PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, October 30, 2005

What is insight?

What is insight?

Those who read the science pages in newspapers would
remember the recent excitement caused by reports witnessing
two gorillas using walking sticks as an aid. Seeing gorillas
in the wild is, of course, itself something to be excited
about. And photographing these majestic creatures in the
wild is itself something to be emotional about. However,
that two gorillas should use walking sticks to help them
cross a swamp is, in itself, of no consequence in the scheme
of things; research grants and professorial tenures not
withstanding. Considering the human folly that takes place
around their habitat one would have thought that gorillas
would by now have reinvented the RPG or the self loading
rifle, and not the walking stick.

But this essay is not about gorillas, but why is it that
humans have, for better or for worse, invented the RPG and
the SLR. Imagine you're being chased by a troop of gorillas
to the nearest berry bush. Now, if you get their first and
the gorillas take exception to your feasting something
unpleasant is bound to happen. We can safely assume that
blow for blow the gorillas will win. The alternative is to
back off or to punch smart.

The first homo-being who had the insight, or the intuitive
perception, about the effects of kinetic energy and the
foresight to throw a rock at a chasing gorilla, sealed the
fate of both species. The first time that homo-beings used
their brain to strategise against other creatures, and win,
they discovered they had a powerful advantage over others.
Insight is all about this imbalance of power. Insight is
also one of the mental tools we use to gain advantage over

One of the reasons why we find insight intellectually
challenging is that between the few facts we have on an
issue and the enlightening ''Aha!'' conclusion we reach,
there seems to be a void or a gap that makes it difficult
for us to understand what happens. So how can we reach the
right conclusion on so few facts?

This distinction between what we are aware of and what takes
place at the subconscious level is, I suggest, one of the
key issues on the subject. The question here is how do we
account for this gap? Traditionally we accounted for
knowledge in two ways. We either used deductive reasoning or
inductive reasoning.

If we go the deductive route, we are faced with the question
of how can we take into account premises in our reasoning
which we are not aware of? If all men are philosophers, how
can I reach the conclusion that Socrates is a philosopher
unless I also know that Socrates is a man? To put the point
in much simpler terms, how can we have pork sausages if we
don't put pork in the sausage machine?

On the deductive method we have to assume that we have more
information than we are aware of. Moreover, it suggests that
we have some form of innate ability to organise all this
information into a valid deductive logic schema. However, we
don't usually associate intuition with any form of deductive
reasoning. Intuition is much closer to guess work than
deductive reasoning is to common sense.

Inductive reasoning does not take us closer to filling in
the gap. We're changing the terminology but not the
scenario. The old problem about induction still stands; how
can we get a conclusion of what X ought to be if all we have
are facts F1~Fn? Induction tells us that we make this jump
into the unknown, sometimes with some considerable success,
but not how we make the jump.

However, inductive reasoning has a lot in common with
insight. They both display a certain void or gap between the
input and the conclusion. This gap is difficult to reconcile
with the fact that we do get things right quite often. They
are also not predetermined by the information we put in.
Contrasting this with deductive reasoning, in inductive
reasoning there is no methodological constraints that make
us reach conclusions from any existing premises. It's like
putting anything in a sausage machine and we still end up
with pork sausages.

There is one thing, however, we can be sure of about
insight. Insight is about reaching the right conclusions
with the least possible amount of information about a
situation. In the same way the first homo- beings used their
brain to come up with winning strategies against their
competitors, those who today have better insight about the
world around them have an edge over their peers.

But information does not only belong to the domain of
deductive or inductive reasoning. Today we also know that
information also belongs to the domain of quantum mechanics.
Could it be that we can explain the gap by appealing to some
form of quantum computation? Of course, I am not suggesting
anything new here although it is quite a revolutionary idea
in itself. And although the subject is technically difficult
to understand, it should not stop us from using the quantum
mechanics model (QM) to explain this subconscious goings on
when we have an insight into something.

The first thing about the QM model is that information is
probabilistic in its raw state. But the beauty of this
probability is that there is no prejudice or favouritism
towards a particular piece of information. Since all
information is equally probable there is no superficial bias
or capricious exclusion of any information. Maybe the magic
of insight is due to the fact that we do not arbitrarily
exclude information.

Secondly, because we operate at the subconscious level we do
not taint this information with such things as emotional
prejudice. We kind of let the whole machine get on with it,
in the same way that QM is happy to chug along until it is
interfered with. It might be pointed out here that emotions
are still doing their worst at the subconscious level. Yes,
but the fact that we get insight right sometimes suggests
that sometimes the right emotions win.

The third thing is that the Aha! moment happens so sudden
that things must be developing at a very rapid pace.
Certainly faster than a gorilla charging on all fours. Our
Cartesian and Newtonian model of the world suggests a linear
movement of events. For example, when we read this sentence,
we start with 'For' then move on to read 'example,' pause at
the coma then....... (Question: is there an end to the
previous sentence?). This linear perception of the world,
means that things seem to happen over time and any long
sequence of events seem to take a long time. We are
naturally surprised to discover that the process of insight
is quick and fast, especially when compare to other
activities like walking, cooking, writing an essay and so

In the QM model things just happen, the time frame sequence
only takes place when we consider things for our
convenience. Using modern computing jargon, the QM model is
like parallel computing on a big scale. To give you a modern
example, it's like the SETI* programme which analysis radio
signal from outer space for any intelligent messages. A few
million computers around the world are tasked to do simple
calculations of the data collected. The whole research
programme is too big or too expensive for one computer to
manage, but a few million computers working together make
the whole thing manageable. Similar to the QM model and to
insight we do not know what is going on at a given time with
each computer. And if we wanted to find out what is going on
at a given moment we would interfere with the result itself.
However, the results are known. Of course all this is
speculation on my part, but I'm happy to just leave it at

At the individual conscious level we have three things going
on. An ability to collect relevant information relatively
quickly about a situation. Of course, this does not exclude
collecting information at the subconscious level. In fact, I
would think it was a necessary condition that we have
subconscious information for successful insight. But we
mustn't forget that for insight to take place it is
important that we contemplate a situation consciously. There
is no point in reaching wonderful conclusion or perceptions
of the world if we are not aware of them!

We must also have an ability to project the least possible
amount of information into conclusions that are valid. If
conclusions or if insight is to be of any value we need to
have true, or at the very least, relatively true
conclusions, apart from being valid. Otherwise, insight
would be no better than guess work.

And thirdly, an individual must have the confidence not only
to reach conclusions, but to do something with them or about
them. At the very least insight ought to help us understand
things around us; which itself would affect how we go about
our lives and interacting with the world of people and

We can further reduce these three personal criteria into:
learning skills and personal initiative. There is no doubt
that an ability to collect information and projecting it is
a skill we learn by application. And the more we take the
initiative the more we are likely to get it right. In a way
one reinforces the other.

One thing we can say for certain about insight is that we
don't take things at face value. This ought to be an obvious
point, unfortunately it is also true that we are regular
victims of taking things at face value. Sometimes taking
things at face value might be useful. Seeing a gorilla
charging at one, with or without an RPG holder on its
shoulder, might be taken at face value to mean that it that
it is not happy with our presence. But usually taking things
at face value often results in missing any hidden
intentions, or even misinterpreting reality.

The implication of our ability to learn, our motivation to
take initiatives and guarding against face value conclusions
is that we must have a high degree of intellectual freedom.
These are qualities whose consequences, in the form of
insight, might conflict with the interests of others. And
this is how insight relates to people around us. Our insight
might put us in a better position over others, it might
thwart the intentions if others, insight might give us the
edge to survive. But most of all in today's world, insight
might be a predictor of a free person. Someone who can have
insight into relevant issues, is probably somene who is a
free person and not beholden to others.

My three main pillars on insight are: treating information
objectively; taking the initiative to reach conclusions; and
not taking things at face value. However, can we assume that
this formulaic account of insight applies to everyone and
more importantly, is everyone capable of insight?

We have no reason to assume that not everyone is capable of
insight on a more or less regular basis. What is more
interesting is why isn't insight more prevalent on big
issues. For example, government policies, market place
practices and teachings relating to conscience. If insight
is such a powerful mental tool, why does it seem to be so
difficult to see through the fog and smoke screens of these
big ticket issues?

The first reason of course is that the world is not big
enough for everyone to be a genius. A more serious reason is
that the face value factor is quite a powerful force. First
of all, we are more susceptible to this force, since it
takes very little effort from our part. But equally
important, there are many people who can make things look
attractive at face value. And then of course, although
insight is a powerful mental tool it is not the only one we

However, just because our rock stops the gorilla dead in its
tracks it does not mean that no one else is trying to get to
the berry bush. We are not alone and we are not the only
clever ones on the block.

Take care



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