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Intuition Pumps

Philosopher Daniel Dennett's 2013 book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking is fun and fast, but also rather frustrating. It's mostly a collection of earlier Dennett articles and essays, some revised, as the "Sources" section on pages 445-449 reveals. Perhaps that explains the disjointedness and repetition. The claimed connecting thread among all the chapters, that each one provides a "tool for thinking", is stretched thin and breaks early on. There are plenty of good ideas, metaphors, parables, and thought experiments here, no question. Dennett defines them loosely as "intuition pumps", stories that perhaps provoke and develop one's instincts about an issue. But calling every vague notion about the brain an "intuition pump" weakens that concept beyond usefulness.

Within the recycled prose there are embarrassing glitches — like the repetition of phrases in a discussion of bird vision:

But there are fine sections too. For example, Chapter 3 quotes Anatol Rapoport's rules for "successful critical commentary", some excellent suggestions (which Dennett himself immediately admits that he doesn't always follow):

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

And in Chapter 16, Dennett quotes philosopher Wilfrid Sellars's 1962 one-sentence definition, "The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term." Maybe that's the key mission—understanding. That's also the major frustration of Intuition Pumps, which often degrades into "talking around" concepts and ideas, piling on plausible words to make persuasive but peripheral arguments that end up not proving the point. Clever concept-slinging, but no conclusions. "Presumably", "could be", "might be", and the like are sprinkled throughout what should be solid reasoning or factual explanation.

Once in a while Dennett admits to this weakness, as in Chapter 32 when he notes, "... the contribution of imagination in the generation of intuitions is harder to control than philosophers have acknowledged." In other words, fallacious logic gets past, cloaked in plausibility. As that same chapter remarks, "Experience teaches, however, that there is no such thing as a thought experiment so clearly presented that no philosopher can misinterpret it ...", and "... the utility of a thought experiment is inversely proportional to the size of its departures from reality ...".

The best bit of Intuition Pumps, though, lies buried in a footnote discussion in Chapter 35, where Dennett points to a 1987 essay by W. V. O. Quine ("Universal Library") which points out that "... you can store the whole Library of Babel in two extremely slender volumes, in one of which is printed a 0 and in the other of which appears a 1!" (Shades of 01!)

(cf. Free Action (2000-04-03), Thoughtful Metaphors (2008-11-08), Freedom Evolves (2003-07-03), Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (2008-06-15), ...) - ^z - 2014-01-13

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