I've been absent here for over a month now (just haven't had much inspiration for posting), so I thought I'd copy over something I wrote for a discussion I was having elsewhere. Brief synopsis: the discussion revolved around violence in black culture in America (I'm sure you can guess the basis), and after a couple of people (not me) introduced references to books and studies and such they drew several replies critical of their "book learnin" and their air of intellectual superiority as compared to common sense and life experience. My reply follows:
"For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."
I find this very interesting, I was having a discussion last night with a friend on nearly this very topic. Bertrand Russell in his classic book, The History of Western Philosophy, frames the last several hundred years of Western philosophy as a struggle between the Enlightenment empiricists and reactionary Romantics. It's a theme I've recently run across (in nearly identical terms) again reading Edward O. Wilson's Consilience, and very distinct threads of the same issues popped up in the documentary about the neocons, The Power of Nightmares that I posted on over the summer.
The basic idea is this:
The millenia before the Enlightenment (basically from the end of the Roman Empire on) was a vast wasteland for thought and discovery. For various reasons (mostly relating to the dominance of religious philosophy) little of value happened in the realm of philosophy or science. Eventually empiricism happened along (thanks in no small part to John Locke) and the Enlightenment was born.
Philosophers and intellectuals realized they had uncovered a tool of amazing power to learn about the world around them, and science as a meaningful discipline was created. These early Enlightenment philosophers were awash in optimism believing that in no time they would map out all of the knowledge to be had and perfect mankind in our interactions with the world and one another. As time went on what they discovered that while empiricism was able to unlock the secrets of the physical world at a phenomenal rate, human interaction was a different story. Human society is too complex, has too many variables and dimensions and does not yield to the scientific method in the straightforward way that physics or chemistry does. Empirical truths, they felt, do exist that govern the relations of man, but they would be painfully slow in yielding to empirical study (which is not to say that they did not develop important advances in government and economics). In the meantime we would simply have to live with the uncertainty of knowing that the truth is out there, but that we don't necessarily yet know what it is.
The Romantics, beginning mostly with Rousseau (who is the villain of Russell's tale) rejected this uncertainty and opted instead for answers that were simple, neat, and wrong, based mostly in existing cultural or religious values or in the naive sort of philosophy the preceded the Enlightenment. Rousseau rejected empiricism as the means to discover truth, and held science to be incompatible with virtue. Rousseau believed that truth should be found, not "from the principles of a high philosophy", but "in the depths of my heart, written by Nature in ineffaceable characters." He thought that conscience and intuition should be the only guide and "we are thus freed from all this terrifying apparatus of philosophy; we can be men without being learned; dispensed from wasting our life in the study of morals, we have at less cost a more assured guide in this immense labyrinth of human opinions."
Fast forward 250 years and we are still locked in this same battle between empiricism and romanticism. The terms have hardly changed a lick. The Lockian empirical perspective has descended through our Founding Fathers and the ever-increasing reach of scientific discovery, while Rousseau's Romanticism has passed down through Kant, Hegel, the Transcendentals, and the Straussian neoconservatives. We see it expressed in battles between empirical relativism and absolute moralism, between the scientific method and truth by revelation (intelligent design), in the clash between modernity and traditional cultural values (a thread that manifests itself both domestically between red and blue politics and internationally between the modern West and extreme Islam), and in the certainty of neocon policy in face of contrary data. The conflict between Locke and Rousseau is the defining conflict of mankind these last 250 years and looks to be nowhere near resolved.
And here we are arguing over whether common sense intuition is superior to book-learnin.
I don't mean to be rude, but I do think that intuition informed by book-learnin is superior to naked intuition. I believe in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the importance of empiricism. I choose Locke.
And I would note that empiricism does not dismiss the importance of intuition. Intuition is a critical element of the Scientific Method and guides its every step. But it is not an end point. It is the starting point. It provides the questions and the hypotheses that empirical study then attempts to evaluate. Intuition anchored by evidence, is to my mind, clearly superior to intuition alone.