‘How “True” is Your Intuition?’

How would you rate your intuition? You know, that sixth sense that you get about people or situations, which you can’t quite define. Intuition is as human as walking upright on two legs. We all learn to trust it, and I would venture to guess that most of us consider it highly reliable. Those whose occupations depend upon intuition in life or death situations have overwhelming justification to declare their own intuition of greater value than a million books or pontificators. Or so it might seem. The question is, does a believer’s intuition uncover truth and reveal proper moral choices? Can we always trust our intuition?

I have written and spoken many times about the dangers of living the Christian life based upon feelings, but intuition deserves a separate treatment. Clearly, it is a type of feeling, but also much more. Perhaps we can call it “informed feeling.” Reliable intuition comes from years of experience making choices and witnessing the outcome. Our brains calculate the sum total of those experiences, process them faster than we can consciously work though them point by point, and give us the result through a distinct feeling, or sense. That sense allows law enforcement and military members to predict threats. It gives investigators that gut feeling that a situation deserves further scrutiny. Even with years of education, medical professionals may rely upon it to make a necessarily quick choice between several available treatment options. Even with less at stake, occupations in sales, investments, animal stock breeding, and many others succeed or fail largely according to intuition. These are not people who are by nature irrational or overly emotional, but intuition is foundational to their daily lives and sometimes begins to form the core of their personal system for separating truth from fiction. However, in a culture that constantly says “believe in yourself,” and “trust your instincts,” we all have permission to rely heavily upon our own intuitions to read others and decide what is right or wrong.

Clearly intuition is itself good in the correct context, but it does have some severe limitations. This article in the Harvard Business Review by Connson Chou Locke provides some of those limits in a business context. In order to have reliable intuition a person needs no less than ten years’ experience making specifically relevant decisions with “rapid and accurate feedback.” If a person’s experience is not specifically relevant, his feedback incorrect or sparse, then his intuition cannot be trusted. That implies that intuition in one field of expertise does not automatically transfer to another. Intuition is further limited in that it works best only in instances that “lack clear decision rules or [have] few objective criteria.” Scripture provides the objective criteria for deciding what is true and what is right, and though intuition may figure into specific applications of Biblical principles, those principles must come from Scripture unfiltered by our presuppositions.

Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the “heart of man is deceitful” and “desperately sick.” Within the scope of that truth is perhaps the best reason that we have to make sure that our choices are grounded in the truth of Scripture above all else – we humans are highly vulnerable to fooling ourselves. We aren’t particularly good at noticing when our gut instinct isn’t informed intuition at all, but some other strong passion such as fear. The lusts and desires of sin fool us into believing that our rationalizations are true and consistent with God’s will, and sometimes our minds simply give us a wrong interpretation of our experience. I once had a rather lively discussion with a well driller who was convinced that “witching” for water had for the entirety of his successful career predicted the best places to drill. I explained to him that an experienced well-digger drilling over an area full of underground water sources has a high probability of hitting water. I explained to him how confirmation bias distorts our memories, but that debunked unscientific belief persisted in an otherwise reasonable person. Another example is the gambler’s fallacy that tells us intuitively, albeit wrongly, that if I have lost the coin toss five times in a row, the chances are greater this next throw that I’ll win. Consider also the birthday paradox in which we find counterintuitively that in a group of 23 people the seemingly unlikely possibility of finding two people with the same birthday is actually 50%. (In a group of 75, that probably rises to 99.9%) In reality, our intuition is often not nearly as trustworthy as we might think, and we need something more when determining what is true and false, or right and wrong.

In practice, intuition is primarily concerned with what works and not what is true. That means it often provides biased results. Loving your friends and hating your enemies works, but that is not what God expects of us. Killing people off that are a “burden” and have low “quality of life,” might make practical sense, but violates Scriptural principles. Living the Christian life depends upon the ability to know and act upon truth, and that goal often clashes with mere utility. The utilitarian nature of intuition actually biases it against discovering truth. To be useful, intuition must provide a quick answer the first time with limited deliberation. If some new information challenges the validity of one intuitive decision, it attacks my confidence in my whole system of intuition. It’s easiest to simply defend and deny that I was wrong than to face an uncomfortable readjustment of my foundational beliefs.

Scripture affirms time and time again that the core structure of our moral and doctrinal thinking should be God’s Word. Psalm 19:7-9 tells us that Scripture is: perfect, sure, right, pure, enlightening, clean, and true. Jesus tells us that those who love Him obey His word (Jn. 14:23). 2 Timothy 3:16-17 gives the prescription of Scripture for teaching, correction, training in righteousness, and equipping for the Christian life. For believers, when the question is what ought I to do, or what ought I to believe, the answer begins and ends with the simple truth of Scripture. Any system of thought that adds our own feelings or intuitions into the equation falls prey to the errors and limitations discussed above.

Humanity’s hearts are depraved, and its cultures biased against the truth. The worse things get, the more that God’s Word becomes inconvenient to our modern sensibilities. That is of course why God gave us his Word, instead of leaving us to figure it out on our own. His Word, is the timeless truth unaffected by the corruption over time of a race in open rebellion to God’s authority.

–Thomas Hersman