Putting intuition to the test

INTUITION PUMPS AND OTHER TOOLS FOR THINKING. By Daniel C. Dennett. W. W. Norton & Co. 496 pages. $28.95

Back when I was a philosophy graduate student first seeking a job in my profession, I received an invitation to interview for a post at Tufts University. My interviewer at the national philosophy conference where such things still are done was Dan Dennett.

He began by asking me how I would explain to my imaginary Uncle Joe, who has no interest in the theoretical musings of political philosophers, why he should care about what John Rawls had to say in “A Theory of Justice.”

Steeped in the minutiae of graduate student research, I was ill-equipped to deal with this novel interviewing approach.

I attempted to rise to the occasion, only to have Professor Dennett deftly point out to me, at each turn, just how little Uncle Joe shared in my philosophical vocabulary. Uncle Joe was not stupid, but I needed to speak to him in his own language, not the language of the profession.

I did not get a job offer from Tufts.

Three decades later, Dennett is still at it: casting challenging philosophical issues into language that is vivid and readily comprehensible to general readers.

“Intuition Pumps,” an expression coined by Dennett back in 1980, are imaginative narratives with a philosophical point. They are thought experiments that invite us to look at conceptual problems in new ways, frequently for the purpose of undermining some rival (and often prevalent) philosophical view.

In his original usage, Dennett was actually criticizing such a narrative: Berkeley philosopher John Searle’s “Chinese Room” attack on the possibility of an artificial intelligence device capable of consciousness (think of R2-D2 and C-3PO from “Star Wars,” for example, or Lt. Commander Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”). The best we could hope for, on Searle’s view, would be behavioral mimicry of consciousness.

The Chinese Room was an enclosed space housing Searle (who speaks no Chinese) and an instruction manual (in English) for responding to printed inputs in Chinese characters shoved through a slot in the wall. Searle’s envisioned task was to use the instruction manual to respond appropriately in Chinese characters, so that his outputs back through the slot in the wall would have all the appearance of Chinese linguistic competence.

Searle himself, though, would have no consciousness of what he was doing, apart from executing the mysterious mechanics of the instruction manual. Such would be the behavior of A.I. devices, Searle contended.

Dennett does a nice job of dismantling this particular intuition pump, in language that is both more elegant and more accessible than his original response. That is generally the pattern.

His new book is a distillation of the interests that have occupied his long career, written in language that is substantive and designed to go down well with all readers.

In broad thematic sections, he focuses first on the nature of meaning (mental content as experienced by self-aware beings like us), on evolutionary theory, on consciousness, including its relationship to personal identity, and finally, on the freewill/determinism debate.

Although Dennett’s original usage for “intuition pumps” was derisive, he professes his love for good intuition pumps. They can indeed be quite transformative although Dennett frequently spends time debunking them as devices for retaining cherished views, just as he did in his critique of Searle’s Chinese Room. (Surely artificially constructed mechanisms can’t be conscious? Why not? asks Dennett.)

Along the way, Dennett takes on Mitochondrial Eve, philosophical zombies (not to be confused with the Hollywood variety, these are rather like Searle in his Chinese room) and a neuroscientist’s power of suggestion.

As with many public intellectuals, there is a certain amount of self-promotion in Dennett’s book. He informs us that he coined the term “folk psychology” in its modern usage (a talent for predicting the behavior of others), neglecting to acknowledge that David Lewis (among others) developed the idea a decade earlier under the label “common sense psychology.”

And while he says at the outset that he will reference the work of other thinkers through bibliographical entries, he sometimes fails to do so, as when he discusses teleportation as an intuition pump for personal identity in a section clearly indebted to Derek Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” (1984) and Bernard Williams’ “The Self and the Future” (1970). He neglects to cite either of them, or even list their work in his bibliography.

But if one looks past such annoyances, as most readers will, this is a fun and provocative window onto some of the most important issues in contemporary philosophical discourse.

Reviewer Richard Nunan is a professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.