Don’t Suppress Your Intuition

Intuitions aren't irrational.

Table of Contents

A common misconception about rationality is that intuition should be ignored or suppressed. People contrast rational, conscious, explicit ideas with irrational intuitive or subconscious ideas. Some people think “hunches” and “gut feelings” are irrational. They may also regard many or all emotions as irrational.

People often lose debates (in terms of arguments that each side can put into words) but still have intuitions (or emotions or anything else they can’t articulate) that conflict with the arguments that won the debate. If you’re in that situation, don’t try to make yourself believe or act on the new ideas.

You should accept and act on ideas when there are no problems with doing so. Having conflicting intuitions is a problem. When there is a problem or disagreement, and you don’t already have a fully satisfactory answer, you should not make assumptions about what the correct answer is. Your intuition could be right. And don’t assume it’s unlikely to be right. As a default, you should view any of your ideas as having approximately the same chance of being right.

The rational way to debate, when you can’t articulate all your ideas, is to say things like “I have an intuition which conflicts with that idea. I intuitively don’t want to believe or do that idea.” You should communicate the problem even if you can’t provide details. You and a rational debate partner could then try to brainstorm ways of proceeding that could address the conflict between the idea and your intuition. This could involve getting more information about the intuition or you learning more about the topic. Maybe if you understand the issues in more depth then your intuition will change or will be easier to put into words.

Getting more information about your intuition can be done by introspection. If you’re not good enough at introspection, the debate can be put on hold to develop that skill more. That can be hard and take a long time. There are alternatives which are more accessible. You can do free writing, journaling or brainstorming to try to get your thoughts out more even in rough form. Being informal and trying to say anything even if it’s wrong or barely relevant can help you put thoughts into words instead of being totally stuck. If you do journaling or another activity alone, and it works, you can then choose to share some specific ideas you figured out.

Gathering Data Points from Intuitions

Often, you can learn a lot about intuitions by asking questions (you and your debate partner can both contribute to this). If the situation was X, what side would your intuition take? What if the situation was Y? What about Z? Keep checking a bunch of different scenarios and giving your intuitive response to them and then you’ll be able to figure out in much more detail what the intuition says and wants. With trial and error, you can figure out what issues make a key difference that determine what side the intuition takes and which issues don’t matter much. This can help narrow down what your intuitive position is and enable discussing it and talking about upsides and downsides of it, problems it has, etc. And it can help you figure out the reason for the intuition.

For example, you might have some pro-capitalist views but make exceptions when something seems unkind. If you figure out what some exceptions are where your intuition takes a more anti-capitalist view, then you might see a pattern in them where they’re all related to someone having a bad outcome and being unhappy, and you don’t like that. Then progress could be made by considering the harmony of interests theories that go with capitalism. Your intuition is probably at least partly right; a lot of “hard-hearted” or “unkind” capitalist ideas are in fact wrong and conflict with classical liberalism in addition to conflicting with many people’s moral intuitions. You shouldn’t accept an unsophisticated, mean version of capitalism that creates winners and losers instead of mutual benefit; your intuition was correct that something was wrong there.

The basic idea is to gather data points about your intuition by asking questions and posting scenarios. This works because your intuition tells you responses to things. The responses are often just “good” or “bad” (either in a binary way or on a spectrum with degrees) rather than words you can articulate. But that’s still data, and if you get a bunch of data points you can find patterns. The patterns help you figure out what the intuition is about. The data points also help you rule things out by finding counter-examples to candidate explanations of what the intuition is about.

Mental Models of Intuitions

You can think of an intuition like a mini person inside you with some ideas and values, but who only communicates in limited ways, so you’re trying to figure out what they want and think. You can also think of an intuition like an idea, just like any other, which has some knowledge and reasoning – which isn’t in words but could be in words and is the same knowledge whether it’s in words or not. So you can view an intuition as wanting, valuing, saying or thinking something, just as you would talk about an explicit idea. That’s an approximation because it’s people who value, want, say or think things. But it’s understandable and we don’t have some well known and clearly better mental models to use. Our mental models tend to mix up people and people’s ideas some, which makes sense because ideas are the most important part of people.

Debates and Discussions Involving Intuitions

Being unable to fully articulate ideas doesn’t make them wrong. Being barely able to articulate ideas doesn’t make them wrong. You shouldn’t accept ideas when you have ideas that conflict with them. Instead, you should take a more neutral stance. When there is a conflict of ideas that isn’t yet resolved, then you don’t know the answer. You shouldn’t assume your intuition is right and stick with it, nor should you try to use willpower to get rid of your intuition in favor of a new idea. You should become curious and want to explore the issue (particularly if it’s important to your life; if it’s irrelevant or low importance then feel free to drop the matter and prioritize other stuff).

When you understand issues well enough, and your conscious understanding is correct, your intuition will change. If your intuition hasn’t changed, then either the explicit idea has a flaw or it’s incomplete in some way. The incompleteness could be your knowledge (the other guy in the debate needs to explain more but does know the answer) or it could be in the idea itself (the other guy’s idea is incomplete too, and he didn’t realize that). Sometimes the incompleteness is on a different topic than what you’re discussing. For example, you could be debating history but have difficulty changing your mind due to some lack of knowledge about rationality, bias, integrity or learning.

Unless you’re extraordinarily good at explicit, conscious analysis, then you should talk about intuitions frequently in debates and discussions. Trying to put things into words more, or talk about things you can’t explain well, are common, normal parts of debates. Any social pressure against that is irrational and is suppressing progress.

Looking at it from the other side (of someone who is good at explicit arguments), if you want to win debates and change people’s minds in good, rational ways then you need to address all their problems and objections, including intuitive ones. If you haven’t addressed all their ideas which conflict with your idea, then they shouldn’t change their mind to your idea, and you would be wrong to ask or want them to. You haven’t really won the debate with them.

You should encourage people to share intuitive objections so you can help address them. If you discourage that, then people won’t tell you what the problem is and you won’t know what to say to change their mind. You need information from them about what they don’t like or feel bad about or what seems wrong to them, or else you won’t know what arguments and explanations to provide in more detail.

In a rational debate (or discussion) with one person who is good at explicit arguments, and one who isn’t, the person who is good at talking should be trying to explain lots of things and the other person should be giving lots of feedback about what he does and doesn’t have objections to (intuitive or sometimes explicit). There should also be a lot of questions and hypothetical scenarios used, by both people, to get more information about what intuitions want/say or not.

If you don’t want to deal with intuitive disagreements, then there are hardly any living people that you can rationally persuade. (And very likely you’re not being fully honest with yourself and you too have intuitions that you can’t articulate well.) Leave people alone or write impersonal essays/books, but don’t expect them to change their minds and follow your ideas when you won’t engage with their intuitions.

It’s actually fine and pleasant to deal with people who share intuitions and give feedback on arguments and explanations. People don’t need a bunch of skill at explicit arguments to have good discussions. They just need some honesty, some good will, and some willingness to communicate and share. The people who are difficult or unpleasant to deal with are the ones who disagree and hide their disagreement. If people have an intuitive disagreement and won’t talk about it, then it’s very hard to make progress in discussion or debate. If people hide their intuitions and focus only on making explicit arguments that aren’t their real reasons (because they think explicit arguments are better and more rational, so they’re trying to be a better, more rational person than they actually are), then they’re being dishonest and sabotaging discussion.

Mean People

A lot of people who are pretty good at explicit arguments are pretty mean. Let’s call them “rationalists”. They react negatively to intuitive disagreement. They believe intuitions are bad or irrational. They treat themselves that way and also treat others that way. Because this is widespread, most people are pretty reluctant to share their intuitions in debates, especially when they don’t have prior friendship or at least rapport with the person they’re talking with (and it’s even worse in group settings when there are many different people who could potentially say something mean).

However, it’s possible to stand up to mean people and say things like “I have an intuition that your idea is wrong. I don’t know how to articulate it. If you want me to rationally change my mind, then we’ll have to work together to deal with this problem.” And either they can participate in a friendly way or refuse. If they refuse, you’re right not to concede the debate.

You can also avoid the mean rationalists without being traumatized and unwilling to talk about your intuitions with anyone. You can disengage when you run into them without feeling bad just because they’re a flawed person who doesn’t understand the topic of rationality and intuition. You don’t have to blame yourself.

However you deal with others, it’s crucial not to adopt the rationalist view yourself and then be mean to yourself. A lot of the meanness is something people do to themselves, not something that’s coming from others. If you were nice to yourself and self-confident, then other people wouldn’t be very threatening (at least if they’re just strangers on internet forums who have no power over you, aren’t in your family, aren’t in your peer group, aren’t your boss, aren’t your co-worker, etc.).

You need to be accepting about your own intuitions instead of trying to force yourself to be more “rational”. Sure there are skills you can learn to be better at making explicit arguments, articulating ideas, etc. Those skills are useful to rationality. But they aren’t taught well in our society so it’s understandable not to be very good at them when the educational resources are so bad. You can do fine (above average) in life without those skills. If you care a lot you can read philosophy books, practice skills and take other steps to learn. But don’t try to rush anything and accept ideas that part of you disagrees with. And don’t look at yourself or your ideas negatively when intuition is involved instead of English sentences. Intuitions are real, legitimate ideas that are part of you. They’re harder to analyze and debate, but they’re just a normal type of idea and dealing with them is part of life.

Intuitions Are Useful

Even if you become one of the best philosophers who is extremely good at articulating arguments, you’ll still have and use intuitions. Intuitions are fundamentally important because our subconscious mind has more computing power than our conscious mind. We need to use our subconscious mind, not rely only on our conscious mind. Our subconscious is a huge resource. Things like intuitions and habits let us get value from it. Lots of intuitions come from practice and automatization.

An ideal, perfect, rational philosopher would be able to turn any of his intuitive ideas into an explicit idea when he needs to, but he’d still use intuition in general. When is it worth the effort to convert intuitions to words for conscious analysis? When there’s a problem to be solved involving the intuition, e.g. it disagrees with some idea that your conscious analysis says is good and important, so you want to investigate the intuition so you can solve the problem causing the disagreement.

Some of your intuitions come from traditional ideas that you learned in childhood and didn’t do a bunch of critical thinking about before accepting. Some of those traditional ideas have mistakes in them. But, on average, traditional ideas are right more than new ideas people just thought of. In a conflict between an old tradition and a fresh idea, the tradition is right more often. The fresh idea is either wrong overall or else has some fixable flaw that the traditional intuition objects to.

Traditions are right more often because they’ve been exposed to a ton of critical thinking in the past. People have already put a lot of effort into improving them. And they’ve stood the test of time already without being a total disaster. And there are far more ways to be wrong than right, so random new ideas have a high chance to be wrong. Even non-random new ideas are wrong pretty often. Being wrong fairly often is something that innovators have to accept. (You don’t have to be wrong and confident, or act on wrong ideas. But if you try to innovate, you will come up with and consider lots of wrong ideas, and sometimes they’ll seem good to you at first instead of you immediately recognizing that they’re wrong.)

There’s room for improvement and progress with rational, conscious analysis. We shouldn’t just stick to tradition. But rationality says to address conflicts between ideas (even if an idea is intuitive instead of in clear words). Anyone who isn’t doing that, and doesn’t treat intuitive ideas as legitimate things to debate and discuss, isn’t really rational.