Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking - by Daniel Dennett

Douglas Hofstadter's Favorite Tools

  • wild goose chases
  • tackiness
  • dirty tricks
  • sour grapes
  • elbow grease
  • feet of clay
  • loose cannons
  • crackpots
  • lip service
  • slam dunks
  • feedback

I have always figured that if I can't explain something I'm doing to a group of bright undergraduates, I don't really understand it myself.


Making Mistakes

Sometimes you don't just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them--if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix. Making mistakes is the key to making progress. The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them--especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. The fundamental reaction to any mistake ought to be this: "Well, I won't do that again!

When we reflect, we confront directly the problem that must be solved by any mistake-maker: what, exactly, is that? What was it about what I just did that got me into all this trouble? The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you've made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark. So 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. It's not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves), and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions. Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.

Sturgeon's Law

Ninety percent of everything is crap. A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticize a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form, … don't waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone.

Jootsing (jumping out of the system)

Creativity, that ardently sought but only rarely found virtue, often is a heretofore unimagined violation of the rules of the system from which it springs. Being creative is not just a matter of casting about for something novel--anybody can do that, since novelty can be found in any random juxtaposition of stuff--but of making the novelty jump out of some system, a system that has become somewhat established, for good reasons. It helps to know the tradition if you want to subvert it.

The "Surely" Operator: A Mental Block

Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word "surely" is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument, a warning label about a likely boom crutch. Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about and hopes readers will also be sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn't be worth mentioning.) Being at the edge, the author has had to make a judgment call about whether or not to attempt to demonstrate the point at issue, or provide evidence for it, and--because life is short--has decided in favor of bald assertion, with the presumably well-grounded anticipation of agreement. Just the sort of place to find an ill-examined "truism" that isn't true!

Rhetorical Questions

Most rhetorical questions are telescoped reductio ad absurdum arguments, too obvious to need spelling out. Here is a good habit to develop: Whenever you see a rhetorical question, try--silently, to yourself--to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question.


A deepity is a proposition that seems both important and true--and profound--but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That's a deepity.


Folk Psychology

Folk psychology is "what everyone knows" about their minds and the minds of others. We are born with an "agent detection device," and it is on a hair trigger. When it misfires, as it often does in stressful circumstances, we tend to see ghosts, goblins, imps, leprechauns, fairies, gnomes, demons, and the like where all that is really there are waving branches, toppling stone walls, or creaking doors.

The Intentional Stance

The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of an entity (person, animal, artifact, or whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its "choice" of "action" by a "consideration" of its "beliefs" and "desires."

Competence Without Comprehension

Before there can be comprehension, there has to be competence without comprehension. This is nature's way. Bacteria have all sorts of remarkable competences that they need not understand at all; their competences serve them well, but they themselves are clueless. Trees have competences whose exercise provides benefits to them, but they don't need to know why. The process of natural selection itself is famously competent, a generator of designs of outstanding ingenuity and efficacy, without a shred of comprehension. Comprehension of the kind we human adults enjoy is a very recent phenomenon on the evolutionary scene, and it has to be composed of structures whose competence is accompanied by, enabled by, a minimal sort of semi-comprehension, or pseudo-comprehension--the kind of (hemi-semi-demi-)comprehension enjoyed by fish or worms. These structures are designed to behave appropriately most of the time, without having to know why their behavior is appropriate.


Perhaps the most wonderful feature of computers is that because they are built up, by simple steps, out of parts (operations) that are also dead simple, there is simply no room for them to have any secrets up their sleeve. No ectoplasm, no "morphic resonances," no invisible force fields, no hitherto unknown physical laws, no wonder tissue. You know that if you succeed in getting a computer program to model some phenomenon, there are no causes at work in the model other than the causes that are composed of all the arithmetical operations.

What brains are for is extracting meaning from the flux of energy impinging on their sense organs, in order to improve the prospects of the bodies that house them and provide their energy. The job of a brain is to "produce future" in the form of anticipations about the things in the world that matter to guide the body in appropriate ways. Brains are energetically very expensive organs, and if they can't do this important job well, they aren't earning their keep. Brains, in other words, are supposed to be semantic engines. What brains are made of is kazillions of molecular pieces that interact according to the strict laws of chemistry and physics, responding to shapes and forces; brains, in other words, are in fact only syntactic engines.

Don't make the mistake of imagining that brains, being alive, or made of proteins instead of silicon and metal, can detect meanings directly, thanks to the wonder tissue in them. Physics will always trump meaning. A genuine semantic engine, responding directly to meanings, is like a perpetual motion machine--physically impossible. So how can brains accomplish their appointed task? By being syntactic engines that track or mimic the competence of the impossible semantic engine.


Consciousness is not a medium, like television, into which information can get transduced or recorded, and there is no place in the brain where "it all comes together" for the appreciation of some Central Witness--I call this imaginary place the Cartesian Theater. Consciousness is more like fame than television: fame in the brain, cerebral celebrity, a way in which some contents come to be more influential and memorable than the competition.

"Qualia" is a "technical" term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us. Nothing, it seems, could you know more intimately than your own qualia; let the entire universe be some vast illusion, some mere figment of Descartes's evil demon, and yet what the figment is made of (for you) will be the qualia of your hallucinatory experiences. Descartes claimed to doubt everything that could be doubted, but he never doubted that his conscious experiences had qualia, the properties by which he knew or apprehended them.

The Self as the Center of Narrative Gravity

It is clear what a self isn't. It isn't a part of the brain, like the amygdala or hippocampus. Then what might the self be? I propose that it is the same kind of thing as a center of gravity, an abstraction that is, in spite of its abstractness, tightly coupled to the physical world. It is a mathematical point, not an atom or molecule. The center of gravity of a length of steel pipe is not made of steel and indeed is not made of anything. We may call a center of gravity a theorist's fiction because it shares with fictional characters the curious property of indeterminacy of properties.

What then is a center of narrative gravity? It is also a theorist's fiction, posited in order to unify and make sense of an otherwise bafflingly complex collection of actions, utterances, fidgets, complaints, promises, and so forth, that make up a person. It is the organizer of the personal level of explanation. Your hand didn't sign the contract; you did. Your mouth didn't tell the lie; you did. Your brain doesn't remember Paris; you do. You are the "owner of record" of the living body we recognize as you. (As we say, it's your body to do with what you like.) In the same way that we can simplify all the gravitational attractions between all the parts of the world and an obelisk standing on the ground by boiling it down to two points, the center of the earth and the center of gravity of the obelisk, we can simplify all the interactions--the handshakes, the spoken words, the ink scrawls, and much more--between two selves, the seller and the buyer, who have just completed a transaction. Each self is a person, with a biography, a "backstory," and many ongoing projects. Unlike centers of gravity, selves don't just have trajectories through space and time; they gather as they go, accumulating memories and devising plans and expectations. What you are is that rolling sum of experience and talent, solemn intention and daydreaming fantasy, bound together in one brain and body and called by a given name. The idea that there is, in addition, a special indissoluble nugget of you, or ego, or spirit, or soul, is an attractive fantasy, but nothing that we need in order to make sense of people, their dreams and hopes, their heroism and their sins.

Heterophenomenology: Heterophenomenology is the study of first-person phenomena from the third-person point of view of objective science.

Don't think you understand the phenomena of consciousness until you see what science has discovered about it in recent years. The armchair theories of philosophers who ignore this moral are negligible at best and more often deeply confused and confusing. What you "learn" about your consciousness "through introspection" is a minor but powerfully misleading portion of what we can learn about your consciousness by adopting the heterophenomenological framework and studying consciousness systematically.