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on 10 September 2014
Thinking tools are "handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus-holders" that enable us to think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions. This collection of Daniel Dennett's favourite thinking tools is both intellectually stimulating and a delight to read. In 77 short chapters, spread over 11 parts, Dennett shows us just how useful such a toolkit can be when thinking about topics as diverse as evolution and computation, consciousness and free will, and even the meaning of meaning itself. We can "go meta" in a way no other life form can do, reflecting upon who and what we are and how we got here.

The epigraph to the introductory chapter is a quote from Bo Dahlbom: "You can't do much thinking with your bare brain." Carpenters won't get very far without their tools, and neither will thinkers. But which ones to choose? Dennett acknowledges the importance of mathematical tools such as probability theory, Bayes's theorem and calculus, but concentrates instead on the simpler "hand tools of the mind": labels, examples, analogies and metaphors, staging and, one of the most useful gadgets, the intuition pump.

An intuition pump is a thought experiment designed to provoke a heartfelt intuition about whatever thesis is being defended. Since there are many ways in which our intuition deceives us (see, for example, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Chabris, Christopher, Simons, Daniel (2011)), pumping it may seem an odd thing to do. However, Dennett is not advocating that we become the mental equivalent of body builders. Rather, a well-made intuition pump either demonstrates that "the intuitions it pumps are reliable and convincing" or it helps "focus attention on what is wrong with its own presuppositions."

Intuition pumps are useful because they have lots of settings we can turn to see whether the same intuitions still get pumped. (Trolleyology is an example of a whole philosophical discipline devoted to twiddling the knobs of the fat man problem: see Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong by David Edmonds.)

Dennett also considers anti-thinking tools, or boom crutches. These seem to aid in understanding but "actually spread darkness and confusion instead of light." An example is Occam's Broom, a delicious play on Occam's Razor recently invented by the molecular biologist Sidney Brenner. This new term describes "the process in which inconvenient facts are whisked under the rug by intellectually dishonest champions of one theory or another." Creationists are well versed at leaving out embarrassing evidence that their "theories" can't handle, and conspiracy theorists are similarly adept at using Occam's Broom. Even serious scientists sometimes cannot resist overlooking data that seriously undermine their pet theory (and, on a bigger scale, it's not unknown for the pharmaceutical industry to file unflattering trials in a dark drawer). "God works in mysterious ways" is another anti-thinking tool, which hints "that the questioner is arrogant and overreaching" and quenches curiosity in an instant.

Thinking tools become especially important when considering the so-called big questions, such as free will and the nature of consciousness. Whether a single tool is chosen, however, will depend on the attitude of the enquirer. There are, for example, mystery mongers who claim that consciousness is bedevilled by a "hard" problem and "terminally mysterious." This attitude will either put you off completely or else guarantee lifelong employment as you grapple with the insoluble. Dennett is most definitely not of this persuasion, and he appeals to both the history of ideas and the latest technology to gird our intellectual loins.

Once upon a time, the mystery mongers insisted there was "some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things" - élan vital - but this turned out to have been a failure of the imagination. And while some still hanker after non-physical "wonder tissue" inside human beings, most would agree that there's "no room for mysteries in what computers do." Since "nothing physically inexplicable plays a role in any computer program" computers "thus play an important role as demystifiers" - indeed, computers are "without a doubt the most potent thinking tools we have."

Their potency is not just because they can perform complex calculations quickly but because they illustrate an important evolutionary principle. "Before there can be comprehension, there has to be competence without comprehension. This is nature's way." Darwin inverts the usual reasoning that comprehension is key to human competence. For life, "Absolute Ignorance is the artificer." The process of natural selection is breathtakingly competent but utterly mindless.

This line of thinking leads to what Dennett himself regards as one of his most important contributions: "free-floating rationales" - the reasons tracked by evolution, an instance of competence without comprehension. There's a reason why trees grow tall and spread their branches, but trees don't have these reasons because having reasons requires a mind. There "were reasons before there were reason-representers." Our tendency to interpret behaviour "as more mindful and rational than it really is" (to adopt the intentional stance, another of Dennett's major contributions) masks just how many free-floating rationales there are out there, untethered to a mind. And, of course, once we get used to the idea of competence without comprehension, of minds coming later rather than coming first, once we understand that creation can be achieved without a creator, then theism loses much of its traditional force.

Dennett's philosophical analysis is always informed by scientific knowledge about how the world actually works, an intellectual partnership illustrated by a tool that he thinks should be in everyone's kit: the ability to switch between the manifest and the scientific image. Our manifest image of, say, a table is how it seems to us in everyday life: it's a solid object, with a colour and surface texture and so on. We now also have a scientific image of the table as ultimately made of atoms of mainly empty space. Failure to get "these two remarkably different perspectives on the world" into registration leads to some otherwise very clever people getting into a terrible muddle. For example, because they don't detect free will in neurons some scientists falsely conclude that free will as experienced by a billion neurons must be an illusion.

Although "much of our manifest image has been shaped by natural selection over eons," the resulting intuitions that form part of what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking are rapid-fire, and often dominate the slower, more effortful System 2 (see Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman, Daniel (2012)). Intuition pumps are a kind of bridge between these two systems, with the pump part encouraging a "self-conscious wariness" that checks for pitfalls. In other words, intuition pumps encourage a sceptical mindset.

Thinking about thinking - or "going meta" - is the philosophers' favourite tactic (and, arguably, an important difference in kind, not just degree, between us and our primate cousins and all other species). This whole book is an example of going meta: exploring how to think carefully about methods of thinking carefully. Of course, before we can go meta, we have to be prepared to think in the first place. Dennett naturally presupposes a desire to think on the part of his readers and a willingness to make the effort. If you've read this far, you probably have what it takes, and the reward will be engaging with a brilliant philosopher who favours clarity above sounding clever.
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on 1 May 2014
While it's presented as a book of "tools for thinking", it would be more accurately described as a Daniel Dennett reader. He does present some basic heuristics for critically appraising other people's arguments in the first chapter. Most are fairly basic and there are not that many surprises, but it's worthwhile. In later chapters, he then goes on himself to commit many of the intellectual crimes tells you to watch out for. Lots of "piling it on" and "rathering", to use his terms.

The main "thinking tool" is to make very broad and detailed analogies. He has a go at explaining just about everything in terms of his own particular flavour of Darwinism, and then another go by relating everything to computers. There are some interesting subjects and some interesting approaches to them, as well as some of the more tedious old philosophical favourites. Such as: if you come across a thing which looks and responds in every way exactly like a human, and there is not empirical test which you can perform which will elicit any response which is not entirely consistent with it being human, is it necessarily a human or could it be zombie with no inner life?

The level of the material jumps about quite a lot too. At one point he's giving you simple tips like "watch out when somebody says 'surely' - are they trying to present a contentious or difficult argument as something you should just accept", while elsewhere he goes off on a lengthy and detailed discussion on how to use register machines to work on problems in formal logic.

The tone throughout is very much that of polemic, and although in many cases I agree with the points he tries to make, I frequently found his manner of making them both irritating and lacking in rigour. On the other hand, he manages to convey his enthusiasm for his subject very well, and is intermittently quite funny.
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on 15 March 2016
This book is written mostly in anecdotal mode, but what is it about? There are a couple of well-worn thinking techniques, interspersed with the anecdotes, but that hardly suffices to justify the title. The book - nearly 500 pages - lacks focus and argumentative rigor. He is repeating much that he has said before and inevitably, he falls into the terrible habit of quoting himself (and his buddy Hofstädter) copiously. Even worse is the name-dropping: the list of 'famous friends' referred to is long. Does Dennett really have to boost his prestige in this way?

The work is supposed to be suitable for the brighter segment of a general readership, but I doubt it. The rambling, unstructured style makes it difficult to read. He refers to far too many difficult issues in a casual way, failing to explain to the uninitiated what the problem is - but showing how cleverly he can solve it. Dip into the chapters on evolutionary biology if you need an example; that is not an issue to be handled in an off-hand way...

What is Dennett trying to do here? To be unkind, I suspect that his primary aim is to show us how clever he has been over the years, how he has used his personal 'tools' to shoot others down. In some cases one might agree, in others not. Some of his argumentative tools are best described as trivial. Much of the book is just plain first-semester rhetoric and you will find better authors than Dennett on that. And I would expect an author writing about argumentative tools to properly structure what he writes…

Or maybe Dennett just wanted to write yet another book? I'm a great admirer in general and have read many of his books, but this one is more likely to damage than to enhance his reputation.
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on 20 June 2013
This is a great book for thinking about consciousness, meaning and thinking in general. It is quite thorough and requires some tenacity to cope with the detail; but well worth it. The Giant Robot thought experiment is particularly excellent, but you have to read what goes before to appreciate it.

Read this book and progress further in your quest to understand more of life, the universe and everything.
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on 27 August 2013
A useful book if you're looking for a range of methods to prime your intellectual pumps. Dennett is generally a good writer and this book is accessible and readable.

Perhaps it is too much like a compilation of techniques, many of them usefully collected together, but not usefully organised for application. The writing is a bit too breezy and perhaps at times pejorative.

I have had to extract the material and draw on my own use of these and other methods to turn them into methods I can use in my work (so they don't just stay as philosophical oddities or games philosophers play!). My charting of the methods in the book has been added to my own tool kit of analytical and methodological policy and problem solving tools.

If you're interested in collecting ideas, book is useful. If you actually want to use the book, you'll be disappointed. Having said that, if you feel stuck in a rut, then the book will at least show you there are many ways to get out, and perhaps in the end that is all many of us need. Sorry DD.
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on 20 April 2015
Dennett is good at clearly explaining some difficult topics in philosophy, such as free will and consciousness, and the related science of evolution. His intuition pumps are clever little thinking tricks that are like tools for sculpting better arguments. There is precious little originality however, if you've read his other books. So while I enjoyed his book immensely, I just cannot give it the full five stars.
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on 3 January 2016
Simply fantastic. A book which will guide you through the most important thought experiment in the history of philosophy, at the same time teaching about logical fallacies and how to actually test hypothesis and argument of many different kind (still in the logic realm!). A must read book for any critical thinker.
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on 19 January 2016
I found this book interesting but it's not easy to read and in my view doesn't really live up to the title. If you're looking for a book on philosophical heuristics, behavioural psychology, cognitive biases, etc. look elsewhere.
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on 14 July 2013
A brilliant account by a biologically accomplished philosopher of the tricks of thought used by proponents of theories of conciousness and the mind. Requires detailed attention but the reward make this book worth that effort
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on 10 February 2014
Most (or perhaps all) of Dennett's "Intuition Pumps" have been mentioned elsewhere by him. In fact he specifically mentions that he leaves out some of the most popular since they have already been covered in so much detail elsewhere.

As always though, Dennett provides a thought provoking and fascinating read. He's also extremely fair, pointing out when others disagree with him and giving references for further reading.

Though the book is a collection of tools, thought experiments and other ways to improve your critical thinking abilities, I would recommend reading it from start to finish - at least the first time - rather than dipping in and out to bits that look interesting. This is simply because he lays groundwork earlier to be used in the discussion of problems and their solutions later. Jumping around between chapters (however tempting) may mean you miss out on some of these connections.
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