Intuitive Theories about Intuitive Theories

I’m about to read a book (by Andrew Shutlman) about “intuitive theories” and before I do I’m going to write down my take on intuitive theories, since the idea of them has been an occasional theme in these posts, and I don’t think I’ve ever written directly on the subject. And I want to record my thoughts so far before they are overlaid by the new book.

As usual I’ll use bullets to mark distinct points.

  • Intuitive theories are notions people have about how the world works that are seemingly correct, but are upon examination wrong.
  • An example is that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. They don’t (disregarding the effects of atmospheric friction).
  • Another example is if the starship Enterprise is flying past, it must making a swooshing sound.
  • Another example is that spaceships (in Star Wars) maneuver in space as jet fights do in the atmosphere.
  • Another example is that any moving object will eventually come to a rest.
  • Another example is the earth seems obviously flat.
  • Closely related are misconceptions taught us by movies and TV, where effects are enhanced for the sake of drama or spectacle. In ’70s TV action shows especially, whenever a car crashes, it explodes. In TV and films for decades, fist fights are amazingly loud (in contrast to fist fights in films of the ’30s, say, that seem remarkably wimpy by comparison).
  • Intuitive theories arise because our experience of the world is limited to a small slice of time and space, compared to the planet or the entire universe. We see only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum; we experience moving objects only at certain scales and in certain environments.
  • To some extent intuitive theories are heuristics, in that they are valid in many of these ordinary circumstances.
  • But the point of understanding them is that they are demonstrably not true in general, in all circumstances, and scientific experiment, for example, can demonstrate so.
  • Nevertheless these notions are so powerful they can trump logical demonstration of their invalidity, just as for flat-earthers their intuitive sense that the earth goes on forever in all directions is so powerful that trumps any evidence that the earth is in fact a sphere.
  • Science is the methodology for determining which theories are true and which are not.
  • And by extension (is my own thesis) science fiction serves an analogous function in suggesting that culture, or even reality, is not necessarily what you think it is.
  • Most intuitive theories are benign, I suspect, at least to the extent that it doesn’t matter what people believe as long as it doesn’t interfere with their making a living in the broadest sense–living their lives, having families, participating in their cultures. Whether spaceships make noise as they fly by doesn’t pertain to any of that.
  • On the other hand intuitive theories can be dangerous or malicious if they lead to behavior dangerous to the individual or to others. People who don’t “believe” in germs, for example, because they can’t be seen, might seek “alternative” medicine that appeals to their sense of essence or symbol.
  • And from there the topic leads to the cognitive biases and perceptual illusions that affect us all, but that can be overcome with conscious awareness.

Also: The idea that certain attitudes about how the world works arose because they were evolutionary successful. They *work* even though they’re not actually true.

Also ideas from Kahneman and Haidt about instinctive thinking, our quick take on what we experience, before the more deliberate, slow thinking takes over to draw valid conclusions. Haidt, recall, said that humans aren’t instinctive rationalists; we’re instinctive lawyers, making up our minds quickly based on intuitive notions, then using rationality to justify those conclusions. (The methodologies of science are the correctives to supporting invalid conclusions, when wants to understand the truth and not just win an argument.)

The book by Matthew Hutson cheekily admits the existence of various “irrational beliefs” (which may or may not be precisely what Shtulman considers as “intuitive theories”) but then suggests we live with them and let them make us happy. (E.g. you can understand that a lucky charm doesn’t *really* improve your luck, but if carrying it around with you assuages some insecure corner of you mind, then go for it.)

This entry was posted in Psychology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.