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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.


Be Like Water: The Philosophy and Origin of Bruce Lee’s Famous Metaphor for Resilience

“In order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

With his singular blend of physical prowess and metaphysical wisdom, coupled with his tragic untimely death, legendary Chinese-American martial artist, philosopher, and filmmaker Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) is one of those rare cultural icons whose ethos and appeal remain timeless, attracting generation after generation of devotees. Inspired by the core principles of Wing Chun, the ancient Chinese conceptual martial art, which he learned from his only formal martial arts teacher, Yip Man, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. When he left Hong Kong in 1959, Lee adapted Wing Chun into his own version, Jun Fan Gung Fu — literal translation: Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu — and popularized it in America.

In 1971, at the peak of his career, Lee starred in four episodes of the short-lived TV series Longstreet. In one of them, he delivered his most oft-cited metaphor for the philosophy of Gung Fu, based on the Chinese concept of wu wei:

But the famed snippet belies the full dimensionality of the metaphor and says nothing about how Lee arrived at it. Luckily, in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — a compendium of his never-before-published private letters, notes, and poems, offering unprecedented insight into his philosophy on life and his convictions about martial arts, love, and parenthood — Lee traces the thinking that originated his famous metaphor, which came after a period of frustration with his inability to master “the art of detachment” that Yip Man was trying to impart on him. Lee writes:

When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the “double-bind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.”

And so he did, spending the following week at home:

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

Bruce Lee (right) with his only formal martial art instructor, Yip Man

Quoting from Lao Tzu’s famous teachings, Lee writes:

The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to wu wei [the principle of spontaneous action governed by the mind and not the senses] is water:

Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.

The above passages from the Tao Te Ching illustrate to us the nature of water: Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.

Bruce Lee: Artist of Life is fantastic in its entirety.


The Power of Process: What Young Mozart Teaches Us About the Secret of Cultivating Genius

On the “powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

“The trick to creativity … is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time,” observed Denise Shekerjian in reflecting on her insightful interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees. “Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” attested Thomas Edison. “It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Alexander Graham Bell proclaimed. And yet our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that genius is a “God”-given blessing.

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (public library), David Shenk presents a rigorously researched blend of historical evidence and scientific data to debunk the myth that genius is a special gift serendipitously bestowed upon the chosen few and shows, instead, that it is the product of consistent, concentrated effort, applied in the direction of one’s natural inclination. But beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, Shenk stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement. He gives “the mystifying boy genius” Mozart as a prime example:

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart (public domain)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [was] alleged to be an instant master performer at age three and a brilliant composer at age five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.”

The reality about Mozart turns out to be far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early achievements — while very impressive, to be sure — actually make good sense considering his extraordinary upbringing. And his later undeniable genius turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for the power of process. Mozart was bathed in music from well before his birth, and his childhood was quite unlike any other. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was [assistant music director]; the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Uniquely situated, and desperate to make some sort of lasting mark on music, Leopold began his family musical enterprise even before Wolfgang’s birth, focusing first on his daughter Nannerl.


Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got — only much earlier and even more intensively. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. As soon as he was able, he sat beside her at the harpsichord and mimicked notes that she played. Wolfgang’s first pings and plucks were just that. But with a fast-developing ear, deep curiosity and a tidal wave of family know-how, he was able to click into an accelerated process of development.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

But buried in Shenk’s argument for the power of nurture is also a subtle but menacing dark side that speaks to the power of how social norms and gender expectations shape the investment in nurture:

As Wolfgang became fascinated with playing music, his father became fascinated with his toddler son’s fascination — and was soon instructing him with an intensity that far eclipsed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was not a quixotic adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in that regard.

From age three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint.

How many genius-level female composers never received this “powerful blend” we’ll never know. But the bigger point in The Genius in All of Us resonates loud and clear: To reap the fruits of genius, we must plant the seeds of practice and process.


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