Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, by Daniel C. Dennett

Constantine Sandis on Darwin’s dangerous ideas man

July 25, 2013

For better or worse, most probably the latter, this book is not a collection of tools for thinking. Rather, it is a reproduction of Daniel Dennett’s greatest hits: his arguments for and against various philosophical positions. I can imagine Dennett retorting that he didn’t get to where he is today without building his arguments out of solid thinking tools. One of his favoured tips to the reader, in fact, is to be wary of the sort of use that I put the word “rather” to a couple of sentences back. He calls this “rathering” a species of “Goulding”, named so because it was one of biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s favourite rhetorical ploys. The trouble with it, Dennett asserts, is that it sneakily establishes (often false) dichotomies without arguing for them.

Be that as it may (to use an expression that Dennett would be equally suspicious of), it remains true to say that while the first dozen of the 77 sections of this book present neutral strategies for creating and assessing arguments, the remainder of the text at best showcases these and other such tools via the introduction of sustained philosophical arguments for Dennett’s own views on consciousness, free will and evolutionary biology. These frequently appeal to contestable concepts and assumptions, such as the belief that trees and sponges can do things for reasons that they don’t themselves have. Readers already well acquainted with Dennett’s work will find little that is new here, except for some welcome corrections of common misunderstandings of his views. The largest part of this hefty volume, then, best serves as an introduction to Dennett’s thought, with much of its material reworked from his previous 15 books. The hits include his and his friends’ notions of “the intentional stance”, “memes” and the “intuition pumps” that lend their name to the book’s title.

Dennett appeals to lengthy sci-fi scenarios that are meant to be fun but are so drawn out that one cannot see the pump for the knobs

Philosophers frequently like to conduct thought experiments. These take the form of imaginary vignettes constructed with the aim of getting us to either revise or affirm our pre-theoretical beliefs about various philosophical issues. So, for example, John Searle’s famous Chinese Room argument describes a situation in which a person with no understanding of the Chinese language can give the opposite impression through sheer syntactical manipulation of characters written on “bits of paper”. The scenario is intended to disprove the once-popular functionalist claim that thinking is essentially reducible to causal function, and with it the corollary that appropriately programmed computers could have cognitive states. Dennett calls such stories “intuition pumps” because he takes their details to be specified in a way that has been crafted to appeal to our pre-existing intuitions. Arguably, though, the term “intuition” is itself being used here to suggest that at the end of the day these are little more than hunches. In fact, thought experiments often appeal to fundamental commitments, conceptual truths and cognitive consistency.

At his best, Dennett succeeds in revealing the trickery of seemingly innocuous aspects of thought experiments. He follows his one-time collaborator Douglas Hofstadter in describing these settings as “knobs” that can be turned in different directions “to see if the same intuitions still get pumped when you consider variations”. By tweaking the details in such ways, we come to see what is really doing the work in any given example and what is mere distraction. This places us in a much better position to assess the plausibility of what we are being asked to believe. In the aforementioned case of the Chinese Room, for example, Dennett maintains that Searle’s use of the phrase “bits of paper” has been carefully constructed to seriously downplay “the size and complexity of the software involved” in artificial intelligence.

But the book can be as infuriating as it is enlightening. Dennett frequently appeals to lengthy sci-fi scenarios that are meant to be fun but are so drawn out that one cannot see the pump for the knobs. Moreover, he frequently does so in a tone so proud of his past achievements that it can only be matched by the early chapter titles of Nietzsche’s autobiographical parody Ecce Homo: “Why I am so wise”, “Why I am so clever” and “Why I write such good books”. Dennett would have written a much better book, however, if he had kept a greater distance between the tools on show and his own philosophical prejudices.

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