and the practice of religion; a vacuum occurs, within which purpose, intelligence, and morality must find some other meaningful grounds.
“We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
“Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.” (Morals without God, Frans De Waal, 2010)
So here a conundrum occurs: if analytic thinking drives away the specter of religion, then morality becomes entirely intuitive. However, under the largely intuitive assumptions of religion, morality is remarkably rational.
Reconciling Intuition with Rationality
One potential solution to this is to do as the classic atheists have done and reject morality as an illusion. However, what if it could be shown that intuition can sometimes lead to rational conclusions?
When showcasing a new smartphone, tablet, gaming system, or other popular electronic product, the word “intuitive” has begun to pop up in the modern lingo. If a person can pick up the new iPad and immediately get a sense of how to operate it, the interface is “intuitive.” Manufacturers and marketers spend a great deal of time and research into human psychology and neurology in order to create products that appeal to the way in which people automatically think and respond. In other words, a great deal of intelligence goes into making something intuitive.
Imagine that a person is presented with the choice of receiving a free pocket calculator or a free iPhone. The choice would be so obvious as to almost seem like a trick. The iPhone is the superior product.
However, if one were to take the cheap, plastic pocket calculator out to the parking lot and drop it, it would survive the fall without incident, whereas the expensive glass-and-aluminum iPhone would shatter upon the fall.
In ten years, the iPhone would have become so slow and have lost so much battery capacity as to be practically inoperable, however the digital calculator with the little solar panel would still operate just fine. The calculator cannot be hacked and never runs out of memory, both of which can be problems with an iPhone.
So what makes the iPhone the superior product, given its fragility and vulnerability compared to the calculator?
The value comes from its functionality. The capabilities of the iPhone are so much more useful to the owner, that the owner prizes them far above the very limited capabilities of the calculator.
Now apply the same test to a human being versus a bacterium:
Bacteria can survive in temperature, pressure, and atmospheric ranges far outside the survivability gap for humans. They can reproduce more rapidly, adapt more quickly, and are far less subject to the variety of ailments that plague human beings. Bacteria do not require psychologists, social workers, or a police force. Between bacteria and humans, bacteria are far more likely to survive a planetary disaster, or be capable of living on other planets. From an evolutionary standpoint, it could be argued that bacteria are the more successful organism over the frail humans. Human complexity becomes an evolutionary disadvantage in terms of adaption and survival.
So why argue that humans are more “highly evolved”? The only way in which the “height” of an organism’s evolution could be measured is if there were some goal towards which they were evolving besides mere survival and adaption.
The only way in which this argument could be made would be intuitively - that humans are prized by some intelligence outside themselves which values their functionality and complexity.
An object is either designed or it is not. Either way it can be studied and quantified, but only if it is designed can it be assigned purpose, meaning, or intelligibility.
Design can be intuited, because design is intuitive in nature. Design can also be analyzed and reverse-engineered to learn more about its designer and its purpose. Just like the Arts and the Sciences, Beauty and Utility; Intuition and Analysis work best together rather than in opposition.