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Intuition and Humanism: A Dilemma for Science?


What do you get when you cross a computer scientist with humanism? Naturalistic transcendentalism, of course.

Naturalistic transcendentalism, a nascent humanist philosophical approach, is the brainchild of Peter Bishop, PhD, a long-time humanist who worked in the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley. Bishop, who spoke at the recent American Humanist Association (AHA) meeting in Philadelphia, noted that transcendentalism gained traction in the 19th century, primarily from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. But Emerson’s philosophical approach, which had room for intuition, lost favor in the next century to science, the philosophy of science, and humanism.

“As we look at these issues today, we notice that our naturalism is much more complex than it was in the early 19th century,” Bishop said. “Naturalism today is so oriented toward scientific thinking that modern science has declared that human intuition should not be studied until we can understand the natural law that causes it to work.”

But naturalistic transcendentalism does not accept this view. Rather, Bishop’s philosophical approach deems it “appropriate to study intuition using the most powerful observations that exist of intuition: our subjective observations of our inner beings.” However, science measures what it can observe and subjective experience cannot be observed from an external vantage point. If scientists alone cannot study the personal experiences of intuition (or other subjective experiences), who else can? Bishop suggested turning to the humanities for help, as these disciplines “deal more with the subjective lives of people than do the sciences.”

Reason, Emotion, Intuition

One of the first steps along this path is to acknowledge that the human spirit is real, Bishop said. In other words, one’s subjective experience should be considered valid. The scientist can record the subjective experience as an event, but should not attempt to determine its meaning merely from its observation. This way, “we can remain on solid scientific footing.”

To get from this initial step to intuition, Bishop relied on his training in artificial intelligence to ponder what thinking might look like when humans make choices. Such thinking inevitably leads to devising a value system, which guides the actions of people.

“But how did we arrive at this list of values in our value system?” Bishop asked. “It is at this point that we start to leave reason behind and start to depend more and more on our feelings,” he said. “From an artificial intelligence perspective, emotions are an interesting subsystem within the human brain that appear to be a primitive way of making decisions about what to do.”

This emotion-led decision-making happens on a nearly unconscious level, leaving the brain free to continue to choose the appropriate action. It’s not that big of a jump, Bishop theorized, to go from emotion-induced action to intuitively-gained ideas. But how subjective phenomenon is studied and how all the relevant academic disciplines will merge for the task have yet to be determined.

And while Bishop said there is room for the humanities to enhance this pursuit, he emphasized that science prefers not to leap to conclusions. It is therefore important that “our scientific perspective be engaged when we try to move from an observation of the human spirit to theories of objective reality that explain how such an experience could have occurred and been observed,” he concluded.