How little of what we think and do is based not on reason but rather habit and received convention. We function at a profound level of intuition, applying what we know or assume in social and other dealings with the world at almost an animal level of instinct and wariness. This is why books like Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, by Gerd Gigerenzer, are useful. Gigerenzer shows how intuition functions in daily life and thought in competition with and complementary to logic and reasoning.
Gigerenzer defines gut feelings as:
- judgment that appears quickly in consciousness,
- whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and
- is strong enough to act upon.
In this sense, intuition gallops ahead of reason in already holding the criteria necessary for both judgment and action, regardless of how capable we may be of articulating this criteria. The author’s many practical examples show further how dependent on the subjective and circumstantial the basis of reason can be. A good example (though only one of dozens in the book) is ethics or moral behavior.
Gigerenzer maintains (rightly) that we own an innate capacity for morals as much as we do for language. Like his broader definition of gut feelings, our innate capacity for moral judgment lacks self-conscious awareness — actionable but not easily verbalized. Like language, morals are intuitively based on external influences, chiefly from self, family, and community. Ethical judgments reflect emotional goals at their simplest level and all the way up to functional rules of thumb as themes for action. Our social environment is filled with contingencies and interpretable circumstances that regularly elude rationality.
Thus, the individual is concerned with the minimal ethical behaviors of harm and reciprocity. Here there is a high level of tolerance for behaviors that affect only the autonomous individual.
Those who root moral values in the family emphasize reciprocity and a primitive loyalty that evolves into a broader physical or abstract community. The family is narrowly defined, and the person limits ethics to the safeguarding of that narrow circle.
The community relates non-genetically-tied individuals into symbolical relations. The community is an institutional entity or symbol emphasizing loyalty, respect for hierarchy, the group, and authority.
This process of moral capacities can be likened to the progression of reason and logic in the chronology of a person’s life. The infant quickly evolves from no overt ethical sense to soon discover the system of rewards and punishment, thus emphasizing (unconsciously) the self. Throughout the rest of life, however, the person lives in what the author calls the conventional stage. A group, small or large, intimate or abstract, comes to dominate behavior in general and especially moral behavior.
Very few people, adds Gigerenzer, attain a post-conventional stage or status. This latter is characterized by the abstract, objective state of detachment from group, based on universal principles. Ultimately, the post-conventional leaves the social context behind, even leaves behind the self. Dare we count solitaries, mystics, and highly creative souls in this stage?
The extreme end of the spectrum shares characteristics of the extreme beginning. The author does not develop this thought but it is of compelling interest. At the beginning of infancy, no conscious ego appears to exist, where the unconscious is identifiable with the entirety of environment, which is to say, with existence. At the highest stage of the post-conventional can be seen similar psychological phenomena, except of course that the individual must address a lifetime’s worth of social experience and emotions while setting out to recover the oceanic feeling of pre- and post-birth. It is as if that was always the point, after all, the getting back to the beginning of life. Thus T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
Back to Gigerenzer and a summary of the conventional stage: The individual is concerned with rights and liberties, with harm and reciprocity — and little more. Within the family of genetically-related kin, moral behavior hovers around honor and the welfare of kin, with hierarchy emerging as dominant. Under community, the person relates symbolically to an in-group, represented institutionally or regionally, commanding loyalty, respect, and a sense of purity and superiority.Gigerenzer shows how this vertical system of authority is horizontal at the individual level, and begins a vertical ascent with deeper social engagement from family to community.
For the solitary, the intersection of psychological, sociological and anthropological observations in these chapters of Gigerenzer’s book is useful for understanding how to maintain the self while correctly engaging the world. We can see that allegiance to the tight circles of social environment represented not by individuals or by nature but by human contrivances ultimately constrict intuition with “objective” ideas of reasonableness and conformity to authority — which is no more than an expectation on the part of others of sanctioned behavior and belief.
Our solitude must disengage from the social environment, or at any rate from allegiance to its representatives. Our solitude needs to bring us to natural sources of inspiration, in harmony with what is not contrived by a world dominated by power and authority. We must go where we can end as we began, a part of everything and no thing, apart from everything and nothing. Cultivating a sense of intuition that uses reason but understands its subjective origins is an important step toward cultivation of a wise self.