What are we doing and why are we doing it?

Okay, no more messing about, let’s do some philosophy. Yes, that means you!

Last time I concluded that my guiding principle for being a philosopher is to continually ask ‘what are we doing and why are we doing it?’ Now I am going to show you one way you can put this into practice, and I am going to start big. No made-up examples, no obscure dead white guys, no philosophy finger-pointing at pop-culture faux pas.

My example comes from living philosophical powerhouse Daniel Dennett. His Intuition Pumps is an excellent book offering an invaluable philosophical toolkit for thinking. Designed for a general readership it is extra pleasingly accessible, yet remains challenging, robust, thoroughgoing philosophy. Go check it out.

Having had the pleasure of seeing him lecture, Professor Dennett is a genial, yet formidable character, who presents his complex ideas with such convincing ease that you risk being lulled into placid acceptance. These charms, in person and in print, gives us all the more reason to consider what he says carefully. Both to make sure we actually get his ideas right (not merely accept them), and to check if they are actually right. In this instance we adjust the guiding principle to ask: What is Dennett doing, and why is he doing it?

Here is my chosen section of Intuition Pumps. Even with minor abridgement it is a long quote, read it, don’t skim it, if you do skim it, read it again, if you don’t skim it, read it again anyway.

Dennett writes:

Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. There are only two non-miraculous ways for learners to come into existence: they must either evolve or be designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error — and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything…

Evolution is one of the central themes of this book, as of all my books, for the simple reason that it is the central, enabling process not only of life but also of knowledge and learning and understanding. If you attempt to make sense of the world of ideas and meanings, free will and mortality, art and science and even philosophy itself without a sound and quite detailed knowledge of evolution, you have one hand tied behind your back… For evolution, which knows nothing, the steps into novelty are blindly taken by mutations, which are random copying “errors” in DNA. Most of these typographical errors are of no consequence, since nothing reads them! They are as inconsequential as the rough drafts you didn’t, or don’t, hand in to the teacher for grading. The DNA of a species is rather like a recipe for building a new body, and most of the DNA is never actually consulted in the building process. (It is often called “junk DNA” for just that reason.) In the DNA sequences that do get read and acted upon during development, the vast majority of “expressed” mutations are deleterious, the process of natural selection actually works to keep the mutation rate very low. Each of you has very, very good copying machinery in your cells. For instance, you have roughly a trillion cells in your body, and each cell has either a perfect or an almost perfect copy of your genome, over three billion symbols long, and the recipe for you that first came into existence when your parents’ eggs and sperm joined forces. Fortunately, the copying machine does not achieve perfect success, for if it did, evolution would eventually grind to a halt, its sources of novelty dried up. Those tiny blemishes, those “imperfections” in the process, are the source of all the wonderful design and complexity in the living world. (I can’t resist adding: if anything deserves to be called Original Sin, these copying mistakes do.)

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 theory were works of art, which in a way they are.

Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, London: Penguin Books, 2013 (pp. 21-22) – pictures of pages at bottom of post.

Okay, now go back and read it again… maybe try reading it out loud — to the cat… But, don’t forget to ask yourself ‘what is Dennett doing, and why is he doing it?’

What do you think? Yes, you — go on! While we carefully go through this, scrutinise those thoughts.

So, what’s Dennett’s central claim — his important what? I take it to be that mistakes are essential to learning and having new ideas, and thus, should be recognised and valued. Yes, I agree! (Do you?)

I think that Dennett is making such an important point about mistakes that I wanted this excuse to quote him on it. For me, facing and embracing our mistakes is vital to every philosopher’s intellectual flourishing. The genuine path to understanding and actually having good (or novel or innovative) ideas requires going via the not so good, the bad, even the ugly ones — that is, by making good mistakes.

However agreeing with Dennett’s what, does not mean that I (or you!) have to automatically accept his why. To get to grips with his why I shall paraphrase his argument. Philosophers do this all the time, that is, carefully set out the moves of someone’s argument in order to assess them.

I understand Dennett’s argument to be:

Firstly, the process of intellectual learning is just another evolutionary process.

‘Evolution…is the central, enabling process not only of life but also of knowledge and learning and understanding.’

Secondly, evolutionary biological novelty, i.e., making new things, (only) arises from biological mistakes.

‘the steps into novelty are blindly taken by … random copying “errors” in DNA.’

It is meant to follow from these two claims that the process of learning is only possible through our intellectual mistake making.

‘those “imperfections” in the process, are the source of all the wonderful design and complexity in the living world’

Thus, because the only way to learn is by intellectual mistake making, we should value it.

‘you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes’

At the risk of outraging academic philosophers, I have tried to keep to the spirit of philosophical paraphrasing without introducing philosophy’s technical what-not. Anyway, the shape of Dennet’s argument should now be more clear. (Does it look right? Agreeing with me or it is up to you.) I want to make explicit a couple of the implicit philosophical moves that Dennett’s argument makes.

Dennett asserts that evolution necessarily grounds intellectual learning, no where in Intuition Pumps does he prove or argue for it. This means that, philosophically, it is working as an assumption. Making assumptions is not all bad in philosophy, often making them is the only relief for philosophical paralysis, otherwise, we would have to argue for every claim every time. Making assumptions is also an avenue for philosophical creativity — what follows if we assume…?

Nevertheless, assumptions are always open to question, to dispute. That includes Dennett’s. To be clear, this dispute should not be over the veracity of biological evolution, rather the correctness of Dennett employing it. Evolution may be the central enabling process. But is it the only one? If not, is it the right one to ground, to ‘enable,’ our intellectual processes? Without argument, as philosophers we should not take this for granted.

For now, though, let us grant Dennett his assumption. Philosopher’s regularly grant an argument its assumptions. This is to consider the argument on its own terms.

On its own terms, Dennett’s argument doesn’t show that intellectual mistake making is the same as biological mistake making, just that they are importantly alike. They are analogous. By setting the evolutionary role of biological mistakes beside the role of intellectual mistakes Dennett shows us how they look alike, yet falls short of establishing that they are the same process.

Philosophically, then, Dennett is employing an argument by analogy. Such an argument is where the nature of one thing — say, intellectual mistakes — is meant to be explained or justified by its important similarities to another thing — say, biological mistakes. Thus, by analogy Dennett argues that intellectual mistakes are essential to intellectual development in the same way that DNA errors are essential to our biological development as an evolving species. Set out in this way we see that his conclusion drawn by analogy is weaker than one where an actual connection is successfully argued for. Analogies can breakdown because things that are alike can be importantly unalike, too.

Significantly, it appears that Dennett feels no need to argue for evolution as the grounds of our intellectual processes. He looks to hold it to be obvious, and fundamental, perhaps even beyond contention. He is so nonchalant about it he just slips in the MASSIVE claim that evolution is fundamental to understanding all questions in philosophy. But why the certainty?

As my guiding principle suggests, we have to consider the who. Dennett is unashamedly a man of his time. Just like Descartes — he’s of ‘I think, therefore, I am’ fame.

At a time when humans were ghosts in machines rather than naked apes, Descartes was thinking about another way we humans might be understood to be making mistakes. He wondered, since we sometimes make mistakes, our senses can be especially untrustworthy, could we be mistaken about … everything? Well before we put brains-in-vats and The Matrix hit the big screen, Descartes put everything we thought about the existence of the world including ourselves into doubt. Except, he argues, thought itself. This is where his famous phrase comes in, it proves at least the thinker ‘I’ exists!

But to reinstate the world as we know it, Descartes, as a man of his time, appeals to his best why to hand — God. Descartes thinks he proves the existence of God by reason alone; that there must be a perfect creator mind whose benevolence apparently would not deceive us in the matter of the real world. However, having mutated out of the evolutionary swamp, our view from here observes that the subtleties of Descartes’ proof relies on him already assuming that God exists. An assumption that Descartes held with certainty, beyond contention.

Whether it is Descartes’ certainty in God or Dennett’s certainty in evolution our prevailing world views cannot help but make us of our time, shape who we are. Nevertheless, as philosophers we should be wary of dogmatically holding any such view as beyond contention. Whenever we think we are slipping into dogmatism we should always ask — what are we doing and why are we doing it?

So there we go — my guiding principle in practice. We, importantly YOU, have done some philosophy. We have engaged philosophically with a philosophy great, Daniel Dennett, no less. Despite raising more questions than answering, by examining his argument in this way we have rightly come to know its rich nuances and human fragilities; and come to know a bit more of how to be good philosophers.

I realise that this edition has been longer and tricker than any of us might have perhaps liked. Still, I hope I have ignited your curiosity and confidence, not caused confusion nor confirmed your fears about what we philosophers do! I hope, also, that it did not seem just all too hard. If you are reading this then I guess you thought it at least worth persevering, which makes me glad. Thanks!

Next time: No Arguing here!


Pages 21 from Intuition Pumps


Page 22 from Intuition Pumps


2 thoughts on “What are we doing and why are we doing it?

  1. I haven’t read more of `Intuition Pumps’ than you put in your blog. But I’d be tempted to say that Dennett isn’t making quite such a strong argument. Rather it looks like he’s just providing a colourful analogy between learning and evolution. I don’t think he claims that understanding evolution is fundamental, but rather important. And in this I think he’s correct; if you don’t understand the theory of evolution how can you understand our behaviours, powers, and foibles?

    Lots to disagree with though. Sometimes the non-mistakes are very useful in learning too!


  2. Great! I, too, take Dennett to be drawing a colourful also powerful analogy, still, I think his language is a bit slippery and I wanted to explore that as well as engage non-philosophers with analysing such a compelling piece.

    I agree that it is vital that philosophers engage with prevailing scientific ideas, especially evolution; Dennett is a valuable example of that. Nevertheless, I caution against the dogmatic invocation of science or any other field of enquiry in philosophy. Dennett’s body of work offers good (non-dogmatic) reasons for invoking evolution in his philosophy. I just hoped to have demonstrate some caution in automatically accepting his invocation in the quoted section. And make the broader point of being aware of the impact of being products of our time.


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