dennettProfessors are too polite. So Daniel Dennett reckons. When leading philosophers or other academics meet, they feel it would be rude to explain their theories thoroughly to each other, from the basics up. That would look as if you thought your eminent colleague hadn’t grasped some of the elementary points. So instead they leap in and argue on the basis of an assumed shared understanding that isn’t necessarily there. The result is that they talk past each other and spend time on profitless misunderstandings.

Dennett has a cunning trick to sort this out. He invites the professors to explain their ideas to a selected group of favoured undergraduates (‘Ew; he sounds like Horace Slughorn’ said my daughter); talking to undergraduates they are careful to keep it clear and simple and include an exposition of any basic concepts they use. Listening in, the other professors understand what their colleagues really mean, perhaps for the first time, and light dawns at last.

It seems a good trick to me (and for the undergraduates, yes, by ‘good’ I mean both clever and beneficial); in his new book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking Dennett seems covertly to be playing another. The book offers itself as a manual or mental tool-kit offering tricks and techniques for thinking about problems, giving examples of how to use them. In the examples, Dennett runs through a wide selection of his own ideas, and the cunning old fox clearly hopes that in buying his tools, the reader will also take up his theories. (Perhaps this accessible popular presentation will even work for some of those recalcitrant profs, with whom Dennett has evidently grown rather tired of arguing…. heh, heh!)

So there’s a hidden agenda, but in addition the ‘intuition pumps’ are not always as advertised. Many of them actually deserve a more flattering description because they address the reason, not the intuition. Dennett is clear enough that some of the techniques he presents are rather more than persuasive rhetoric, but at least one reviewer was confused enough to think that Reduction ad Absurdum was being presented as an intuition pump – which is rather a slight on a rigorous logical argument: a bit like saying Genghis Khan was among the more influential figures in Mongol society.

It seems to me, moreover, that most of the tricks on offer are not really techniques for thinking, but methods of presentation or argumentation. I find it hard to imagine someone trying to solve a problem by diligently devising thought-experiments and working through the permutations; that’s a method you use when you think you know the answer and want to find ways to convince others.

What we get in practice is a pretty comprehensive collection of snippets; a sort of Dennettian Greatest Hits. Some of the big arguments in philosophy of mind are dropped as being too convoluted and fruitless to waste more time on, but we get the memorable bits of many of Dennett’s best thought-experiments and rebuttals.  Not all of these arguments benefit from being taken out of the context of a more systematic case, and here and there – it’s inevitable I suppose – we find the remix or late cover version is less successful than the original. I thought this was especially so in the case of the Giant Robot; to preserve yourself in a future emergency you build a wandering robot to carry you around in suspended animation for a few centuries. The robot needs to survive in an unpredictable world, so you end up having to endow it with all the characteristics of a successful animal; and you are in a sense playing the part of the Selfish Gene. Such a machine would be able to deal with meanings and intentionality just the way you do, wouldn’t it? Well, in this brief version I don’t really see why or, perhaps more important, how.

Dennett does a bit better with arguments against intrinsic intentionality, though I don’t think his arguments succeed in establishing that there is no difference between original and derived intentionality. If Dennett is right, meaning would be built up in our brains through the interaction of gradually more meaningful layers of homunculi; OK (maybe), but that’s still quite different to what happens with derived intentionality, where things get to mean something because of an agreed convention or an existing full-fledged intention.

Dennett, as he acknowledges, is not always good at following the maxims he sets out. An early chapter is given over to the rules set out by Anatol Rapoport, most notably:

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.”

As someone on Metafilter said, when Dan Dennett does that for Christianity, I’ll enjoy reading it; but there was one place in the current book where I thought Dennett fell short on understanding the opposition. He suggests that Kasparov’s way of thinking about chess is probably the same as Deep Blue’s in the end. What on earth could provoke one to say that they were obviously different, he protests. Wishful thinking? Fear? Well, no need to suppose so: we know that the hardware (brain versus computer) is completely different and runs a different kind of process; we know the capacities of computer and brain are different and, in spite of an argument from Dennett to the contrary, we know the heuristics are significantly different. We know that decisions in Kasparov’s case involve consciousness, while Deep Blue lacks it entirely. So, maybe the processes are the same in the end, but there are some pretty good prima facie reasons to say they look very different.

One section of the book naturally talks about evolution, and there’s good stuff, but it’s still a twentieth century, Dawkinsian vision Dennett is trading in. Can it be that Dennett of all people is not keeping up with the science? There’s no sign here of the epigenetic revolution; we’re still in a world where it’s all about discrete stretches of DNA. That DNA, moreover, got to be the way it is through random mutation; no news has come in of the great struggle with the viruses which we now know has left its wreckage all across the human genome, and more amazing,  has contributed some vital functional stretches without which we wouldn’t be what we are. It’s a pity because that seems like a story that should appeal to Dennett, with his pandemonic leanings.

Still, there’s a lot to like; I found myself enjoying the book more and more as it went on and the pretence of being a thinking manual dropped away a bit.  Naturally some of Dennett’s old attacks on qualia are here, and for me they still get the feet tapping. I liked Mr Clapgras, either a new argument or more likely one I missed first time round; he suffers a terrible event in which all his emotional and empathic responses to colour are inverted without his actual perception of colour changing at all. Have his qualia been inverted – or are they yet another layer of experience? There’s really no way of telling and for Dennett the question is hardly worth asking. When we got to Dennett’s reasonable defence of compatibilism over free will, I was on my feet and cheering.

I don’t think this book supersedes Consciousness Explained if you want to understand Dennett’s views on consciousness. You may come away from reading it with your thinking powers enhanced, but it will be because your mental muscles have been stretched and used, not really because you’ve got a handy new set of tools. But if you’re a Dennett fan or just like a thoughtful and provoking read, it’s worth a look.


  1. 1. scott bakker says:

    Clapgras is in Sweet Dreams, I think. Excellent review, Peter. I have the book on order. Dennett famously oscillates between criticizing intentional realists and ‘greedy reductionists’ but with an eye for sounding a good deal more moderate and commonsensical than he actually is. I had been hoping this book would have him exploring the possible mechanisms behind his ‘intuition pumps’ more deeply, but I’m starting to think it’s pretty clear that it does not, that he remains stranded at the ‘he-said/she-said’ level with his interlocutors. The ‘battle between intuition pumps’ could tell us a good deal more, I think, if we had a better idea of just what the hell they are!

    And this, I think, would allow him to actually *show* how it is meaning arises from mechanical complexities, rather than simply assert that this is what he has shown, even though he has clearly done nothing of the sort – anywhere that I know of, anyway.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Ah, Sweet Dreams! Well spotted – thanks, Scott.

    No, not really any exploration of the mechanisms behind intuition pumps. On he-said-she-said, there are some early passages where it seems Dennett is reliving past victories (that one time when I really shut Chomsky up) but it gets better.

    Generally nothing new in this book, but even recycled Dennett that I don’t agree with is better than some new books I’ve read!

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