Have you ever been thinking of a friend, only to have that friend call you a few minutes later? Have you ever had a sudden sense that “something is wrong,” only to come home and find that your brother got a flat tire earlier in the day? Have you ever had a dream, whose events seemed to come to pass in some way?
Of course you have. These experiences are exceedingly common, and I would be surprised to find someone who could not relate at least one story like this.But here’s the more important question: does your experience demonstrate that you have some kind of mysterious power, that “intuition” is some real ability that can guide us and that we can develop by doing inane imagination exercises?
Of course not. Occurrences like those mentioned above are adequately accounted for by a combination of coincidence, confirmation bias, and the pattern-seeking functions of the brain, as I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog (like here, for example). But one thing I haven’t addressed so explicitly is this idea of “intuition,” the notion that one’s feelings actually provide information about the world and the related idea that one’s feelings actually provide information about what is “right” for the individual.During various conversations with supernaturalists and religionists of all stripes – ranging from Christians to Hindus to people who practice supernaturalist religions based on Thelema – my interlocutors often bring up intuition.
How, they ask, do I account for intuition? Where, they demand, does intuition fit into my view of the world?
The purpose of this post is to examine the idea of intuition and to demonstrate that the common notion of intuition can actually be a great impediment to the intelligent practice of Thelema.Read on for more.
When most people talk about “intuition,” they’re actually talking about a very rough and very informal kind of induction and deduction that the mind performs so quickly and spontaneously that it doesn’t even register as thought – it strikes one merely as a kind of feeling or rough impression.On the Atheist Experience television show, Matt Dillahunty nicely provides us with an explanation of this kind of intuition (watch the video here). When a caller asks about premonitions, “gut feelings,” and intuition, Matt explains:
One thing we’re really good at: we’re really good at that kind of intuitive thinking because what’s really happening is our brain is constantly working behind the scenes and considers things at another level. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything supernatural or metaphysical going on – it just means that your brain is incredibly good at processing stuff, that it can be thinking about, for example, while I’m talking to you and thinking about the words I’m going to say next, I’m getting sensory input all the time from everything around me and my brain processes all of that, so if somebody throws something at me, my reflexes can catch it. But that’s also something that we’ve trained, it’s the reason why athletes practice. We train to have the best intuition we can, to make the best decisions we can.
[Incidentally, this caller says he doesn’t believe in a “deity form” and blathers a bit about “consciousness,” suggesting that he’s been drinking from the same fruitloop well as many new agey occult types]
We live our daily lives primarily through this kind of inference and induction, through this background thinking that manifests itself as half-conscious “feelings” about things. And – since we’re really, really good at it – a lot of the time, this “intuition” can be close to accurate (at least close enough to help us navigate reality).I can, for example, see my friend and just “know” that something is wrong. Why? Because I’m picking up on all sorts of visual clues, drawing an inference, comparing that inference to other instances in my memory about my friend’s emotional state and behaviors, etc….and I’m doing it with such lightning quickness that it doesn’t register as “thinking” or “reason”…it emerges as this half-formed sense and visceral feeling or impression. And a lot of times it’s right or close enough that it’s useful.
This sense that our gut reactions are often right gets reinforced by spookier interpretations of intuition, which are created by confirmation bias. We think of our friend, the phone suddenly rings, and it’s her. We’re floored! But how many times do we think of a friend and the phone doesn’t ring? By forgetting the thousands of times that we “miss” but remembering – and putting too much weight on – the one or two times we “hit,” we build up a false sense of our intuition’s powers…we can be misled to think of the intuition not merely as the first wave of a submerged pattern of thought (which we can discover and refine) but as an accurate – and perhaps even supernaturally accurate – tool for making decisions.In other words, it’s easy to overestimate our ability to “feel” correct conclusions, and that’s where the problem arises.
[As an aside, as Matt suggests in the video above, it’s possible to train our intuition: it’s possible to, for example, train up the mind’s sense of skepticism so that one develops a sort of “bullshit detector” and, upon hearing questionable claims, one might begin to “feel” how poorly-supported the claims are, without yet being able to fully explain the fallacious thinking behind these claims.In one sense, the work of Thelema is to train up the way our mind works so that it’s geared toward proper observation of the self with less and less effort on the part of the individual. Something similar happens in many endeavors: if you’ve ever learned how to drive a car or play an instrument or play golf or something like that, you’ll notice that at first it’s extremely difficult because you have to concentrate on what seem like a thousand things at once. But gradually, with time and practice, you find you don’t need to pay as much attention to the minute details because your brain handles them on its own, in the background. You’re training up your intuition: where once you were a nervous wreck trying to watch the road and look at your mirrors and panicking about what the cars are going to do around you and trying to remember to signal and how hard to step on the brake and watching out for pedestrians and traffic signs…now you’re smoothly getting from place to place barely thinking about it. In a similar way, the process of learning to do one’s True Will gets easier with time and practice: where once it takes a great deal of effort even to make a little bit of progress, eventually it rises to the level of second (er, second-first) nature.
But as I said above, the problem I’m discussing here is not training the intuition to perform tasks, the issue is mistaking our intuitive conclusions for truth, putting too much emphasis on our ability to “feel” answers to factual claims.]
Emboldened by the extent to which our intuition is often right about things, it’s almost too easy to decide to “listen to my gut” when making decisions about others, about the world around us, or even about what the “right” course of action is. However, as I’ve been explaining, these gut reactions are not always actually feelings: they’re often rational processes disguised as feelings, and the extent to which they “feel” correct can mask the often sloppy thinking that gives rise to them.This is a problem for skeptics in general – because it can easily lead to people drawing false conclusions about the world, from belief in psychic powers to belief in religious ideas that just “feel right” – but it’s especially a problem for Thelemites because a person’s intuition about what “seems right” or what is one’s “purpose” is always a mask for rational processes…and True Will lies under those processes.
I’ll give you a specific example I found on some blog I stumbled across the other day (read it here).In a post called “Purpose and Will,” some guy named John Beckett responds to his friend’s objection to an earlier post in which Beckett asserted “you can trust your true will. You’re here for a reason.”
His friend responds:
I find great comfort in believing that I am not here for a reason and therefore not under the pressure of constantly trying to do the right thing. I am curious how your Pagan beliefs lead you to a conclusion that we are here for a reason.
This is certainly a fair question, and it’s also one that Beckett doesn’t answer. He merely says that the idea that we are not here for a reason “doesn’t work for me,” justifying this response by appeal to intuition:
My belief we’re here for a purpose doesn’t flow from my Pagan religion. It comes from something before that, from some deep intuition. It’s part of that “core being” I wrote about in the last post. It’s the same core intuition that told me the fundamentalist religion of my childhood couldn’t be right. It’s the same core intuition that clicked when someone first explained modern Paganism and clicked again when I discovered Druidry. It whispers “there’s more” – more to Life than the apparent world.
But feelings alone cannot demonstrate any of those claims, and Beckett can make no defense of the things he believes, apart from simply asserting that he feels a certain way.What I’m suggesting is that there actually is some kind of submerged rational process going on here – one that is likely riddled with elementary errors – but that Beckett veils his thinking from himself (and his rational mistakes from himself) by stopping at the gut reaction and chalking the whole thing up to an apparently infallible “intuition.”
He’s not alone here. I’ve speculated before that a lot of religious believers come to Thelema as a kind of alternative superstition: they realize that the religion of their childhood is bullshit, but they don’t really grasp why it’s bullshit. They don’t study critical thinking, evidence for religious claims, the concept of the burden of proof, or anything else – they just go with what they “feel,” getting blown around by their gut reactions. Sometimes people like this flit through half a dozen or more religions, wearing the label of “seeker” as if it’s some kind of badge of honor, as if the goal is nothing more than constantly trying out new religions, new beliefs, new identities, inspired however the winds of intuition blow.The problem for a Thelemite, in particular, becomes apparent as soon as Beckett tries to explain how to discover the True Will:
How do you find your purpose, your reason for being, your true will? I’ve heard it described (by who I can’t remember) as the intersection of your great love and the world’s great need. Beyond that, all I can recommend from my own experience is to search diligently, but not to wait till you have it all figured out before you start working. For most of my life, all I’ve known is that I need to do this and do it now. Over the years, the progression of this and that have become a destiny – the destiny of a Druid and a priest.
The problem, clearly, is that he has absolutely no idea what True Will is or how to discover it. As he uses it, “True Will” is just a feel good buzzword.I mean, let’s review. How do you find the “True Will” according to this post? Start with an extremely vague definition – one I’ve heard bandied about on the Thelemic Fruitcake Factory, by the way – and then “search diligently.”
Yep. That’s it. “Search diligently.”Yikes.
Imagine if people spoke like this about any other subject in the world.“How do you learn how to drive a car? I’ve heard it described (by whom I can’t remember) as a method of motion that results from rubber meeting road. Beyond that, all I can recommend from my own experience is to drive diligently, but not to wait until you know what a car is or exactly what to do before you begin driving.”
I mean, can you imagine something like that helping anyone learn how to drive? What a student needs is for someone to explain exactly what a car is, how one makes a car go, and what one does to make it go. In other words, a student needs a crystal clear understanding of the subject.I’m not trying to pick on this Beckett guy – honestly, I’ve got no idea who he is. But I want to point to this post, and these words in this post, as very representative of things I’ve heard from students of Thelema. If we surveyed the Thelemic community, I think it’s very likely we’d find that most people who call themselves Thelemites can’t define “True Will” any more clearly than Beckett can and certainly can’t explain how to discover it, over and beyond blind religious faith in “doing the work” of repeating inane rituals.
We would probably find in the Thelemic community, if anything, a deep and abiding belief in the infallibility of intuition, a sense that all one has to do is follow “what seems right,” and all will be peachy. Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? If all a person has to do is what already strikes him or her as the right thing to do, then what does one need Thelema for? What’s all this about self-discovery, then?The fact is that self-discovery necessarily entails learning things about one’s self that one didn’t already know, that don’t necessarily strike the intuition as “right.” That much should be obvious. If one claims to be “discovering the True Self,” but just confirms what one has always thought about oneself, then no “discovery” of any kind has in fact taken place.
It is for this reason that Aleister Crowley insisted that the discovery of the True Self – the “Knowlegde and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel,” he sometimes called it – should feel like contact with an Other and should communicate new knowledge. Indeed, from the perspective of what we commonly call the self, the True Self is Other. Actual self-examination routinely reveals things about the Self that one didn’t think was true and that, in many cases, one wishes were not true!
Thelema entails discovering and accepting all of the parts of one’s being. The journey is not necessarily always an easy or pleasant one. However, so many people live cut off from their actual inclinations, locked in a prison of their thoughts about the “kind of person I am” and “what seems right” etc., that the joys of liberation are worth the growing pains of honest self-examination.And obviously, just trusting that one starts out with all the answers or that one just “knows” what to do and should just “trust your intuition” is one of the most misleading and disastrous ideas around.
What a student needs to do is to train the mind to look at the subtle rational processes that underlie what we commonly call “intuition,” identify where these rational processes distort our perception, and endeavor to see reality – including especially the Self – with ever increasing clarity.