In light of our earlier analysis of the widespread usage of opiates in pre-Enlightenment Europe, this brings up an intriguing possibility: is it possible that the knowledge discovered in the Age of Enlightenment itself was influenced by opium? Could the Age of Enlightenment be an example of the psychedelia movement of the 1960s, or Hitler’s opioid-fueled Blitzkrieg of Europe in WWII? The Age of Enlightenment was undoubtedly a much-needed response to an age when the authoritarianism of the Church and Kings had caused untold harm. However, did the regular consumption of opium-laced laudanum fuel creatives to new, unimagined heights of expression, and ordinary people to heights of pain avoidance or cognitive impairments? Were opium eaters emboldened to the cause of justice? Mark Twain wrote: “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Now, modern science is revealing the role that intuition plays in complementing analytical reasoning. Both are heavily affected by drug use. At the same time, neither intuition or intelligence can exist in a silo for valid reasoning to occur.
Centuries of rational thinking have created a world fundamentally shaped by Enlightenment philosophy. Today nowhere does reason excel more than in the rationalistic fields of business, science, & technology. As a result, our modern world is built on the countless inventions that were created out of mathematical calculations and the mechanical application of business principles designed to maximize profits for their shareholders. Renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman spelled out the relationship between intuition and logical reasoning in his groundbreaking book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which summarized his decades of research with partner Amos Tversky, on intuitive and logical thinking. Incidentally, this also launched the field of behavioral economics.
In a nutshell, Kahneman and Tversky investigated and classified common human errors that arise from heuristics and biases and summarized it in a blandly entitled framework called “System1 and System 2”. Kahneman defined System 1 as the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach, while System 2 as the brain’s slower, analytical, rational approach. Kahneman saw System 1 as more influential and steering System 2. Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 cut across prior categories. One cannot merely say that System 1 is irrational because sometimes it is often logical. Conversely, occasionally slow System 2 thinking can produce poor and even irrational results. It is only recently that we are beginning to realize that the prioritization of System 2 thinking that reduces everything to an equation may not be the panacea that Kant and other leading figures made it out to be.
Modern capitalism is based on the principle of homo economicus, the rational agent. Production plants that apply human motion studies to production lines that produce rationally designed products for homo economicus. Perfect, right? Wrong. Two centuries of reductionist industrial capitalism have resulted in significant unintended consequences such as populist uprising, authoritarian regimes, biodiversity loss, fresh water shortage, peak resources, the highest inequality rates in history, and climate impacts to name a few. It is clear that rational though without intuition leads to unacceptable imbalances.
At the same time, the fast and intuitive System 1 of Kahneman is peppered with all manner of cognitive biases. Psychologists keep discovering them, and they now number in the hundreds. Kahneman does not dismiss intuition outright though, but instead argues that it is effective to compliment analytic reasoning, but only if it is used correctly. The intuition of a domain expert is entirely different from that of a novice. The domain expert has the advantage of years of practice and experience that allows the expert to formulate a high-quality response quickly.
Studies by Gerard Hodgkinson at the Centre for Organizational Strategy, Learning, and Change at Leeds University unpacks intuition to give us insights into how it works. He cites the case of a Formula One driver who braked sharply nearing a hairpin turn without knowing why. As a result, he avoided running into a pile-up caused by accident up ahead. Psychologists who were interested to know how he was able to identify this tested him with a video of the event and discovered that he was subconsciously tuning into the fact that the crowd that was usually cheering him on was instead looking in a different direction with a static, frozen, gaze. This was the cue that something was wrong, and the driver responded immediately to it. Hodgkinson concludes that neither is better than the other, and both are needed in effective decision-making.
Neuroscientist Valerie van Mulukom of Coventry University agrees with Hodgkinson, that intuition has an important role to play. The current model of the brain is as a predictive processing system which constantly compares incoming sensory information and experiences with stored memories and knowledge to predict what will happen next. This comparison occurs automatically and subconsciously in real-time, and when a significant mismatch is detected but has not reached a conscious level yet, it produces the feeling we call intuition. Recent meta-analysis investigating the relationship between intuitive and analytical reasoning This shows that intuition is not correlated and do not exist on opposite ends of a bipolar spectrum. This means that even though you may think you are engaged in purely analytical System 2 thinking, yet System 1 intuitive thinking can still be happening subconsciously. Furthermore, Albert Einstein was a firm believer in intuition and credited many of his significant discoveries to intuitive thinking. While it is easy to say that intuitive thinking is sloppy and imprecise, Mulukom cites a study that shows that too much analytical thinking can lead to poor decisions as well (Wilson et al., 1993)
Recent studies on identity politics conclude that our group identity is stronger than reasoning and causes us to cherry pick data to support our groups position. Thus, in moral dilemmas, analytical thinking is sometimes referred to as the “press secretary,” which comes up with post-hoc justification for firmly entrenched moral positions. As usual, it is not a pure black and white case of one is better than the other. Both intuition and analytical thinking are required in appropriate amounts to make most decisions, even though they need to carefully harnessed to ensure clear decisions are made.
One of the most famous stories that illustrates the power of such domain expertise intuition is that of Lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. Stanislav Petrov is known as the man who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war. Petrov is the central figure in a false nuclear alarm incident that took place on September 26, 1983. At that time, Petrov was the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early warning command center. While he was on duty, the early warning system radar screen became lit with six incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from the United States. In the few tense moments that followed, Petrov had a decision to make. He could alert authorities higher up on the chain of command of the radar screen’s report of incoming nuclear missiles, or he could disobey his orders and protocol. His gut feeling told him something was wrong. He didn’t know what, but his years of experience told him that this didn’t make sense. In the end, Petrov did nothing. Going against Soviet protocol explicitly written for such situations, he disobeyed orders and told them nothing. After he watched and prayed for the moments following his decision, the blips on the radar screen show a ground zero strike. Then nothing. Follow-up calls indicated to the command center that nothing had happened. Petrov made the correct guess, and he is now credited with preventing an erroneous retaliatory nuclear strike on the US and its NATO allies, which could have resulted in large-scale atomic war.
Post-incident investigations confirmed that the early warning system had indeed malfunctioned. The investigation revealed that the false alarm was caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota and the Molniya orbits of the Soviet satellites. In the post-incident briefing, Petrov explained that his gut feeling was based on the knowledge that a US strike would be all-out, so five warheads seemed inconsistent. The warning system was also newly installed, so he did not gain enough experience with it to fully trust it, the ground radar picked up no corroborating evidence, and the warning messages quickly passed through 30 layers of verification too quickly. In Petrov’s action, we see the combination of both domain expert intuition and analytic reasoning to produce the right response.
When it comes to voting, as voters analyze their options, personal beliefs combine with perceptions of a candidate’s fitness (his or her historical performance, competency, lineage, party, and background) to determine a final decision. For some voters, even a candidate’s physical appearance, dress, and bone structure may affect a voting decision. For instance, various aspects of facial features and expressions have been found to influence perceptions of trustworthiness. These intuitive senses may hark back to our evolutionary history when specific features alerted us to danger and increased our fitness to survive. We have to remind ourselves that such instinctive responses, though they may still arise naturally, may be out of context in a modern system.
However, we are trying to apply our intuition to a distant decision. Typically, we are represented by a person that is 3-4 degrees of social separation away. Indeed, our intuitive prowess diminishes with indirect measurements, and our intuitive awareness is not as applicable as a valid tool as a result. So then, the difficulty of applying a metric at a distance to intangible, qualitative values (such as “trustworthiness,” “drive”, or “charisma”) reduces the value of intangibles in decision making and shifts the priority to variables that can be measured with a greater degree of confidence. In this way intuitive ideas, which cannot be measured, lose out to ones that can. In a modernity that grew out of the Enlightenment, numbers alone bestow a legitimacy that makes associated ideas worthy of consideration.
Reflecting upon the powerful influence of Enlightenment thinking, at the end of the 19th century, Francis Galton stated “until the phenomena of any branch of knowledge have been submitted to measurement and number, it cannot assume the status and dignity of science” (Galton, 1879). American psychologist James McKeen Cattell stated that, “Psychology cannot attain the certainty and exactness of the physical sciences unless it rests on a foundation of experiment and measurement” (Cattell, 1890). Galton’s firm pronouncement was based upon the work of his predecessors, especially the medieval scholar John Duns Scotus and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Indeed, science naturally expands from what is known to what is unknown. Hence, it grows and develops into the unknown and absorbs the intangible into the tangible. New instrumentation based on novel physical concepts of measurement brings a once intangible variable into the purview of science. With measurement, once purely intuitive ideas are provided with the quantifiable validation that makes them legitimate scientific concepts. In our post-Enlightenment era, it is experimental validation that moves such stories from mythology into the realm of fact.
As scientific research reveals the specific mechanisms behind our intuitive senses of the world, these insights can help us remove the bias that the lack of research has created against intuition. For example, our sense of smell is an evolutionary adaptation that confers survival advantages. We’ve all heard how stories of how animals and even some people can smell fear, or how mothers have a special bond with their children. Scientists from Germany, Canada, and Sweden have found that the sense of smell is a strong signal that bonds mother with their newborns. fMRI scans showed that new mom’s thalamus lit up more than that of women without children when smelling the cotton undershirts of newborns, suggesting mother’s increased attention (Lundstrom et al., 2013). Olfaction researcher Katrin T. Lubke suspects that mother’s imprint their chemosensory signature onto their unborn child through their amniotic fluid, enabling newborns to be able to detect the unique scent of their mother. In a 2015 experiment, newborn babies turned their heads towards scent pads of their mothers twice as long as a lactating stranger.
In 2015, European researchers using electrodes measured the facial expressions of subjects who had sniffed the scent samples of people who watched a variety of videos. The scent of volunteers who watched scary videos evoked an apprehensive facial expression in the subjects, while happy videos evoked a smile, and those disgusting ones elicited a facial expression of revolt. In another fMRI study, subjects smelling the sweat of first-time parachute jumpers caused significant activity in the left amygdala, suggesting a fear response. These olfactory signals, often interpreted as intuition, may be indicators that warn us of impending danger.
Olfactory research is also putting old myths to sleep, replacing them with more nuanced findings. For instance, how often have we heard that dogs have a keener sense of smell than humans? This may be true, but only for a limited range of stimuli. Biologist Matthias Laskas’ research involves performing a cross-species comparative analysis of odorant detection overt the span of decades and has found that dogs have a better sense of smell than humans, but only for specific types of aromas, such as fatty acids that are emitted by meaty prey – the type of scents pertinent to its survival. Humans, it turns out, outperform dogs when it comes to smelling plant aromas, something beneficial for our human ancestors seeking out fruit.
A University of Chicago research study tested a group of women who were asked to smell t-shirts worn for two consecutive nights by male subjects. The study found that women were able to choose their closest genetic match based on scent alone accurately. In another related study, researchers at McGill University demonstrated that smelling body odor activates the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with recognizing family. Other research shows that women prefer potential partners who are genetically related, but not too related. Taken together, these results tell us that our refined sense of smell is a tool that women use to eliminate choosing bad partners, which is another form of measurable intuition.
The olfactory circuits are a classic example of how (bodily) intuition trumps reason. A 2014 study revealed a spectrum of a trillion different odor permutations which humans are capable of distinguishing; yet, we are armed with a small supply of words that describe the aroma. This means that our intelligence is only capable of discussing a tiny fraction of this enormous olfactory space. Since the olfactory nerves do not connect directly to the thalamus, but instead to the cortical areas that are responsible for emotions and memories, smells can trigger these feeling without our conscious awareness. Neuroscientist Johan Lundstrom’s research has led him to conclude that evolution has given us a highly refined sense of smell that science is only beginning to reveal. This indicates that our intuition is highly valuable and should work hand in hand with our intelligence. While we can always choose to ignore the intuition emerging from our sense of smell, it may come at a price.
Professor Sarah Garfinkel is a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex who researches interoception, the awareness of internal body sensations, like an increased heartbeat, headaches, knots in our stomach, dizziness, or feeling hungry. Interoceptive signals travel along neural or blood-borne (humoral) pathways. When we don’t feel well, interoceptive cues play a large part in our feelings. Such signals have evolved to provide feedback to the brain to increase our chances of survival. However, like scent this is not a conscious awareness as more often it is tied to intuition.
This connection between the signals of our internal physiology and our emotional state was recognized as early as 1884 when William James put forth the argument that our “feeling states” are a product of our physiology. In other words, James argued that fear doesn’t cause our heart to beat faster, but our accelerated heartbeat is the source of our feeling of dread. The visceral structures of the body refer to the internal organs of the body, the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, kidney, liver, and other organs. These organs contain sensory nerve endings that relay signals to the central nervous system but rarely enter into conscious awareness. Occasionally we do experience our internal world through sensations such as heart palpitations, throbbing headaches, racing pulses, abdominal cramps, colic, or butterflies in the stomach. For example, today, doctors use patient reports of visceral pain to help diagnose potential disorders of internal organs as a very important intuitive diagnostic tool. In fact, with intelligence we have become better at identifying the source of this knowledge. Scientists studying interoception have identified a region called the anterior insula located at the center of the brain as a critical processor of both emotions and internal visceral signals.
Garfinkel and other neuroscientists researching interoception have performed experiments that demonstrate the neural and mental representation of internal bodily sensations are integral for the experience of emotions. Researchers tested for enhanced interoception in the lab by testing subjects for their ability to sense their internal physical sensations. The subsequent research shows that there is indeed a positive correlation between sensitivity to interoceptive signals, greater activation of the insula during interoceptive processing, enhanced grey-matter density in the anterior insula, and experience of greater emotional intensity. This does mean that many of our senses are processed through our intuition, not our conscious minds.
Furthermore, researchers have discovered that our internal bodily signals can be quite nuanced. For instance, we all know that when we experience the emotion of fear, our heartbeat increases, but did you know that our heartbeat slows down when we are in a state of anticipation? Different patterns of heartbeats are characteristic of different emotional states. This is just one fact that hints at the fact our minds and bodies are intrinsically coupled.
Experiments in the field of interoception have also demonstrated empathy effects through external synchronization of interoception states. For example, in an experiment when the heart rate of firewalkers and their observing spouse or partners were measured, the observer’s heartrate matched that of their partner. This is one more example of measurable intuition. In experiments involving manipulation of eye pupil sizes of images of people, reducing the pupil size of the image caused a physiological reduction of the pupil side of the observer as well. Reduction of pupil size is an indication of sadness, so sadness was transmitted subconsciously through the image. Such experiments show that interoception is essential both for the awareness of our internal state of wellbeing, as well as that of others. Interoception research concludes that a healthy community requires individuals who are sensitive to their interoception states.
These interoceptive signals also play an essential role in intuition and decision-making. Intuitive decisions are often made by “gut feeling,” which we have been discussing the basis for. For example, stock market traders often trade by gut feeling. As reported in their 2016 paper, Garfinkel and colleagues constructed an experiment with high-frequency stock traders on the floor of the London Stock Exchange to test the connection between risk-taking decisions based on this intuitive sense, the gut feeling, and interoceptive signaling. They found that indeed stock traders who use their gut feelings are more sensitive to their heartbeats than matched controls from non-trading populations. Also, there was a good correlation between their interoceptive skill and their financial profitability leading us to guess that intuition is essential in high quality decision making.
These examples illustrate how scientific research is slowly revealing that instead of a vague, unquantifiable feeling, intuitions are based on sensory signals of the outer and inner world resulting from millennia of evolutionary adaptation. So even when we are unable to articulate it, except in vague emotional and unmeasurable terms such as “I sense danger” or “something doesn’t feel right,” they are still based on a physiological system honed for survival. Such research lends credibility to the hard science behind the signals that underlie our intuitive senses.
However, the challenge of intuition has always been the inability to measure it. Unlike scientific realists who make claims that a scientific concept may exist in some metaphysical realm, scientific operationalists elevate measurement to a philosophically distinct category of scientific activity. Operationalists do not admit a scientific theory unless it can be measured. Hence, from their perspective, intuition is not something that could scientifically exist unless it could be estimated first. Therefore, many scientific concepts are defined by measurement as measurement takes logical priority over other scientific concepts that cannot be measured, in the operationist view. In other words, when something is communicated and understood accurately between people, it eclipses the importance of something that is not able to be described well, something without an agreed upon metric.
The representational view, that measurement involves a distinctive relation of numerical representation, sees measurement as a hybrid of the empirical and the conventional. This raises the spectre of the apparently “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (Wigner, 1960). When scientists set about devising practical, standardized procedures for measuring, it is precisely these real numbers (ratios between unknown magnitudes and the unit adopted) that scientists attempt to identify. In that process, the most important factor distinguishing measurement from other methods of scientific inquiry is the context of application – quantitative attributes and ratios that they sustain.
After the Second World War, new regulations for researchers emerged in the U.S., as documented by Schorske (1997) and Solovey (2004). These new requirements led the human sciences (psychology, economics, and sociology) to imitate the quantitative rigor of the physical sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry and physics). Heightened public perception of psychology’s laboratory and methodological rigor (the ability to measure quantitative value) maximized funding opportunities under the new, post-war dispensation. However, new funding policies forced the qualitative methods previously employed by psychological researchers into decline. This shift occurred within a new cultural paradigm that evolved from the Enlightenment period of the 17th century, which privileged quantification and associated hard numbers with objective clarity.
If psychology and other qualitative, social science disciplines desire scientific legitimacy, it seems that practitioners must limit their inquiries to quantifiable, objective phenomena and fact. Today, the desire for such reductionism has filtered into many areas of society, including democratic institutions and the governments legal backbone. Attempts to quantify a voter’s decision-making process have overshadowed investigations into some of the equally valuable qualitative variables. As a result of decades of this, our Post-Enlightenment Western thinking now habitually assumes the authority of quantitative over qualitative values. This bias is particularly evident in instances where the choice of quantitative values over qualitative ones do not make sense. If the only way for a reductionist-dominated world to operate is on measurable facts, then perhaps quantifying the qualitative is the solution?
Also, science seeks to discover universal, governing principles in nature: structural operations, attributes and their interrelation (causal or otherwise). Where only qualitative information exists, science is limited in its predictive power. It cannot encompass all possible variables currently. For example, what we call intuition is typically considered an intangible, but as we have seen, it may itself be a highly evolved biological sense that confers evolutionary advantages. It is only when it undergoes scientific scrutiny that it is transformed from folklore into a consistent, observable pattern that we believe we can rely upon. When intangible values become measurable, significant advancements in knowledge follow because accurate measurements reveal previously unseen patterns of behavior. This provides the measurer with a significant positive.
Quantifying what was previously qualitative is in fact how modern science progresses. Often, it takes the definition of a new idea to move the fuzzy intuitive ideas into the well-defined world of the measurable. Once that mapping has occurred, mathematical patterns can be revealed. Thus, quantifying current qualitative variables of political science may indeed provide solutions to the problems that we are faced with in our current iteration of democracy. One economist’s rough attempt to measure the qualitative (intangible) value in the US economy resulted in a three trillion-dollar asset valuation. What, then, is the value of intangible – but genuine – “social capital,” and what role does it play in civic engagement and democratic participation? Our inability to quantify this intangible value and integrate it into decision making means that we cannot assign a value to it, and so, it simply does not appear on our radar. Subsequently, our decisions are made without it, resulting in much poorer decisions.
While science struggles with trying to find a way to quantify intuition, it’s very definition – the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning, is the modus operandi of all other species. Intuition is built into the DNA of all living species – it is how even we humans conducted our lives before advanced symbolic reasoning.
As we have seen, psychoactive drugs can influence culture in significant and unpredictable ways, skewing our perceptions, and giving us a different lens on reality. Depending on the individual, that lens can be destructive and lead to an endless cycle of depression, addiction, violence, and alienation, or it can be exhilarating and stimulate new insights about life that could lead to beneficial paradigm shifts. These altered states of reality affect not only the individual drug taker but also the surrounding social environment. This effect can range from claims that drugs can expand their awareness, as they can bring back ideas into ordinary consciousness and make positive changes. This can lead to a large array of social changes.
However, it’s not just psychoactive substances that can alter our conscious experience of reality. Often, scientific research sheds a whole new light on our normative experience of reality itself. Research from the lab of cognitive and computational neuroscientists such as Anil Seth sheds light on how our brain constructs our reality. Seth’s research strongly supports the notion that we don’t just passively observe the world through our sense, but actively construct it. Thus many humans now agree that we frame waking consciousness as a kind of normative hallucination, a shared dream that we mostly agree upon.
Following this line of research, brains are evolved not so much to report the whole truth as they are to report indicators that increase our survival fitness. Our sensory organs only sample a very narrow portion of the entire spectrum of any sensory mode. For instance, our visual sense only senses electromagnetic vibration between the infrared and the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It cannot detect the vast frequency spectrum that lays beyond this narrow window. The world that our brains construct from this limited data is not a total representation of reality but is only a very limited indicator of objective reality that helps us survive better. We know our natural limitations when dogs can hear things we can’t hear, or when lions can smell us from a distance, but we cannot see them. Moreover, it’s not a difficult step to imagine the perspectives which our fellow species perceive the world from. This idea, of one organism’s perceptions of the world was put to paper in Germany. A German scientist named Jakob von Uexküll proposed a new framework and a new word for it. He calls an individual’s sensory experience the Umwelt.
Putting ourselves in the shoes, not of other people, but other species may sound challenging, but it’s an essential step in understanding a picture of shared objective reality. Homo sapiens is a species that evolved out of nature, but our skill of modeling the world combined with toolmaking overwhelms nature with its firepower. After our species learned that, in a very short span of geological time we have ascended to become the apex predator of planet earth. Unfortunately, our actions are throwing nature entirely out of balance, affecting not only other species, but ultimately, our own race as well. Progress traps abound as a result of our boundless ingenuity. Our terrible stewardship of the only planetary ecosystem requires a complete rethink of the reductionist way in which we have related to nature for the past centuries.
More and more ecologists recognize the need to rebalance our species’ activities with the others we share the planet with. There is now even a (human) movement afoot to give other species rights. In that vein, perhaps voting rights for other species is not so far off. With the growing scientific recognition of the conscious and emotional lives of other living species, it may not be as far-fetched to thinking animals may soon have more rights. This is one response to our reckless treatment of ecosystems which has resulted in civilization-threatening species loss. We have harmed an enormous range of species; everything from apex predators to insects. The impact of our industrial food production industry is to enslave and control other species. In light of our aggression to all other species on the planet, our efforts to conserve biodiversity can be interpreted as a way of voting for other species.
The insight that the Umwelt concept gives us is that our human experience of reality is but one out of many possible ways to experience reality. Due to our richer analytic reasoning abilities, we may intellectually know a lot about how other species experience the world in ways different than ours, but that is entirely different from actually experiencing the qualia (that subjective, felt quality of experience of the world) from a non-human perspective.
In human society, a large part of human social interaction is empathetic through imputing the felt experience of other people we are with. When another human being expresses emotion through body language, we can ascribe their subjective interior state from that. For instance, when another person laughs, we can infer the feeling of happiness, when we hear loud, harsh words accompanied by harmful actions, we can assume the emotion of anger, and when we see tears, we can infer the state of sadness. The same is true of a range of other mental states.
Peer review, not just of scientific articles, but of any idea would be impossible if we could not mentally tune into the same mental state. If we could not impute the inexperiencable but only posited internal states, we could not carry on any meaningful dialogue with another person. Language would be rendered useless. I can only write these words if I can predict to some degree of accuracy your mental experience when you come to read it. So, with another member of our species, we can relate to their internal qualia because of a shared Umwelt. Extending that beyond humanity is very challenging because the subtlety of comprehending the imputed states of other beings is almost impossible when it comes to a significantly different sensorium.
We have no reliable way of knowing what our pet cat is trying to tell us when it meows or scratches at an object. An animal may be receiving uncomfortable interoceptive signals as symptoms of an internal organ disorder, but it may have no way to relay that information to us. Furthermore, the more anatomical distant a species, the less we are likely able to empathize with it. How does a mosquito experience life? What about a bacterium in the gut of a fly? We take our anthropomorphism as an evident and inherent quality of science, to the extent that few of us are even consciously aware of it. This built-in anthropomorphism has far-reaching consequences for there are disconcerting questions of inter-species bioethics which would fundamentally change how human civilization behaves were they to be taken seriously.
We may formulate this dilemma in the form of a philosophical question: is it even possible to know about the world except from our human perspective? It is problematic for us to imagine how we might otherwise experience nature as a non-human being. How do we see nature through the lens of non-human eyes? If knowledge (of nature) is inherently biased towards the human perspective, how can we ever empathize with other life forms? In developing a taxonomy of living beings, for instance, one of the ways we describe each species is by the unique sensory modalities they have each evolved. Each species senses the world through its own unique set of built-in biosensors. Will the future scientist be able to categorize different “flavors” of the Umwelt? Even our descriptions are anthropomorphic in the strictest sense since our description is referenced to the framework of human consciousness. Maybe there is a slight variance in human Umwelt that should be categorized? The descriptions are part of our uniquely human knowledge system, a cultural creation dependent on highly advanced use of symbolic reasoning. Few of us would argue that any of these ideas presented in this book would be of meaning to a cat or a nematode.
We must never forget the obvious but highly significant fact that it is human organisms which are describing non-human organisms. The inherently anthropomorphic lens by which we see nature is a very profound assumption. We project properties, which are a construct of the human consciousness onto the rest of the known universe.
These kinds of considerations bring up an interesting question. Is there one objective reality which living organisms’ sense in their unique way, based on the unique configuration of their sensory apparatus, or is there just a personal universe that is unique for each living organism? This vital question draws strong comparisons to the philosophical debate between realism and pragmatism (Sharov, 2001). Members of the scientific community are primarily realists, and logical positivism is the dominant philosophy. This view is characterized by belief in an objective reality, that facts correspond to things and relationships that exist in the world, and theories are a collection of statements about such things and relationships.
In contrast, pragmatism does not believe in objective reality; it posits that subjective reality exists for an organism because it is useful in its survival. The 20th-century Baltic-German animal physiologist Jakob von Uexküll developed the idea of the Umwelt (German for the environment, but which usually translates to the subjective universe) to explain this subjective space of a living organism. While most ecologists are realists and assume that all organisms in the ecosystem share the same environment, Uexküll’s research led him to postulate that organisms create their subjective universe. Umwelt is not the same thing as an ecological niche because niches are objective units of an ecosystem which can be measured and quantified by an objective measuring device. The Umwelt, on the other hand, is subjective and no more accessible for direct measurement than another person’s mind is, yet. In this system, the practical meaning of each aspect of an organism’s existence within its environment is unique and relative to each specific organism. Humans seem to have the capacity to see beyond our species Umwelt and identify that of other species. As a result, we can study, survey and catalog the sensory modalities unique to each species, and understand their limitations in a way that they cannot.
As an example of contrasting Umwelts consider the remora, also called a suckerfish, which has a parasitic relationship with sharks. It, therefore, sees the host shark as a food source and not as a predator. Many other fish, however, may see the same shark as a predator. Living organisms actively create their Umwelt by repeated interaction with their environment. So coral plants’ Umwelt consists of filtering the water for their tiny prey, but at the same time, countless other creatures use the vast colonies of coral as a protective ecological habitat.
Uexküll’s theory of meaning parallels the ideas of Charles Saunders Peirce’s semiotics (theory of signs). From the semiotics perspective, Umwelt is not a set of objects in the environment but instead is a system of signs interpreted by an organism. Humans are unique in that we share a large portion of our Umwelts using a highly sophisticated communication system. In having an advanced reasoning ability, does this somehow help us rise above subjectivity and become objective? For instance, while some fish may see the shark as an enemy, while others see it as a friend, we can analyze and see how each of these regards the shark.
However, in spite of our sophisticated use of signs we too are limited by our own Umwelt. Our five senses constrain each of us to experience the world in our unique way. The fact that so many different human cultures have created number systems with base 10 is no accident. It’s an intrinsic part of our Umwelt to experience our 5 digits on each hand and to use these to count the objects in the everyday world that we experience in our particular scale of the universe.
The Umwelt theory of Uexküll contradicts the traditional positivism schools of science, which claims only that which can be sensed is real. In the recent past, the goal of science was viewed as the discovery of various aspects of the objective real world that exist unconditionally and independently from any observer. Contradictory to this, the Umwelt theory has begun a healthy debate of precisely what the words objective reality mean. Hence, we may observe the external world of a dog from our human perspective, but we cannot have access to its subjective world of experience, its Umwelt. In the same way, we cannot access another person’s personal inner experience. This can be taken to the logical extent that whether there is a “real” world is irrelevant, and we are like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, only able ever to experience the shadows cast on the wall of our perceptions. Thus, the only relevant experience is the subjective experience of the organism.
For mapping the Umwelt, our subjective experience, of homo sapiens we map the experience of the world as it comes through our five senses. However, each sense gets a different amount of neural real estate, and each sense participates in constructing out Umwelt accordingly. The image below shows a cortical homunculus. This homunculus is a distorted representation
of the human body based on a neurological “map” of the areas of our brain that is dedicated to processing motor functions, or sensory functions, for different parts of the body.
Under these conditions, the brain devotes a great deal of real estate to processing the nerves from the hands, the lips, and the tongues. This biases our knowledge processes to those aspects of the body. Scientists have created distorted body models with body parts distorted in proportion to the amount of neural cortical real estate the nerves from that area have been allocated.
In a sense, the Umwelt of modern humans is unique compared to other species. We seem to see the world as a meta-level, while others are stuck on without a holistic view. Yet, being sympathetic to another species experience of the world can teach us about our own. For, each species has its own subjective experience of reality. What is relevant for one living being may not be for another. Also, the paucity of our knowledge of how other living beings experience reality applies not just to other species, but even to our own species. Do you truly understand the people around you? In the use of language, there is so much that cannot be expressed. Therefore there is so much understanding that cannot be shared. The tangible, observable, and measurable universe pales in comparison to what we don’t know, either individually or collectively. If we don’t know how other living beings experience reality, whether they are of our species or others, our decision-making process concerning them will not be sufficient. Not knowing how other species experience reality, we may make poor decisions when we seek to shape a healthy system comprised of multiple individuals or species.
From an evolutionary perspective, each animal and plant species is uniquely adapted to its native environment. This includes the sensory modes which each species uses to perceive the world it inhabits. The sensory organs and behaviors of species make each one a master of its particular domain. Each has its own wisdom and therefore lessons we could learn from them.
Whether it is a herring that communicates through farting, or magnetic sensing to guide the flight path of birds, science uncovers patterns about how living organisms uniquely experience their reality. These biological qualities imply that different animals experience our shared existence in uniquely different ways. For example, the surface of human skin is experienced differently by a human, a flea, or a bacterium. For humans, our skin is a smooth continuous sheath that clothes our entire body. When a flea bites us, we have an experience of itchiness and irritation. For a mosquito, our skin is a shifting, spongy landscape that its sharp claws and backward-facing body armor are designed to attach itself to. It is also a landscape that the flea well knows contains its food source buried just beneath its surface. It uses its pointy mechanical proboscis to penetrate the epidermal layer and draw out the food.
Certain bacteria, in contrast, spend their entire life immobile on the skin surface. The Belly Button Biodiversity project (Hulcr, 2011), conducted to demonstrate the existence of beneficial strains of bacteria on the human epidermis, discovered up to 1400 species of bacteria living within and around the human navel. Bacteria produce and excrete a variety of chemical compounds that help to attach and expand the colony. This extracellular matrix is composed of DNA, proteins, lipids, mineral scaffolds, and polysaccharides. This biofilm creates a livable condition in an otherwise hostile space. If we truly understood how they thought when they did this, we could elevate our own environment.
Unfortunately, what has not been measurable by scientific instruments has often been ignored, trivialized, or has gone unnoticed. Thus arose the essential work of Biosemiotics. As a result, work in biosemiotics is challenging this view and gives us two new ways to interpret intuitive data.
First, the growing body of scientific evidence may help us place more trust in our intuition, viewing it in a new light as essential result of millions of years of evolution. We have been wired for fitness, and this includes the signals we both receive and respond to instinctively and subconsciously. After this change in attitude, there is a growing number of neuroscientists engaged in intuition research. We now know that instead of a vague, undefined process, intuition is an in-depth information processing outcome of our brain. The fact that we do not clearly understand how it works should not lead us to discard it with a blanket description of it.
The fast system 1 of Kahneman is a predictive machine. It compares incoming sensory information with stored knowledge and memories to rapidly predict what will happen next. Intuitions are mental processes that occur when the brain has made a significant match or mismatch, but it hasn’t bubbled up to our conscious awareness yet. Instead, it manifests as a “gut feeling,” the informal name for interoceptive signals within our bodies, and emotions are activated to alert consciousness to make an important decision. Even as Kahnehman warns against the many cognitive biases that plague intuition, he concludes that intuitions cannot be thrown out.
The value of your intuition comes down to your experience in an area and the ability to recognize when a cognitive bias is manifesting. In other words, the more experience a person has in a particular area, the more predictive is the intuition that emerges. A meta-analysis finds that intuition and analytic reasoning are not are opposite ends of a bipolar spectrum as has been widely assumed, but are independent constructs (Wang et al. 2015)
In fact, we could almost say it is an intuitive finding that the two thinking styles are complementary in the most effective decision-making. In scientific research, for instance, a project may kick off with intuitive knowledge but is then validated through rigorous analytic reasoning. However, throughout any project, we usually have periods of strong intuition or areas of strong analytic reasoning. Often intuitive reasoning and analytic reasoning complement each other and alternate. When we are stuck with a problem, it is intuitive insights that come to the rescue. Once the intuitive insight is out, discussed and accepted as an excellent lead to follow, it is usually then that the validation process takes place to make sure it is a valid solution.
While intuition has gotten a bum rap as sloppy or inaccurate, analytic reasoning can also lead to poor decision-making as well. (Wilson et al. 1993)
Many financial and other crisis has resulted from poor analytic rationale that led to an erroneous decision. It is indeed not the case that one form of reasoning is superior to the other. Many variables determine the quality of a, but effective decision-making is based on a dynamic interplay of both high quality intuitive and analytical reasoning at the right time. Next, finding ways to measure qualitative data that was previously not quantifiable not only validates our intuitions but also brings it into mainstream scientific analysis.
All this theoretical consideration leads us to ask: How can we quantify and operationalize our valuable intuitive knowledge to improve our decision-making, democratic, or voting processes? The unfortunate reality is that though we may possess good instincts and have a good imagination, such intuitive talents critical to effective decision-making currently never show up in statistics or the final balance sheet of a corporation. This is because, though they are acknowledged to be real, there is no way to quantify them and hence, no way for the current economic system to evaluate them appropriately. In the chapters ahead, we explore the possibility of creating a simple new metric that can effectively bridge the intuitive and rational side of reasoning. This new way of quantifying the vast stores of intuitive knowledge all around us offers the possibility of converting this vast idling resource whose potential has hitherto been untapped, into a form that is amenable to the normal operations of analytic reasoning. In effect, we offer a new way to convert previously intuitive ideas into cold hard facts.
So how do we measure various information types from multiple sources, quantify the intangibles and compare and combine them? A new kind of metric is required. The next chapters explore this metric.