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5.0 out of 5 stars Going meta
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...
Published 1 month ago by Sphex

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dennett's "greatest hits" rather than a "how to" book.
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...
Published 5 months ago by Mr Nobody


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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dennett's "greatest hits" rather than a "how to" book., 1 May 2014
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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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5.0 out of 5 stars Going meta, 10 Sep 2014
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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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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book, 20 Jun 2013
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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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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful, but..., 27 Aug 2013
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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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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Makes you appreciate Dawkins...and Oasis, 9 April 2014
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As a student, I was disparaging of the Selfish Gene. The ideas were not original and the tone was that of an Oxford smarty-pants. Now I realise that Dawkins spotted that a lot of new ideas appearing at the time came together in a revolutionary way. He spotted that, put them together and gave them a snappy name, which had a big, and original, impact. I can now overlook the Oxford tone.

It is unavoidable to compare all popular science books to the Selfish Gene, and the overblown title of Dennett's book makes it fair game. I imagine an agent saying, 'time for a new book, Papa needs a new pair of shoes, just toss together those scraps, public they likey scrappies, call Dawkins a genius and he'll write a puff for the cover and kerching!'

It is probably a service to introduce new generations to the great, old, ideas, so books like this are fine in principle. But this book manages to make the whole less than the sum of the parts. For example, Borges' short story, the Library of Babel, provides a fascinating and powerful insight into the idea of infinity: the question of the relationship between differences in DNA and the differences we see between species is fascinating. But here they are shoved together to form some ghastly meaningless chimera leaving me asking, 'how did nobody notice this abomination?' And we are constantly reminded of the genesis of this book as collected scraps by, for example, an account of how automation can replace human elevator operators. This illustrates what? Nothing.

Still, I have hope that perhaps a smart, curious teenager with a short attention span may find it useful to learn the names of some ideas that can usefully be explored on Wikipedia.

But the best thing about this book is it makes you realise how good Haldane, Dawkins, Stewart, Jones at al. really are. It's like Oasis. They were slagged off for stealing 'I'd like to teach the world to sing' note-for-note for their song Shakermaker. But they turned a saccharine pop ditty into a raw piece of rock and roll, awesome and original. Dennett has achieved the pop science equivalent of doing the opposite.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very thought provoking and clear, 14 July 2013
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J. Forse "John Forse" (UK) - See all my reviews
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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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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sky hooks or Cranes ?, 11 Feb 2014
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D. S. Sample (Turnipshire England) - See all my reviews
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I love Dennett I enjoy his lectures on YouTube & TED but for some reason his usual well explained prose seemed to be lost on me, some chapters had to be re read so I could get the gist of his ideas, most of the book however is understandable and enlightening, lots of things to think about in this book, of course it is a book about thinking. Worth reading if you have some background knowledge of Dennetts philosophy's, evolution affects every aspect of our lives, biologically & culturally. To use a Dennettism I "sorta" get it.
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9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Here is a process of natural selection that could (perhaps) help achieve metacognition, 23 July 2013
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Robert Morris (Dallas, Texas) - See all my reviews
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With regard to the title, Daniel Dennett observes, "Intuition pumps have been a dominant force in philosophy for centuries. They are the philosophers' version of Aesop's fables, which have been recognized as wonderful thinking tools since before they were philosophers. If you ever studied philosophy in college, you were probably exposed to such classics as Plato's cave, in The Republic, in which people are chained and can see only shadows of real things cast on the cave wall; or his example, in Meno, of reaching geometry to the slave boy."

When I cam upon this passage of the Introduction, I was indeed reminded of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" as well as the Grand Inquisitor chapter in When I came upon that passage in the Introduction, I was reminded of The Grand Inquisitor, a parable told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, I can think of dozens of stories that illustrate key insights while suggesting all manner of connotative meaning and significance to the components of the given narrative.

Dennett explains that some of the most powerful thinking tools are mathematical, "but aside from mentioning them, I will not devote much space to them because this is a book celebrating the power of [begin italics] non [end italics] -mathematical tools, [begin italics] informal [end italics] tools, the tools of prose and poetry, if you like, a power that scientists often underestimate." Dennett certainly does not make that error of judgment, noting that a good intuition pump "is more robust that any one version of it." That said, he offers dozens of examples of the pumps as well as of other tools for more effective thinking. Think of this book as a toolbox and all of Dennett's 15 books as a hardware store. In fact, in Chapter IX, "What Got Left Out," he briefly discusses several of his favorite intuition pumps such as "Where am I?" and Peter Godfrey-Smith's Darwinian Spaces, "the best use of multidimensional space as a thinking tool in philosophy that I know."

The material is presented in the form of 77 segments or mini-commentaries in which Dennett sequentially provides an abundance of information, insights, counsel, and (yes) entertainment as he introduces and explains dozens of intuition pumps and other thinking tools, then shifts his and the reader's attention to a brief explanation of why conceiving of something new is so difficult. After an exceptionally thoughtful and thought-provoking Introduction, he then introduces each of sections II-VIII and adds a Summary of their key points. This one of very few books that I have read that strengthens the cognitive skills of those who read it [begin italics] while they read it [end italics].

These are among the several dozen passages of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Dennett's coverage.

Segment #1: Making Mistakes (Pages 19-28)
9: Three Species of [Stephen Jay] Goulding: Rathering, Piling On, and the Gould Two-Step (48-52)
16: Manifest Image and Scientific Image (69-72)
20: A Cascade of Homunculi (91-95)
24: The Seven Secrets of Computer Power Revealed (109-132)
29. The Wandering Two-Bitser, Twin Earth, and the Giant Robot (157-174)
33: Two Black Boxes (184-196)
39: Competence without Comprehension" (232-233)
45: Widowmakers, Mitochondrial Eve, and Retrospective Coronations (247-251)
50: Noise in the Virtual Hotel (267-270)
54: The Zombie Hunch (283-287)
60: The Chinese Room (319-329)
65: A Truly Nefarious Neurosurgeon (357-358)
67: Rock Paper, and Scissors (370-374)
73: Ultimate Responsibility (393-396)

When concluding this book, Daniel Dennett observes: "We haven't yet succeeded in fully conceiving how meaning could exist in the material world, or how life arose and evolved, or how consciousness works, or whether free will can be one of our endowments, but we've made progress: the questions we're posing and addressing now are better than the questions of yesteryear. We're hot on the trail of the answers." I am certain that he will be in the forefront of those who find them.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good collection of methods to improve critical thinking, 10 Feb 2014
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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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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a book to read slowly, over time, 21 Oct 2013
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Dennett is not everyone's taste, but this book stands a chance of giving you really new thoughts 1 2 3
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