Intuition Pumps: A book review by Bob Morris

Intuition PumpsIntuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Daniel C. Dennett
W.W. Norton & Company (2013)

Here is a process of natural selection that could (perhaps) help to achieve metacognition

With regard to the title, Daniel Dennett observes, “Intuition pumps have been a dominant force in philosophy for centuries. They are the philosophers’ version of Aesop’s fables, which have been recognized as wonderful thinking tools since before they were philosophers. If you ever studied philosophy in college, you were probably exposed to such classics as Plato’s cave, in The Republic, in which people are chained and can see only shadows of real things cast on the save wall; or his example, in Meno, of reaching geometry to the slave boy.”

When I came upon that passage in the Introduction, I was reminded of The Grand Inquisitor, a parable told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, I can think of dozens of stories that illustrate key insights while suggesting all manner of connotative meaning and significance to the components of the given narrative.

Dennett explains that some of the most powerful thinking tools are mathematical, “but aside from mentioning them, I will not devote much space to them because this is a book celebrating the power of non-mathematical tools, informal tools, the tools of prose and poetry, if you like, a power that scientists often underestimate.” Dennett certainly does not make that error of judgment, noting that a good intuition pump “is more robust that any one version of it.” That said, he offers dozens of examples of the pumps as well as of other tools for more effective thinking. Think of this book as a toolbox and all of Dennett’s 15 books as a hardware store. In fact, in Chapter IX, “What Got Left Out,” he briefly discusses several of his favorite intuition pumps such as “Where am I?” and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Darwinian Spaces, “the best use of multidimensional space as a thinking tool in philosophy that I know.”

The material is presented in the form of 77 segments or mini-commentaries in which Dennett sequentially provides an abundance of information, insights, counsel, and (yes) entertainment as he introduces and explains dozens of intuition pumps and other thinking tools, then shifts his and the reader’s attention to a brief explanation of why conceiving of something new is so difficult. After an exceptionally thoughtful and thought-provoking Introduction, he then introduces each of sections II-VIII and adds a Summary of their key points. This one of very few books that I have read that strengthens the cognitive skills of those who read it while they read it .

These are among the several dozen passages of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Dennett’s coverage.

Segment #1: Making Mistakes (Pages 19-28)
9: Three Species of [Stephen Jay] Goulding: Rathering, Piling On, and the Gould Two-Step (48-52)
16: Manifest Image and Scientific Image (69-72)
20: A Cascade of Homunculi (91-95)
24: The Seven Secrets of Computer Power Revealed (109-132)
29. The Wandering Two-Bitser, Twin Earth, and the Giant Robot (157-174)
33: Two Black Boxes (184-196)
39: Competence without Comprehension” (232-233)
45: Widowmakers, Mitochondrial Eve, and Retrospective Coronations (247-251)
50: Noise in the Virtual Hotel (267-270)
54: The Zombie Hunch (283-287)
60: The Chinese Room (319-329)
65: A Truly Nefarious Neurosurgeon (357-358)
67: Rock Paper, and Scissors (370-374)
73: Ultimate Responsibility (393-396)

When concluding this book, Daniel Dennett observes: “We haven’t yet succeeded in fully conceiving how meaning could exist in the material world, or how life arose and evolved, or how consciousness works, or whether free will can be one of our endowments, but we’ve made progress: the questions we’re posing and addressing now are better than the questions of yesteryear. We’re hot on the trail of the answers.” I am certain that he will be in the forefront of those who find them.

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