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Meditation 970
Analytic Science or Intuitive Religion?

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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Are “analytic” and “intuitive” thinking just different ways of thinking -- different in “style” perhaps but equally valid ways of drawing conclusions and forming beliefs?   At least some reports of the recent study showing that analytic thinking is associated with religious disbelief would seem to have us think so.[1]  Perhaps that is because they are only thinking intuitively -- that is, wishfully but falsely.

Analytic and intuitive thinking are not just different in style, they are fundamentally different in reliability.  Our intuitions are frequently wrong, as at least one of the questions used in the original study clearly demonstrates.[2]  The idea that ”If you answered $10 you are inclined to believe in religion.  If you answered $5 you are inclined to disbelieve” [1] doesn’t just reflect different but equally valid “styles” of thinking; it reflects the difference between thinking critically and in what is true rather than wishfully and in what is false.   It is not just a matter of “thinking differently” if one concludes the answer to a mathematical problem to be 10 when in fact the answer is 5; it is just plain thinking what is false!  Moreover, examples of false “intuitive thinking” are not limited simply to hasty conclusions of logic or mathematics.  We frequently draw similarly brash and false conclusions from our perceptions as well, as the many examples of  “optical illusions” clearly illustrate.[3]  We may “perceive” motion where none exists.  We may believe a tall thin glass to hold more liquid than a shorter wider one.   We may “intuitively” believe that the sun moves around the earth.   We might even “intuitively feel” that we are being threatened or protected by supernatural forces.   The range of human “intuitions” is potentially limitless. 

Does that mean that all intuitions are false?  No, of course not.  But how do we determine which are true from those that are not?  Answer:  By employing “analytical” thinking!   That is, by submitting them to the tests of reason and evidence.    Science (knowledge) may originate with and be built upon intuition but it does not end with it.   Intuition can and has generated many fruitful initial hypotheses but it has also generated even more useless and unproductive ones.  Determining the truth of any hypothesis is a matter of putting it to the test of rigorous logical analysis (reason) and experimental testing (evidence).   These are the only ways of separating truth from fiction, knowledge from ignorance.   Anything less is simply an unfounded “feeling” no matter how pleasant or terrifying that feeling might be.

So, where does one put one’s faith?  Are “analytic” and “intuitive” thinking really and ultimately just different but equally valid and reliable ways of thinking?  If they are not, then in which are we to put our trust?  Is it better and more reliable to put one’s trust in unfounded and untested intuitions based upon initial impression, our notoriously faulty perceptions and subjective emotion or in conclusions drawn from rigorous analytic thought based upon reason and evidence?  The evidence is clear: Reason and evidence win every time even if an “intuition” is proved by them to be true as well as when proved to be mistaken.  I therefore place my faith in reason and evidence.  There simply is no other way to determine what is true from what is false or ultimately unknowable.   Anything less is quite simply and quite literally superstition. [4]


  1. Religion and Reason   I find it especially disturbing to see this perspective put forth under the auspices of a popular psychology journal from which one might have hoped for a more scientifically based assessment.. 
  2. E.g., “Question:  If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” 
  3. Optical Illusions 
  4. “Superstition:  A belief or practice resulting from ignorance.”  Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.