Intuition, initial and final

October 28, 2011

I had dinner with Kahneman once a few months ago, and have now been dipping into his deep and thoughtful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Though I haven’t read all of it, I begin to realize that though he and I both sometimes use the word intuition, we are talking about different qualities.

For Kahneman, I think, intuition is fast thinking, snap judgements,  attractive because they avoid hard rational thinking of the second kind. As a result, it’s riddled with biases and mistakes which are interesting to psychologists.

But I once was a physicist and I’m still interested in the mysteries of nature, and so I use the word intuition in another sense. I like to think I’ve had a few occasional intuitions that were correct in small ways about small things while doing research, so I’m talking from experience. When they were right, they were the result of long hard exhausting preliminary rational struggles, banging one’s mind against the object of one’s attention. Then, finally, once in a few years, came an insight or idea or intuition, after all the struggle, that still had to elaborated by further rational effort. That’s what I call intuition.

Kahneman’s and mine are both legitimate uses of the word, but different ones.

A few remarks

Kahneman’s “intuition” = a quick guess; I mean by intuition the insight that can come only after long mental struggles.

Kahneman is concerned with the biases of intuition. I am impressed with its occasional glimpses of absolute essence. Think Newton, Ampere, Maxwell, Einstein, Feynman, Spinoza or Freud or Schopenhauer maybe … That kind of intuition plays a major role in the discovery of nature’s truths.

Intuition is comprehensive. It unifies the subject with the object, the understander with the understood, the archer with the bow. Intuition isn’t easy to come by, but is the result of arduous struggle.

In both physics and finance the first major struggle is to gain some intuition about how to proceed; the second struggle is to transform that intuition into something more formulaic, a set of rules anyone can follow, rules that no longer require the original insight itself.

Intuition: From Models.Behaving.Badly

It takes intuition to discover theories. Intuition may sound casual, but it emerges only from intimate knowledge acquired after careful observation and painstaking effort. Before you can move one level higher in the pyramid of understanding, before you can attain intuition in some domain, you have to struggle with the particulars of that domain until knowledge of its details is second nature to you.

A cyclist develops physical intuition about the correct angle to tilt body and bicycle to a curved track so as to maximize stability; the builder of a velodrome can calculate the correct banking angle to ensure the cyclist remains in equilibrium; together biker and builder combine visceral and theoretical knowledge. Intuition is learning to ride a bicycle without thinking. You have to incorporate the laws of the world into your body.

Feynman’s insight into the parallel evolution of quantum mechanical paths, Dirac’s grasp of the essence of electrons, Newton’s understanding of mass and its motion—all are instances of the external world joining with the internal. Intuition is a merging of the understander with the understood. In the words of the Upanishads, Tat Tvam Asi, Thou art that.

The Insightful Keynes on The Great Newton Sees Intuition the Way I Do:

I believe that the clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of continuous concentrated introspection. . . . His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his pre-eminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one’s mind and apply all one’s powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for hours and days and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition which was pre-eminently extraordinary—“so happy in his conjectures,” said De Morgan, “as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving.”





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Kahneman’s view of intuition stems from the fact that when it comes to psychology, he is essentially a cognitivist. For a view of intuition much closer to yours (and mine), try Gary Klein . This concept of “expert intuition” is nothing new to almost any Eastern philosophy – especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Posted by macroresilience | Report as abusive

Dear Dr. Derman, thank you for your efforts including this blog, which I enjoy because you doubt unquestioned assumptions more deeply than the majority. Concerning your attempts at resolving the essential difficulties in philosophical and scientific understanding I would like to point out that the distinction of theory versus model is a helpful, but not yet sufficient condition for coming fully to terms with pragmamorphism and achieving a completely clear view. My own field of expertise is methodology, specializing in strictly integral ways of thinking, clarifying also the usefulness of the concept of intution. Some years ago I worked intensely on how to achieve a complete grasp of the eco-social process in a new approach to really systematic socio-economic theorizing. You might enjoy two articles by Alec Schaerer, published in 2008 and 2009 and available online at in their archives, because these articles offer the strict and universal systematics that you are calling for, applicable as much to physics as economics (among the many other fields). Please feel free for starting a fruitful dialog.

Posted by pensive_sascha | Report as abusive

Having only read a bit of Kahneman’s book, it seems that System 1 (fast thinking) encompasses both instinctual intuition (responses to angry faces) and expert intuition (master chess players’ understanding of a board, physicists’ hard-won intuitive grasp of the next step). Hopefully he teases these apart as the book progresses. Using the speed of the these two processes as a unifying concept seems unsatisfying, like equating running a marathon in 3 hours to a 26 mile taxi ride that takes 3 hours in traffic.

And perhaps the physicist’s Eureka! moment is still a third form of thought. But it seems to fit into the same category as a chess master’s problem solving, perhaps used less repetitively. Call it System 1-prime?

Posted by DanCostin | Report as abusive

Dr Derman
I would recommend you look at Philip Johnson-Laird’s books. His basic premise is that much human thought is by using “mental models”. As a cognitive scientist he doesn’t just put up arguments but builds computer programs to emulate that reasoning process. I have read “Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science”, which is an easy read, and should give you an nice overview of your sense of “intuition” from Logic puzzles to body movement. He has recently written a book “How we reason” – 500 pages!

Posted by seanv | Report as abusive

Seanv: Will take a look at the book you recommended as soon as I get a chance, thanks.

Posted by Emanuel Derman | Report as abusive