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Developing intuition



 

How can we develop intuition, let it lead the way and yet hold it back from leaping into the abyss as Einstein did? Of course I do not think that Einstein was wrong but in his lifetime he was not able to accomplish what he intended. We can afford to support a few Einsteins without practical results, but for intuition to become more universal it must become more developed and differentiated. We must know when and how to use it and we must know with some, albeit imperfect, reliability when it leads us to far afield from what is practically possible.

The one sided culture I am so critical of has provided one important tool for this. The computer allows us to create artificial universes play with them and with our ideas so that we can discipline and refine our intuition without making it the servant of intellect. I can learn complex technical material best if I can program it and play with the program. A mass of equations without the opportunity to make them alive in a computer is virtually meaningless to me. It is not that I am unable to understand them but the mode that I can understand them has to involve an element of playfulness and has to be tolerant of many silly errors which I continuously make. Although a computer is completely intolerant of mistakes it allows as many tries as you are willing to make to get it right.

Intuition is not as quick as intellect but it is deeper. Intellect can easily grasp things as a series of complex operations. This is impossible for intuition. Intuition must know how the operations relate to each other and to a host of similar operations that are already understood. This takes time and it takes playing with ideas. For complex systems this is impossible without a computer to handle the details. Of course there is no intuitive only or intellectual only learning. All learning involves sequences of steps, playing with ideas and relating new ideas to old ones. The difference is one of emphasis and dominance.

The computer  combined with communication technology 

is a powerful aid to intuition in another way. It can create learning and dialogue networks of people concerned about a particular issue. The misnamed newsgroup  s on Internet  serve this purpose. Although they do contain some news the vast majority of traffic involves networks of people exchanging ideas and learning from each other material that is far from new. For me this was an effective way to learn the language and some of the technical content of quantum mechanics. It helped me to extend my ideas and put them in a context that others could more easily understand.

Technology can change the value of human talents. Gauss  had an advantage over his colleagues in being a skilled calculator  . That was an important asset for a mathematician in his time but is of little use today. No matter how good a calculator you are you can buy a better one for a few dollars.

Computer technology 

allows us to automate many of the simpler intellectual skills such as calculation. Inevitably this lowers the value of those skills while opening new possibilities to those with different skills. We are just beginning to understand what can be done and still view this opportunity too narrowly. We want to automate mathematical proofs so we try to create completely automated theorem provers. We want to automate chess 

so we try to make a computer program that can beat a grand master  . Technology is far from being able to replace the human mind. The enormous calculating power of modern computers may soon be sufficient to defeat any human chess player with the brute force methods that such chess programs use. That is not the way to make the best chess player. To do that combine the special skills of the computer with the subtle skills of the human. Let the human use a computer program to aid play just as you let a student use a calculator during a physics exam. The best computer aided chess player  will almost certainly not be the same person as the best unaided chess player.

Finding the worlds best computer aided chess player may not be important to cultural development but effectively using the computer to amplify human mental skills is. This is starting to happen with intuitive graphical user interfaces  , programs to do mathematical analysis as well as computation and tools for scientific visualization  . However we must recognize how primitive our understanding is. People with powerful intuition that have played a major role in science like Einstein and Jung are usually in Jung's terminology thinking types. Their greatest strength is their powerful intuition but it is only through the dominance of intellect that they are able to digest the fruits of that intuition to a form that can be appreciated by our intellectually dominated culture. To get beyond this stage is no small task. We have regressed in the institutional structures to develop intuition since the middle ages. It is not possible for anyone to say what a world with intuition and intellect in more equal roles would be like other than it will be markedly different and far richer than the world we know. In some ways it will be more like the middle ages  when there was not the extreme imbalance that exists today.

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