Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking

Daniel C. Dennett

Book cover

A very interesting book, but one that I think is not quite sure what it wants to be (to take the “intentional stance”).

Dennett is a philosopher who I know about mostly through his work with Doug Hofstadter, a writer who I really like (“Godel Escher Bach,” “Surfaces and Essences”). They have quite similar outlooks, I think–a multidisciplinary approach that takes an interest in what fields like computer science and evolutionary biology can tell us about the nature of the mind, consciousness, and free will.

The publisher describes the book as “offer[ing] seventy-seven of Dennett’s most successful ‘imagination-extenders and focus-holders’ meant to guide you through some of life’s most treacherous subject matter: evolution, meaning, mind, and free will.” I think this captures the ambiguity of the book: is it about the tools (the eponymous pumps), or about the subject matter? Dennett would certainly call my question out as an example of “rathering” (presentation of a false dichotomy), but I guess my feeling is that the book puts enough focus on each that there is not a fully satisfactory treatment of either. Perhaps the book best serves as entree to Dennett’s work–which I think it did well for me.

I ended up most interested in his assertions about free will. I have read enough of Hofstadter to be more or less already on board with his (their) views on evolution and consciousness, such as the rejection of the conclusion of Searle’s “Chinese room” thought experiment. But his views on free will (briefly, that it is compatible with a deterministic universe) are new to me and feel like they are legitimate but also feel like they will take some time to wrap my head around–and the book wasn’t long enough for a sufficient treatment.

For me, the best intuition that came out of the book is as follows: many philosophical arguments are ultimately “arguments from incredulity” (the Chinese room, Jackson’s “What Mary Didn’t Know”), and that this is not a trustworthy form of argument. In particular, human intuition is very poorly equipped to handle scales out of the bounds of our normal experience. In each of the examples I gave above, Dennett talks about the crucial role that “lack of imagination” plays–Searle’s experiment plays down the extreme complexity and multi-layeredness of what would have to be going on by talking about “scraps of paper,” and Jackson’s argument relies on our inability to understand what it would really mean to acquire “all possible observational information about visual processing of color.” For Dennett, asking if we can conceive of something is a deceptively difficult challenge–it seems like a question you should be able to answer by simple introspection, but really it requires a lot of work and thinking-tools. If you say you “can’t conceive of” something, Dennett is likely to say that you aren’t working hard enough at it. In the book, Dennett spends a great deal of time talking about Borges’ “Library of Babel,” and working through different ways of thinking about exactly what type of entity it implies–it’s not enough to “glom together” the concepts of “library” and “really big,” because the scale is so far beyond our direct experience of “big” that it is really something else altogether.

This is why Dennett and Hofstadter get so much mileage out of issues surrounding computing. In a sense, computing operates at scales that are “inconceivable” to humans, but on the other hand, it is something that his readers are intimately familiar with. It is this cognitive dissonance that ends up being philosophically productive. It seems “inconceivable” to us that a Turing machine made of squares of toilet paper and rocks could, given enough time, run “Grand Theft Auto,” but we can also intellectually understand that that is in fact the case.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars