Daniel Dennett Presents Seven Tools For Critical Thinking

dennett critical thinking

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Love him or hate him, many of our read­ers may know enough about Daniel C. Den­nett to have formed some opin­ion of his work. While Den­nett can be a soft-spo­ken, jovial pres­ence, he doesn’t suf­fer fuzzy think­ing or banal plat­i­tudes— what he calls “deepities”—lightly. Whether he’s explain­ing (or explain­ing away) con­scious­ness, reli­gion, or free will, Dennett’s mate­ri­al­ist phi­los­o­phy leaves lit­tle-to-no room for mys­ti­cal spec­u­la­tion or sen­ti­men­tal­ism. So it should come as no sur­prise that his lat­est book, Intu­ition Pumps And Oth­er Tools for Think­ing, is a hard-head­ed how-to for cut­ting through com­mon cog­ni­tive bias­es and log­i­cal fal­lac­i­es.

In a recent Guardian arti­cle, Den­nett excerpts sev­en tools for think­ing from the new book. Hav­ing taught crit­i­cal think­ing and argu­men­ta­tion to under­grad­u­ates for years, I can say that his advice is pret­ty much stan­dard fare of crit­i­cal rea­son­ing. But Dennett’s for­mu­la­tions are uniquely—and bluntly—his own. Below is a brief sum­ma­ry of his sev­en tools.

1. Use Your Mis­takes

Dennett’s first tool rec­om­mends rig­or­ous intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty, self-scruti­ny, and tri­al and error. In typ­i­cal fash­ion, he puts it this way: “when you make a mis­take, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then exam­ine your own rec­ol­lec­tions of the mis­take as ruth­less­ly and as dis­pas­sion­ate­ly as you can man­age.” This tool is a close rel­a­tive of the sci­en­tif­ic method, in which every error offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn, rather than a chance to mope and grum­ble.

2. Respect Your Oppo­nent 

Often known as read­ing in “good faith” or “being char­i­ta­ble,” this sec­ond point is as much a rhetor­i­cal as a log­i­cal tool, since the essence of per­sua­sion involves get­ting peo­ple to actu­al­ly lis­ten to you. And they won’t if you’re over­ly nit­picky, pedan­tic, mean-spir­it­ed, hasty, or unfair. As Den­nett puts it, “your tar­gets will be a recep­tive audi­ence for your crit­i­cism: you have already shown that you under­stand their posi­tions as well as they do, and have demon­strat­ed good judg­ment.”

3. The “Sure­ly” Klax­on

A “Klax­on” is a loud, elec­tric horn—such as a car horn—an urgent warn­ing. In this point, Den­nett asks us to treat the word “sure­ly” as a rhetor­i­cal warn­ing sign that an author of an argu­men­ta­tive essay has stat­ed an “ill-exam­ined ‘tru­ism’” with­out offer­ing suf­fi­cient rea­son or evi­dence, hop­ing the read­er will quick­ly agree and move on. While this is not always the case, writes Den­nett, such ver­biage often sig­nals a weak point in an argu­ment, since these words would not be nec­es­sary if the author, and read­er, real­ly could be “sure.”

4. Answer Rhetor­i­cal Ques­tions

Like the use of “sure­ly,” a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion can be a sub­sti­tute for think­ing. While rhetor­i­cal ques­tions depend on the sense that “the answer is so obvi­ous that you’d be embar­rassed to answer it,” Den­nett rec­om­mends doing so any­way. He illus­trates the point with a Peanuts car­toon: “Char­lie Brown had just asked, rhetor­i­cal­ly: ‘Who’s to say what is right and wrong here?’ and Lucy respond­ed, in the next pan­el: ‘I will.’” Lucy’s answer “sure­ly” caught Char­lie Brown off-guard. And if he were engaged in gen­uine philo­soph­i­cal debate, it would force him to re-exam­ine his assump­tions.

 5. Employ Occam’s Razor

 The 14th-cen­tu­ry Eng­lish philoso­pher William of Occam lent his name to this prin­ci­ple, which pre­vi­ous­ly went by the name of lex par­si­mo­nious, or the law of par­si­mo­ny. Den­nett sum­ma­rizes it this way: “The idea is straight­for­ward: don’t con­coct a com­pli­cat­ed, extrav­a­gant the­o­ry if you’ve got a sim­pler one (con­tain­ing few­er ingre­di­ents, few­er enti­ties) that han­dles the phe­nom­e­non just as well.”

6. Don’t Waste Your Time on Rub­bish

Dis­play­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic gruff­ness in his sum­ma­ry, Dennett’s sixth point expounds “Sturgeon’s law,” which states that rough­ly “90% of every­thing is crap.” While he con­cedes this may be an exag­ger­a­tion, the point is that there’s no point in wast­ing your time on argu­ments that sim­ply aren’t any good, even, or espe­cial­ly, for the sake of ide­o­log­i­cal axe-grind­ing.

7. Beware of Deep­i­ties

Den­nett saves for last one of his favorite boogey­men, the “deep­i­ty,” a term he takes from com­put­er sci­en­tist Joseph Weizen­baum. A deep­i­ty is “a propo­si­tion that seems both impor­tant and true—and profound—but that achieves this effect by being ambigu­ous.” Here is where Dennett’s devo­tion to clar­i­ty at all costs tends to split his read­ers into two camps. Some think his dri­ve for pre­ci­sion is an admirable ana­lyt­ic eth­ic; some think he man­i­fests an unfair bias against the lan­guage of meta­physi­cians, mys­tics, the­olo­gians, con­ti­nen­tal and post-mod­ern philoso­phers, and maybe even poets. Who am I to decide? (Don’t answer that).

You’ll have to make up your own mind about whether Dennett’s last rule applies in all cas­es, but his first six can’t be beat when it comes to crit­i­cal­ly vet­ting the myr­i­ad claims rou­tine­ly vying for our atten­tion and agree­ment.

via Mefi

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Daniel Den­nett and Cor­nel West Decode the Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix in 2004 Film

Daniel Den­nett (a la Jeff Fox­wor­thy) Does the Rou­tine, “You Might be an Athe­ist If…”

90 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • Rob says:

    It’s hard to do (2) when all your oppo­nents ever do is (3), (6) and (7)

  • Rain,adustbowlstory says:

    Num­ber One is most impor­tant. The old­er I get, the more I learn to my dis­may that as humans we’re ter­ri­bly inclined to self-decep­tion.

    We all ought to be look­ing for our own mis­takes all the time.

  • Charles DuFarle says:

    #5 is only valid if one ignores feed­back loops. See min­utephysics
    Then again how tight are your def­i­n­i­tions and clas­si­fi­ca­tions before one runs into Godel’s com­plete­ness the­o­rem or para­dox.

  • NG says:

    Excel­lent arti­cle. I am a nyu phi­los­o­phy stu­dent and we are taught these things when we write our thesis/essays. Excel­lent find.

  • Mark Cidade says:

    When it comes to a non-math­e­mat­i­cal of quan­tum phe­nom­e­na, the whole thing is a deep­i­ty!

  • ObligeNobility says:

    I’m all for clear­ing up fuzzy log­ic, but avoid “deep­i­ties”? Humans, even wannabe-robots like Den­net, run on a fuel mix of com­mu­ni­ty myths, para­bles, and self-con­struct­ed per­son­al fables. The prop­er use of log­ic is to arrive at an under­stand­ing of which ones can be ratio­nal­ized as prefer­able. IOW, (5) may cut away (6), but we lose a rich­ness of expe­ri­ence if it also cuts away (7).

  • Ron Powell says:

    “Dar­win’s Dan­ger­ous Idea” is one on my ten favorite books among the hun­dreds of seri­ous books I’ve read in my 68 years on this plan­et.

    • Carlos AP says:

      Hi Ron. Thank you for your com­ment. I am quite young, but feel extreme­ly lucky to have come across “Dar­win Dan­ger­ous Idea.” I appre­ci­ate your judge­ment and I would be very inter­est­ed to know what oth­er books sit along­side your top ten, I would be huge­ly grate­ful if you could be gen­er­ous enough to share them. Many thanks in advance.

  • Nat Scientist says:

    Occam’s razor is the lit­er­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tion that nature always choos­es the sim­plest, ener­getic design. A bet­ter argu­ment is to bet on nature which has­n’t learned to lie to advance its agen­da of self­ish genes at play.

  • Mayank says:

    The link pro­vid­ed for Guardian arti­cle isn’t work­ing. Any clue? Or any oth­er link?

  • Johann says:

    “his first six can’t be beat when it comes to crit­i­cal­ly vet­ting the myr­i­ad claims rou­tine­ly vying for our atten­tion and agree­ment.”
    Iron­ic, isn’t it, that this bold claim is assert­ed with­out evi­dence. It is not plau­si­ble. Den­net­t’s lit­tle bag of tricks seem use­ful as far as they go but they are a mot­ley col­lec­tion. Over the cen­turies many the­o­rists of var­i­ous stripes have done bet­ter jobs.

  • _ says:

    Occam’s Razor is also invalid when we are deal­ing with arti­fi­cial phe­nom­e­na.

    I can use any num­ber of enti­ties to cre­ate a phe­nom­e­na.

    e.g. Inorder to kill a per­son who is gay, if i kill 7 oth­er gay peo­ple, it might seem like I am homo­pho­bic ser­i­al killer who is after gay peo­ple.

  • Brian says:

    “We are all made of star stuff”. Is that a “deep­i­ty”?

  • Akdkfk says:

    No, it’s just a slight­ly poet­ic and con­cise way of sum­ma­riz­ing the fact that our bod­ies con­tain quite a few atoms that were cre­at­ed by the explo­sions of dying stars. But you can cer­tain­ly abuse it to cre­ate deepisms (“there­fore mag­ic”)

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