Monday, January 2, 2012

The Psychology of Religious Intuitions

Intuitions are very useful. When it comes to complex decisions (like buying a house or deciding who to marry) or when using expertise (like a grand master in chess deciding on a move), intuition is undoubtedly the way to go, as evidenced by common sense and psychological research.

But people often also use intuitions to try to understand the nature of the universe or religious truth. At this point, are intuitions still reliable or do they lead us astray? If you have any interest in the psychology of intuitions and cognitive illusions, or if you wonder whether and when you should trust religious intuitions (and why or why not), you should find this series of interest. To be up-front about it: I will explore evidence suggesting that many types of religious intuitions are indeed based on cognitive illusions that yield fascinating insight into our minds.


What are intuitions? As I will consider them, intuitions are judgments or feelings we come to without knowing how we came to them. If you reason through each step, it's logic. If you have a gut feeling that you don't know how you got, it's intuition.

Intuitions do not emerge magically or from a sixth sense, though: they emerge from non-conscious processing. They are like a mill, or the juicer shown above: our brains take input, do something to it inside our mental machinery, and out comes an intuition. Because the processing is non-conscious--hidden inside the machinery, in the juicer analogy--we only see the output (the intuition). However, experimental psychologists can study how the juicer works: what input does it take and what does it do to it in order to produce this intuition?

Consider catching a baseball. In a sense, this involves intuition: your brain takes visual input and must solve some complex physics problems to determine where the ball will go, when it will go there, and at what speed. Consciously, though, you just intuitively know. Again, this can be incredibly useful and time-saving.

So what could go wrong? A few things. For example: 1) Intuitions often involve shortcuts, also called heuristics. These shortcuts usually serve us well, but are fallible and may lead to illusions. 2) Our intuitions developed to handle our ordinary-thing world and ordinary time lengths. Their usefulness can break down at the level of the microscopic or the astronomical, or nanoseconds or eons--but people still feel intuitive tugs at those levels.

Therefore, there are many times when our intuitions about what is true must be critically examined or restrained by logic and scientific thinking.

In future installments, I'll use this background to explore specific intuitions and heuristics we often rely on, examine how they work and when they go wrong, and identify how they connect to religious intuition.