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Intuition: Knowing

Connections Through Time,   Issue 17: October - December 2002

Click on photo for reference.

Gödel and Einstein in Princeton in 1950

Some aspects of reality can only be known using intuition - intuition is "the act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes".  The intellectual-rational-reasoning approach may simply be inadequate to describe, even in principle, important aspects of our universe and of our lives.

Intellectual approaches for describing and predicting the behavior of our universe is currently the task of physics using the power of mathematics.  (Chemistry, conventional biology and other disciplines based on mathematical models are within the broadly defined realm of physics.)  Both physics and mathematics have grown tremendously to satisfy this audacious task.  

However, there is an ever-growing body of experimental data that does not seem to be amenable to the mathematical approach of physics.  The data concern intuitive knowledge and the power of intentions.  (For example, see "The Conscious Universe").  Thus far, models which aim to capture the complex reality of consciousness have not been able to provide any new quantitative information - they do provide important insights, but not a physics model.  Here are two ideas to ponder concerning whether physics models of consciousness and intuition are even possible.

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem

In 1931, Kurt Gödel proved the now-famous incompleteness theorem.  He showed that within any given mathematical structure (axioms, procedures, etc), there would always be some propositions that couldn't be proven either true or false within that mathematical structure  itself.  (Some true propositions could be proven by moving to a broader mathematical structure; for example, moving from the structure of integers to the broader structure of real numbers.)

At the time, this theorem was extremely controversial: What do you mean that there are some true mathematical statements that can't be proven - heresy!  This theorem has been ranked with Einstein's Theory of Relativity for its importance to mathematics and logic.  There are now many proofs of this theorem, e.g., see hereRemember now, that mathematics is the language of physics.  The implication is that any physics theory will be incomplete since additional true propositions may exist which cannot be proven true or false.  What a bummer - it seems there will always be mysteries using the rational intellectual approach.

Rosen's "Complexity" View of Reality

Robert Rosen (1934-1998), was a theoretical biologist who strived to answer the question: "What is Life?".  His work focused on appreciating the difference between living organisms and machines.   Machines can be very intricate and include the most sophisticated computers and huge databases imaginable, however, they are still "simple" because they are algorithmic; machines can be broken apart and put back together again.  Complexity is fundamentally different - perhaps the best way to appreciate complexity is using the following, slightly modified, quote:

The Mexican sierra [fish] has a unique arrangement of spines in its dorsal fin.  These can easily be counted, sketched. classified and used to describe the sierra, but we could see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it threshing over the rail, and even finally eat it.  And there is no reason why either approach should be inaccurate.  Spine-count description need not suffer because another approach is also used.  Perhaps, out of the two approaches we thought there might emerge a picture more complete and even more accurate that either alone could produce.
-- John Steinbeck, novelist, with Edward Ricketts, marine biologist (1941)

By definition, complex systems involve totally independent approaches to capture their reality.  Intuition is an entirely different approach of knowing.  Intellectual knowing has its strengths and weaknesses, and the same is true of intuitive knowing.  Together, they provide a richer deeper appreciation of our reality.  For example, intellectual processes include thinking, mathematically proving, and consciously planning things to do in the physical world.  Intuitive processes involve other conscious aspects of life/reality such as experiencing emotions of joy, love, and awe, as well as a direct experience of beauty, morality, meaning, and of consciousness itself.  Perhaps by nurturing the intellectual AND intuitive approaches to knowing, an even more accurate appreciation of our universe and ourselves will emerge.

Here are several abridged quotes from a July 1997 interview with Robert Rosen.

... complex systems-- their nature is that they avoid one mode of understanding of them. They have more capabilities than any one formalism, say, can grasp.  What you need to be able to do it is to put all of these formalisms together to indicate the very rich mix of properties that these have, which you wouldn't expect from approaching them in a straightforward physical way.

The tendency over the last several hundred years, perhaps since Newton, is to try to capture all of the world, the external world, everything that science pertains to, in one principle - one way of grasping reality.  And that leads directly to the concept we call the "machine".  So in this viewpoint, nature is a big machine...  There are many attractive features, which flow from the idea of the machine.  One of them is the idea of objectivity.  Consciousness, or will, or volition, all of the things which are characteristically human, play no part.  If something can be done by a machine, then it clearly doesn't involve will, doesn't involve subjectivity or consciousness or anything like that.  Complex systems are not like that.  If you try to compress a complex system into that kind of mold, you'll miss it completely.  You need consciousness.  

... circles of causality, circles of time; there was no way of straightening out causal loops.   You have to have more than one time scale, more than one thing that you could call "real time" in an anticipatory system.  Something in the system is running faster than real time in the system, or else you have no anticipation-- the system is not anticipating what its own subsequent behavior is going to be.

Everybody knows that a machine-model is not really quite enough to define an organism, and people express it in various ways, like "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".  It is true.  It is a very simple and still a good way to characterize the difference between simplicity and complexity.  You have to understand that I consider biology by far the most interesting of the sciences, the most mysterious of the sciences.

What makes something live?  That is really the great mystery in all of science, in all of nature, and in all of thought.


Intuitive knowing is part of life - part of the mystery and grace of life.  Intuition is what makes you more than a sophisticated nanotechnology machine.


Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem

Gödel's Theorem and Information

VCU Rosen's Complexity Discussion Group, VCU is the Virginia Commonwealth University

Interview with Dr. Robert Rosen




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Physics: Nanotechnology and ZPE     Applications: Intuition Exploration (InE) with Feedback

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