Daniel Dennett was a major inspiration for me. I remember reading his book Consciousness Explained as a teenager (my older brother was a philosophy student) and being fascinated by the topic itself and Dennett’s unusual take on it. Here was a set of questions and a mode of inquiry that I could get behind. I think what I found most intriguing was the sheer intellectual playfulness and creativity, combined with a seriousness of purpose, that was on display in Dennett’s work. I quickly moved on from Consciousness Explained to the rest of Dennett’s canon, which took that playfulness, creativity and seriousness to a whole new level. I was surprised to see that there were people out there dedicating their lives to thinking and writing about the nature of mind and meaning. I wondered if I could do the same.
Obviously, I wasn’t convinced that I could. I decided to study law at university and it was only after a couple of years that I managed to find philosophical niches within that discipline that might allow me to pursue the questions I was genuinely interested in. In the interim, I drifted away from Dennett’s work. Although I read (nearly) everything he wrote, and although I continued to enjoy his elaborate thought experiments, I found that his questions weren’t quite the same as my questions. My research interests veered more towards the practical side of philosophy, not the theoretical. I was interested more in how we should live and where we are going, and less in understanding who we are and how we got here (though I’m not uninterested in these things). I also grew frustrated by Dennett’s lack of formality in argument. Thought experiments are all well and good, I said to myself, but formal arguments are needed at least some of the time.
But recently I have started to re-read Dennett’s work, starting with his 2013 book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. This was an ideal route back into the fold. The book is a ‘best of’ collection of Dennett’s most famous thought experiments. It also closes out with some advice for those who pursue philosophy as a career. As somebody who has been effectively doing that for a few years (albeit in the guise of a legal academic) I found this advice surprisingly insightful. Dennett makes claims about the nature, limitations and risks of philosophical inquiry that chime with my own experience. I wanted to share his three main bits of advice in this post. They are:
1. Appreciate the Faustian Bargain
2. Become a sophisticated auto-anthropologist
3. Avoid the higher order truths of chmess
I’ll explain each of these in more detail in what follows.
1. Appreciate the Faustian Bargain
Philosophers pursue an important set of intellectual questions: What is truth? What is knowledge? What is justice? What is discrimination? Is it ever permissible to kill? Is death bad? Is life good? What is the nature of the mind? And so on. Ostensibly these questions are asked with the aim of getting the answer right. Philosophers really want to know whether life is good and death is bad; they want to know the conditions that must satisfied in a just society; they want to know the truth. Even extreme relativists or social constructivists believe that the relativistic and constructivist theories they put forward best capture the truth. It is the paradox at the heart of all nihilistic modes of thinking.
But what if you offered philosophers the following Faustian bargain:
(A) You solve all the major philosophical problems of your choice so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history)
(B) You write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required reading list for centuries to come.
In essence: Do you want to be right? Or do you want fame and renown? Dennett notes that philosophers to whom he presents the bargain often admit they would go for (B), which is surprising given the ostensible aim of their philosophical inquiries.
Now, to be fair, the Faustian bargain is probably a false one. Solving a philosophical problem and only becoming a footnote in history is unlikely. If you do get things right, you can expect to acquire some fame or infamy. Future generations are likely to be taught something about your work. But the Faustian bargain isn’t intended to be realistic. It’s a contortion of reality that forces you to confront your true priorities. Do you really care about getting the right answer? Or do you really only care about yourself? I suspect many academics struggle with this dilemma. So much of modern academia is about self-promotion and self-aggrandisement. You promote your work; you win grants; you endlessly demonstrate your value to the institution that pays your wage. Oftentimes the objects of your intellectual inquiries get lost in the mix.
Scientists might think they are above all this. They get caught up in the game as much as anyone, but they might argue that no matter what they are ultimately only interested in the truth of their theories. But this isn’t entirely clear. Dennett suggests that you can offer them a similar bargain. You can ask whether they would like to have priority in making a significant discovery — that someone, somewhere was eventually going to make (e.g. working out the structure of DNA) — or whether they would like to propose a theory so novel and intriguing (but not necessarily right) that their name would enter the scientific lexicon (e.g. Freudian psychoanalysis or Chomskian linguistics). Many might be hard-pressed to choose.
Dennett isn’t very prescriptive with respect to the Faustian bargain. He doesn’t say which side we should favour (though you might be able to imply his preferences). But I don’t think he needs to be prescriptive. I think his point is that the bargain is something worth keeping in mind when trying to sort out your intellectual priorities.
2. Become a sophisticated auto-anthropologist
Social anthropologists are students of human psychology and culture. Their typical research method is to embed themselves in a community and then carefully observe and record the behaviours of the people in that community. Doing so allows them to work out how the people in that community perceive and engage with the world around them. How do they think the world works? What do they value? These are the questions the anthropologist tries to answer.
Much of philosophy is an exercise in auto-anthropology. The philosopher tries to map out the contours of their own understanding of the world. They treat themselves as the subject, and their perceptions and values as the data that can be worked up into a philosophical theory. They often do this in concert with others. The result is a form of mutual auto-anthropology. The methodology is roughly the following:
[Y]ou gather your shared intuitions, test and provoke them by engaging in mutual intuition-pumping, and then try to massage the resulting data set into a consistent “theory”, based on “received” principles that count, ideally, as axioms.
Think about analytic epistemology. This is an attempt to work out what it means to know some fact or proposition. It usually starts with some paradigmatic example of knowing and tries to infer from this an axiom of knowledge, e.g. the classic knowledge-as-justified-true-belief axiom.
Epistemologists then test this axiom using a series of elaborate thought experiments. From this they discern that the proposed axiom is incorrect or incomplete. They modify it accordingly and test it again. None of the testing is empirical. It always involves exploring one’s own understanding of an imagined reality.
According to Dennett, there are better and worse ways to go about these auto-anthropological studies. A good way — and one of his favourite examples — is Patrick Hayes’s attempt to work out a naive (or folk) physics of liquids. Hayes was trying to build a robot that could understand the world in the same way humans do. To do this, he thought he could axiomatise the typical human understanding of the physics of liquids. This meant ruling out things that seem intuitively impossible, like siphons and pipettes, but allowing other things that seem intuitively acceptable, like towels mopping up liquids. Hayes never collected data from others on this. He treated himself and his own commonsense understanding of physics as the dataset. But:
[H]e was under no illusions; he knew the theory he was trying to axiomatize was false, however useful in daily life.
He was thus a sophisticated auto-anthropologist — he was open to the fact that his proposed ‘physics’ could be vulnerable to counterintuitive examples. He knew that his intuitive understanding did not necessarily represent reality.
Contrast that with the work of many analytic philosophers. They engage in similar exercises in intuitive axiomatization but they:
…seem to be convinced that their program actually gets at something true, not just something believed true by a particular subclass of human beings.
This could be problematic. Since philosophers tend to represent a narrow range of interests and perspectives, it is likely that their auto-anthropological exercises are distorted by their own theoretical predilections. They should, consequently, be more open to the possibility that they are not getting at the truth. Dennett sees much of philosophical inquiry as an attempt to negotiate between the manifest understanding of the world (the world as it appears to us) and the scientific image. Philosophers should understand the role that their auto-anthropological inquiries have to play in this negotiation:
…philosophers should seriously consider undertaking a survey of the terrain of the commonsense or manifest image of the world before launching into their theories of knowledge, justice, beauty [etc]…Such a systematic inquiry would yield something like a catalogue of the unreformed conceptual terrain that sets the problems for the theorist, the metaphysics of the manifest image, if you like. This is where we philosophers have to start in our attempts to negotiate back and forth between the latest innovations in the scientific image…
3. Avoid the higher-order truths of chmess
This is probably my favourite of Dennett’s insights into the nature and limitations of philosophical inquiry. I think it really does get at something important (and potentially disturbing). And I think anyone who has waded around in the waters of academic philosophical argument for an extended period of time will agree. That said, it takes a little bit of time to explain so bear with me.
Philosophy is, to a large extent, an a priori discipline. It is about working out the truths that arise from certain conceptual frameworks. Sometimes those frameworks are grounded in an empirical, and scientifically tested, reality (e.g. applied ethics often appeals to findings from the behavioural sciences); sometimes the conceptual clarification gives way to a full-blown science (e.g. several of the sciences, such as physics and psychology, began life as branches of philosophy); sometimes it remains a purely a priori discipline (e.g. analytic epistemology or metaphysics). The a priori mode of inquiry can be useful, but it is also risky.
Dennett illustrates the risks by analogy with the game of chess. Chess is an a priori game. True, there are reams of empirical data about particular games and particular players, but the possible moves and results within the game all follow logically from its constitutive rules. As a result, there are many a priori truths of chess. Dennett gives some examples:
There are exactly twenty legal opening moves (sixteen pawn moves and four knight moves); a king and a lone bishop cannot achieve checkmate against a lone king, and neither can a king and a lone knight, and so forth.
Figuring out these truths is not a trivial matter. It often takes great ingenuity and persistence to work out exactly what is and is not possible in a game of chess. Part of the reason for this is that the number of possible games is astronomical. So even though the game has been around for centuries, and has been closely studied throughout its existence, surprising a priori truths are sometimes proved. Dennett gives the example of a computer program that discovered a way in which to guarantee or force a win after 200 moves without a capture. This discovery changed one of the rules of competitive chess, which had previously deemed any game involving 50 moves without capture a stalemate.
Entire lives can be dedicated to exploring the a priori truths of chess. They can also be dedicated to exploring the a priori truths of chmess. ‘What’s that?’ you ask. It is a game that Dennett invented off the top of his head. It is the exact same as chess with one small difference: instead of being able to move one square in any direction, the king can move two squares. With this one small change, an entirely new domain of a priori inquiry has been opened up. The problem is that whereas the game of chess is a ‘deep and important human artifact, about which much of value has been written’ (Dennett 2013, 421), the game of chmess is not. It is a random, new invention, created through a slight tweaking of the a priori conceptual apparatus.
How does this analogy apply to the work of the philosopher? Well, if it is true that much of philosophy is about the a priori working out of the implications of various conceptual frameworks, then it is possible that many philosophers are dedicating themselves to working out the higher-order truths of something like chmess (a novel but not humanly important game) rather than the higher order truths of chess (a long-standing humanly important game). They may be doing brilliant, sophisticated work in these ‘games’. And there may be a whole community of scholars interested in playing along, but if it is chmess-like rather than chess-like, it may be ultimately worthless. For Dennett, it brings to mind Hebb’s dictum (from the work of the psychologist Donald Hebb):
Hebb’s Dictum: If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.
Speaking from my own experience, there are definitely times when I feel like I am playing chmess rather than chess. For instance, I have written a couple of papers about originalist theories of interpretation in law. These are theories of interpretation which hold that the meaning of a legal text is fixed from the time of its ratification. These theories have been highly influential in US legal circles, often being used by conservative lawyers and scholars who wish to constrain the actions of the US Supreme Court. There is, consequently, a practical orientation to the debate, but the practical utility of originalist theories is highly contested, and the theories themselves have become increasingly philosophically sophisticated over the years. The papers I have written about the topic followed a formula: they first set out the basic commitments of originalism and showed how those commitments implied certain (arguably untenable or contradictory) normative beliefs. A lot of this felt like it involved playing around with an arbitrarily defined conceptual apparatus. The work was laborious and quite intricate and sophisticated, but its actual value was unclear, at least to me.
So how can you avoid pursuing the higher-order truths of chmess? Dennett proposes the following test, which I will call the ‘outsider’ test for philosophical value (a different outsider test is employed by John Loftus in debates about religion):
The Outsider Test for Philosophical Value: “One good test to make sure a philosophical project is not just exploring the higher-order truths of chmess is to see if people aside from philosophers can actually play the game. Can anybody outside of academic philosophy be made to care…? Another such test is to try to teach the stuff to uninitiated undergraduates. If they don’t ‘get it’ you really should consider the hypothesis that you’re following a self-supporting community of experts into an artifactual trap”.
That sounds like a good rule of thumb to me and its one of the aims of this blog.
Anyway, those are the three bits of advice and that’s it for this post.