Intuition in problem solving, and how that may relate to superstitions

Matthew Bass wrote about how a hunch led to solving an unexplained problem with git. I’ve had many similar experiences, so I commented on his blog post

It’s surprising how often those hunches are right, and interesting how much we programmers do based on hunches when all else fails. Sometimes intuition comes through where careful logic falls short.

As something of a tangent, I’ve noticed that a lot of people (not so much programmers but common users) talk about computers and computer problems as though they were superstitious. They don’t understand how computers *really* work, but they sometimes have intuitions that help them solve problems. (Not to imply that we always understand everything that’s going on, but it’s easiest to see in people with less sophistication.) It’s sometimes easiest to understand the behavior of Windows, for instance, if you just assume that it is possessed.

I suspect this is where many superstitions arise: in a given group of people no one can explain a certain problem or how to solve it in a careful detailed logical way, but someone (on a hunch, often) comes up with a solution. Someone then, of course, comes up with an explanation for why that solution worked. If you’re a member of a stone-age tribe in Papua New Guinea then you might attribute everything to spirits.

On the other hand, if you’re a member of a post-spiritual modernist western culture, then you might attribute everything to physics or psychology, depending on the phenomena in question. Freud tried to explain away faith in the supernatural with psychological explanations, saying that people “project” their desires for security and create in their minds a Supreme Being. Paul Vitz has shown that the converse of Freud’s theory is far more defensible based on the data: disappointment with one’s father often leads to atheism. Those with good fathers (and therefore far less likely to be motivated by desire for a security that they lack) were more likely to believe in a Supreme Being:

Starting with Freud’s “projection theory” of religion-that belief in God is merely a product of man’s desire for security-Professor Vitz argues that psychoanalysis actually provides a more satisfying explanation for atheism. Disappointment in one’s earthly father, whether through death, absence, or mistreatment, frequently leads to a rejection of God. A biographical survey of influential atheists of the past four centuries shows that this “defective father hypothesis” provides a consistent explanation of the “intense atheism” of these thinkers. A survey of the leading intellectual defenders of Christianity over the same period confirms the hypothesis, finding few defective fathers. Professor Vitz concludes with an intriguing comparison of male and female atheists and a consideration of other psychological factors that can contribute to atheism.
Professor Vitz does not argue that atheism is psychologically determined. Each man, whatever his experiences, ultimately chooses to accept God or reject him. Yet the cavalier attribution of religious faith to irrational, psychological needs is so prevalent that an exposition of the psychological factors predisposing one to atheism is necessary.

And of course there’s the idea (held by such luminaries as Francis Crick and apparently Richard Dawkins) that life on earth came about because it was brought here by Aliens. Of course this avoids answering the question of how life came about, just sweeping it under an inter-galactic rug. Nonetheless, an appeal to an explanation couched in (astro)physical terms, because those are the only explanations some people think are allowed.

(To think I came here from git!)

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