The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.
-- Albert Einstein
"Are you a philosopher? Where's your sponge?"
-- from Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
In the previous few philosophical perambulations we've demonstrated that both logical induction and deduction are, ultimately, rationally unjustified beliefs. But there is more to the scientific method that just induction and deduction. Recall that I defined the scientific method earlier as forming a hypothesis, predicting an outcome based on the hypothesis, and then devising an experiment to test it.
But where does the hypothesis come from? A young biochemical student with an IQ of 170 once said, "For every fact, there is an infinity of hypotheses." That may seem kind of a flippant statement, but he was quite serious. It bothered him so much that he was expelled from school for failing grades and later had a nervous breakdown from thinking about it too much. The man's name was Robert Pirsig, and he went on to write a philosophical magnum opus called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Incidentally the book was rejected by 121 publishers, a record for any book which went on to be a bestseller.)
In logic the development of hypotheses has been called abductive reasoning, which as far as I can tell is a fancy word for an educated guess. Silly word, really, not to mention that abduction has rather sinister connotations.
The thing about hypotheses is that they are essentially a creative process. They are often intuitive--that is to say, in one moment the hypothesis is nowhere to be found and the next it pops right into buddy's head. They even have a word for it in informal science lexicon: Eureka. "I've found it!" In religious circles it is known as an epiphany.
These insights don't appear from nowhere though; I'm not trying to imply some mystical source. Normally hours, days, even years of backbreaking rational analysis has preceded the intuitive realization. There is sometimes a sense of being stuck, of having chased down every lead to a dead end. The Eureka Moment is often precipitated when the mind is preoccupied with something else, often mundane, such as driving, and the insight comes about as some kind of connection or pattern recognition between the two.
Here's some famous scientific epiphanies:
- It may be apocryphal, but Archimedes is said to have had an epiphany while drawing a bath and realizing that the he volume of an irregular object could be determined y the volume of water it displaced. At this, he is said to have run naked through the streets of Syracuse crying "Eureka!" This is why philosophers, to this day, like to run around naked with a sponge.
- Rene Descartes had his inspiration for the geometric coordinate system (x, y and z axes) while lying in bed and watching a fly on the wall and realizing he could describe it's position as a function of its distance from the walls and ceiling.
- Philo Farnworth conceived the television while tilling a field; the motion of the till was the inspiration for the scanning electron beam.
- Here's what Albert Einstein said about his revelation on the Theory of Relativity.
I started the conversation with him in the following way: "Recently I have been working on a difficult problem, today I come here to do battle against that problem with you" We discussed every aspect of this problem. Then suddenly I understood where the key to this problem lay. Next day I came back to him again and said to him without even saying hello, "thank you. I've completely solved the problem
- Mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss even discovered a Eureka Theorem, so named because he exclaimed, "I have the result, only I do not yet know how to get to it"
Well, I feel bad because there's not single woman in that whole list and it is females that are supposed to be more predisposed towards non-algorihtmic thinking--women's intuition and all that.
Incidentally, the light bulb--the symbol often drawn over people's head to signify a Eureka Moment--was not discovered by a Eureka Moment. Rather it developed over time, in a crucible of intense competition by several parties vying to win the race to the first commercially viable small light bulb.
But the thing about intuition is that is essentially non-rational as well. It's like an instantaneous leap from one mindset to another. A good analogy is humour. You're at the pub, and drop your best joke:
Q: What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hot dog stand guy?
A: Make me one with everything.
And everyone laugh except poor old Gus, who doesn't get it. Now you go back and explain the joke to Gus, but he isn't going to laugh now. The funny part of the joke, the essence of the humour, was the intuitive leap as you suddenly understand the play in language involved. If you have to go back and rationally explain it, it's not "funny."
Carl Jung called it "perception by the unconscious." In psychology it has been related to trans-rational pattern matching process. Roger Penrose, mathematical physicist and Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford (which is another way of saying "one of the smartest guys in the world") set out to show in his 1994 book Shadows of the Mind (not to be confused with Shadows of the Mind by Mark Alders which is a gay sci-fi/romance novel), that human consciousness is ultimately non-algorithmic (i.e. intuitive) and cannot be modeled by a algorithmic machine (such as any computer of which we can currently conceive). He even goes so far as to say that a machine cannot, in principle, have developed Godel's Incompleteness Theorems. (I should, though, mention that Penrose's view is not widely accepted in the scientific community.)
|I've half a mind to order this.|
Here then is another aspect of the scientific method that is, if not necessarily, then potentially non-rational in nature. Science often lurches forward suddenly due to these sudden, essentially non-rational insights. And this "sudden insight" into truth, often accompanied by a deep sense of satisfaction or joy, is a little more close to the capital F religious Faith, too. This isn’t abstruse arguments about the nature of induction, but more of "I see the light!" kind of faith. Poet William Wordsworth called faith a "passionate intuition."
So having determined, I think, that there is indeed an element of faith in science--at least in the sense that it requires rationally unjustified belief, we'll wrap up our epistemological excursion next time with a little discussion on how faith in science differs from other types of faiths.