Does Human Reasoning Demonstrate Exceptionalism?

Imagine you are at a sporting goods store, shopping for baseball equipment. You approach the cashier and place a ball and a bat on the counter, and the cashier tells you that the total is $1.10 and that the bat is $1.00 more than the ball. Since you only brought $1.00, you hand it to the cashier saying, “I’ll just take the bat.” The cashier smiles politely while stating, “You don’t have enough money.” How do you respond?

You might go with your initial assessment and argue that the bat only costs $1.00, but you would be wrong. Or you might start to think more deliberately and recognize that if the bat did costs $1.00, then the ball would be free—and that can’t be right because the total for both adds to $1.10. Eventually, a little algebra reveals the correct prices: $1.05 for the bat and $0.05 for the ball.

This little exercise in shopping highlights two essential components of human reasoning. The more deliberate process corresponds to what we term “rational” thought. During rational thought, we start with objective “givens” (like the total price and price difference) and apply good logical reasoning to draw sound conclusions. No one objects to the importance of rational thought in human reasoning. However, the initial, more intuitive process is equally important. It allows us to navigate the enormous number of decisions required for daily life while conserving cognitive resources for the more challenging situations.

In fact, to build a good model of how humans think, particularly when it comes to scientific research, researchers must use dual-process theories (DPTs) that incorporate both components. Furthermore, research1 demonstrates that both novices and experts utilize the fast, automatic intuition and the slow, effortful analytic process. Repeated use of the analytic process trains the intuitive process to see the more correct and fruitful avenues to solve scientific problems—similar to how studying multiplication tables eventually translates to simply knowing the product of two numbers without having to think about it.

This recognition that humans utilize two learning processes raises two interesting issues. The first is related to artificial intelligence and the second to prayer.

Intuitive AIs?
Human intuition provides at least one benefit by saving mental efforts for more difficult problems. I don’t have to think about brushing my teeth or getting dressed or driving to work because I have trained my mind to do these tasks without conscious thought. It’s not clear that we can train ANIs (artificial narrow intelligences) to have intuition, at least not with the current tools of machine learning, neural networks, and generous computer resources. However, one could argue that the ability to add virtually unlimited computer resources means that ANIs don’t need to conserve “mental” resources for more difficult tasks. But intuition doesn’t simply conserve mental resources, it helps direct our energies toward the most productive use of those resources. For example, when confronted with numerous options for how to tackle a new problem, expert scientists usually have a good sense of which options have the best chance of success, and they direct their energies toward those options. AIs lack such intuition and other important, but nonrational components of productive thinking.

Incorporating Nonrational Thinking
My colleague Ken Samples notes that three factors influence every decision we make. We use rational factors based on facts, evidence, and logical inferences drawn from those facts and evidence. Additionally, and unfortunately, irrational factors such as bias, prejudice, and fallacies also play a role in every decision. As we properly employ the rational factors and mitigate or eliminate irrational factors, our decisions grow sounder. We also incorporate nonrational factors. Some of these nonrational factors flow out of our personalities. One person might prefer passive, carefully planned solutions rather than aggressive, spontaneous solutions. One person’s taste might favor the bold, flashy solutions instead of the subtle and reserved. Feelings of well-being or a sense of foreboding influence our decision-making and often flow from our personality. Other nonrational factors like intuition, a flash of insight, or poetic vision arise from our past experiences and the present environment.

Let me illustrate with a personal story. A number of years ago I was working to assemble a complex system of electronics capable of recording data for a gamma-ray telescope. One key piece of this system was the computer that communicated with a bunch of electronic modules to acquire and read out data from the telescope. After many days of working on the system, I was unable to get the computer to work properly with one important module. I had extensively debugged the system and could find nothing wrong, yet it still would not work. I took a few moments to think and ended up praying to God that he would help me find a solution—because I needed to move on to other tasks. After I finished praying, I started reading through the manual again. I had searched this manual numerous times to no avail. However, on this pass-through, I noticed a parenthetical comment about how a bad ribbon cable could cause communication problems. I decided to check the ribbon cable and discovered that I had not properly crimped one of the connectors when I made the cable months before. I crimped the wires into the connector and the system worked just as it was intended!

One could argue that noticing the parenthetical comment corresponded to praying by coincidence. However, in Philippians 4:6, Paul instructs us to not worry but to pray about everything—and expect God to answer. Paul’s encouragement to pray about everything does not mean that God will give me an answer I want every time. But the fact that I have experienced similar scenarios in numerous instances demonstrates that sometimes God uses those nonrational factors to answer my prayers.

Not Just An Algorithm
If this world is all that is, was, and ever will be, then we should expect to find that our reasoning ultimately reduces to some very complicated algorithm. The great success of scientists and programmers in developing algorithms to mimic much of human behavior shows how everything we do contains an algorithm. Yet, the necessity of incorporating an intuitive and a rational component (and likely nonrational parts as well) points toward a fascinating reality. While everything we do contains an algorithm, nothing we do is just an algorithm. Humans clearly have a physical component, but we are also something more—something we might call spiritual.


1. Mila Kryjevskaia, Paula Heron, and Andrew Heckler, “Intuitive or Rational? Students and Experts Need to be Both,” Physics Today 74, no. 8 (August 2021): 28-34, doi:10.1063/PT.3.4813.