Nicholas B. Tiller

The blog that unifies scientific skepticism, critical-thinking, health & fitness, and the exercise sciences

  • Nicholas B. Tiller Ph.D.

#53: Intuition versus Intellect

I’ll spare you a long and intricate retelling of Plato’s Allegory of The Cave, but his narrative of three men forced to stare at a cave wall, having seen nothing during their lives except shadows cast on it by people on the outside, is an engaging hypothesis on human perception.

In "The Allegory", Plato claimed that human sensory knowledge is nothing more than subjective; opinions that are heavily influenced by our experiences. Our belief systems, in turn, influence the decisions we make but, according to Plato, real knowledge can only be attained through philosophical reasoning.

Here, I want to briefly explore the opposing processes of intuition and intellect, and the bias that leads people to perceive positive effects of a sports product when no such effects exist. We also discuss why mitigating bias (as far as we can) is a prerequisite to formulating objective opinions on training programs and practices, nutrition, supplements, and alternative therapies.

Intuition and intellect are two profoundly different ways of knowing a thing, but where intuition is akin to instinct and dependent on your gut-feelings, intellect requires data, evidence, and careful thought. It’s intuition that’s more readily misguided by bias. In his much-lauded essay Mysticism and Logic, philosopher Bertrand Russell suggests:

"…insight [intuition], untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth…"

Russell e further discusses an opposition between instinct and reason that I’d like to explore here, briefly, because it’s become increasingly difficult to justify using intuition alone to form an accurate and holistic world-view. Instinct leads us to new and revelatory insights about the world, but such insights might be fallible and frequently erroneous.

Before the scientific revolution (which began around the mid-1500s), philosophers had scarcely more than their intuition and instinct on which to test their understanding and base their decisions about the world.

At the time of the ancient Greeks, the most plausible explanation for lightning bolts shooting from the sky during a thunder storm was the wrath of Zeus: the so-called "God of the gaps" argument. Similarly, in the West in the late 1800s, bystanders wouldn’t question the notion of a powerful tonic triggering the miraculous walk of a disabled man.

But our explanations have since become more sophisticated, underpinned by our developed understanding of the physical sciences. Times have changed, and supernatural or otherwise mistaken explanations for established natural phenomena are no longer justifiable.

In the modern world, we have knowledge and understanding of the nature of existence that was beyond the reach of our ancestors. We can conclude with relative confidence if a particular claim is a close description of the truth. No longer must we rely solely on our intuition or instinct to understand the nature of events; we have the means to know for sure.

Instinct is important, but it must be tempered by reason, directed by the powerful force of intellect. Collectively, this means we must be cautious when concluding that we feel a benefit when using a new product; such a position is based on perception and intuition alone.

It may be convincing to drink a Snake Oil tonic and perceive yourself to be stronger in training, or to don some new running shoes and feel faster, or undergo a session of cupping therapy and perceive the tenseness in your muscles to have dissipated. But we have more at our disposal than blind and untamed intuition and it’s crucial we learn to integrate these additional tools. It’s even less acceptable to be so unyielding when there’s objective evidence contrary to your perception.

Many exercisers fall for the fallacious "it worked for me" defense, and it can be shaky ground to challenge the validity of someone’s personal experience. Indeed, you risk a defensive response which can prematurely end any meaningful discourse. But it’s a crucial step in objective enquiry. It does raise a difficult question; to what extent can we disregard such personal revelation when there’s direct evidence to contest it? Can we really dismiss the subjective testimonies of friends and colleagues, risking personal and professional relationships? All we can really conclude is that if we use a product that makes untestable claims on effectiveness, then we must be comfortable to do so having rejected both reason and evidence. As Russell put it:

Where instinct and reason do sometimes conflict is in regard to single beliefs, held instinctively, and held with such determination that no degree of inconsistency with other beliefs leads to their abandonment. Instinct, like all human faculties, is liable to error.

With respect to the vast array of natural phenomena, there’s still so much left to discover, and it’s likely that mankind will forever be searching for a true understanding of the nature of existence.

But with respect to concerns like training programs, supplements, placebos, sports products, shoes, socks, and salt tablets, we have the ways and means to make definitive, educated decisions; i.e., we can apply intellect instead of intuition. And while only the robots and aliens in popular science-fiction – Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw, or perhaps Mr Spok – are capable of the cold, inhuman logic required to dispassionately interpret the world and make purely objective, evidence-based decisions, the rest of us must accept that we are subject to emotive contaminations of thought.

In such matters of establishing truth – as in delineating the factual basis for an argument or a claim – all we can do is our best to remove and mitigate bias at every step.