What Is Intuitive?

Albert Y. C. Lai, September 28, 2005
trebla [at] vex [dot] net

There are two jokes about computer novices, illustrating what intuition is.

According to my observation, intuition is expectation on the ground of an analogy with past experience and education. When a direct analogy is not found, an indirect one, usually very weird, is drawn; the neural network is very creative and strange in drawing analogies, sound or flawed. Wherever intuition is possible, paradox is also possible.

Intuition is derived from educational background. Suppose a programming language is to be designed for expressing the act of performing tasks R, S, T in that sequence, possibly with dataflow between consecutive stages. A European or American may suggest

R | S | T
as an intuitive way; afterall his/her mother tongue is written from left to right. An Arab may suggest
T . S . R
as an intuitive way; afterall his/her mother tongue is written from right to left. This competition of two equally intuitive intuitions can easily escalate to a war of languages, if not a war of religions.

When a concept is asserted to be intuitive, it is equivalently confessed to be nothing new. This is a two-edged sword. If a concept or problem is transformable to old ones, it saves us effort of learning or solving. But if all new concepts are confined to the known old ones, how is advance possible? "New" is by definition hitherto unknown and unlike the old, and must be at odds with intuition. Seen in this light, intuitiveness is probably undesirable for original research, and is probably a sign of stagnation for industrial practice if overemphasized.

Many new, alternative concepts are rejected because they are "counter-intuitive". It may be an understandable, benign desire to save and reuse past knowledge. But thinking deeper, if education encourages you to reject those alternatives you have never been taught, has education become brainwashing? What is the difference, and where do you draw the line?

Is intuition your master, or are you the master of your intuition? Do you let intuition make all decisions for you, or do you keep modifying your intuition to accomodate new learning?

Also posted to Lambda the Ultimate.

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