CTK Insights

07 May

Applying Daniel Dennett's New Book

Last week I got ahold of the new book by Daniel Dennett - Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. I knew of Dennett - a prolific author and a noted philosopher at Tufts University - from his earlier books, Brainstorms, The Mind's I, Consciousness Explained.


I've been recently spending time in physical therapy where, while lying face down and getting my neck and back massaged, I've been reading Moby Dick. So, when I came across a New York Times article that featured Dennett, my interest was immediately picked by Dennett's quote

Philosophers can seldom put their knowledge to practical use. But if you’re a sailor, you can.

Herman Melville would likely agree. Getting a Kindle edition was a matter of seconds; the last two sessions in Physical therapy this is what I was reading. I also did some reading in between, but not much. The bottom line is I did not intend to write about the book before I went through most of it, if at all, and certainly not so soon. I would not do that now if it were not for an accidental tweet from @PrincetonUPress that informed the reading public of the new book Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America by Christopher S. Parker & Matt A. Barreto. All I have to say about this book I garnered from the publisher's blurb which caught my attention because it served a perfect ground to apply some of Dennett's teaching.

The title - Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking - may suggest that the book belongs to a self-help variety but it is not so. Dennett tells the reader "This book shows what I've been up to all these years." There are definite borrowings from the three books I own, Brainstorms (1978), The Mind's I (1981) and Consciousness Explained (1992). (It looks like a while that I last bought Dennett's book which explains in part why I was open to a new purchase.) The book features chapters "Tools for thinking about meaning or content", "Tools for thinking about evolution", "Tools for thinking about consciousness", "Tools for thinking about free will", and more. I did not yet get that far, but I got appreciation for the second chapter "A dozen general thinking tools". If your perception of the word "thinking" -like mine - connotes purposeful activity whose meaning is more accurately expressed as "reasoning" or "reflection", you could agree that "Mental Tools" or "Tools for Polemics" would better reflect the content (and probably the intent of the author) that "Tools for Thinking". For example, Dennett draws reader's attention to the device he calls Rathering, which he describes as

a way of sliding you swiftly and gently past a false dichotomy. The general form of a rathering is "It is not the case that blahblahblah, as orthodoxy would have you believe; it is rather that suchandsuchandsuch - which is radically different.

So this is not exactly a tool one would apply to arrive at a conclusion but rather to mislead or just convince somebody - a reader, a listener, an interlocutor. Dennett does say that some ratherings are just fine, and I hope that mine is. To qualify a rathering needs to juxtapose inescapable dichotomies. Those that do not I would classify as "a tool for demagoguery", not "tools for thinking".

There are also ratherings that don't use the word "rather". A terser version may be of the form "_____, not ______." Regardless of the form, the demagogic ratherings exploit the common implication of the word "rather" that "there is an important incompatibility between the claims flanking it."

Reading Dennett's book made me sharply attuned to this kind of argument such that I could not miss the introductory sentences of the blurb for the Princeton U book I mentioned above:

Are Tea Party supporters merely a group of conservative citizens concerned about government spending? Or are they racists who refuse to accept Barack Obama as their president because he's not white? Change They Can't Believe In offers an alternative argument--that the Tea Party is driven by the reemergence of a reactionary movement in American politics which is fueled by a fear that America has changed for the worse.

The juxtapositions - and there are multiple - are false. Can't I say that Tea Party supporters are conservative citizens concerned about government spending who are (naturally, reactionary) racists fueled by a fear that America has changed for the worse? Neither syntactically nor semantically there is anything wrong with such an assertion! I may only wonder at the purpose of bringing up those labels - creating a straw man, Dennett would call it - only to follow up with a make-belief refutation in the next sentence. Being semantically covered by various flavors of "reactionary movements" the labels stick on, if not elucidate the essence of the Tea Party's reactionism.

With this introduction I can't believe the book is worth reading.

Now, back to Dennett's, "rathering" is not exactly a "tool for thinking", although being aware of the trick may strengthen your defenses against demagoguery. But there are very real thinking tools valuable in any kind of reasoning, math problem solving, in particular.

One such tool - I think it may be more properly called a metatool - was invented by Douglas Hofstadter and described yet in The Mind's I. Consider a tool or an argument as having many settings, each of which can be modified by turning a knob. Turn a knob, see the effect that transpires, evaluate the importance and relevance to the whole of a particular detail.

What role is being played in the blurb by the word "merely": "Are Tea Party supporters merely a group of conservative citizens..."? Think of it as a knob. Turn it hard till the word "merely" disappears. This reduces the stringency of the implicit finger pointing. The question becomes rather innocent, "Are these conservative citizens concerned about government spending?" The word "merely" makes us suspect that this is not quite so, it begs an elucidation that apparently comes in the next two sentences, linking them into a single damaging claim that to all purposes has been presented as three possible alternatives. "Merely" makes all three into one.

Another knob: President's skin color. Turn it all the way. May a citizen reject President's policies without being suspect of racism in case the said president isn't white? I believe the authors would do well to discuss separately whether there are racists in the Tea Party and how many of its members object to Obama's policies.

I'll stop here. I think that I said enough about the book that I am not going to read. I said probably too little about the book I am reading and enjoying. This is a good refresher for those who used to read Dennett's books, and a wonderful introduction into the scope of fascinating philosophical ideas, for those who never heard of him.

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