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Intuition: Hocus Pocus or Path to the Laws of the Universe?

By Tom Culham

My father was an engineer’s engineer. He helped design the Avro Aero, the fastest plane in the skies in the early 50’s. He lived in the post war ethos, a time where logic and rationality were going to save the world from the depression and war disasters of the 1930’s and 40’s. His love of reason and logic spilled over into family where there was little room for emotion or intuitive guess work that was considered hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo. Son like father, I took up rational cudgel by studying engineering. However, working as a student engineer in the mid 1970’s, intuition knocked on my door causing me to rethink my world view.

At the time, I was writing a large complex computer program for a company in Montreal. There was a bug in the code I couldn’t find despite days of pouring over paper printouts (before computer screens) using all the logical methods for finding bugs. To put it mildly I was frustrated. One morning I came to work waving the white flag, thinking I would never find the bug so I randomly flipped open the 500 or so pages of printout, (this was before computer screens) ran my finger down the page and stopped at any old place. There at the end of my finger, to my surprise, was the bug. This was a Eureka moment that sent shivers down my back. The realization hit me that logic and rationality are not the only ways to solve problems. I wasn’t Spock! Or maybe I was half Spock half McCoy.

Little did I know that I had stumbled on an understanding of one of the keys to creativity and problem solving. Many years later I came across Einstein’s quote: “The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience can reach them”[1].

Thomas Kuhn author of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions made a similar observation. He said an important way that science advances is through intuitive insights which are not logical or predictable and often have a spiritual dimension to them. For example, when talking about these discoveries: “scientists often speak of ‘the scales falling from the eyes’ or of ‘the lightning flash’ and that ‘inundates’ a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution. On other occasions the relevant illuminations come in sleep. No ordinary sense of the term interpretation or logic fits these flashes of intuition through which a new paradigm is born”[2].

Einstein seems to agree when he said: “The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind … is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart1”.

In my article[3] I proposed that knowledge in the form of intuition is related to the cultivation of virtue through contemplative practices. Linking virtue and knowledge might seem a quaint idea today but both the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese felt they were causally related. They held that the cultivation of virtue was considered essential in the effort to achieve higher knowledge and wisdom through intuition.

We certainly don’t hold this view today; education continues to give priority to rational thinking for good reason. Learning and the development of knowledge is the raison d’etre of our educational institutions. As an engineer I certainly value rational thought. It has helped me immensely. However, if it is true that intuition is as important as Einstein and Kuhn suggest and cultivation of virtue enables access to this knowledge it’s an important avenue for investigation and exploration. Perhaps teaching virtue will help societies get along better and provide a source of untapped insight and problem solving.

[1] Calaprice, A. (2011, p. 363). The ultimate quotable Einstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] Kuhn, T. (1970, p. 123). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Edition Enlarged, London: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Culham, T. (2015). Reuniting Virtue and Knowledge. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(2), 294-310.

 

Tom Culham teaches TRANSFORMATION THROUGH ETHICAL LEADERSHIP, A certificate program designed for Executive and Middle Management Leadership, offered through CityU’s Continuing Education programs. You can learn more about the next series beginning February 28, 2018 HERE. The program is taught over 5 consecutive Wednesdays 9am – 1pm, Feb 28 – Mar 28. Download a program flyer HERE.

Tom Culham, Ph.D., Program Director School of Management City University in Canada Co-Chair, Contemplative Inquiry and Holistic Education, Special Interest Group of the Comparative International Education Society. Representative at Large Research, Management, Spirituality and Religion Special Interest Group of the Academy of Management.

[1] Calaprice, A. (2011, p. 363). The ultimate quotable Einstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] Kuhn, T. (1970, p. 123). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Edition Enlarged, London: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Culham, T. (2015). Reuniting Virtue and Knowledge. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(2), 294-310.