Book Review: Intuition Pumps

Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett

Thought experiments can be used or abused, but when done right they can open your mind to new avenues of thinking without actually having to go out and perform a “real” experiment, and furthermore by making it a story they are easier to remember (the imagery of a man sitting in a room copying Chinese symbols is, for whatever reason, highly amenable to recall). Dennett calls these kinds of experiments intuition pumps, as in when they are done properly you are inclined at the end to say “Damn, it has to be that way.” Your intuition has been pumped, so to speak.

Many of the now classic thought experiments are present and discussed at length: Swampman, the Chinese Room, Mary the color scientist,  Twin Earth, skyhooks vs cranes, and many others. Three big sections in the latter part of the book are centered around exploring the concepts of evolution, consciousness, and free will. Dennett advocates, I believe, for a fully materialist view of the world, so there are no “skyhooks” in evolution, there is no “wonder tissue” in the brain, and he argues for compatibilism in thinking about free will. The earlier parts of the book introduce some general thinking tools, as well as a section on meaning (about adopting the intentional stance). There’s also a section dealing with how computers work at a basic level, which includes some worked and unworked problems (with solutions in the back) for programming a very simple register machine. He cites a general confusion about how computers really work deep down that he often encounters in his students to justify what might be considered an odd addition. Of course, computers are immensely powerful tools of thinking in their own right.

Without having read much (any) Dennett before, there are some things that seem a bit odd. For example, he has a chapter entirely on pointing out flaws in the rhetoric of Stephen Jay Gould who I have been reading a lot recently, but later on in the book Dennett writes approvingly about an essay Gould wrote dealing with cicadas and prime numbers. There’s also a chapter that’s mainly for other professors, which advocates giving lectures to undergrads and inviting some intellectual opponents, so that you aren’t put in a position of “talking down” to them.

I’ve read some reviews that were critical of Intuition Pumps because it recycles a lot of material from Dennett’s earlier works (as the Sources section attests, though there’s a fair bit of original material), but I’m in the reverse situation in that having read Intuition Pumps has made me want to read more of his earlier work. I’ll be picking up Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea for sure. I had already encountered a lot of the thought experiments before, but there were plenty of new faces, and if you haven’t had much exposure (or haven’t heard of any of the aforementioned famous cases), this book is quite a treat.

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