How to Think Like a Philosopher, with Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett: An Introduction to Intuition Pumps

Daniel Dennett, one of the best-known living philosophers and a professor at Tufts University, believes it's time to unmask the philosopher's art and make thought experimentation accessible to a wider audience. "How to Think Like a Philosopher," Dennett's five-part workshop, is a journey into the labyrinthine mind games played by Dennett and his colleagues

For the more utilitarian-minded, these are mental practices that will improve your ability to focus and think both rationally and creatively.

How to Think Like a Philosopher takes you on a guided tour through many of Dennett's favorite "tools for thinking." Along the way, he teaches you:

- The value of "intuition pumps" (or thought experiments) and how to use them.

- How to recognize common rhetorical tricks for manufacturing consent.

- Why free will doesn't always imply unpredictability.

- How to "twiddle the knobs" of thought, exploring alternatives and the conclusions they lead to.

Daniel Dennett: Stop Telling People They Don't Have Free Will

Philosopher Daniel Dennett takes issue with neuroscientists who argue that humans don't have free will. In this video, Dennett demonstrates an intuition pump (or thought experiment) featuring a "nefarious neurosurgeon" who lies to a patient with obsessive compulsive disorder. Dennett argues that telling people that free will is an illusion makes them less concerned about the negative implications of their actions.

Daniel Dennett: How Does the Brain Store Beliefs?

What if beliefs could be surgically inserted into a patient's brain? This is the basis of one of philosopher Daniel Dennett's thought experiments in exploration of how the brain represents beliefs. Dennett argues that individual beliefs are part of broader idea systems and that they couldn't possibly be stored like a library of belief sentences.

Daniel Dennett Dissects a Bad Thought Experiment

Schrödinger's cat. The prisoner's dilemma. The trolley problem. These are brand names as much as they're philosophical thought experiments. Philosopher Daniel Dennett explains the importance of concocting an attractive package in which to wrap your argument. At the same time, Dennett warns that this can backfire and, to demonstrate, he dissects one of his "favorite bad thought experiments," an investigation of free will based on the sci-fi film "The Boys From Brazil."

Daniel Dennett: How Life is Like a Game of Rock-Paper-Scissors

Philosopher Daniel Dennett dissects the strategies behind the game rock-paper-scissors and determines that randomness/indeterminacy is the optimal strategy. The best way to avoid being detected by your opponent is to rely on a random determination of which move to use. Some people have jumped to the conclusion that maintaining a sense of indeterminacy is optimal for living a life in which one is always in competition with outside forces. While perfect indeterminacy would be an asset for playing rock-paper-scissors, Dennett argues it's not really that necessary in other most other aspects of life.

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  • A social enterprise in California makes their franchises affordable with low interest loans and guaranteed salaries.
  • The loans are backed by charitable foundations.
  • If scaled up, the model could support tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who are currently financially incapable of entering franchise agreements.

The underdog challenging McDonald’s & Wall Street | Hard Reset by Freethink

Social responsibility is becoming a major focus of many businesses. While turning a profit is always the ultimate goal — nobody can eat good intentions, after all — having a positive impact on society is becoming an equally important goal.

A restaurant chain in California, already focused on providing healthy food at a competitive cost, is testing a new way to create more entrepreneurs. Specifically, it is working with charitable foundations to provide business opportunities to those who normally would not have access.

Franchising explained

When a company wants to expand without paying all of the upfront costs itself or taking on the entire risk of operating in a new market, it can enter into a franchise agreement with an entrepreneur. In exchange for a share of the profits (as well as some fees and adherence to certain quality standards), the entrepreneur — now a franchisee — can open their own branch of a larger brand. The entrepreneur enjoys the benefits of owning a business, while the brand owner can cash in on intellectual property.

Everybody wins.

This model is wildly successful. There is a reason you can find fast food joints like McDonald's everywhere from Times Square to Prague (next to the Museum of Communism, no less). According to the International Franchise Association, there were more than 733,000 franchised business establishments in the United States in 2018, accounting for nearly 3 percent of GDP.

The franchise model — in which a local agent keeps some earnings while handing over a portion to a central authority — isn't new. Indeed, variations have been around since the Middle Ages, though it only took off after WWII. Franchising is now a recognized system in many countries and is used in all manner of industries, including restaurants, pet supply stores, automotive repair shops, hotels, and even senior care.

The Catch-22: you have to spend money to make money

The biggest problem with franchising is the high cost of becoming a franchisee.

While the costs vary, opening a restaurant as a franchisee can easily cost $500,000. A franchise car repair shop can require $250,000, and opening a hotel under a franchise's banner can set a person back millions. In some cases, the franchiser also will set a minimum net worth requirement or insist that the money that pays their fees not be borrowed. Even if a person can find a way around that, most new businesses do not turn a profit for quite some time after opening. These limitations essentially rule out all but the wealthy from becoming a franchisee.

As a result, there are some social enterprises that are looking to make franchising more accessible to the less affluent.

Enter Everytable

Everytable is a social enterprise based out of Los Angeles that is attempting to make rapidly prepared healthy food as affordable as more common, less nutritious options. The company prioritizes both financial and social goals, and it is known for preparing all meals at a central location and driving them to franchise locations in Los Angeles to remove the costs of keeping a kitchen in each store. They also sell meals at widely different prices based on the income of the neighborhood in which the store is located.

As a business that hopes to rapidly expand, they looked to franchising. However, the idea of seeking out a bunch of rich people to support a business like theirs struck CEO Sam Polk as out of step with its vision. So, the company came up with a better idea.

Their Social Equity Franchise Program helps tenured Everytable employees open their own franchise locations through free training and assistance in securing low interest loans to finance the store. To help the entrepreneurs survive the difficult early years, participants in the program are assured an income of $40,000 in their first three years of operations. Repayments on the loans do not begin until after the business is turning a profit.

The capital for all these low interest loans comes from a number of foundations such as the California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness). Foundations like these are required to give away a small portion of their endowments every year on causes aligned with their missions. However, most of the rest of it is simply invested in the stock market to assure the endowment continues to exist.

People like Cal Wellness CEO Judy Belk have begun to invest that money elsewhere, like in loans to provide the money needed to open an Everytable franchise. As she explained to FreeThink:

"Cal Wellness and many other foundations are saying, 'I think we can do a little better with that [money]. Why not use that capital to invest in the communities that we're supposed to serve?'"

In the end, Everytable gets a new restaurant that expands the brand, foundations get returns on their investment, and the franchisee gets an opportunity that they likely never would have had without the program.

Everybody wins.

Expanding the Everytable model

If even a small share of the $2 trillion foundations in the U.S. have are invested into this sort of social cause, tens of thousands of loans could be given to those less affluent people who are looking to start a business. While this model likely would lower returns to institutional investors like charities, they could enjoy more tangible results in the communities they exist to serve. According to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, local entrepreneurship increases income and employment and decreases poverty.

At the individual level, this would help a lot of people who otherwise never would be able to seriously consider going into business for themselves. By a number of measures, business owners make more than wage workers and can also claim ownership of the assets that comprise the business. Beyond that, many small business owners enjoy the non-financial benefits of their position as well, including the independence and autonomy that often come with business ownership.

When working optimally, good business is good for society.

    • Gamification is the process of incorporating elements of video games into a business, organization, or system, with the goal of boosting engagement or performance.
    • Gamified personal finance apps aim to help people make better financial decisions, often by redirecting destructive financial behaviors (like playing the lottery) toward positive outcomes.
    • Still, gamification has its risks, and scientists are still working to understand how gamification affects our financial behavior.

    - YouTube

    The human brain is a pretty lazy organ. Although it's capable of remarkable ingenuity, it's also responsible for nudging us into bad behavioral patterns, such as being impulsive or avoiding difficult but important decisions. These kinds of short-sighted behaviors can hurt our finances.

    However, they don't hurt the video game industry. In 2020, video games generated more than $179 billion in revenue, making the industry more valuable than sports and movies combined. A 2021 report from Limelight Network found that gamers worldwide spend an average of 8 hours and 27 minutes per week playing video games.

    Good at gaming, bad at saving

    It's not necessarily bad that Americans spend millions of dollars and hours on video games. But consider another set of statistics: 25 percent of Americans have no retirement savings at all, while roughly half are either living "on the edge" or "paycheck to paycheck," according to a recent report on the Financial Resilience of Americans from the FINRA Education Foundation. Meanwhile, experts predict that Social Security funds could dry up by 2035.

    So, why don't people save more? After all, the benefits of compounding interest aren't exactly a secret: Investing a few hundred bucks every month would make most people millionaires by retirement if they start in their twenties. However, the recent FINRA report found that many Americans have alarmingly low levels of financial literacy, a topic that's not taught in most public schools.

    Even for the financially literate, saving money is psychologically difficult

    But what if we could infuse the instant gratification of video games into our long-term financial habits? In other words, what if finance looked less like an Excel spreadsheet and more like your favorite video game?

    A growing number of finance applications are making that a reality. By using the same strategies video game designers have been optimizing for decades, gamifying personal finance could be one of the most efficient ways to help people save for the future while reaping instant psychological rewards. But it doesn't come without risks.

    What is gamification?

    In simple terms, gamification takes the motivating power of video games and applies it to other areas of life. The global research company Gartner offers a slightly more technical definition of gamification: "the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals."

    The odds are you have encountered gamification already. It's utilized by many popular apps, websites, and devices. For example, LinkedIn displays progress bars representing how much profile information you have filled out. The Apple Watch has a "Close Your Rings" feature that shows how many steps you need to walk to meet your daily goal.

    Brands have used gamification to boost customer engagement for decades. For example, McDonald's launched its Monopoly game in 1987, which essentially attached lottery tickets to menu items, while M&M's gained consumer attention with Eye-Spy Pretzel, an online scavenger hunt game that went viral in 2010.

    In addition to marketing, gamification is used in social media, fitness, education, crowdfunding, military recruitment, and employee training, just to name a few applications. The Chinese government has even gamified aspects of its Social Credit System, in which citizens perform or refrain from various activities to earn points that represent trustworthiness.

    Finance is arguably one of the best-suited fields for gamification. One reason is that financial data can be easily measured and graphed. Perhaps more importantly, financial decisions occur in the background of almost everything we do in modern life, from deciding what we eat for lunch to where we are going to spend our lives.

    Gamification doesn't just make boring stuff fun; it's also an effective way to change our behavior. Used properly, it can also disrupt our habits.

    The nature of habits

    It's tempting to think that we make our way through life by thoughtfully considering the information before us and making sensible choices. That's not really the case. Research suggests that about 40 percent of our daily activities are performed out of habit, a term the American Journal of Psychology defines as a "more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."

    In other words, we spend much of our lives on autopilot. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we rely on habits: our brains require a lot of energy, especially when we're faced with tough decisions and complex problems, like financial planning. It's relatively easy to rely on learned behavioral patterns that provide a quick, reliable solution. However, those patterns don't always serve our long-term interests.

    Saving money is a good example. Imagine you have $500 with which to do whatever you want. You could invest it. Or you could go on a shopping spree. Unfortunately, the brain doesn't process these two options the same way; in fact, it actually processes the investing option as something like a pain stimulus.

    Why gamification works

    Saving is painful. But can't people simply choose to be more financially responsible? In short: Yes, but it takes a lot of effort. After all, when it comes to changing behavior, willpower is only part of the equation.

    Some psychologists think willpower is a finite resource, or that it's like an emotion whose motivational power ebbs and flows based on what's happening around us. For example, you might establish a monthly budget and stick to it for a couple weeks. But then you get stressed. The next time you're out shopping, you might find it harder to resist making an impulsive purchase in your stressed-out state.

    Pixel Art Lootvlasdv via Adobe Stock

    "A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll," the American Psychological Association writes. "Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse." In the terminology of psychology, this is called ego depletion.

    Gamification offers a way to outsource your willpower. That's because games offer psychological rewards that can motivate us to perform certain actions that might otherwise have seemed too boring, taxing, or emotionally draining. What's more, gamifying parts of your life is less of a change of mind and more of a change of environment.

    A 2017 study published in Computers in Human Behavior noted that "enriching the environment with game design elements, as gamification does by definition, directly modifies that environment, thereby potentially affecting motivational and psychological user experiences."

    The study argued that games are most motivational when they address three key psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and social relatedness. It's easy to imagine how games can tap into these categories. For competence, games can feature badges and performance graphs. For autonomy, games can offer customizable avatars. And for social relatedness, games can feature compelling storylines and multiplayer gameplay.

    Gamification and the brain

    Games can motivate us by satisfying our psychological needs and giving us a sense of reward. From a neurological perspective, this occurs through the release of "feel-good" neurotransmitters, namely dopamine and oxytocin.

    "Two core things have to happen in the brain to influence your decision-making," Paul Zak, a neuroscientist and professor of economic sciences at Claremont Graduate University, told Big Think. "The first is you have to attend to that information. That's driven by the brain's production of dopamine. The second thing, you've got to get my lazy brain to care about the outcomes. And that caring is driven by emotional resonance. And that's associated with the brain's production of oxytocin."

    Cheerful Father And Son Competing In Video Games At HomeProstock-studio via Adobe Stock

    When released simultaneously, these neurotransmitters can put us into a state that Zak calls "neurologic immersion." In this state, our everyday habits have less control over our behavior, and we're better able to take deliberate action. It's an idea Zak and his colleagues developed over two decades of using brain-imaging technology to study the nature of extraordinary experiences.

    As he wrote in an article published by the World Experience Organization, neurologic immersion can occur when experiences, including video games, are unexpected, emotionally charged, narrowing one's focus to the experience itself, easy to remember, and provoking actions.

    "The components of the extraordinary come as a package, not in isolation from each other," Zak wrote. "It's the 'action' part that is key to finding immersion. Extraordinary experiences cause people to take an action, whether it's donating to charity, buying a product, posting on social media, or returning to enjoy an experience again."

    Games can invoke these types of immersive experiences.. But how exactly are financial organizations using gamification to help people "level up" their financial futures?

    Gamifying personal finance

    Banks and financial companies have been using gamification for years. What started with simple concepts, like PNC Bank's "Punch the Pig" savings feature, has evolved into a diverse field of games that are helping people stick to budgets, save money, and pay off debt.

    What's surprising about the gamification of personal finance is that some of the most successful apps are redirecting destructive financial behaviors, like buying lottery tickets, toward positive outcomes. One example is an app called Long Game, which uses an approach called "lottery savings."

    "People actually really love the lottery," Lindsay Holden, co-founder and CEO of Long Game, told Big Think. "The lottery today is a $70-billion-dollar industry in the U.S., and the people that are buying lotto tickets are the people that least should be buying lotto tickets. And so how can we redirect that spend into something that's helping them in their lives?"

    Long Game's answer is to encourage users to make automatic or one-time investments into a prize-linked savings account. As users make investments, they earn coins that can be used to play games, some of which offer cash prizes. But unlike the real lottery, the prize money comes from banks that are partnered with Long Game, meaning users can't lose their principal investment.

    Blast is a savings app aimed at traditional gamers. The platform lets users connect a savings account to their video game accounts. Users then set performance goals in the video games, such as killing a certain number of enemies. Accomplishing these goals triggers a pre-selected investment into the savings accounts. In addition to earning interest, users can also win prize money by accomplishing certain missions or placing high on public leaderboards.

    "Gamers tell us they feel better with the time they spend gaming when they know they are micro-saving or micro-earning in the background," Blast co-founder and CEO Walter Cruttenden said in a statement.

    Young gamer playing a video game wearing headphones.sezer66 via Adobe Stock

    Fortune City takes a different approach to gamified finance. The app encourages users to track their spending habits, which are represented by visually appealing graphs. As users log expenses, they're able to build buildings in their own virtual city. The expense categories match the types of buildings users can construct; for example, buying food lets users construct a restaurant. It's like "SimCity" meets certified public accountant.

    The risks of gamification

    Gamifying your finances might help you save money, but it doesn't come without risks. After all, receiving extrinsic rewards when we perform a behavior can affect our intrinsic motivation to repeat that behavior both positively and negatively. It's a phenomenon called the overjustification effect.

    In addition, gamified finance apps can also be addictive and encourage risky financial behavior. Robinhood, for example, uses visually appealing performance metrics and lottery-like game elements to incentivize the trading of stocks and cryptocurrencies. But while investing in these assets might be a good financial decision for some people, Robinhood arguably encourages its users to be "players" in the difficult world of trading, not necessarily rational investors.

    What's more, gamification doesn't seem to work for everyone.

    "From social psychology and behavioural economics, we know that the most likely [result of] gamification [is that you] will motivate some people, will demotivate other people, and for a third group there'll be no effect at all," noted a 2017 study on gamification and mobile banking published in Internet Research.

    But given that 14.1 million Americans are unbanked, and millions more struggle with financial literacy, it's reasonable to think that gamified finance apps could help many people work toward financial independence.

      "One of the most interesting things we've found is that people want help when it comes to making difficult decisions," Zak told Big Think. "In my view, any app that helps you be a more effective saver is probably a good app. But I think we have to do a lot more work to really understand the underlying neuroscience of gamification. And so we need to continue to design games that teach you more about how to 'level up in life,' not just level up in the game."

      • The word is out on gaming—it's not just something that children do for fun anymore. Games are tools that can be used to teach new skills, reduce stress, and even change behaviors by triggering chemical reactions in the brain.
      • These benefits and more have provided scientists and developers with a promising path forward. "Games reduce the stress of making decisions," says neuroscientist and professor Paul Zak. "App designers have now used game structures to help people learn new information, make new decisions; and one of the most exciting applications is in financial decision making."
      • But simply turning something into a game isn't enough to see meaningful changes in habits. Developers of gamified apps like Long Game have found ways to combine the engaging and fun experience we expect from video games, with something that has traditionally not been very fun: saving money.

        • A new study looked at a well-preserved fossil of an Ichthyornis that lived about 70 million years ago.
        • The scientists compared the brain of the ancient bird to that of modern birds.
        • Modern birds' brains are structurally different, which might have allowed them to survive the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs.

        That beautiful singing bird on your fence is a descendent of dinosaurs. As all dinosaurs have gone extinct, what allowed the birds to adapt and survive? New research published in Science Advances points to a special feature of birds' brains that could explain why they are still with us today.

        Are birds dinosaurs?

        Bird origins have been traced to a mostly meat-eating group of two-legged dinosaurs known as theropods ("beast-footed") that lived about 231 million years ago in the Triassic Period. The mighty Tyrannosaurus rex also belonged to that group. Theropods and modern birds share a few traits in common, such as feathers and the ability to lay eggs. Of course, one big difference is flight, which is the defining characteristic of birds.

        And just like humans are part of a larger group (mammals) with whom we share key characteristics, birds too are part of a larger group that includes dinosaurs.

        "Birds are living dinosaurs, just as we are mammals," explained the study's co-author paleontologist Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin in a 2020 interview. "They're firmly nested in that one part of the dinosaur tree," she stated. "All of the species of birds we have today are descendants of one lineage of dinosaur: the theropod dinosaurs."

        Most birds are much smaller than dinosaurs, so researchers believe that a process of miniaturization started to take place about 200 million years ago. As discussed in Scientific American, coelurosaurs — the subgroup of theropods that resulted in modern birds — began getting smaller and smaller due to an intense evolutionary process that favored smaller animals rather than larger ones.

        Differences in brain shapes likely influenced the survival of birds during the mass extinction that killed off non-avian dinosaurs.Credit: Christopher Torres / The University of Texas at Austin

        The fossil discovery

        In the current study, a fossil from about 70 million years ago may help explain the survival of birds. The fossil is a nearly complete skull belonging to a bird named Ichthyornis, which lived in the late Cretaceous period in what is now Kansas. Ichthyornis had characteristics resembling both birds and dinosaurs. For instance, its jaws were full of teeth, yet it had a beak. The well-preserved nature of the skull allowed scientists to compare the prehistoric bird's brain to those of birds today.

        "Living birds have brains more complex than any known animals except mammals," said lead researcher Christopher Torres. "This new fossil finally lets us test the idea that those brains played a major role in their survival."

        The phases of the evolving avian brain shape.Credit: Christopher Torres / The University of Texas at Austin

        Adaptable brains

        The researchers used CT-imaging data to make a 3D replica of the bird's brain, known as an endocast. This allowed them to make comparisons to endocasts of various living birds and their dinosaur ancestors.

        Their research revealed that Ichthyornis' brain was more similar to those of dinosaurs than to those of modern birds. In particular, the cerebral hemispheres — the area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions like thought and emotion in humans — of Ichthyornis' brain were much smaller than those found in birds today.

        Different brains may have helped birds survive the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. "If a feature of the brain affected survivorship, we would expect it to be present in the survivors but absent in the casualties, like Ichthyornis," said Torres. "That's exactly what we see here."
        • Researchers find 28 surviving viruses from 15,000 years ago inside a glacier.
        • The viruses are not believed to be harmful to humans.
        • The viruses could reveal insights into evolution and climate change.

          Researchers have found 15,000-year-old viruses in ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau in China, the majority of which are unlike any of the viruses currently known to science. The study, published in the journal Microbiome, could help scientists understand virus evolution and climate change.

          Two ice cores were collected in 2015 at extremely high altitudes — above 22,000 feet — from the Guliya ice cap in western China.

          Lead author Zhi-Ping Zhong, a researcher at the Ohio State University's Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, explained that the glaciers they examined were formed over a long period of time, collecting dust and gases as well as the viruses. "The glaciers in western China are not well-studied, and our goal is to use this information to reflect past environments," he said. "And viruses are a part of those environments."

          Poring over the samples, the scientists identified 33 viral genomes, 28 of which are novel and have not been described previously. Four of the known viruses infect bacteria.

          Watch a film on the ice core extraction in the Guliya glacier in 2015 -


          Co-author Matthew Sullivan, professor of microbiology at Ohio State, said that these viruses were made for extreme conditions. "These viruses have signatures of genes that help them infect cells in cold environments — just surreal genetic signatures for how a virus is able to survive in extreme conditions," he stated.

          The ultra-clean method developed by the scientists to decontaminate the cores to study the microbes inside can be applied to samples taken from other harsh settings, like Mars or the moon. The technique involves stripping away the core's outer layer of ice. Then, the core is cleaned with alcohol and water.

          Dangerous viruses in the ice?

          Is it dangerous to dig up ancient viruses? Could they infect humans? Sullivan told Gizmodo that the viruses were made inactive by the "chemistry of nucleic acids extraction."

          So, there's no need to worry this time. However, some researchers believe that the thawing of permafrost due to climate change could eventually release some viruses that might infect humans.