When intuitions break down

We’re not very good at updating our intuitions about the world.

Whether it’s due to pride, cognitive dissonance or sheer bloody-mindedness, we cling to ideas, notions and wishes which are… well… bullshit.

Changing our minds is expensive – both cognitively and reputationally. Not only do we have to figure out what we actually believe, but we have to deal with the fact that we might have been wrong about something for a long time. And that last part can be incredibly painful.

Whilst we might understand and accept that our views have to change if the situation becomes radically different, we don’t often appreciate how our intuitions and assumptions about the world break down completely at scales and perspectives which are different from our own.

The cosmologist Max Tegmark gives some examples from physics

“At high speeds, Einstein realized that time slows down…

…At low temperatures, liquid helium can flow upward.

…At high temperatures, colliding particles change identity…

…if you intuitively understand all aspects of black holes [then you] should immediately put down this book and publish your findings before someone scoops you on the Nobel Prize for quantum gravity”

As we move away from our normal speed, size and temperature, what we know about the world comes apart and becomes untrue. In fact, in some cases, the opposite becomes true.

This shows us that the truths we cling to are often tied to parameters which are not part of our intuition. And when the parameters change, our intuitions will be out of step with reality.

Our truths depend on perspective, so we should not be surprised when those with different perspectives, hold different truths, intuitions and assumptions about the world.

When we know this we can begin to ask of others:

what parameters (some of which might be invisible to me) are their intuitions relying on?

And of ourselves:

what happens to our own intuitions if we adjust those same parameters?

At what point do our own intuitions and truths completely break down?

By doing this we can get a better understanding of others and why they believe what they do.

We also recognise that the cut and dried world is actually messier than it might seem. Our assumptions might keep us clean and dry, but if we want to know what’s really going on, we need to roll up our sleeves and be prepared to get our intuitions dirty.