Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

This book is misleadingly titled  – it should be called Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking like Daniel Dennett. But no harm done.

Having previously only heard of Daniel Dennett in context of his status as one of the four horsemen of the New Atheism movement, I picked up this book from Kinokuniya blind – expecting it to be a general sort of empirically-minded self-improvement book for honing your thinking techniques. Instead, I got a thinly-veiled overview of Dennett’s various philosophical positions over meaning, consciousness, complexity, and free will, which are explained using such thinking tools as Dennett recommends that the reader cultivate. The subtext being that if the reader were only to apply the correct thinking tools, she would naturally reach the same, or similar, conclusions, that Dennett has.

The central thinking tool in the box is really the intuition pump, a kind of thinking experiment cunningly worded and framed to get the reader to come to a desired conclusion by appealing to his or her intuitions. The term was coined by Dennett and many examples are prominently featured in this book, given such whimsically memorable names as the Curse of the Cauliflower and the Zombic Hunch. A famous example of an intuition pump (and one Dennett savages) is the Chinese Room experiment – in which one imagines a man using a set of algorithmic translation rules to translate Chinese questions into English in order to answer them. However, at no point in this process does the man actually understand the inputs – he merely acts upon them based on a set of instructions. The point of this thought experiment is to pump the intuition that – like the man in the Chinese room – computers that use algorithms to process data do not truly understand them – ergo, consciousness (i.e. understanding) cannot arise out of a set of algorithms designed to simulate its functions.

The intuition pump is really a double edged sword, however, and can be used to both illuminate and mislead. This is because intuition pumps are by their very nature abstractions of philosophical problems – they simplify conditions to make it easier to think about a thing – and in some cases, to think about a thing the way the creator intended. Dennett tells us to interrogate intuition pumps by turning the knobs – in other words, changing some of the conditions or assumptions of the intuition pump and seeing if the same intuitions are pumped out. Even as Dennett presents his own intuition pumps, he also deconstructs pumps that have been devised by others. He calls misleading intuition pumps boom crutches, deliberately malappriopriating (see what I did there?) the nautical term for these anti-thinking tools that are designed to shut down thinking.

Ultimately, however, after a few short chapters laying out his toolbox, Dennett begins the methodical quest of introducing the reader to his brand of philosophical thought. Dennett’s positions on various matters – cognition, free will, consciousness – can be boiled down to the idea that these ideas – held by some philosophers to reside in the sacred space of epistemological inscrutability- can actually be explained with a mundane scientific approach. The hard questions are procedurally hard – but not unsolvable using scientific inquiry. In plain language, it simply means that things like consciousness or free will can be explained or described in the framework of material reality, and there is no need to posit some imagined higher substrate of reality – such as positing that consciousness manifests beyond the physical mind – in order to understand such phenomena.

It’s hard to distill Dennett’s ideas into one paragraph, but an example of this approach is Dennett’s deconstruction of the Chinese Room. That thought experiment holds that consciousness cannot manifest out of algorithms, which are ostensibly what the mind, in Dennett’s model of cognition, uses – i.e. strong, conscious AI is not possible. Dennett’s dictum, on the other hand, is that software, sufficiently advanced (and operating on a sufficiently complex hardware stratum like the brain), approximates consciousness to such a level of fidelity that it is indistinguishable from consciousness, and in fact, is consciousness, and in actual fact is precisely what consciousness is in reality.

Think about the idea of the philosophical zombie – a being that acts and talks so like a human being that it is indistinguishable from one, except that it has no internal world, no consciousness – and elevate it to the idea of the zimboe – another philosophical creature that simulates second-order beliefs that it is a conscious thinking being, when it actually isn’t. A zimboe looks, acts, and feels – or thinks it feels – like a real human being – but it doesn’t actually think anything. Dennett’s argument is that the zimboe is the logical outcropping of the idea that there can be p-zombies that approximate human complexity, but at that level of fidelity it would be impossible for a zimboe to be distinguished from a human being, by any means. Rather than posit some ethereal essence of consciousness, Dennett argues, why not just eliminate the need for that as-yet-undiscovered substrate and go straight to the Occam’s-Razor solution – that the zimboe concept is incoherent because a sufficiently complex bundle of computational processes – i.e. the zimboe – already possesses, by dint of its mental complexity, consciousness?

Back to the Chinese Room – Dennett’s point is that the flaw of the intuition pump is that it doesn’t specify how complex the algorithms operated upon by the man must be to make it so that the questioners who are asking the questions in Chinese are satisfied that the answers they get are from a thinking entity. Dennett’s intuition is that they would have to be astoundingly complex – more complex than would be possible for one man and a pencil to analyse in any reasonable time horizon. As such, the Chinese Room thought experiment is bust because it fails to account for the possibility that the set of algorithmic instructions would only be physically possible to operationalise on a substrate capable enough to elevate it to a level in which it could be described to “understand” its instructions – which could approximate something like consciousness.

Dennett applies this same set of thinking tools to different fields – thinking about meaning, evolution, free will. In each case Dennett purports to banish the veil of mysticism that some drape over seemingly intractable problems, and shows that they are really resolvable with the application of tried-and-true thinking methods. Another interesting example is Dennett’s stance on free will. Dennett is really a compatibilist – he holds that free will is compatible with determinism. How? Simple – the kind of philosophically ideal free will that some imagine we must possess to rightly be called free is an incoherent concept. Barring quantum indeterminacy, at some level the rules of physics determine the course of the universe – that is determinism. However, reality is so complex that the kind of “free will” some would characterise as being required to be truly free is not required to make meaningful decisions. Dennett characterises the difference as being between a sufficiently advanced pseudo-random number generator (one that generates a random list of numbers using a series of step by step algorithms) and a “true” random number generator. Sufficiently advanced, there is no compelling reason to choose the latter, unless you plan to play chess with an omniscient God that can predict your every move. But who needs, or wants, that kind of ideal freedom? Free will is not a binary – it is a spectrum, and what free will we have is sufficient for our purposes down to the subatomic level.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here – but I should be somewhat embarrassed to admit that Dennett gives voice to some of my own intuitions about mind, consciousness, and free will. I find myself agreeing with him to a very large and almost embarrassing extent. Far from being accused of being overly impressionistic, however, I should caveat that the irony of my reading experience of Dennett’s tome is that I didn’t glean my philosophical insights from his intuition pumps, but really from how my own intuitions corroborated with his conclusions. Dennett, here, was in effect preaching to the choir. And even more ironic was that I came away with a sneaking suspicion that his intuition pumps were simply not especially effective in conveying the point in  a watertight manner. But I suppose that is a suspicion that fosters itself. Intuition pumps are by nature unwieldy thinking tools – ripe for abuse or misuse, abstracted in ways that cloud judgment, with too many hypotheticals and variables. Are Dennett’s own pumps immune to this kind of thing? Probably not. He has an easier job of it though – his positions are fundamentally more parsimonious – after all, he is arguing from the standpoint of “possibility” – which requires less epistemological certainty than to declare a thing “impossible”. It is possible to conceive of consciousness, evolution and free will in terms of physical laws, and this is how it is possible to conceive of them. They may be the wrong models – perhaps consciousness does exist as a floaty-substrate, by Dennett’s own admission. But Dennett doesn’t have to show that his model is correct – he just has to show that it is possible to think of them as being grounded in empirics. His critics often have to show that a thing is impossible to characterize in terms of physical reality – which requires some boom crutch-y sleight of hand and other such mental breakdancing. It is impossible that consciousness is rooted in the physical world – here is inductive proof in the form of a hypothetical! Forgive me if I don’t find that particularly convincing.

But I ramble. Dennett’s book can describe all these jumbled thoughts better than I can. Go read it, regardless of your metaphysical inclinations. I think you’ll probably get something out of it. At the very least, the chance to turn some of Dennett’s knobs at his invitation.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 Sphexes


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