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Meditation 565
Views of an Agnostic

by: Ross E. Browne

This is part 5 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.

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Intuition is a term applied to all our direct or immediate perceptions. The word instinct was formerly confined to the natural impulses of animals other than man, it being assumed that such animals had no reasoning faculty. But since that assumption is known to be unsound, there remains no clear distinction between the two words. It seems best to employ the word intuition as a broad term including instinct, and. to confine the meaning of instinct to inherited impulse.

Many of our intuitions are the. result of the habitual entertainment of conceptions and ideas which were originally due to instruction, or observation and reasoning, or fancy. Such conceptions, by constant employment, have become more or less automatic. Whether- or not these are transmitted to our offspring, even in a slight degree is a matter of dispute. There appears to have been brought forward no undisputed evidence of such transmission to any appreciable extent. There is, of course, transmission of acquired physical disease of the body, including the brain, but that is a different matter. It seems plausible to assume that the persistent re-establishment of the same intuition in a sufficiently long line of generations may ultimately result in the intuition becoming instinctive. But let it be borne in mind that many beliefs which have persisted during all historic time have still left the youthful mind open to new conviction without prejudice.

For all practical purposes it may be assumed that the natural instincts of our race will not be perceptibly improved by education-at least not in reasonable time. Such improvement may only be brought about by some system of eugenics or a wise selection in breeding. In other words, we may by education and training improve the spontaneous tendencies of the individual, but such improvement is not cumulative, i.e., does not extend to the instinctive tendencies of his offspring. In the present European warfare, after nearly 2000 years of devotion to Christian precepts, a slight provocation seems to have brought to the surface the same barbarous instincts which prevailed in early historic times.

There is a notable variation in the individual characteristics of the members of every family. A marked development of a given innate quality may doubtless be accomplished in a few generations by selecting for intermarriage those exhibiting most definitely the prescribed characteristic. The desirability of the result in a given case is, however, more or less problematical. There are some complex questions involved. We may, in effecting the result, ,cultivate some undesirable feature. For example, in attempting thus to destroy the belligerent quality in favor of sentiments of kindness and good will we might introduce a combination that would weaken ambition and lead to decadence. Notwithstanding the start which Darwin has given us, our knowledge is, I imagine, still too meager to warrant any very confident predictions regarding experiments we may now undertake, but the earnest study of the subject, inaugurated by Sir Francis Galton, will doubtless in time lead to the establishment of some governing principles.

It is apparent that our instincts are to a great extent based upon utility which is an important factor in natural selection or survival of the fittest. Under normal conditions, we may, as a rule, assume that an instinct serves some useful purpose, but it may nevertheless lead to a misconception of the underlying facts. Acquired intuitions are partly based upon recognitions of truth, partly upon erroneous theories. We have thus no offhand assurance that an intuition points to truth. To ascertain if it be reliable we must first go back to its source, or resort to analysis and test.

The following examples are cited to show that an instinctive conception may or may not be corroborated by reason; or may be entirely beyond the reach of rational method of analysis.

First – We intuitively assume the existence of substance and the axioms of mathematics. These assumptions are in full accord with all experience and cannot be successfully refuted by reason.

Second -- Our senses occasionally lead us to false assumptions. When we take a short stick in hand and rub it over a rough surface we are intuitively conscious of the sensation at the point of contact between the stick and the surface, yet we know it cannot be outside of the human body, and is, in fact, in the brain. Again, when we look at a material object, we are intuitively conscious of the picture being coincident with the object, whereas by investigation we find it to be in the retina of the eye. These hallucinations are doubtless the result of habitual association of the sensations with the objects, and they perform such useful service that we cannot well imagine how we could get along without them. They serve to locate the object, to furnish us with appreciation of distance, etc.

Third -- We all assume instinctively that we possess some original power in initiating our actions. Most people believe the assumption to be true. Others believe it to be false. Still others have no rational conviction in the matter.

The wonders of instinct appear to us entirely mysterious, just as do the causes of all fundamental qualities. How the newborn animal came to possess control of its muscular system, and the tendency to develop qualities and powers so nearly identical with those of its parents, often without instruction or example, is simply a matter of wonderment. In explanation we have nothing to offer but bald assumptions.