Logic or Intuition?

Posted on 2012 May 20


A friend likes to debate me on the topic of “logic versus intuition” — he believes our lives work best when we reason out what we need to do each day, whereas my notion is that people feel their way through their lives, their instincts leading the way. He sees life as a puzzle to be solved, while I see it more as a kind of jazz, where you must play your riffs off the cuff. He waves away my idea, explaining that the intuitive process is like hunches, and isn’t accurate at all, whereas logic and reason are ironclad ways of making good decisions.

The funny part is that, when we’re out in public (say, at a restaurant), he gets nervous and impetuous around strangers, tossing out absurd comments — random funny stuff that, I suppose, he hopes will throw them off guard, disarming them and removing their threat. He has a special knack for saying exactly the wrong thing to scary-looking strangers — you know, men with long beards riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles (“Is that a Nazi helmet?”), or burly cops (“So, officer, what kind of gun are you wearing?”) — which makes me cringe. But somehow he manages always to escape his folly, while the stranger merely looks at him quizzically, shakes his head, and turns away.

Don’t get me wrong: my friend is smart, funny, and inquisitive, not to mention kind and generous (if somewhat anxiety ridden). Some of his shenanigans have left me doubled over with laughter, and we’ve spent many an hour happily discussing all kinds of topics, enhanced by his refreshing point of view.

But there’s a disconnect here. If rationality is superior to instinct, why does he fail to exploit it in social situations? For one thing, if he has to stop and think, the moment flies past and it’s too late for action. For another, there’s really no way to know just what tactic will work best with a given group of people: the possibilities are almost endless, and they entail creativity more than calculation. My friend, unable to summon logic and reason in the fraction of a second available for his decision, instead simply throws up verbal chaff, hoping to joke his way through an anxious moment.

Reason has brought us science and technology, improved our social institutions, and bettered the tools with which we create in the arts and commerce. Reason works well if you have plenty of time, a quiet place to think, and perhaps some resources — books and periodicals, the Internet, and associates who are experts in a given topic.

But reason and careful thought aren’t much use when we’re reacting to sudden dangers while behind the wheel, or when we’re playing a fast-moving sport … or when we’re interacting with others. The time to think through these situations is before they occur, when we have the leisure to consider them from many angles. But even if we plan carefully, we can never anticipate all the possible scenarios that might erupt in front of us. Our very choices of action will evoke surprising responses from others. To act appropriately in the moment, we need something else.

In Carlos Castaneda’s books about his experiences in Mexico with peyote and the quest for alternate realities, the sorcerer Juan Matus explains that the secret to acting precisely and well is “control, then abandon” — that is, we must first plan carefully, but when the time comes for action, we must let go and act intuitively. There’s a similar outlook in the Zen martial arts, where it’s called “right action”.

 As for the Western idea that we must think our way through life — that intuition and gut feelings and hunches are inaccurate and weak — in fact it’s probably the other way around. When we’re out and about, intuition sorts through the entire history of our life experiences and selects the best action almost instantly, and usually much more exactly, than stopping to think it over. Rather than calculating our way through life, we do better when we feel our way.

 A great book on the topic is The Gift of Fear by security consultant Gavin de Becker. (He protects movie stars, politicians, billionaires, etc.) The book provides a thorough grounding on how to trust our instincts in social and public situations.

 And there is, of all things, a pop song that speaks directly to this issue. It’s called “Intuition” by Jewel:

. . . Follow your heart, your intuition

It will lead you in the right direction

Let go of your mind;  your intuition

Is easy to find, just follow your own heart . . .

I don’t know if my friend cares much for Jewel, and I don’t think he has read Castaneda or de Becker. If, someday, he decides to follow their advice, I hope he doesn’t abandon totally his goofiness. When he’s relaxed and spontaneous, it’s his best trait.