Intellect and intuition

Sun 09 Oct 2016

Intellect and intuition have been cast historically as irreconcilable attributes. Rationalism against mysticism. Science against faith. Consumerism versus spirituality. But look closely, and these are superficial dichotomies, which spur conflict unnecessarily.

Ask scientists and they will tell you brusquely that intuition is unquantifiable and untrustworthy. This is the perception the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson was battling when he campaigned, in his Essays, First Series (1841), for “spontaneous or intuitive principle over the arithmetic or logical”, and claimed, “Logic is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as propositions, and have a separate value, it is worthless.”

The truth is, these are complements. The advocacy, in today’s neoliberal world, for ecological awareness and living in harmony with nature, probably has its clairvoyant moorings in a book that Fritjof Capra wrote in the 1980s, called The Turning Point. Capra’s narrative sweeps the gamut of epistemology, philosophy, sociology, metaphysics, all into one pulsating crystal ball. He debunks the supposed immutability of Cartesian reductionism and Newton’s mechanistic world view. He skewers the flaws in mercantilism and the primacy accorded to ‘struggle’ in Marxian materialism. You learn that if we want to understand reality properly, we need to corral all these branches of knowledge into a single holistic heuristic.

And this involves shifting our emphasis from the unidimensional bandwidth of intellect to the broader awareness offered by intuition. While recognising the two are symbiotic.

Capra’s synthesis shows that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Intuition just happens to be more fluent at navigating reality because it cross-integrates the disparate domains of the brain into one centralised subjectivity as opposed to intellect, which can’t seem to move on to the next page without thrashing the significance out of every ‘objective fact’. But intuition has no information to consolidate unless intellect sifts and classifies. And intellect can’t actually augment you unless it is allowed to become second nature.

Science calls for a stringency that can be constrictive. Faith calls for abandoning your faculty of reason. Perhaps it’s all about having faith in the scientific reliability of the inherent harmoniousness of natural laws.


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