October 2, 2009

But It's Counterintuitive!

I recently had someone tell me that one of their reasons for doubting a certain scientific explanation was that it was “counterintuitive”. That got me to thinking – how reliable is our intuition, and is being counterintuitive a valid reason for rejecting a premise?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that almost all useful advances in knowledge begin with a counterintuitive step. And that’s precisely where scientific discovery operates, and where science is often attacked: at the point where new observations contradict our intuition.

For most of man’s history, our intuition told us that the earth was flat. The concept of us all sitting on the surface of a sphere was counterintuitive. And while some people, such as Augustine, were willing to at least consider a spherical earth, the concept of “upside down” people walking around on the “bottom side” of the sphere was just too counterintuitive to imagine.

From the dawn of man, our intuition told us that the sky was a hard shell (we called this hard shell a “firmament”). After all, we could see it with our own eyes, and it was blue. The concept of air, which was obviously invisible, somehow taking on a blue color, was counterintuitive.

Just as intuitively, we knew that the sun went around the earth. Again, the evidence of our own eyes, seeing the sun come up each day in the east and go down that evening in the west, was all we needed. The concept of the earth going around the sun was counterintuitive.

Our intuition told us that matter and energy were different. Everyday observation showed matter changing, but never created or destroyed. That matter could be converted to, or created from energy, as Einstein proposed, was counterintuitive – until the atomic bomb proved otherwise.

For most of man’s history, our intuition told us that our heart was not a blood-pumping muscle, but was the very center of our thoughts. In fact Aristotle, using his intuition, proclaimed that the brain’s only function was to cool the blood.¹ The imagery still pervades our language, from the “in your heart, you know he’s right” political slogan ² to the evangelist’s invitation to “invite Jesus into your heart.”³ As hard as it is to conceptualize now, the very idea of using our brains to think was counterintuitive.
            ¹ As Will Cuppy points out, “this is true only of certain persons.”
            ² I’m dating myself by admitting I remember 1964 campaign commercials.
            ³ If the heart is just a muscle, should we also invite Jesus into our quadriceps?

Our intuition told us that the universe either always existed, or was somehow constructed in pretty much its current form. That the incomprehensibly immense universe should have had an instantaneous beginning from an infinitely small singularity was so preposterous that great effort was put into explaining it away, before scientists were finally willing to accept this counterintuitive proposition.

Does our intuition do any better when it comes to matters of faith?

Our intuition tells us that we achieve success through winning, conquering and accumulating. Then Jesus came and counterintuitively told us that to win, you must surrender; to be great, you must be a servant; to lack nothing, you must give everything away; to live, you must die. A major reason why some found His teaching so hard to accept, is that it was just too counterintuitive.

In fact, it seems that our greatest advances come when we are confronted with something in God or His creation that contradicts our prior intuition, and forces us to look at the world in a way we may have never even considered.

So if you’ve been relying on your intuition to decide which scientific, philosophical, or theological concepts you’re willing to embrace, stop and consider how unreliable your intuition can be.

If you’re a Christian, maybe those wacky scientific theories you’ve discounted as being too counterintuitive, are just another glimpse at how mind-bogglingly transcendent God and His creation really are.

And if you’re a scientist, maybe you’ll find, in what you’ve dismissed as a counterintuitive step of faith, an encounter with a God that will turn all your preconceived ideas about Him upside down.

So go ahead and dare to challenge your intuition.

My intuition tells me you’ll be glad you did.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent and really got me thinking. You would have loved my philosophy of science class. I'll be linking this to others. JW