Are We Being Fooled? (RJS)

Several years ago I read an article in Science that led to a post on the idea of knowing – and the reliability or unreliability of intuition. The questions raised in that post are worth looking at again. None of us can know everything in every subject. We all trust intuition, common sense, and authorities.  But authorities cannot say just anything. We tend to trust authorities when they put together a story that makes sense, matches at some level with our common sense and intuition.  Sometimes this leads us astray, and we can find appalling examples of this in history. But most of the time this combination of common sense, intuition and authority serves us quite well.

Are intuition and common sense trustworthy guides? How do we know when they are or are not?

Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism claims that we all know that God exists. He concludes Ch. 8 The Clues of God and sets up Ch 9 The Knowledge of God saying:

In the next chapter I want to do something very personal. I don’t want to argue why God may exist. I want to demonstrate that you already know that God does exist. I’d like to convince the reader that, whatever you may profess intellectually, belief in God is an unavoidable, “basic” belief that we cannot prove but can’t not know. We know God is there. That is why even when we believe with all our minds that life is meaningless, we simplty can’t live that way. We know better. (p. 142)

This intuitive belief in God, some kind of God, is widely recognized and acknowledged, even among secular scholars. But is this intuition reliable?  When pastors and Christian scholars lead us in ways that seem consistent with this intuition, should we trust them?

An interesting essay was published a number of years ago in Science Magazine [Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science, P. Bloom and D. S. Weisberg, Science 312, 9960-997 (2007)]. This short essay discusses resistance to ideas that conflict with common sense and intuition and are reinforced by trusted authorities. An important point is that intuition and common sense are not always right as intuition is based on limited experience. For example consider a ball exiting a curved tube. Which picture best illustrates the motion of the ball?

Many college students will select A – based on an intuition that motion should continue as before. The correct answer, of course, is B – the ball will continue straight. Our intuition recognizes this as obvious if we simply change the illustration from a ball to water:

The point of this illustration is simply that intuition is not always right and must be questioned – something every teacher, every professor, especially every science professor, knows very well. Quantum theory for example is not exactly intuitive or obvious. Evolutionary biology is, perhaps, more intuitive – but still conflicts with “normal” expectation. Is the basic belief in God that Keller describes one of those intuitions that must be questioned and ultimately rejected?

Bloom and Weisberg, the authors of this Science article, as well as Richard Dawkins and others, defend the position that “scientific” naturalistic thinking is counter intuitive but correct, while religious thinking is intuitive and wrong. Our innate belief that the universe has purpose, meaning, or plan is “unscientific” and in error. A belief that we are more than a fortuitous agglomeration of electrons, protons, and neutrons is a comforting and comfortable fairy tale. The authorities in our society who reinforce this errant belief should be confronted and replaced.

Many scientists at all levels disagree with the pure naturalist view. Francis Collins (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief) is one well known example. He denies the assertion that our sense of right, wrong, meaning and purpose is little more than an evolutionary accident. John Polkinghorne is a another well known example. I could name a number of others as well.

Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science Emeritus at Harvard University is another example. Gingerich has written a small book, God’s Universe, in which he contests the idea that science and our understanding of the Universe eliminates purpose or design. This is an excellent book, very well written and enjoyable to read. There is no “center” of the universe – but this does not mean no purpose and no plan. Our understanding of astrophysics and astronomy does not lead inevitably to the view that the earth is insignificant and unexceptional. It is reasonable to consider the possibility or probability that God planned the emergence of intelligent creatures “in his image” and that this was programmed into the universe.

It was Galileo who wrote that the reality of the world was dually expressed in the Book of Scripture and in Nature, and these two great books could not contradict each other, because God was the author of both. So just as I believe that the Book of Scripture illumines the pathway to God, I also believe that the Book of Nature, in all its astonishing detail – the blade of grass, the missing mass five, or the incredible intricacy of DNA – suggests a God of purpose and a God of Design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist. (p. 79)

Accepting our intuition as correct, that there is a meaning and purpose in the world makes our Christian faith both reasonable and plausible. Gingerich reflects on this in the epilogue of his book.

If we regard God’s world as a site of purpose and intention and accept that we, as contemplative surveyors of the universe, are included in that intention, then the vision is incomplete without a role for divine communication, a place for God both as Creator-Sustainer and as Redeemer, a powerful transcendence that not only can be a something but can take on the mask of a someone; a which that can connect with us as a who, in a profound I-Thou relation. Such communication will be best expressed through personal relationships, through wise voices and prophets in many times and places. (p. 120)


Within the framework of Christianity, Jesus is the supreme example of personal communication from God. When the apostle Philip requested “Show us the Father,” Jesus responded, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father.” When Jesus, hanging on the cross and slowly suffocating, cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” the nature of God’s self-limited, dappled world became excruciatingly clear. God acts within the world, but not always in the ways most obvious to our blinkered vision (p. 121)

So, back to Keller and our intuitive knowledge of God. I think that one of the most important point of conflict in the science/faith debate in our western culture is located right here. Collins, Gingerich, and I think that our intuition is reliable on this issue (and I could add many more names of scientists to this list). Dawkins, Bloom, Weisberg, and many others believe that our intuition misleads us.

What do you think?

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This is a slightly edited repost.

  • Rick

    “The point of this illustration is simply that intuition is not always right and must be questioned”
    Were their answers based just on intuition, or more on an optical illusion?
    Is intuition something that can be tricked by other senses?

  • Adam

    Here’s the irony for me. People like Dawkins hold to a believe of “the position that “scientific” naturalistic thinking is counter intuitive but correct” and yet intuitive thinking is an integral part of the discovery process. Brian Greene in his book The Elegant Universe spends half a chapter discussing how theorists are constantly choosing ideas that seem intuitive. There is no evidence that Super-symmetry is a valid theory and yet we believe it exists and are pursuing proof of it.

    A recent article I read on recent findings of the Higgs Boson was all about the data not matching the theorist’s predictions. Throughout the whole article was this discussion that most theorists believe there is a “naturalness” to the universe and it is this belief that guides them in deciding what and how to test.

    So a statement of “science is counter intuitive” seems to be an extremely naive view of the scientific community. A statement like that does not make me trust Dawkins any.

  • Mike Blyth

    I don’t see how one could possibly use intuition as a reliable guide to truth either in nature or theology. From a biological point of view, it’s a representation of our brain’s first-pass, high-speed attempt to interpret reality and keep us alive. If one adds a theological perspective, then God may have planted some knowledge in us … but how do we know which intuitions are from God and which are not, which are pure and which are corrupted? Yes, intuition is a starting point either way, but I can’t see how it could trump reason or revelation, if one believes in revelation.

    The bigger issue for me is the jump from (a) “there could be a creator who intentionally set up a world to include intelligent life” to (b) the entire Christian story which includes not only incarnation, as mentioned in the quote from the book, but much more besides.

    It sounds like an interesting book … I plan to read it; thanks for telling us about it!

  • Mike Blyth

    I don’t think anyone generalizes “science is counterintuitive.” Rather, there are clearly things in science that are counterintuitive. Also, “intuition” covers a lot of territory. Is it what makes sense to the naive, pre-math, pre-science person, or is it what makes sense to someone after she has learned advanced math and the latest theories? I think the idea you’re talking about, i.e. the importance of intuitive beauty of a theory, is more the latter than the former.

    Remember, before a few hundred years ago, it was intuitive even to educated people that the world was flat, the center of the universe, and that objects would not continue in motion unless something was continually pushing them.

  • Adam

    You’re making a distinction here that doesn’t exist. “Intuitive beauty of a theory” is argued to be just as suspect as any other form of intuition. Super-symmetry is a good example. There are groups who think Super-symmetry is right because it just seems it should be right. And there are groups who view it with skepticism because there is no evidence that it should be that way.

    Intuition is guiding a lot of our advanced research and it’s the same intuition (with a little bit more knowledge but still intuition) of the general lay person. Anyone who says intuition is not part of science is being ignorant of what our scientists are really doing.

    As an aside, the flat world example isn’t right either. Many societies believed the earth to be a sphere. Earliest records of a spherical earth belief go about 2,600 years back.

  • Susan_G1

    This is a challenging post. First, I wonder if Keller is correct in his assertion that we all “know” that God exists. People can be spiritual, believing in the continued existence of the soul, without God in the picture at all. This seems to confirm an intuition of some kind is present in most of us. Certainly something happens to us spiritually when we are confronted with overwhelming beauty. Is this the intuitive knowledge of God? Is this how God is evident in His creation? Or do we feel something we can’t comprehend and make up a story for it, as Gladwell suggests in Blink? (“We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too
    quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an
    explanation for.”)

    nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe when we experience great beauty, we fill in the story part with what we learned as young children. I don’t know.

  • RJS4DQ


    I think intuition can be tricked by other senses. However, I don’t think that is what is happening in the example here. It isn’t an optical illusion, but a misunderstanding of basic mechanics.

  • Preston Garrison

    In regard to the intuitive flatness of the earth, you should say a few thousand years ago, not hundred. Everyone (in the West) seems to have made a pretty easy transition to thinking of the earth as a sphere pretty quickly after the Greek intellectuals figured it out. Which points out that what is intuitive depends a lot on what the adults tell us when we are young.

  • Chris Crawford

    Isn’t it true that naturalism can lead to false results as well? For instance, it was perfectly reasonable for pre-Copernicus astronomers to accept the earth as the center of the universe. It was not until more sophisticated technology and techniques were developed that the truth became obvious. Discovery is a process, sometimes a lengthy one that has to be refined over a long time. Perhaps we just don’t have the perspective to see that we’re wrong right now about some things.

    Intuition can be wrong, but it is strengthened through learning and is essential to discovery.

  • Mike Blyth

    I guess I don’t really see where you are going with this as far as the main topic. Are you suggesting that, in the end, both science and faith are rooted in intuition and thus can’t be differentiated? Is it sort of an “the emperor has not clothes” argument, saying that scientists think their ideas are guided by reason, when they’re actually just products of their culture and limited knowledge?

    I don’t think that speculation in the cutting edge of cosmology and physics is necessarily the best kind of example for us to use for how science works, either, as it tends to emphasize the peculiar fringe where theories are ahead of observations. Most science is not like that, otherwise we would not have come to depend on it as a reliable tool.

  • Adam

    The point is that the dismissal of intuition by people like Dawkins is an invalid dismissal. When you talk about “the fringe” how are you defining it? Theories are frequently ahead of observation. That’s how break-throughs are made.

    The spherical-ness of the earth is a good example. How do we observe and prove the earth is spherical? Our method today is much different than the method 3 millenia ago.

    Gravity, another good example. Newton had theories about how gravity worked but he refused to explain what gravity WAS. It wasn’t until Einstein and his theories of relativity that we had a grasp of what gravity actual is.

    How did Tesla do all the work he was able to? All of his personal journals and reports say that he thought things up in his head before ever creating something or writing it down. And he was ahead of all his contemporaries. Obviously Tesla was not operating from “proven research”.

    This is all intuition at work in the world of science. Yes intuition can be wrong but it can be right as well. The statement of “counter intuitive and correct vs intuitive and wrong” is a hypocritical and naive statement.

  • Collins

    Given that Keller has said in other places how much he likes Alvin Plantinga (I’m thinking here of a BioLogos paper that he wrote), I wonder if his argument in Reason for God about belief in God being intuitive was borrowing the framework of God being a “properly basic belief” in Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (which, to my shame, I have not read yet). Does anybody have any thoughts on this?

    Also, I think that it’s important to note that I think Dawkins believes that SOME elements of science are counter-intuitive. I doubt he would contend that it’s even a largely counter-intuitive enterprise.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, I think that’s true about Keller’s source on this one.

  • Tom F.

    Very interesting post. I just finished reading noble-laureate Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which is largely about intuition, and when it is trustworthy. He documents so many errors of intuition within that book I would have hesitancy simply taking any intuition at face value.

    I think assigning intuition either too high or too low of a value are both mistakes. On its face, Keller’s argument seems quite prone to the optical illusion counter-example. Or, alternatively, take people’s saving habits. People don’t really seem to save enough for their retirement if left to themselves, does this mean they believe that they won’t make it to retirement? ( Yes, their actions suggest they believe one thing, but certainly all would agree that their habits and intuition in this case is mistaken.

    On the other hand, our intuitions have developed so as to be pretty accurate, most of the time. So just because something is intuitive should not be automatic grounds for dismissing it as true.

    I think we should compare theist intuitions to atheist intuitions, and theist elaborated arguments to atheist elaborated arguments. If what Keller is doing is trying to show why atheists may have some theistic intuitions, that seems like a worthy thing. It is not, however, a replacement for elaborated philosophy and theology (nor am I saying that is his goal). Often, our intuitions can be made to match up with the elaborated philosophy/theory by means of a good analogy. Our intuitions are not simply “given” (although there may be “default” intuitions based on cognitive structures), but are shaped by culture so that even the counter-intuitive can come to seem to be intuitive. (“The sun goes around the earth” will likely be felt to be counter-intuitive to at least some.)

  • Susan_G1

    This is Gladwell’s position as well, in Blink: the power of thinking without thinking.

  • Marshall

    I think “intuition” is a funny word here … the root is “looking inside” and I see one definition is “immediate or non-rational cognition”. Whereas we commonly receive insight from beyond the boundaries of our (conscious) “self”. We don’t “make it up”, it “comes to us”. NewAtheists say “subconsciously synthesized subliminal knowledge/observations”; charismatics say “prompted by the Holy Spirit”. The God question boils out to – How far can this “other” we are in dialog with be extended? Just my lower brain at work? Biological wisdom inherited from the evolutionary process? The Creator’s Kingdom breaking in?

  • AHH

    Some musings about this post …

    1) “Common sense and intuition”. Are those the same thing? Maybe not quite, but I’m not able to articulate a difference.

    2) I bring up common sense because of the major influence on conservative American Protestantism of “common sense rationalism” in the 1800s. I’m no expert in history or philosophy, but I’d say much of Evangelicalism still bears negative effects of that.

    3) I don’t think anybody has brought up this point — if we are fallen (never mind how we got to that state) and finite creatures, why should we expect our common sense (or intuition) to be fully reliable? Isn’t Scripture full of warnings about the unreliability of unaided human reason? Isn’t much Christian doctrine contrary to human common sense (a crucified God, Jesus as fully God and fully human, last shall be first, lose your life in order to save it)?
    Not that we want to give up on common sense altogether; it serves us well much of the time. But it seems foolish to make it foundational to apologetics (I’m not saying Keller does that).

    4) Comic relief — as others have mentioned, some aspects of science (like quantum mechanics and relativity) defy common sense. Never fear, there are Christians seeking to rescue us from that:
    I wish I could say this was a parody site, but it isn’t. It actually isn’t as obviously crackpotty now as it was last time I looked at it several years ago.

  • Howard Pepper

    After decades of first “doing” orthodox apologetics (while studying further theology), then questioning Christian orthodoxy, I was forced to re-work my concept of both the Bible and God. However, though a radically different view of God emerged, I never questioned the existence of “some kind of” God (intelligent, gracious presence/force, at the least).

    The few who call themselves true atheists are NOT the real challenge to orthodox Christianity. I have come to wonder if most Christians have come to think so, however, on a conscious level. Still, these Christians feel the need to respond to them because of their OWN doubts or fears for other Christians. It is actually those of us still “Christian” by identification but who are non-traditonal theists (or “panentheists”), who I think are subconsciously MORE the threat to the comfy, if not doubting, position of “suprenaturalist” theists (i.e. traditional Christianity in its many expressions). We HAVE slid down the proverbial “slippery slope” and the fact that it is NOT miserable and “godless” at the bottom is quite a threat to many.

  • Richard Green

    Funny thing with the Bloom and D. S. Weisberg illustration: Anybody who has actually seen water coming out of a hose sees it falling with gravity, not coming out straight (the curvature of the hose suggests low pressure).

    My point is that intuition has been compared with the ‘right answer’, but nobody pointed out that that was from a physics textbook – not real life. We should be humble about our scientific models.

  • Dorfl

    I have two very big problems with Keller’s argument:

    First of all, arguments of the form ‘Deep inside, I think you really believe this’ pretty much kill any useful conversation. At the best of times, a large part of any discussion will consist of accidentally addressing misunderstandings of what the other party actually believes. If someone deliberately refuses to accept that the other party holds the views they claim to, the discussion is likely going to progress much more slowly than I will ever have the patience for.

    Second, it seems to assume that the truth of a particular statement depends on the sincerity of the person making that statement. This isn’t simply a matter of whether intuition is reliable or not. A very large number of theistic arguments consist partly or entirely of addressing the sincerity of the person making a particular claim. E.g. “Many of the apostles were willing to die for their beliefs” or “By saying there is no free will you’re saying I ought to change my mind about free will, but the term ‘ought’ only makes sense if I do have free will”.

    This type of argument is pretty much a red herring. Even if we agree that I secretly believe in God and all this pretending to be an atheist is just a very long-running work of performance art, we still have to play devil’s advocate to make sure that our belief in God is not a terrible mistake. Looking for evidence for God doesn’t suddenly become a pro forma exercise that we can now be any less diligent about.

    About intuition:

    I think any built-in intuitions the human brain has are only going to be even slightly reliable as long as we stick to a human scale. The moment we deal with things that are too big or too small to be visible, that move to slowly or quickly to be seen, that have a weight to big to lift or to small to feel, or otherwise leave the scales we are used to, our built-in intuitions are going to start failing very quickly.

    By working within a field, we can build up intuitions relevant to that particular field. However, once we step outside of what is already known, we are still going to be wrong more often than not. That’s pretty much why ‘the scientific method’ is a thing: It’s the sieve we’ve had to develop to pick up those few of cutting-edge researchers’ intuitions that are actually correct, while discarding those that aren’t.

  • Lars

    Keller says, “We know God is there. That is why even when we believe with all our minds that life is meaningless, we simply can’t live that way. We know better.”

    For a lot of people, these two things – God and meaning – are completely unrelated. In fact, you could make the case that if God has preordained every event, then perhaps the exact opposite is true – it’s God that has made life meaningless! And if you believe God is the sustainer of the universe and ultimately in control, your meaning is quickly subsumed as well.

    I don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian God, or any other god we humans have described because I just don’t see any evidence supporting His or their existence and yet my life has plenty of meaning anyway. I have a wife and children I love deeply. I have friends, a job, sports teams, and hobbies that I enjoy very much. I’m politically motivated and involved. And I’m endlessly stimulated by questions such as these! I don’t have room for any more meaning!

    It seems to me that people live or die, get jobs or not, get awesome parking spaces or not, in about the same percentages they would whether there was a God or not. It’s just a lot more reassuring, perhaps even intuitive, to think God did that for us because we’re more special than everyone else. And maybe we need to have some kind of special “meaning” to help get us up in the morning and slog through the inevitable hardships that also are a part of our lives.

    Perhaps it’s intuitive to think that you (and your fellow believers) have the Truth and everyone else is wrong, no matter what version of the Truth you believe. But I still have plenty of meaning and purpose without believing in Truth or God, and my own intuition tells me that meaning and purpose start horizontally, not vertically.

  • Phil Miller

    And if you believe God is the sustainer of the universe and ultimately in control, your meaning is quickly subsumed as well.

    I think that’s the point. If I’m dependent on whatever I can muster within myself to bring meaning to things, than, well, at the end of the day, that’s not very much. Sure, an individual if he’s fortunate enough can live a rather full life, but in the end, the universe doesn’t care if you existed or not. It doesn’t care if you had a happy marriage, a fulfilling career, children, grandchildren, etc.

    In the end you’ll die, your children and their children will die, and what are we left with? Nothing. I think that’s the point. Most people simply refuse to live with the despair that comes naturally from that thought. Even people who accept it on an intellectual don’t really live like they believe it. I think that’s kind of what Keller is getting at.

  • Lars

    That may not be enough for you, but the meaning I can muster through my daily existence is more than enough for me. That’s the meaning that is real to me. You could replace ‘universe’ with ‘God’ in your first paragraph and I would be hard-pressed to see much of a difference. You either have those things (happy marriage, career, etc.) or you don’t and belief in God is not required nor even advantageous.

    I will teach my children that maybe there’s a God and maybe there isn’t, that there are no guarantees in life and that is why every day, and what we make of it, is so important. How we treat others and what kind of society we leave is the legacy that will live on. When they are old enough, they can view the evidence and decide for themselves which view is more likely. I have absolutely no sense of despair believing that I won’t live on in any other capacity beyond my loved ones’ memory. Actually, I have no desire at all to live forever and instead look forward to resting from from my earthly travails once that time comes. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Though I understand where Keller is going, from my perspective, it’s hard for me to understand why he’s is so dismissive of people who don’t believe as he does. But that’s one thing I remember and still notice today; that many Christians think their view of reality is not only intuitive to everyone, but True for everyone as well.

  • rudebaldguy

    Keller’s argument that everyone openly or secretly believes in god has been floating around in Calvinistic circles for years. It was pushed by Cornelius van Til when I was in college. I was always suspicious of it. How could one know that such a belief in god existed in other people? Their argument always seemed a bit of a pseudo geometric proof. Thus: I believe in God. I believe that the bible informs that belief with some content. I believe that some of that content tells me that everyone is created by god. Part of the creation of humans by god involves god’s inclusion of an innate belief in god. You are human. Therefore you believe in god. Not very convincing, as the conclusion is clearly embedded in the premises.

    But my main suspicion about this argument came from the introspected fact that I could not find an intuition about the existence of god in myself. I have had no direct or unmediated experiences of god, except for perhaps one and I can explain that in other ways. My belief in god in my younger days was simply a result of growing up in a culture where this was a commonplace. Once I began thinking seriously about this I rejected the belief, although I was haunted by the usual uneasiness that I could be wrong. “Normal sentient paranoia” in the words of Slarty Bartfast.

    After my conversion, the bulk of my intellectual life (such as that was) was given to rationally justifying to myself my choice of conversion in the face of that lack of any clear intuitive belief in the existence of god or any unmediated experience of god. To this day I do not have either the intuition or the experience of god’s existence. Rather my belief in god (such as it is) is based on an aggregation of social constraints, somewhat shaky arguments, and an innate desire that god should exist and is not hostile to me in the long run. It is also based negatively on what I see is the failure of philosophy and science to produce anything remotely as interesting as religion in terms of a narrative of “what I am”. The only thing I find in scientists and philosophers is reductive theories about “what I am probably not” with the scientist/philosopher’s offer of following the example of his own life as a pretty decent chap, his own lack of religious belief notwithstanding.

    Unfortunately, Christian teachers such as Keller, want to offer a similarly glib but more superficially hopeful narrative of “what I am”. I cannot buy that one either.