The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Intuition Pumps: Daniel Dennett on the Dignity of Being Wrong and Art-Science of Making Fertile Mistakes

“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”

“If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks,” Debbie Millman counseled. “Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman advised young creators. In Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (public library), the inimitable Daniel Dennett, one of our greatest living philosophers, offers a set of thinking tools — “handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus holders” — that allow us to “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions” — to enhance your cognitive toolkit. He calls these tools “intuition pumps” — thought experiments designed to stir “a heartfelt, table-thumping intuition” (which we know is a pillar of even the most “rational” of science) about the question at hand, a kind of persuasion tool the reverse-engineering of which enables us to think better about thinking itself. Intuition, of course, is a domain-specific ability that relies on honed critical thinking rather than a mystical quality bestowed by the gods — but that’s precisely Dennett’s point, and his task is to help us hone it.

Though most of his 77 “intuition pumps” address concrete questions, a dozen are “general-purpose” tools that apply deeply and widely, across just about any domain of thinking. The first of them is also arguably the most useful yet most uncomfortable: making mistakes.

Echoing Dorion Sagan’s case for why science and philosophy need each other, Dennett begins with an astute contribution to the best definitions of philosophy, wrapped in a necessary admonition about the value of history:

The history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don’t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again. … There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.

He speaks for the generative potential of mistakes and their usefulness as an empirical tool:

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.

Therein lies the power of mistakes as a vehicle for, as Rilke famously put it, “living the questions” and thus advancing knowledge in a way that certainty cannot — for, as Richard Feynman memorably noted, the scientist’s job is to remain unsure, and so seems the philosopher’s. Dennett writes:

We philosophers are mistake specialists. … While other disciplines specialize in getting the right answers to their defining questions, we philosophers specialize in all the ways there are of getting things so mixed up, so deeply wrong, that nobody is even sure what the right questions are, let alone the answers. Asking the wrong questions risks setting any inquiry off on the wrong foot. Whenever that happens, this is a job for philosophers! Philosophy — in every field of inquiry — is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.


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.

Dennett offers a caveat that at once highlights the importance of acquiring knowledge and reminds us of the power of “chance-opportunism”:

Trials can be either blind or foresighted. You, who know a lot, but not the answer to the question at hand, can take leaps — foresighted leaps. You can look before you leap, and hence be somewhat guided from the outset by what you already know. You need not be guessing at random, but don’t look down your nose at random guesses; among its wonderful products is … you!

And since evolution is the highest epitome of how the process of trial and error drives progress, Dennett makes a case for understanding evolution as a key to understanding everything else we humans value:

Evolution … 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 morality, 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.

Dennett echoes Dostoyevsky (“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”) and offers the key to making productive mistakes:

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 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.

We have all heard the forlorn refrain “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” is standing on the threshold of brilliance.

In fact, Dennett argues in considering what makes us human, one of the hallmarks of our intelligence is our ability to remember our previous thinking and reflect on, learn from it, use it to construct future thinking. Reminding us to beware our culture’s deep-seated fear of being wrong, he advocates for celebrating the “ignorance” that produced the mistake in the first place:

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.

Dennett turns to card magicians for an analogy: Many of their “tricks” actually rely on chance to work, but they’ve devised numerous strategies of varying complexity to smoothly mask for the failed tricks in which chance isn’t in their favor. Their mistakes thus become invisible but their successes, those instances in which chance appears magical, become gloriously visible to the audience’s awe and delight. Dennett compares this to science:

Evolution works the same way: all the dumb mistakes tend to be invisible, so all we see is a stupendous string of triumphs. For instance, the vast majority — way over 90 percent — of all the creatures that have ever lived died childless, but not a single one of your ancestors suffered that fate. Talk about a line of charmed lives!

One big difference between the discipline of science and the discipline of stage magic is that while magicians conceal their false starts from the audience as best they can, in science you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so that everybody can learn from them. … It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits that our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.

Returning to Gaiman’s point about brilliantly original mistakes, Dennett ends with a wonderful and necessary addition to history’s finest thinking on criticism, reminding us that critics simply tell us our thinking is original and notable enough to be worthy of dissent:

Actually, people love it when somebody admits to making a mistake. All kinds of people love pointing out mistakes. Generous-spirited people appreciate your giving them the opportunity to help, and acknowledging it when they succeed in helping you; mean-spirited people enjoy showing you up. Let them! Either way we all win.

Of course, in general, people do not enjoy correcting the stupid mistakes of others. You have to have something worth correcting, something original to be right or wrong about. . . .

Complement Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking with This Will Make You Smarter, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, in which 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers — including Dennett — each select a single scientific concept that will improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit.

Published May 29, 2013




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