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Daniel Dennett's Most Useful Critical Thinking Tools

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses several "mental tools" for critical thinking from the philosopher Daniel Dennett. It covers key concepts such as:

  • Mistakes as opportunities for learning
  • Reductio ad absurdum as a "crowbar of rational inquiry"
  • Rapoport's Rules for composing successful critical commentary
  • Sturgeon's Law on the prevalence of "crud" in any field
  • Occam's Razor and Occam's Broom
  • Jootsing (jumping out of the system) as a path to creativity
  • Rathering as an "anti-thinking tool"
  • The "Surely" Operator as a marker of weak points in arguments
  • The Deepity as an ambiguous proposition that seems profound

The article encourages readers to selectively adopt these "mental tools" from Dennett's book "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking" to improve their critical thinking abilities.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Making Mistakes

1. What is the chief trick to making good mistakes according to the article?

  • The chief trick is not to hide mistakes, but to become a "connoisseur" of one's own mistakes, turning them over in one's mind as if they were works of art.

2. What are the two non-miraculous ways for learners to come into existence according to the article?

  • Learners must either evolve or be designed and built by learners that evolved.

[02] Reductio ad Absurdum

1. How does the article describe reductio ad absurdum?

  • Reductio ad absurdum is described as the "crowbar of rational inquiry" and "the great lever that enforces consistency". It involves taking an assertion or conjecture and seeing if you can pry any contradictions or preposterous implications out of it.

2. What are some examples of reductio ad absurdum given in the article?

  • "If that's a bear, then bears have antlers!" and "He won't get here in time for supper unless he can fly like Superman."

[03] Rapoport's Rules

1. What are the four steps outlined in Rapoport's Rules for composing a successful critical commentary?

  1. Clearly and fairly re-express the target's position.
  2. List any points of agreement.
  3. Mention anything learned from the target.
  4. Only then provide rebuttal or criticism.

2. Why does the article say these rules are an "antidote" to the tendency to caricature one's opponent?

  • The rules force the critic to first charitably understand the opponent's position before critiquing it, preventing caricature.

[04] Sturgeon's Law

1. What is Sturgeon's Law as described in the article?

  • Sturgeon's Law states that "ninety percent of [any field] is crud" but the remaining 10% "is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere."

2. How does the article say this law is often ignored by ideologues?

  • Ideologues intent on destroying the reputation of various fields often ignore Sturgeon's Law and condemn the entire field based on the prevalence of "crud", without acknowledging the valuable 10%.

[05] Occam's Razor and Occam's Broom

1. What is the principle of Occam's Razor as described in the article?

  • Occam's Razor is the idea that one should not multiply entities beyond what is necessary - in other words, prefer simpler explanations over more complex ones.

2. What is Occam's Broom, and how does the article say it is used?

  • Occam's Broom refers to the process of "whisking inconvenient facts under the rug" by intellectually dishonest champions of a theory. It is an "anti-thinking tool" used to suppress facts that contradict one's preferred theory.

[06] Jootsing

1. What is "joosting" according to the article?

  • Joosting, or "jumping out of the system", refers to the creative act of violating the established rules or assumptions of a system in order to produce something truly novel and surprising.

2. Why does the article say it is harder to achieve joosting compared to just finding something novel?

  • The article states that true creativity requires not just novelty, but making that novelty "jump out of some system" that has become established. Mere novelty can be found in random juxtapositions, but joosting requires deep knowledge of the tradition or system being subverted.

[07] Rathering and the "Surely" Operator

1. What is "rathering" described as in the article?

  • Rathering is an "anti-thinking tool" that involves sliding past a false dichotomy by implying an important incompatibility between two claims without actually arguing for it.

2. How does the article describe the use of the word "surely" as a "trick" when reading argumentative essays?

  • The article states that the word "surely" often marks a weak point in the argument, as the author is trying to get the reader to agree to something they may not actually be sure about.

[08] The Deepity

1. How does the article define a "deepity"?

  • A deepity is a proposition that seems profound by being ambiguous - on one reading it is false but important-sounding, while on another reading it is true but trivial.

2. What example of a deepity does the article provide?

  • "Love is just a word."
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