Assessing Your Gut Instinct

Publié le par JLB

   (Note Cet article est un article du journaliste étudiant B. Barthelmess de Agir , qui m'a fait l'honneur de répondre à ce numéro spécial JLB)

Scientia potentia est - knowledge is power. While thinking about this maxim by Francis Bacon, the quest for universal literacy in our world might first cross one’s mind. Doubtlessly, the ability to read and write has empowered the people. Literacy represents the key that enables us to effectively access the knowledge of others , our ancestors and contemporaries. In earlier times, when most of the Western Society’s knowledge was still hoarded in few monasteries, the more widely spread literacy permitted the population to overturn the church’s monopoly on knowledge. Both, literacy and the ability to access and refine knowledge empowered the population and gave the people the opportunity to self-determination. All this was necessary to make societies’ progress possible. Without the exponential growth of our knowledge, there would be neither a computer nor a washing machine. Nonetheless, I doubt this statement’s universal validity which it claims to have since there are numerous situations where knowledge might even impair us in a certain regard.  

For a better understanding of my case, I will start out with an example from the war history since it perfectly lends itself for this purpose. The Battle of Chancellorsville is probably one of the most famous and significant battles of the American Civil War (1861–1865); famous and significant, first of all, because the Confederates’ (Southern States) army, although it was according to all measurable capacities inferior to the Union’s (Northern States) army since alone the troop ratio was about 1:2, emerged victorious from this battle. How did it come to this paradoxical outcome? Both armies were lead by two very capable generals; the Union by General Joseph Hooker and the Confederates by General Robert E. Lee. ‘Fighting Joe Hooker,’ was a 48-year-old bachelor with an “extensive experience during the War with Mexico” who “harbored enormous ambitions.” Soon after he had taken charge of the troops, he undertook major improvements in the army, as the historian Gallagher describes:

Hooker rapidly restored morale in the army. The quality of food and sanitation improved, desertions fell off, and Hooker introduced a system of corps badges that soon became prized symbols engendering pride in belonging to a particular corps. […] By the end of April, the army of the Potomac [river flowing through Wash. DC, the Union’s capital] represented a formidable military instrument. Its 134,000 well-equipped and supplied soldiers anticipated success.    

Lee, on the other hand, was already well in the fifties and of uncertain health, a “devout and principled man.” His army, though spirited, was in an extremely bad shape:

The army […] lacked its opponent’s size and material bounty, but fully matched its confidence. A difficult winter had compelled Lee to disperse much of its cavalry to secure food for the horses. James Longstreet and two of his four infantry divisions had been detached to south-east Virginia […]. Scarcely more than 60,000 Confederates of all arms prepared to defend the Rappahannock river lines. Yet most Confederates expected victory.

The situation at Chancellorsville was quite simple. Each one of the two armies was placed on one side of the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia. There was no geographical advantage given to either one of the armies. Doubtlessly, under such circumstances the battle ought to have been won by the Union army. And unsurprisingly, at the beginning, the battle went very well for Hooker. He had a very well elaborated strategy and thanks to numerous spies in the opponent’s army, he knew exactly what was going on behind enemy lines. However, then, everything went just wrong – Lee acted completely illogically. Lee did not follow any of the patterns which were to be expected in Hooker’s various scenarios based on everything he knew thanks to his spies. For Hooker, for instance, it seemed to be self evident that Lee, facing the superior army, would retreat back to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederates’ headquarters. But the Confederate’ general turned instead unexpectedly towards Hooker and attacked him. Lee’s proceeding took him by surprise. This experienced General Hooker became increasingly worried and extremely confused so that he did no longer know what to do. Despite his enormous knowledge about Lee and his army, he found himself unable to predict the Confederate’s steps that were to follow since his ability to make predictions concerning the enemy’s strategy relied entirely on information that turned out to be completely useless.  In addition, to make things even worse, this reliance completely impaired his – thanks to year-long experience – well developed instinct and Hooker was just unable to react adequately on his failures. Lee on the other hand acted without hesitation and simply followed his gut; some hours later, in the early evening, Hooker’s shiftless soldiers found themselves assaulted by the 60 000 “half-starved ragamuffins,” as Horace Greely from the New York Tribune put it, who made up the Confederates’ army. The Union soldier did not know better than to turn and run away.

So, what did Hooker obviously wrong? He relied too much on his knowledge. He was convinced that all the things he knew about Lee would give him the sufficient power to win the battle. He thought his knowledge would enable him to predict all actions of the other general. Convinced by his knowledge, he completely failed to look beyond the scope of his knowledge. Ergo scientia semper potentia est – is knowledge always to equate with power? Not necessarily. We have to modify Bacon’s theory without denying that it holds true to a certain extent. Doubtlessly, knowledge can be helpful and, yes, even empower us; nonetheless, it needs more than just knowledge. Probably everybody is aware of this reality from daily life. Most might already have recognized that the student next to us will not be apt to successfully act, just because he knows the Odyssey back and forth or the latest market rates by heart. Does it empower me in any way that I, as a chemistry dummy, know the ingredients of the milk I might drink in the morning? Obviously, in order to be successful with anything in life, it requires more than just the memorization of facts. Everybody who wants to benefit from knowledge has to be able to process it. We must be able to filter information, separate important from unimportant things. Finally, we must understand how to best apply the lately acquired knowledge. Moreover, even if we are able to apply knowledge, like in the case of Gen. Hooker, we have to be aware of the scope of our knowledge that necessarily has the property of being always incomplete (nobody explained the world till now…). Thus, despite our knowledge we still have to maintain the ability to ‘think outside the box.’

Man was certainly not born to really think everything through in the ‘rational manner’ we like to adhere to. Quite often, we also rely on other agents than just knowledge in order to act successfully in life – many scientists even argue that in numerous situations we act even more effectively when we know less. Upon the first glance this theory might appear to be absurd, but if we think about our actions in ever day life, this idea appears to contain a surprising accuracy. Particularly in situations that require quick decision-making, we certainly do not act upon the Baconian maxim. For instance, usually we do not attempt a thorough investigation for each single product in the grocery store before we actually buy something; otherwise, we would still be there the next day.  Often enough, we just follow something we refer to as our ‘gut instinct.’ Therefore, we will probably agree with the psychologist Timothy D. Wilson:

The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human’s ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.

Obviously, good acting, especially in everyday life situation, very often depends on our gut. We rely on our unconscious, all the subliminal experiences we gained in the past. Therefore, would Hooker have won the battle at Chancellorsville if he had listened to his gut? Of course, we will never know it, but it seems quite possible that he would have won the battle if he had only relied on his gut.

However, our “inner computer can still be thrown off, distracted and disabled,” it can easily succumb to racism and other primitive mindsets. Nevertheless, it represents an indispensable component that influences the way we act and thus, how be attain power or not. Thus, our great challenge is to extract the power from knowledge and from our unconscious as well. This might be hard; but, as we think about it, the ability to combine the two is nothing else but what we understand under good judgment. Only the good judge knows to process the given knowledge and listen to his ‘gut instincts.’

For a pioneer of modernization with his ‘scientific method’ Bacon doubtlessly contributed to the intellectual progress of his times. In fact, he was a great empirical thinker. His ideal and goal was the theory.  The Greek theoria means, above all, ‘to see,’ and it was Bacon’s “concerted attempt to see, to look at the science around him, and develop a method capacious enough to accommodate being seen.” Though, he was for sure not a psychologist. He did not entirely grasp human psyche but succumbed to its ideal – rationalism.

 Benedikt Barthelmess


Gallagher, Garry W. The American Civil War: The War In The East 1861 - May 1863. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Limited, 2001. Pages 66ff.

Gladwell, Malcom. Blink. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Page 253.

Gallagher, Garry W. The American Civil War: The War In The East 1861 - May 1863. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Limited, 2001. Page 69.

Wilson, Timothy D. Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering The Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Page 6.

Gladwell, Malcom. Blink. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Page 15.

Desroches, Dennis. Francis Bacon And The Limits of Scientific Knowledge. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Page 6.

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