By Chet Yarbrough
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Narrated by Jeff Crawford
“Intuition Pumps…” is a tough go for philosophical neophytes. Stick with it; Daniel Dennett has something to say about life and living it in a technological world. We neophytes may miss Dennett’s more esoteric points but, at the least, he offers a cave of shadows for one to have a beginning point for understanding his view of thinking and the etiology of humanness.
Dennett explores the “tools for thinking” by explaining how humanity advances. One tool in his kit is the use of argument; particularly the use of “Reductio ad Absurdum”. This is a common form of argument which seeks to demonstrate that a statement is true by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its denial.
Dennett suggests human progress is a function of intuition that compels thinking and doing, reinforced by incremental accumulation of what becomes useful knowledge. Dennett believes “intuition pumps” create “sort operators” that are near the point of invention but only act as a catalyst for the real thing.
Like a pilot that is asked to stay aloft with two minutes of fuel, and says, “I need a sky hook to stay in the air for more than two minutes”, an intuition pump is primed. The idea of a crane that can hold material in the air, while firmly grounded on earth, is a step away from invention because of the pilots comment about sky hooks. Or like the apocryphal story of a falling apple that gives Newton the notion about motion. Or like the thought of a man on a speeding train that gives Einstein a notion about relativity. Or like the gathering of species in the Galapagos Islands that gives Darwin a notion about natural selection.
To Dennett, the most significant intuition pump is Darwin’s because it crosses all boundaries of science, art, and being. Dennett turns the notion of “intelligent design” on its head. He removes the idea of a Prime-mover but retains the principle tenant of “intelligent design”. Rather than God, earth life-forms are intelligently designed by natural selection over eons of evolution and adaptation. The adaptation is random but the consequence is survival for the next random adaptation. With survival as the natural goal of life, it seems quite intelligent to continue to adapt. (Is that a tautology—a self-reinforcing pretense of significant truth?)
This philosophical belief is cold comfort because the human race seems as likely to disappear as survive. Like Richard Preston’s speculation in “The Hot Zone”, nature may be preparing to rid earth of humans with a new “black plague” in order to preserve nature’s existence. The question becomes whether humans are intelligent enough to intuitively grasp the danger of human pollution and take steps to become a constructive rather than destructive partner in life.
Humans rather are sentient, able to think about causes and consequences, while viruses are what Dennett calls “Sorta Operators” that do not clearly know what they are doing but are evolving through natural selection with an instinct for survival.
This critic’s observation: Optimism may be conjured from Dennett’s philosophy. Signs of “intuition pumps” are seen in the world’s growing pollution concern and international effort to reduce carbon-based energy use. The optimism is tempered with Dennett’s belief in natural selection which infers competition for survival is in all forms of life, but human capacity to reason seems likely to prevail.
On the other hand, humans believe money, power, and prestige are measures of success. Nature cares nothing for money, power, or prestige. Nature’s natural selection motivation is only survival. Single minded focus gives an edge to nature. After all, without survival what good is money, power, and prestige?
Dennett suggests human brains are sophisticated, complicated computers. But, he believes artificial intelligence will equal, probably exceed, human brain’ capabilities. It is only a matter of time and natural selection. Dennett believes computers will fully mimic consciousness. He suggests the only difference between human brains and central processing units is one is carbon-based while the other is silicon-based. Human beings will be what Dilbert (the cartoon character) calls “moist robots”.
Extrapolating from what Dennett explains, one wonders if the dignity of humankind is diminished by the rise of “Brainish” computers.
Dennett, at bottom, seems an optimist. He thinks “Brainish” computers will make no difference to the dignity of man. Human kind is the real thing; i.e. not an imitation of the real thing. But, Dennett is saying humankind is on its own. Homo sapiens have free will but natural selection turns survival’s knobs; i.e. nature is the intelligent designer.
The truth is out there but only in retrospect. In other words, survival of the fittest will tell, but the future reveals itself only as history.