Intuition and Rationality

Intuitions are part of rational thinking and debate.

Table of Contents

People trying to be “rational” often suppress their intuitions, emotions, hunches, gut feelings, and other ideas that they can’t articulate in words. They strongly favor explicit ideas, clear sentences and arguments. They favor the ideas of the conscious mind over the ideas of the subconscious mind. This is a kind of incorrect or fake rationality.

You shouldn’t be satisfied to have your conscious and subconscious disagree with each other. You aren’t done with an issue at that point. Every conflict or contradiction like that is a problem to be solved.

In this article, I’ll refer to all subconscious or inexplicit ideas, including emotions, as “intuitions”. Conscious or subconscious is actually a different distinction than explicit or inexplicit (being able to put it into words or not), but I won’t differentiate here.

Intuitions shouldn’t be suppressed with willpower. Doing that is irrational.

When intuitions and arguments disagree, initially you don’t know which side is right. You shouldn’t assume you know the conclusion of a debate that hasn’t happened yet. You shouldn’t assume that the intuition is incorrect and that a solution means finding a way to get the intuition to stop complaining. When ideas disagree, any of them might be correct, regardless of the type of idea. It’s only by using arguments and analysis that you find out which ideas are superior to others. And “That idea is an intuition.” is not an argument against it, because it could be both an intuition and be correct. Critical arguments should say why an idea is wrong rather than say something compatible with its truth.

How can debates take place which involve intuitions that aren’t in words that can’t be written down or spoken in the debate? Even if you debate with yourself, rather than with other people, there’s still a difficulty. Debate involves conscious, explicit analysis of ideas, especially with critical arguments, to try to find errors and seek truth.

How do you do explicit analysis of inexplicit ideas?

Learning About Intuitions

You can articulate intuitions. You can figure out words for them. That’s one option. It requires introspection and skill. It can be hard. It can fail.

You can also question intuitions. You can ask a question and give an intuitive answer. You can consider a hypothetical scenario (or a real one) and give your intuitive opinion about it. Your intuitions can comment on questions or scenarios. If you bring up many questions and scenarios, and figure out your intuitive opinions on them, and write that all down, then you’ll have a list of data points. You can then look for patterns.

Intuitions don’t provide words that say why or give arguments. But they do provide simple words. You can intuitively dislike something and say “I dislike that.” If your intuition wants or doesn’t want something, you can say “I want that.” or “I don’t want that.” It’s often pretty easy to put your intuitions into words like those.

But it’s only easy when you have you have one consistent intuition about a topic. If you have two or more conflicting intuitions, then it’s harder to untangle. You can easily say “I have mixed feelings.” but that isn’t very good data. It doesn’t tell you how many intuitions are involved or what sort of judgments they’re making. In that case, it helps to brainstorm more questions and scenarios. Try to find issues where fewer intuitions have an opinion or all your intuitions agree. Using specific, narrow questions and scenarios can help with that.

For example, you might have an intuition that it’s bad to be mean to people and another intuition that freedom is good. Then you could consider a scenario where a person uses his freedom to be mean to someone (without breaking a law, using violence, using fraud, etc.). Then you could have mixed feelings about the scenario without knowing why. Whereas if you only dealt with one intuition at a time, then by considering a series of questions and scenarios, you could more easily figure out a lot about that intuition.

You can learn more when you figure out what variables to vary so that only one intuition changes. In this case, you might consider a bunch of scenarios in which people are free, but some scenarios are mean and some are nice. Then only the intuition about meanness would vary its opinions, while the intuition about freedom would always give the same answer. It’s like science experiments where you try to control most of the variables and only change one or a few variables. You wouldn’t necessarily know which variables matter that you should hold constant and which to vary, but you can guess and see what works. With practice you could make good guesses pretty quickly pretty often, and if you’re not as good at it then you can just keep brainstorming a lot until you figure things out. You get unlimited tries and they’re very quick and cheap – you just need to consider a scenario or question in your mind, not do physical actions like set up a science experiment.

If the only intuition that you don’t understand and are dealing with is that it’s bad to be mean to people (or you manage to avoid changing other relevant variables), then you just have to consider a lot of scenarios, see which side the intuition takes, and then figure out the pattern of what it objects to (meanness) or likes. Finding patterns in intuitive reactions is part of what people do when they introspect, though introspection also involves other methods.

Introspection can involve remembering things, trying to be honest with yourself, finding words for thoughts, and also something along the lines of directly looking inside your mind to see what’s there.

Repeatedly using questions and scenarios, while expecting to find out only the final conclusion of an intuition (its reaction/opinion), is something you can pretty easily collaborate on with other people. They can pose questions and scenarios. This method doesn’t try to examine or interact with the intuitions directly. It treats the intuitions like black boxes, where the contents are totally unknown and all you can consider are the inputs and corresponding outputs. Introspection can look at your intuitions more directly, like looking inside the black box, but it’s hard to give clear, explicit steps for how to do that, and it’s harder for other people to participate in that process. You can’t do all your introspection by thinking in terms of words and sentences, so it’s hard to explain it to other people with words and sentences.

Intuitions want something, value something, dislike something, or otherwise have some point or meaning to them. That’s not all they do but it’s one thing they do. They’re ideas and they come up when they’re relevant to some kind of judgment or evaluation. If you intuitively know how to do a task, then you have some knowledge, and this knowledge can express itself in evaluations like wanting to do a particular action (that your intuition thinks is important to succeeding at the task) or not wanting to do it a particular way (that your intuition thinks won’t work).

For example, the task could be building a birdhouse. Someone with a lot of carpentry experience would have a bunch of relevant intuitions about what to do and not do when building a birdhouse. He might be bad at explaining what to do to someone else in words. Being able to do it, and being able to teach it, are different skills. Teaching requires more conscious knowledge instead of just intuitions. The intuitive carpenter could probably state some major points like “It needs a roof”. But if he tries to brainstorm explicit ideas at the start of the project, he’d likely leave out a bunch of things that he intuitively knows. Then when those potential errors come up during the project, his intuition will tell him to do or not do something, so the project will likely turn out fine. And sometimes he’ll intuitively adjust his plans at the outset, without consciously knowing why, but in a way that makes things work out well later.

Intuitions and Debates

There’s a common misconception that explicit arguments win debates and intuitions should be basically disregarded. If you can’t give a counter-argument, you’re allegedly suppose to concede the debate and change your mind.

But “My intuition disagrees with that. Your reasoning has not persuaded my intuition.” is a counter-argument to changing your mind. It’s a very important argument that people should remember and be prepared to use. It’s commonly needed. It doesn’t change the public or societal debate much but it does change the debate with you. Also if thousands of people intuitively disagree with something, then that’s important to the public debate: someone should figure out what’s going on there and address it.

This is a way that two rational people can correctly reach different conclusions from the same debate (the same arguments and evidence). There’s a common idea that if two people examine the same arguments and evidence, and take into account nothing else, then in theory they should reach the same conclusion as long as they’re both rational, both unbiased, neither makes a mistake, etc. That has some partial truth to it.

However, suppose John and Alice debate X. The explicit arguments favor the conclusion X over not-X. However, John has an intuition against X. John doesn’t know how to express the contents of the intuition in words and can’t explain reasons. Neither Alice nor John knows any pro-X arguments that persuade John’s intuition. They stop there. Alice can conclude X because the arguments favor X and she has no intuition against X. But John should conclude something more neutral (like “I’m unsure.”) because he has an unresolved conflict between ideas (X and the explicit arguments conflict with his anti-X intuition).

Since John didn’t communicate his intuition in words, it’s not an idea that Alice can use in her own thinking. John isn’t making the idea available for her to learn. Basically he failed to share his intuition with her, so it can’t affect her conclusion, but it should still affect his own conclusion. Put another way, John has information that Alice doesn’t have, because John wasn’t able to communicate all of his ideas. Alice should understand this and accept that John should not be persuaded of X yet. (And maybe never; X could be wrong; her arguments for X are incomplete in some way or else they would have addressed whatever it is that John’s intuition objects to.)

John should reach a different conclusion than Alice because John has an idea that Alice doesn’t have. This happened because he wasn’t able to communicate his idea to her. Failures to communicate all your relevant ideas are very common. Intuitive ideas are hard to communicate and communicating everything that you could communicate would take too long. It’s also easy to leave things out by accident that you do know how to communicate and would have said if you realized the other person didn’t know it or didn’t realize its relevance.

Intuitions are ideas which are hard to communicate so that another person can learn the idea and use it as their own idea. But you can still talk about intuitions, e.g. discussing some of their conclusions (such as what they like and dislike). That enables talking about intuitions in debates, which is rational and should be normal (but is currently unusual).

Sources of Intuitions

You can also sometimes discuss other traits of intuitions, besides their conclusions/opinions about questions/scenarios, such as where you think they came from. Do you have a lot of experience in an industry? If so, your intuitions about that industry are probably coming from your experience. But other times you’ll have strong intuitions about things you have very little experience with. For example, many people have basically no experience with guns, war or violence, but still have strong intuitive opinions about those topics.

Intuitions that come from a lot of experience at succeeding are more likely to contain valuable knowledge. Similarly, intuitions that come from intentional practice (like homework worksheets) where your answers were checked for correctness (to avoid forming wrong intuitions) are more often correct. Intuitions that come from long-lasting traditions are more likely to be correct than new ideas people just thought of which haven’t had much critical scrutiny yet. (If you decisively resolve conflicts between ideas to reach a rational conclusion, then it doesn’t actually matter which ideas are more likely to be correct. But knowing they have a decent chance to be correct could help you respect intuitions more instead of being irrationally dismissive.)

Sometimes you may realize an intuition, such as that only under-weight women are pretty, comes from propaganda. Large scale advertising campaigns during your childhood, or sometimes before your birth, can be the source of your intuitions. For example, I’ve read multiple articles explaining that diamond wedding rings are a tradition created by advertisements from diamond sellers. Marketing sugary cereals to children is a type of propaganda which leaves many children with strong intuitions in favor of those cereals but without explicit arguments that analyze what’s actually good or bad about those cereals. Hitler’s propaganda convinced many Germans to intuitively feel that Jews, disabled people and some other stigmatized groups were disgusting. Anti-capitalist propaganda convinces people to intuitively hate the rich without understanding economics. Pro-capitalist propaganda convinces people to defend all profitable businesses without knowing how to analyze which businesses are doing a good job or knowing what ways a profitable business can be bad.

Even if you correctly identify an intuition as coming from propaganda, you shouldn’t suppress it with willpower. Many true ideas have propaganda in their favor. There’s a lot of anti-smoking propaganda, and it has some flaws, but also it’s broadly right: smoking does cause cancer and smoking is broadly a bad life choice.

Intuitions Are Valuable

Intuitions aren’t an inferior type of idea. They aren’t just “memes”, “mind viruses”, “hang-ups” or “irrationalities”. They are a necessary, important, valuable part of thinking. They’re different, not worse. Being able to convert intuitions to words is good, but being able to convert from words to intuitions is good too! (You could think of it as translating instead of converting. You don’t lose the original one in the process.) Great thinkers are flexible and are good at converting both to and from intuitions. Practice is one of the ways to get intuitive ideas from explicit ideas.

Intuitions take less effort and conscious attention to use. We have limited conscious attention. We need intuitions in order to use the power of our subconscious mind. Our subconscious mind has significantly more total computing power than our conscious mind. (That’s not an analogy. Brains are literally computers.)

Practicing things to make skills automatic (intuitive) is a good thing to do in many cases. Forming habits is useful too because habits help free up your conscious attention for other things. Some habits can be bad, but the solution is to fix your bad habits and form good habits, not to avoid habits altogether. Habits can be an efficient way to use mental resources; they let you do some things more cheaply.

Eli Goldratt said people with a lot of intuition on a topic have a big advantage for consciously analyzing that topic. He said intuition (particularly from experience) is valuable and should be respected.

Ayn Rand explained that learning involves mastering ideas to the point that they no longer require conscious attention to use. You need to create fast, automatic intuitions from your conscious ideas. That frees up conscious attention for more advanced ideas. She said emotions are a type of automatized, intuitive idea which can very quickly tell you what fits your values or conflicts with your values.

Practice creates intuition and automatization (it makes things more automatic or habitual), and makes things require less conscious effort and attention.

Four Learning Steps

One way to look at learning is in four steps:

  1. Subconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Subconscious competence

(I’ve seen that list before (example) with “unconscious” instead of “subconscious”. Those words are sometimes treated as synonyms but I wouldn’t recommend that viewpoint. Subconscious means below the conscious level. Unconscious is actually quite different: it applies to rocks, air and stars. Calling ideas unconscious makes them sound more irrational and like there’s no thought involved, so stick to subconscious, or use “inexplicit” which basically means it isn’t in words.)

Step one is saying that you start without even knowing what you don’t know. As you start learning, you gain some conscious understanding of what you can’t do or don’t know (that’s step 2). With some practice and learning, you become able to do it while consciously paying attention to what you’re doing (step 3). With more practice, you can get to the point of doing it well without having to think about it, which is a positive thing (step 4).

So while intuitions can be mistaken (just like all ideas) and can be harder to discuss, they’re also valuable and important, and should be used on purpose, not dismissed as less rational.

Intentional Practice

If you created an intuition recently using intentional practice, then it’s usually pretty easy to make it conscious again and talk about it explicitly. However, it can be hard to take intuitions from many years ago and turn them back into conscious, explicit ideas. If you did the conscious competence step long ago, it’s easy to forget what it was like. Intuitions from early childhood can be extra hard to talk about because your thinking was significantly different then. Young children look at the world differently. Things you learned before getting really comfortable with language can be especially hard to make explicit later. Also, any intuitions which were created in other ways, besides intentional practice, can be harder to make explicit.

Intuitions created by intentional practice have some advantages. You intentionally and conscious looked for errors as part of the learning process. You had a conscious, explicit plan that you used and thought about. Intuitions created in other ways have more risk of containing errors that you would have noticed if you consciously understood and considered the ideas involved. Some intuitions were never conscious or explicit ideas, and some were conscious or explicit in the past but never received much critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a skill which young children are bad at in some ways (due to not learning it yet), so intuitions from childhood can have flaws that you would have noticed and avoided if you created the intuition later. Young children are extra gullible in some ways, but they’re also good at critical thinking and less gullible in some other ways. Adults tend to have whatever biases are widespread in their culture and be really blind to those assumptions, while young children are known for questioning things that adults take for granted. Also, many adults never learn much explicit knowledge about critical thinking, though they do tend to learn some things like “sometimes people lie” and learn to intuitively distrust some things. Adult intuition generally has some errors – distrusting some correct things and trusting some incorrect things – but it’s correct in other cases.


If you want to be a rational intellectual or have productive debates, it’s important to understand what intuition is, how it works, what’s good about it, what the downsides are, etc. Don’t just be dismissive of intuition. Don’t be ashamed of having or using intuition. Intuitions have a proper role in rational thinking.

People should not concede debates when they have intuitive disagreements. Don’t try to accept ideas that you dislike. There’s still a problem to be solved there. Don’t try to put up with conflicts, ignore contradictions, or suppress parts of yourself with willpower. This is true regardless of how rational or reasonable your intuitions are. If they’re unreasonable, they’re still part of you and should be improved.

People should say things in debates like “I intuitively disagree with that but I don’t know how to articulate good arguments. So we can stop debating now, change the topic, or try to explore my intuition. I could introspect and maybe get back to you later, or we could both brainstorm some questions and scenarios and then I could give my intuitive reaction to each one. That way we’ll find out more about what my intuition says, wants or values.” Feel free to use this text (just replace “that” with the topic you’re debating, say these aren’t your own words, and link to this article). You could also memorize a simple thing to say to stand up for your intuitions in debates so that even if you feel pressured or stressed you’ll be able to respond effectively. It’s easier to use something that you prepared in advance than having to come up with a response on the spot.