“Listening to your gut”, “Deciding with your heart”, and “Trusting your instincts” – these are all familiar phrases we give to a powerful notion: our human intuition. Intuition is a fascinating facet of our psyche, and volumes have been written on why we have it, how it operates and even how we can try to direct it. While intuition is useful in many ways (Malcom Gladwell extols its virtues in his bestseller Blink), it is a demonstrable truth that as a way to verify facts about our existence (by which I mean whether anything is true or not), it is a flawed tool.
The noted author and biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “Middle World” to describe the world which we experience. That is to say that, we live in the Middle World that lies between the microscopically small (or smaller) and the astronomically large. Evolutionary theory has demonstrated that species adapt to survive in the environment they live in. Our brains –much like our other organs- have evolved to survive on this plane over millions of years, therefore our intuition which is made up of our learned experience and our natural adaptation, is tuned (if you will) to solve, or try to solve problems in the Middle World. Germ Theory is as unintuitive to us as the Special Theory of Relativity, and when we attempted to apply middle world understanding to these types of problems we almost necessarily sprouted highly erroneous answers, (need I mention our long affair with bloodletting?)
To make matters worse, even the Middle World is not as obvious to our intuitions as we may think. Take for example flight; as long as humankind has observed birds in flight we have coveted their ability. Yet it took centuries of failures before our scientific thinking and study provided us a way to understand, emulate and improve this ability. This is in spite of the fact that we observe flight closely every day in Middle World. A systematic detachment from intuition, coupled with an incremental understanding of new knowledge allowed us to make this giant leap. Indeed so powerful are our intuitions that they can, and have at many points, hampered our science as well!
Let me attempt to drive this point home. Our Middle World is full of inventions and intentional design. We walk on pavements or cleared dirt roads (depending on where you live); we drive intelligently designed cars and communicate with brilliantly built smartphones. We are surrounded by tables, boxes, and streetlamps (or kerosene lamps – also depending on where you live). Forks, paintings, skyscrapers and rickshaws; all of these things serve a purpose and started their “lives” on some designer’s blueprint or napkin. This is our Middle World and it informs our intuitions. So is it a wonder that when we see a white butterfly camouflaged on a white flower, invisible to its predators; or a new born antelope that stands up almost immediately after birth, or perhaps a sprawling acacia tree giving shade to a graceful powerful pride of lions, our intuitions immediately draw a parallel and ascribe a designer who sat down with some “blueprint” for life?
Modern evolutionary theory has now shown us just how erroneous (though understandably so) our intuitions have been. We have come to learn and even demonstrate that the complex natural world “design” is a result of a long process of increasing complexity which beautifully explains all these natural world observations and not a one-time formulation from a blueprint in some architects office.
Theories such as these are so unintuitive that they still challenge our Middle World psyches. Indeed were it not for the overwhelming evidence supporting them and our ability to apply a scientific method to correct our personal biases (scientist have biases too by the way), we would surely still be in the dark.
It is clear that as tools go for unbiased, objective decision making or understanding, our brains (left unaided by some corrective process) fall far short of perfect. All of us need to start any journey of discovery with this humble understanding. What you think you know is highly unlikely to be true if you cannot clearly align it with reality. Our intuitions are nowhere near as reliable as we may be led to believe.
So if you walk away with nothing else, walk away with this: when confronted with a new explanation, assumption or supposition, do not agree with it because it aligns with your bias, neither balk at it as impossible because it offends your intuitions (including those you were raised with). Instead ask yourself that most basic question that has proven itself through the ages to be the start of true new understanding; and that question is simply: “Where is the evidence?