Why intuition is greater than debate
How do people get new ideas? We would never guess from the way they are transmitted
In 1600, the royal British physician William Gilbert explained why the magnetic needle in a compass always faced “north”. It is possible that an ancient Indian said it first, but according to the recorded history of white people, Gilbert was the first to explain the compass. At the time, the popular scientific belief was that the needle was attracted to the North Star or that there was a massive magnetic mountain in the Arctic region. But then an idea occurred to Gilbert—that Earth was probably a giant magnet, and that the opposite poles of the needle and Earth attracted each other. After the idea came his pursuit of proof. He created a model of Earth from lodestone, the magnetic iron ore, and moved a compass over its surface. The needle behaved exactly the way it did over the planet’s surface. This might seem neat but his proof was wrong.
Now we know that Earth’s magnetic field is caused chiefly by the motion of molten iron in the planet’s outer core. Gilbert’s intuition was right; his substantiation of the idea was wrong. In fact, the correct substantiation of his intuition would have been impossible in his time. Around this time, his great contemporary Galileo Galilei was consumed by the sacrilegious idea that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. He said Earth went around the Sun, something that the Vatican, through Pope John Paul II, finally accepted in 1992. Galileo was not the first to propose the heliocentric theory but he had complete faith in the idea at a time when no one had any clinching evidence. Eventually, he found the proof in ocean tides—he said the oceans sloshed around because of Earth’s movement. His intuition about the heliocentric theory was right, his substantiation was wrong. A very common story in the history of science.
An idea comes to some minds as an intuition, to many in the form of faith or imitation, or a convenient corroboration of a bias. An idea always arrives as a realization, spreads as a belief. The arrival of an idea is a religious moment. But its legitimacy is proved in public and private through the fabrication of rational substantiation. An argument then is reverse engineering of a religious moment.
Here I am not referring to collegiate people who can debate either way, or are paid to debate for a cause in television studios. I am only referring to people who have ideas, or at least convictions. Even when they practise it, is debate as intellectually robust and pure as we are trained to assume? Isn’t it true that all debates emerge from the scripture of personal faith? Is the pre-eminence of debate then overrated? In the hierarchy of intellectual activities, why is this method of transmission of an idea more respected than the very force that creates ideas—intuition? An intuition is not a supernatural force—it emerges from dormant or subterranean knowledge. Even so, science celebrates intuition only after it has been proven to be right. Can it be that across the ages, superior thinkers have been subdued by lesser minds who were and are merely good debaters? Is the transmission of truth now entirely in the hands of the articulate, who are better at transmission than truth?
All my life, I have been struck by the facial expressions of a type of people—good minds who are just lousy at debate. They have an idea but they lack the cunning to patch together a substantiation. Even as they lose face, lose the words and go quiet, you can see they have not abandoned their ideas. What they want to say is the most honest but defamed of intellectual statements, “I cannot substantiate this right now, but I believe…”
But then the pre-eminence of debate is unavoidable in some spheres. The soul of science might be the genius of intuition, but, without the process of substantiation and falsification, it would become a comedy, like the “science” of the medieval Catholic church, and the modern lovers of the cow who instinctively “know” that cow dung can block nuclear radiation. Also, science gains immeasurably as much from flawed proofs as from the announcement of beautiful instincts. But the imitation of scientific debate in politics, economics, culture, even literature and other aspects of the subjective arts, is outrageous. In television studios and around dinner tables, people are forced to dress up their intuition or beliefs through the masquerade of logic and evidence. That is a wasteful decorum of modern intellectual life. It will be fascinating if someone organizes a talk series where public figures are invited to talk about their intuitions and theories, which they cannot or do not wish to substantiate.
The scientist Richard Feynman said, “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.” This is the ideal of science but it is not true. At times, science, too, is religion. For all its vaunted objectivity, science itself is in the hold of the powers of faith, which is expressed through highly persuasive arguments. For instance, generations of scientists, who were convinced of the existence of “ether”, which was believed to permeate space, did come up with scientific arguments that were highly respected then.
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it,” once wrote the theoretical physicist Max Planck. This, we know, is true in every sphere.
It is the finest thinkers, who first see the vision and then discover the proof, who usually resist new ideas. The same intuitive genius that makes them see things that others don’t blinds them to the intuitions of others. One man’s counter-intuition is so often another man’s plain intuition. Albert Einstein saw what Newton could not see—that space and time are entwined, and that they behave like an elastic fabric, and that gravity is a warping of such a fabric. But despite the great visions Einstein had seen in his life, he disbelieved the exotic science of quantum mechanics, to whose creation he himself had contributed.
When we debate, argue, or even write a column, we build a case, we substantiate our argument and consider opposing views. There is one thing we do not say at all—how we actually got the idea.
Usually, an idea does not come to us after an argument with ourselves, or after a deep investigation into the facts. This is not how ideas usually arrive, or form. The argument does not create the idea, the idea creates the argument.
Some debates even have petty origins. For instance, many grand debates are inspired by nothing more than malice and jealousy. In the recent past, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati used to challenge the more conscientious Amartya Sen to debates. The motivation was not exactly the welfare of the world. It was more likely that Bhagwati was just miffed that he was yet to win the economics Nobel, which Sen had. I cannot substantiate this in a debate; I just feel this way.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan
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