Friday, 15 August 2014

Joots me up, Dennett!

Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking

by Daniel Dennett
Allen Lane, 2013

Ever since I devoured Darwin's Dangerous Idea as an undergrad I have loved,  and will always love, Daniel Dennett. In fact, at a wine reception after a public talk he gave in Bristol, I told him so. Not my finest hour,
although not as bad as when I asked Susan Hurley to tell me about ESP (*note to self: put the free wine down*). Luckily the great bear of a man is far too professional and, well, cool to have dignified my Belieber-esque proclamation with an answer and it never need be spoken of again.

Here is me with Orson, aged circa five weeks, watching Dennett talk about stotting.

Dennett's new book Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking   is so quotable that ........ I will quote it. Dennett is so good he almost makes me think I shouldn’t bother picking up a pen ever again. Its masterful. If I ever achieve one tenth his lucidity, I’ll be happy.

First of all Dennett offers an amusing but insightful tour of the philosopher's tool cupboard. This contains many robust and ingenious devices which can help us to think much better than when using unassisted grey matter, and whose joyous names deserve immediate placement in the Philosophical Lexicon. The eponymous tool is the intuition pump, A.K.A. a thought experiment, A.K.A. a "handy prosthetic imagination extender and focus-holder." A key skill to acquire is that of 'jootsing': jumping outside of the problem (45) so that you too can declare "Anything you can do I can do meta-." The 'sorta operator' is useful, reminding us that most things are not black and white and philosophers can get stuck in awful muddles trying to arbitrate over shades of grey. We have to use extreme caution, on the other hand,  around the evil twin: the 'surely operator'. Slipping in, barely noticed, this device conjures up the illusion of argument where there is none and so trips us into all manner of ill-gotten conclusions. Other 'invisible problem-poisoners' include 'rathering' (implying a false dichotomy), 'deepities' (ideas that achieve the appearance of profundity merely by being ambiguous) and 'Occam's broom' (used to whisk inconvenient facts under the carpet.

Dennett says maths can be a great thinking tool- like the net on a basketball hoop, it removes disagreement about whether the ball went in or not (12). But some things are too baffling for mathematical treatment. At the other extreme, Dennett says, we have “Continental rhetoric, larded with literary ornament and intimations of profundity” (13) Good  philosophy, he says, is halfway between maths and poetry.

It was a pleasure to meet swampman and the cow-shark, dance the Gould Two-Step and explore the library of Mendel. Like all the best writers, Dennett can almost charm me into accepting everything he says, but I do have quibbles. Nb I'm only really engaging with his metaphilosophical claims here, which I'm more inclined to agree with than the actual philosophical content of the book.

On competitiveness in philosophy
One of my quibbles concerns what Dennett says about competitiveness being part and parcel of philosophical discourse. He says "Competitiveness is, apparently, a natural by-product of the intellectual ambition and boldness required to tackle the toughest problems." (58)

Philosophy certainly *is* competitive, and macho and aggressive, and nasty a lot of the time as well. And it's protagonists often like to suggest that this is harmless fun, just a bit of banter. Even that it couldn't be otherwise, or that the ends of philosophical discourse are best served this way. I cannot see what is distinctive of philosophy that this should be true. Scientists don't usually engage in face-to-face clashes so much, it's true. Scientific work tends to be be produced more collaboratively, with paradigms being less tied to particular individual's personas. But the other humanities are just as person- and ego- based, and they don't seem to eat their young quite as we do (with thanks to Cecilia Heyes for that delightful image).

Dennett expresses his competitiveness under the cloak of Sturgeon's law: 90% of everything is crap. Others are more particular in accusing their peers.  Peter Unger says he "happens to have more perspective on things than other mainstream philosophers. And I'm smarter than almost all of them." John Searles says "it upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries". Awww, poor Searle is so smart it hurts him to be surrounded by such relative stupidity.

Do historians act up like this? Do scientists trash each others' work so enthusiastically? It's the sort of thing I expect to see from my toddler some time soon, and I plan to work hard to teach him better manners!

With science the proof is in the pudding, so there is no need for individuals to be so defensive. Although, certainly, they do end up in bitter disputes, the heat of which probably exceeds anything seen in philosophical arguments, probably because the philosophers are more likely to get it off their chests. Scientists are passive-aggressive, they edge each other out of societies, delete each other from bibliographies as well as publicly dismissing their rivals as stupid. See the kin selection wars for an exemplar. But they rarely get together and have an actual argument, like philosophers do.

It is a good, ineliminable thing that Philosophers have arguments. Passive aggressive philosophy would be ....just a bunch of drunks ranting to their mates in various pubs. It's important that philosophers actually address each other head-on and don't resort to behind-the-back sniping. *But* there is no reason why it has to be a zero-sum game, a propositional hunger-games, where only the victor remains standing. There is every reason why it could be more collaborative, cooperative, constructive. Where philosophers view themselves as each engaged on fixing a tiny section of an enormous and beautiful rug ( and if you reject unity and monism then get out and die, you are wrong!)

In fact, despite what he said about competitiveness being a good thing, Dennett offers a genius idea for sorting out disputes in a manner which encourages a more cooperative, constructive, polite mode of discourse. He suggests that we use lay audiences as decoys: "have all experts present their view to a small audience of curious non-experts while the other experts listen in from the sidelines."(43). The advantage of this set up is that it forces the experts to spell out their ideas in far greater clarity than they might if they are hiding behind the thought that they mustn't insult the intelligence of the other experts. I would love to see Martin Nowak meet Stuart West in this set-up.

On maintaining a remove from science

I can't agree with everything Dennett says about the benefits of being at a remove from scientific practice. “By working with scientists I get a rich diet of fascinating and problematic facts to think about, but by staying a philosopher without a lab or a research grant, I get to think about all the theories and experiments and never have to do the dishes.” (409) ‘A priori methodology.....excuses philosophers from spending tedious hours in the lab or out in the field, and from learning  data-gathering techniques, statistical methods, geography....” (418)

There are advantages to being an outsider: you get a different perspective from those who are inside the paradigm, you are immune from disciplinary party-whips. But on the other hand, someone in the position Dennett describes has to totally take a scientist's word for it about how their experiment works. There is just no substitute for practical hands-on experience when it comes to understanding all the assumptions, methodological shortcuts and heuristics that are involved in generating hard facts.  By remaining entirely outside of a scientific paradigm you are forced into a naive acceptance of it, which has value. But in so far as a philosopher of science aims to actually put pressure on the dominant paradigm, I think that he will need to cut his teeth, serve his time.

On how to evaluate philosophical topics
Some of the most fun stuff in Intuition Pumps..... is where Dennett muses on the practice of philosophy and gives out advice to prospective grad students. 

He advises future philosophers not to pick a topic that is too hot: he claims that it will burn out, prove a mere flash in the pan. Aaarghhhh, but then everybody is stuck with vagueness and consciousness and......sometimes we just need to move on!!!!

"Probably every philosopher can readily think of an ongoing controversy in philosophy whose participants would be out of work if Hebb’s dictum ['If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well' Donald Hebb] was ruthlessly applied." Too many philosophers are using up their lives and their considerable brain power analysing "higher-order truths of chmess".

 I've always thought that philosophers of science should be under the obligation that they can succeed in getting a scientist to give a shit about what they're saying. Dennett's version is to say that you ought to be able to persuade non-philosophers to play the game too.“Can anybody outside of academic philosophy be made to care?” (421) The flip side of this, as James Ladyman has pointed out with respect to the REF, is that philosophers are expected to whore themselves out to dissemination all the time, to spend all their energy on what others call outreach work. Scientists and mathematicians are permitted to do real work as well as outreach, to be incomprehensible to non-experts if need be.  In  fact Dennett adds the caveat, that some things too difficult to persuade uninitiated to care about are still worth pursuing (423).

"Probably there is no investigation in our capacious discipline that is not believed by some school of thought to be a wasted effort, brilliance squandered on taking in each other’s laundry. Voting would not yield results worth heeding, and dictatorship would be even worse, so let a thousand flowers bloom, I say” (421).

These are tricky issues. Surely some sort of measurement has to be carried out, so that career academics are in some small measure accountable for their time and the public money that finances them. It would be great to let a thousand flowers bloom if resources were infinite but given the reality, someone somewhere has got to decide who gets money and who doesn't, and letting the academics decide it amongst themselves is subject to well-known problems: the self-sustaining research holes of higher-order chmess.

In the end Dennett brings just the right amount of hard headedness and leniency to the problem.

“My point is that you should not settle complacently into a seat on the bandwagon just because you have found some brilliant fellow travellers who find your work on the issue as unignorable as you find theirs. You may all be taking each other for a ride.” (424)
This should be required reading for all philosophy graduate students everywhere, and it is an excellent note on which to end.


rachaelbean said...

In response to your post, I have finally got around to cracking my copy of this on my kindle. It is indeed masterful. I started reading on a plane and had to suppress more than one chuckle and have many notes and bookmarks made that will help with both my own research and writing and for teaching. Thanks for the impetus to make time for this!!!

rachaelbean said...

Btw, there is an entertaining and stimulating discussion of some of the themes in the book between Dennett and Tamar Gendler here: