Tools for Thinking Better

Charlie Brown asks Lucy van Pelt
American philosopher Daniel C Dennett has an ultra-Darwinian approach for thinking better. Dennett's body of work includes teaching at Tufts University in the school of arts and sciences.

The genesis of his most recent book Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking was a course he offered to freshmen students about the philosophical pitfalls and techniques of argument such as oversimplification and reductio ad absurdum (he calls them “intuition pumps”) contains thought experiments to help stretch our minds.

In the book, Dennett includes seven tools for thinking and critical reasoning. Dennett’s take on prevailing understanding and discussion of fallacies includes vignettes that make the material his own and demonstrate his familiarity with a vast amount of pop culture and science. For example:

one of Dennett's recurring vignettes involves “Swamp-man.” Lightning strikes a tree in a swamp and incinerates a person standing beside it. Simultaneously the tree is transformed into an exact molecular replica of the deceased. Would the replica be that person?

Even though no one could tell the difference, it would not be, Dennett asserts, because “in the real world past history and future function are bound together by … evolution, development and learning.” He's spot on about the real world, but he then goes on to claim that there is “no real substitute for these natural accumulation processes.”

[In the book] Dennett insists that meaning is more than mere information […] it isn't your brain that is conscious, it is you. You need your brain to have a mind, to be conscious, just as you need legs to walk. But meaning, minding and consciousness are higher-order processes, requiring but not reducible to the billions of mindless neurons firing away inside your brain. They also require your active engagement with the natural, human, and technological world around you.

While the book does not shed light on the question of how and why consciousness emerged during primate evolution and thus doesn't touch upon the ever elusive theory of the mind, it is a good summary of his work and a handy guide to read as part of a more comprehensive study of fallacies.

Below is a brief summary of seven tools:

1. Use Your Mistakes

Dennett’s first tool recommends rigorous intellectual honesty, self-scrutiny, and trial and error. He says, “when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage.”

This tool is a close relative of the scientific method, in which every error offers an opportunity to learn, rather than a chance to mope and grumble.

2. Respect Your Opponent 

Often known as reading in “good faith” or “being charitable,” this second point is a rhetorical and a logical tool as the essence of persuasion involves getting people to actually listen to us. When they don’t is because we are overly nit picky, pedantic, mean-spirited, hasty, or unfair.

Dennett says, “your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment.”

3. The “Surely” Klaxon

A “Klaxon” is a loud, electric horn—such as a car horn—an urgent warning. In this point, Dennett asks us to treat the word “surely” as a rhetorical warning sign that an author of an argumentative essay has stated an “ill-examined ‘truism’” without offering sufficient reason or evidence, hoping the reader will agree quickly and move on.

While this is not always the case, says Dennett, such verbiage often signals a weak point in an argument, since these words would not be necessary if the author, and reader are truly “sure.”

4. Answer Rhetorical Questions

In the same fashion as using “surely” as a crutch demonstrates uncertainty, a rhetorical question can be used as a substitute for thinking. While rhetorical questions depend on the sense that “the answer is so obvious that you’d be embarrassed to answer it,” Dennett recommends answering as the best course.

He illustrates the point with a Peanuts cartoon: “Charlie Brown had just asked, rhetorically: ‘Who’s to say what is right and wrong here?’ and Lucy responded, in the next panel: ‘I will.’” Lucy’s answer “surely” caught Charlie Brown off-guard. Were he engaged in genuine philosophical debate, it would force him to re-examine his assumptions.

5. Employ Occam’s Razor

The 14th-century English philosopher William of Occam lent his name to the principle that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,”  which previously went by the name of lex parsimonious, or the law of parsimony.

Dennett says, “the idea is straightforward: don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well.”

6. Don’t Waste Your Time on Rubbish

Dennett’s sixth point expounds “Sturgeon’s law,” which states that roughly “90% of everything is crap.”

While he says this may be an exaggeration, the point is that there’s no point in wasting your time on arguments that simply aren’t any good, even, or especially, for the sake of ideological axe-grinding.

7. Beware of Deepities

A term he takes from computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, deepity is “a proposition that seems both important and true—and profound—but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous.” Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings—one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true. To the extent that it's true, it doesn't matter. To the extent that it matters, it isn't true.

Intuition Pumps is a good primer for critical thinking and to help us identify the most common pitfalls in arguments, but it should be read comparatively to learn how to think better.


[h/t The Guardian]

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