Daniel Dennett: An Introduction to Intuition Pumps
Daniel Dennett explains how intuition pumps (often referred to as "thought experiments") help guide philosophers' curiosity and thinking.
Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and a grandson. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
His first book, Content and Consciousness, appeared in 1969, followed by Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981 and he is the author of over three hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.
Dennett gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.
He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.
Daniel Dennett: Intuition pumps are sometimes called thought experiments. More often they're called thought experiments. But they're not really formal arguments typically. They're stories. They're little fables. In fact, I think they're similar to Aesop's fables in that they're supposed to have a moral. They're supposed to teach us something. And what they do is they lead the audience to an intuition, a conclusion, where you sort of pound your fist on the table and you say, "Oh yeah, it's gotta be that way, doesn't it." And if it achieves that then it's pumped the intuition that was designed to pump. These are persuasion machines. Little persuasion machines that philosophers have been using for several thousand years.
I think that intuition pumps are particularly valuable when there's confusion about just what the right questions are and what the right -- what matters. What matters to answer the question. I think we're all pretty good at using examples to think about things and intuition pumps are usually rather vivid examples from which you're supposed to draw a very general moral. And they come up in many walks of life. Anytime you're puzzled or confused about what to do next or whether something's true or false, you might cast about for an intuition pump that could help you.
When I first coined the term intuition pump, that's when Doug Hofstadter and I were working on the Mind's Eye which has lots of intuition pumps, lots of thought experiments in it. And Doug came up with a great metaphor. He said, "What you want to do with any of these intuition pumps is twiddle all the knobs. Turn the knobs, see what makes it work." Now this is actually something that we're familiar with from other parts of our lives. If there's a gadget and you want to know what it does, turn the knobs, see what happens, see what the moving parts do. So I encourage everybody to not just to take an intuition pump as it's handed to them but look at the moving parts. See what makes it tick. Try to figure out what if I adjust this, will it still pump the same intuition? Will it still yield the same punitive conclusion or will the whole thing fall apart?
And it's interesting to see that a lot of times philosophers will make an intuition pump which seems to do great work until you start turning the knobs and then you realize that it actually depends on your not thinking clearly about some aspect of the problem. Then you expose it as not a good intuition pump but as actually a sort of negative one. I call them boom crutches because they explode in your face.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
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.
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