In the iconic film, Star Wars, (Episode IV) Ben Kenobi begins to instruct young Luke Skywalker in the intuitive ways of the force while traveling on the Milennium Falcon. Watch the clip and notice the language about how a Jedi is able to “know.”
It is easy to dismiss such dialogue as merely the imaginative creation of science fiction. No one could possibly “see” where the laser bolts are directed without the use of their eyes, right? Well, this example may be a bit fanciful, but it illustrates a kind of knowledge that many experts affirm as a real phenomenon. This blog post is just a quick musing on the subject.
For centuries, philosophers have wondered if we can know some thing “intuitively.” That is, know them without evidence or any normal process of learning. Plato believed that some knowledge exists within us from birth, (or even before birth). Later philosophers, like Kant, thought that some knowledge is present in us in virtue of our natural, built-in cognitive faculties. If they were right, then some of our intuitions about things may be more than lucky guesses. Something within our minds may enable us to truly see what or how things are in the world. Theologians like John Calvin talked about the “sensus divinitatis,” which may give us knowledge of God without ordinary evidence.
The phenomena of “chicken sexing” is often used as an example of this inexplicable, intuitive knowledge. A chicken sexer can sort through baby chicks, separating the males from the females with stunning accuracy. The strange thing is, there is no visual basis by which to tell them apart at this age. Chicken sexers can’t quite tell you how they are able to do this, but nevertheless, they can do it. This seems to be knowledge gained or possessed by intuition alone.
Most of us have had experiences where we “just knew” that a person was or was not trustworthy, or when we somehow “knew” what the right decision was. Sometimes we were right, sometimes we were wrong. Some people even seem to be better at this kind of judgment than others. But is there really anything to it?
The Science of Intuition
Psychologists have explored this subject as well. Carl Jung famously proposed the idea of intuition as “perception via the unconscious.” Star Wars creator George Lucas may have borrowed some of Jung’s ideas on this. But other researchers have tested people’s intuitive abilities, such as the ability to read nonverbal cues. In 2016, a study was published in Psychological Science showing very promising evidence of intuitive knowledge. Science writer Cari Nierenberg describes it this way:
“For the first time, researchers devised a technique to measure intuition. After using this method, they found evidence that people can use their intuition to make faster, more accurate and more confident decisions, . . . The study shows that intuition does, indeed, exist and that researchers can measure it, said Joel Pearson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia and the lead author of the study.”
There is little doubt that much of our thinking and judging takes place below the conscious level, sometimes enabling us to make quick decisions. This manifests to us in the form of “gut feelings” or the like. We don’t know how we know these things, since they don’t appear to be based on any rational or scientific observation or analysis. Nevertheless, it sometimes works.
So, while I’m not saying that we should try to “use the force,” we shouldn’t dismiss the idea that we sometimes know things intuitively. When you have an intuition about something, that should count as a data point in your thinking process. You should then reflect on it, assuming you have time to do so, and compare it to the evidence gained from your senses, reason, and the input of others. I doubt that intuition is a superior way of knowing, as in Star Wars, or that it could yield knowledge that is inaccessible to reason and science. But it does seem to exist, and is worth paying attention to.