Spiritual Intuition and Scientific Inspiration

In ninth grade I decided I wanted to be a scientist. I loved learning and discovering new ideas, especially ideas related to science and technology. I enjoyed reading about the process of how discoveries in science were made.

While in high school, I read The Art of Scientific Investigation by W.I.B. Beveridge (pub. 1950). The book has 11 chapters that cover everything from experimental methodology to scientific ethics. The chapter that had the most impact on me was chapter six, titled "Intuition."

The chapter title struck me as odd. I thought, "What is something so unscientific as intuition doing in a book on scientific investigation?"

After reading that chapter, I found myself asking the question:

How might scientific intuition and spiritual inspiration be related?

The answer to that question is the motivation for this post, for if they are related then we might just as well ask:

How are scientific inspiration and spiritual intuition related?

First consider what the book has to say about intuition's role in scientific investigation. Beveridge defines "intuition" as:

"... a sudden enlightenment or comprehension of a situation, a clarifying idea which springs into the consciousness often, though not necessarily, when one is not consciously thinking of that subject.

"... inspiration, illumination, and hunch are also used to describe this phenomenon ..."

What was striking to me was how similar this description is to Joseph Smith's description of spiritual inspiration:

"A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.,) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.151)

Beveridge's sources included scientists who were asked to describe their experiences with intuition. Some illustrative examples include as follows:

"... Freeing my mind of all thoughts of the problem I walked briskly down the street, when suddenly at a definite spot ... an idea popped into my head as emphatically as if a voice had shouted it.

"... Then followed months of intense thought in order to find out what the bewildering chaos of scattered observations meant until one day all of a sudden the whole became as clear and comprehensible as if it were illuminated with a flash of light ... There are not many joys in human life equal to the joy of the sudden birth of a generalization illuminating the mind after a long period of patient research."

He summarizes the process by which intuition is brought about thusly:

"The most characteristic circumstances of an intuition are a period of intense work on the problem accompanied by a desire for its solution, abandonment of the work perhaps with attention to something else, then the appearance of the idea with dramatic suddenness and often a sense of certainty. Often there is a feeling of exhilaration and perhaps surprise that the idea had not been thought of previously. ... Intuitions sometimes occur during sleep ... It is evident that to get bright ideas the scientist needs time for meditation."

According to Beveridge, intuition is impeded when there are competing thoughts, worries, and interruptions. Chemical stimulants may also be an impediment. Beveridge believed that intuition played a role in the generation of all (new) ideas:

"... All ideas, including the simple ones that form the gradual steps in ordinary reasoning, probably arise by the process of intuition ..."

Again I was struck with the similarities between his description and the process of spiritual inspiration provided by Joseph Smith in D&C 9: 8–9:

"But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

"But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me."

In his talk How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration, Elder Richard G. Scott includes even more similar elements. The short steps to spiritual inspiration that most Mormons learn are to study, ponder, and pray.

The important similarities are as follows:

  1. Intense focused study
  2. Meditation or relaxed thought
  3. Ideas
  4. Feelings of peace, elation, and/or certitude
Given these similarities it was natural for me to ask the question:

Are these related processes? Could scientific intuition just be another form of spiritual revelation, that is, communication from God?

Indeed this statement by then Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith indicates that scientific intuition is a form of spiritual inspiration.

"There has never been a step taken from that day to this, in discovery or invention, where the Spirit of the Lord (that is, the spirit of which Joel spoke, the Light of Christ, not the Holy Ghost!) was not the prevailing force, resting upon the individual, which caused him to make the discovery or the invention. The world does not understand that but it is perfectly clear to me; nor did the Lord always use those who have faith, nor does he always do so today. He uses such minds as are pliable and can be turned in certain directions to accomplish his work, whether they believe in him or not."

My personal experience is that the feelings that accompany spiritual inspiration are warmer and sweeter with a sense of love and belonging, whereas the feelings that accompany flashes of scientific inspiration are more excitement and elation but the steps are similar.

In contrast, the materialistic psychological explanation for intuition given by Beveridge is that the subconscious mind, using some unknown process, works behind the scenes to find a solution that, once found, then is presented to the conscious mind.

Despite rapid general scientific progress in the 40 years since I first read Beveridge's book, the scientific understanding of intuition has hardly advanced beyond the explanation he first gave. Although there has been more evidence supporting the steps he outlines for achieving intuition, there has been little increase in understanding of how the human mind creates a flash of inspiration or intuition. Indeed there is still no well-developed, generally accepted theory of consciousness. It is still a wide open question.

An aspect of intuition is a form of reasoning called induction. Inductive reasoning is not to be confused with deductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning a given set of facts or observed relations can be processed to derive (deduce, infer) other facts or observations. Computers can be programmed to perform deductive reasoning.

In contrast, inductive reasoning creates a generalized explanation or theory from facts or observed relations. The induced theory is not a subset of, or directly inferable from, the facts but explains the facts in a new way.

This is called the problem of induction. So far, no one has discovered a way for computers to be programmed to perform inductive reasoning. Although computers can be programmed to make random guesses that might result in a new theory, this is not the same as induction. How the mind performs inductive reasoning much less how intuition occurs is one of the most difficult problems any theory of consciousness must solve and so far has proved intractable.

Nobel prize winning physicist Roger Penrose published a logical proof in his book The Emperor's New Mind that asserts that a Turing Machine (which modern computers are a type of) cannot ever be programmed to perform inductive reasoning. Some call non-turing machine computers hyper-computers. Penrose posits that inductive reasoning is non-computable. Although there have been criticisms of some aspects of Penrose's proof (he was proving a negative), his proof generally still stands un-refuted.

In a second related book, titled Shadows of the Mind, Penrose and co-author Hameroff (an MD) addressed the question that if the mind is not a Turing machine computer, what kind of computer might it be? They posited that a quantum computer might be capable of induction. They also posited that microtubules in the brain might be capable of quantum mechanical computation through a process they call Orch-OR. Since then, other researchers have also posited that human consciousness has a quantum mechanical component. (See the references).

The primary complaint about Orch-OR is that the brain is too warm and noisy for quantum effects to occur. It has since been shown, however, that bird navigation and photosynthesis both rely on quantum effects happening in warm wet environments. It is well known that other human organs — namely olfaction in the nose and photo reception in the the eye — work using quantum mechanical principles.

Could another human organ, the brain, also work using quantum mechanical principles? Recently there has been evidence to support this theory. In a 2014 review paper, Hameroff and Penrose cite experimental validation of several predictions made by their theory. These include microtubule quantum coherence at kilohertz and megahertz frequencies whose beat frequencies are EEG rhythms.

What makes this relevant to the question of the relationship of scientific intuition and spiritual inspiration is that quantum entanglement effects include a form of action at a distance called "non-locality." Some have posited a weak form of communication based on this effect called "quantum pseudo-telepathy." Others have posited that full telepathy might be possible.

These are very highly speculative concepts, but what they open up is the possibility of a natural explanation for inspiration/intuition, either spiritual or scientific, as a form of communication with God.

Given that Mormonism adheres to the belief that all truth is of the same kind, both scientific and religious (see my previous post), spiritual inspiration from God is not magic. It has to occur using a natural but not as yet understood process.

It is too soon to conclude that inspiration and intuition are some form of quantum computation or might include communication via quantum non-locality, but the plausibility of a natural explanation is at the very least interesting. Indeed, if consciousness is quantum and if the brain can communicate via quantum coherence, which is related to how light is transmitted and absorbed, it gives new meaning to the scripture: "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth" (D&C 93:36).


After posting this I realized I had left out a couple of useful references. The encyclopedia of philosophy has a nice article summarizing the arguments for and against Penrose's non computability (Lucas Penrose Godel). Penrose wrote a very thoughtful and detailed response to critics of his Shadows of the Mind book. The response is titled Beyond the Doubting of a Shadow. For those who are struggling with the idea that computationalism is not the only explanation for consciousness reading Penrose's response might be helpful. It also includes some  personal history of Penrose himself, part of which is quoted below.

"My reason for presenting this bit of personal history is that I wanted to demonstrate that even the "weak" form of the Gödel argument was already strong enough to turn at least one strong-AI supporter away from computationalism. It was not a question of looking for support for a previously held "mystical" standpoint. (You could not have asked for a more rationalistic atheistic anti-mystic than myself at that time!) But the very force of Gödel's logic was sufficient to turn me from the computational standpoint with regard not only to human mentality, but also to the very workings of the physical universe.
For those who are wedded to computationalism, explanations of this nature may indeed seem plausible. But why should we be wedded to computationalism? I do not know why so many people seem to be. Yet, some apparently hold to such a view with almost religious fervour. (Indeed, they may often resort to unreasonable rudeness when they feel this position to be threatened!) Perhaps computationalism can indeed explain the
facts of human mentality - but perhaps it cannot. It is a matter for dispassionate discussion, and certainly not for abuse!
I find it curious, also, that even those who argue dispassionately may take for granted that computationalism in some form - at least for the workings of the objective physical universe - has to be correct. Accordingly, any argument which seems to show otherwise must have a "flaw" in it. Even Chalmers, in his carefully reasoned commentary, seeks out "the deepest flaw in the Gödelian arguments". There seems to be the presumption that whatever form of the argument is presented, it just has to be flawed. Very few people seem to take seriously the slightest possibility that the argument might perhaps, at root, be correct! This I certainly find puzzling. "


The Art of Scientific Investigation; W.I.B. Beverage 1950

Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1954–56 176–178.

The Induction Problem

Problem of induction

The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics; Roger Penrose 1989

Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness; Roger Penrose 1994

Beyond the Doubting of a Shadow

Encyclopedia of Philosophy Lucas Penrose Godel

Quantum Physics of Consciousness; multiple author compendium, 2011


The architecture of Knowledge: Quantum Mechanics, Neuroscience, Computers, and Consciousness; Subhash Kak 2004

Non-Computability of Consciousness; Song 2007

Microtubule Quantum Coherence

Global Synchronization

Consciousness in the Universe: A review of Orch OR Theory; Hameroff and Penrose 2014

Quantum Pseudo-telepathy