Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Trust Your Intuition

I commented on Amartya Sen's book the Idea of Justice, which while I found it generally unpersuasive still had a few gems. For example, it is interesting that throughout history leaders unsure of the grounds of their actions have found reticence appealing. As Lord Mansfield, an 18th century English judge, advised a newly appointed colonial governor:
consider what you think justice requires and decide accordingly. But never given your reasons; for your judgement will probably be right, but your reasons will certainly be wrong.

I find this a very wise course of action for leaders, because the last thing they want to do is get mired in a debate where their opinion is analyzed just like any other. Best to let the subordinates make their case, hope for the best, and move on. Groups need people in key positions to make final decisions, even if flawed, and while they should be held accountable, that should be done at a meta level, not at every step in a decision making process. Thus with hindsight I now appreciate the wisdom of some very wealthy leaders I have worked with who would say little, if only on this tactical point.

Another interesting point brought out by this line of reasoning is that judgement has a higher chance of being correct than the reasoning. I find this true too, as Hayek noted many traditions, ethics and mores come down to us proven by their fruitfulness to believers. So, the institutions of freedom were not established because lawmakers foresaw the benefits they would bring, that would come later, when Smith noted the nonintuitive connection between selfish and collective interest, and when Hayek outlined the importance of decentralized incentives. Hayek wrote a lot about how much of what we know that is useful is impossible to articulate. It's provisional knowledge to be sure, but proven via its pragmatic value as opposed to rhetoric. Indeed, rhetoricians are often quite good at debating any side of an issue, often choosing what is most likely to be favored, highlighting this skill is not so useful in finding the truth as it is in persuading others one should be a leader (at which point, one should then become reticent, see above).

The Gettier problem is an epistemological problem introduced in a three page paper by Edmund Gettier that now has a Wikipedia page longer than three pages (showing what philosophers love to do!). It's best given by an example:

Farmer Franco is concerned about his prize cow, Daisy. In fact, he is so concerned that when his dairyman tells him that Daisy is in the field, happily grazing, he says he needs to know for certain.

Farmer Franco goes out to the field and standing by the gate sees in the distance, behind some trees, a white and black shape that he recognizes as his favorite cow. He goes back to the dairy and tells his friend that he knows Daisy is in the field.

The dairyman goes to the field and finds Daisy having a nap in a hollow, behind a bush, well out of sight of the gate. He also spots a large piece of black and white paper that has got caught in a tree.

Daisy is in the field, as Farmer Franco thought, but Franco's reasoning was faulty.

In this case Farmer Franco was correct that the cow was safe and had evidence, it was a Justified True Belief in his mind. He knew the truth but did not have 'knowledge', rather, luck.

The problem is that the believer (Farmer Franco) was right for the wrong reason, but this turned out irrelevant. It's likely that in many such cases, his reasoning was only a confabulation for a deeper intuition about how Daisy behaves, and so, it was not pure luck. Epistemologically the problem is that often beliefs are not based on 'if and only if'--aka necessary and sufficient--conditions, so your beliefs are often right for wrong reasons, and so you don't really understand not only those beliefs you have that are wrong, but those that are right as well. As Keynes said, right policies are invariably chosen for the wrong reasons, so one can't too worked up about the fact that 'someone on the internet is wrong.' Given any big debate has two sides (eg, raise or lower taxes to increase welfare), you have only a 50% chance of being correct. As there are only a few out of many plausible reasons for having the right belief, odds are you are wrong about your reasoning more than your are wrong about what to do.

Reason is to man a great gift over and above the raw instinct and emotions we share with the great apes. It should help us find better solutions faster, which is best demonstrated by our technology and increased life spans. But we shouldn't trust reason and rhetoric too much, as traditions and instincts have wisdom too.


Anonymous said...

This argument came up a bit when Caplan released his book on parenting, and I'll quote Robin Hanson, "those who think less tend to make better decisions by following tradition and intuition, and those who rely more on explicit reasoning often take many decades to realize their mistake." When it comes to big life decisions, there are people who have gone through it all before and we should learn from them via tradition.

Or as G.K. Chesterton said, tradition is only democracy extended through time.

James said...

The approach you recommend seems problematic. If I make a decision and am called to account for it, I like to be able to give a better defense than "I trust my instincts and so should you." Maybe one day I won't be called to account for my decisions, but that day hasn't come yet.

If I had any evidence that my instinctual judgments were more reliable than my explicit reasoning, I'd reconsider this. In the case of others, I observe that those who employ explicit reasoning rather than gut judgments tend to do better in nearly every field. I doubt that my instincts are a special case.

Anon@10:38: Extending democracy through time even to the deceased is reckless. Why extend the vote to anyone who bears none of the cost of bad policies?

Anonymous said...

Intuition: Its Powers and Perils
Yale University Press, 2002
By: David G. Myers
is worth a read.

Anonymous said...

@James- the point is not that this approach is an 'incentive compatible' way to organize people. Pawns need to be accountable and we can't have everyone blaming their intuition for mistakes.
The context of this post is different. Presumably for many of the biggest decisions in life, an individual is accountable predominately to him/herself. Similarly for leaders (as opposed to pawns)- they can rise above the fray and make decisions without being accountable for every step.
The question then becomes how to make the best decision, especially for questions that are too hard/complex for one person's reason. How do you know that your instinctual judgments are less reliable than explicit reasoning for these complex questions? Especially when it comes to moral/lifestyle questions, the costs/benefits may not surface for decades. My reasoning is hardly capable of sorting out these things on my own.
The key is that tradition is itself rational. Knowing the limitations of my own instrument, it makes sense to incorporate the judgements of those who have gone before me via tradition. This is why we 'extend the vote to the dead'- not because they have skin in the game, but because they probably know some things we don't!

r2d2 said...

I would say there is nothing wrong with reason in general. It's maybe more about the cost efficiency of the decision making process. It's a bilt like "digital" vs "analog". Reason is very expensive and slow, and quite likely to make mistakes on the first try. But, given enough time, it can probably beat everything else we know hands down. Intuition (= advanced pattern recognition) or learning from the wisdom and experience of others is cheaper and faster, and statistically less likely to go wrong. In a chess game, for instance, it's way more cost efficient to learn several openings (= learn from "tradtion") than reasoning through the openings yourself. You may have the completely wrong understanding of the purpose of a given move (which I am sure is my case) but that doesn't mean it won’t help you without you knowing it. Also, for a regular player to come up with such a strong move one would need, who knows, maybe something like 100 years or so of "reasoning". So it is rational not to waste too much time and go with the best you have, which is not always "reason".

dmfdmf said...

"Reason is to man a great gift over and above the raw instinct and emotions we share with the great apes"

I think that this implies a too narrow conception of the faculty of reason. Much of what we know is not directly proved or logically deduced from premises but automatically integrated subconsciously and inductively. Hence the common, even "traditional", advice to "sleep on it" when wrestling with a difficult problem or choice. Or the common experience of explicitly thinking about a problem for days or even years then giving up and suddenly experiencing a flash of insight or breakthrough while in the shower or doing the dishes months later.

Reason never sleeps -- we are just not aware of all the subconscious operations of the mind. For example, as I write this I am not consciously aware of the process that selects the words to express my thoughts; it just happens. Once the words are out then I can explicitly decide if the words fully express my thought. In a similar fashion, once the subconscious makes a connection we can "back fill" the logic of it but it is all reason as far as I can tell. Moreover, the view that reason and emotions are opposites or antithetical in some way is another mistaken view. An emotionless, purely "logical" creature like Spock is a metaphysical impossibility, he'd be dead because he'd have no motivation to even get out of bed. Reason, both conscious and subconscious, is nothing if not motivated.

c.f. "Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious" by Gigerenzer

NB: I prefer the more precise term "subconscious" to the more commonly used terms "unconscious" or "intuition".

Mercury said...

The more areas where you think human judgment tends to be superior to human reasoning in decision making...the more pessimistic you should be about the consequences of ever-expanding government bureaucracy into more and more areas of our lives.

From airport security to financial regulation to public schools, the statists are bent on removing human judgment from as many areas of life as possible.

A great article from the 'Medical Hypotheses' blog a while back illustrates why high-IQ individuals often make poor decisions in areas involving human social relationships. In short, they tend to apply abstract reasoning to problems that are better left to our adaptive responses to such situations honed over tens of thousand of years of evolution aka "common sense".


Gary Wolf said...

Nice post.

I would like to present two relevant quotes.

First, Descartes: "Because reason...is the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts, I would prefer to believe that it exists, in its entirety, in each of us."

Then, Schopenhauer: "Being that reason belongs to everyone but good judgment to only a few, man is prone to every kind of illusion."

I would add, in line with the original post, that "good judgment" is derived to a large extent from tradition, from the wisdom of the ages.

Today, we are awash in "every kind of illusion."