The role of intuition in science

By Joern Fischer

Science is supposed to be a rational activity – guided by careful analysis, without undue influence of gut feelings. While this may be so, I thought it’s useful to keep this in perspective a bit, and reflect on what the role of intuition might be for scientists.

First, what is intuition, and how does it differ from “feeling”? Wikipedia defines intuition as follows: “Intuition, a phenomenon of the mind, describes the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason (ref). The word “intuition” comes from Latin verb intueri translated as consider or from late middle English word intuit, “to contemplate” (ref).” The term “feeling”, by contrast, and again according to Wikipedia, “is usually reserved for the conscious subjective experience of emotion”.

My own understanding of this is that intuition is somehow the combined outcome of many thoughts and feelings about a particular matter – assembled in a way that may not necessarily be re-constructable, and very likely is not solely rational. Feelings most likely will come into one’s intuition, but they are not the same thing.

Going with this idea – that intuition results from the unconscious blending of many thoughts and feelings – it should be clear that intuition has something to offer. With rational thought alone, we limit ourselves to those experiences that are conscious and can be re-constructed through argumentation. While those are the most defensible insights (because they can be expressed and reasoned), it seems logical that if you add additional inputs – like unconscious thought and feeling – you may well gain in completeness of understanding of a given phenomenon. (I suppose you may blur things, too, which is important to keep in mind!)

Given that science is centred around rational arguments, where does intuition come in? I can think of three key areas.

  1. Intuition helps identify “hot topics”. When screening the horizon for the “next big thing”, this is rarely going to be just about a rational analysis. It’s what happens before formal (rational) science starts: we all have to think about which questions are worth asking. Reading the scientific landscape, in turn, is not just about reading arguments, but also about reading the people behind those arguments, their power relationships and agendas. Intuition can be extremely helpful for understanding “where things are at”.
  2. Intuition helps with inductive analysis. The majority of science these days is deductive, i.e. hypothesis-testing oriented. But every so often, and especially when trying to understand complex phenomena, it will be necessary to build new theory. This needs to be based on rational arguments to be defensible, but very likely draws on more than just a couple of reasoned chains of arguments. Most likely, building new theory comes from assembling many experiences in a way that is collectively useful or interesting – rather than singling out individual chains of reasoning.
  3. Intuition helps navigate conflicting opinions. With all its emphasis on rational analysis, one would think (naively…) that science is not very controversial. But when you operate in science, you note that people disagree with one another all the time, and things can get quite furious, passionate, or even personal. It takes intuition about people to navigate these situations and make sense of who sits where and why. Often, it is different truths being more or less salient to different scientists that lead to nuances (or even big differences) in their worldviews. This phenomenon can be best understood by drawing on an overall perspective on people in science, based on intuition as well as facts.

So, while rational arguments remain at the core of the scientific method (especially for deductive analyses), to operate as a scientist on a day-to-day basis, it is very beneficial to also listen to one’s intuition. Not everything going on in our heads can always be de-constructed into individual thoughts or feelings – and that’s okay, and does not necessarily mean those insights are of lower quality. I’d argue that quite often, insights based on intuition are particularly worth paying attention to.

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4 thoughts on “The role of intuition in science

  1. Pingback: Humanities vs Science. 1. Literature & Language – Ecology is not a dirty word

  2. Hi Joern. I think your points 1 and 2 above hit the nail on the head. The standard point made by many philosophers of science is that science is rational in the way it *justifies* belief in theories through testing against data, but that when coming up with theories for testing in the first place – *discovery* of a new theory for testing (as it is sometimes put) – intuition can play a huge role. How you come up with new theories is one thing (any old how will do, and the good scientist may have very strong intuitions as to what they suspect may be going on in the area being theorised, and draw on those intuitions) but the rationality of science lies in the way it goes about *justifying* a theory given the evidence.

  3. Nice post, thank you. Just as a side note on this topic, there is a very interesting chapter on intuition in the very recommendable book “The art of scientific investigation” by Beveridge. Old, but thoughtful anyway.

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