7 Tools for Thinking – Daniel Dennett

dennettCognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of America’s foremost thinkers, and also one of the four horsemen (In 2008, four prominent atheist authors got together to discuss religion and their positions. The DVD was entitled “The Four Horsemen“, the others are of course Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Ever since then, they have been referred to by this title).

He has a new book coming out, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” (4th June in the UK, and already out in the US), and so we have in the Guardian an extract. Yep, a shameless book plug, but what the heck, this is Danial Dennett, and what better way to start then week than with some of the lessons he has learned along the way in life.

The article offers 7 out of the 77 of Dennett’s most successful “imagination-extenders and focus-holders” meant to guide you through some of life’s most treacherous subject matter, for example evolution, meaning, mind, and free will.

Here is just the first of the 7 from the article…


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. We human beings pride ourselves on our intelligence, and one of its hallmarks is that we can remember our previous thinking and reflect on it – on how it seemed, on why it was tempting in the first place and then about what went wrong.

I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are. 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 savouring 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 just so you can then recover from them.

In science, you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so that everybody can learn from them. This way, you get the benefit of everybody else’s experience, and not just your own idiosyncratic path through the space of mistakes. (Physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously expressed his contempt for the work of a colleague as “not even wrong”. A clear falsehood shared with critics is better than vague mush.)

This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. 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 our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.

I am amazed at how many really smart people don’t understand that you can make big mistakes in public and emerge none the worse for it. I know distinguished researchers who will go to preposterous lengths to avoid having to acknowledge that they were wrong about something. 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.

If curious, and I do hope that you are, then you can read the other six here.The other 6 topics he covers includes …


If that then motivates you to find more, well he has a book coming out. No, I don’t get a cut, I just happen to like the idea of thinking about thinking. Sturgeon’s law is usually expressed thus: 90% of everything is crap … dip in here and you will find a doorway to the other 10%.

Background: Who Is Daniel Dennett?

  • He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and a University Professor at Tufts University.
  • Author of Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Freedom Evolves (Viking Penguin, 2003) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Simon &Schuster, 1995).
  • His ideas have been criticised by the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and praised by the psychologist Steven Pinker.
  • In 2012, he was awarded the Erasmus prize, an European award for “a person who has made an exceptional contribution to culture, society or social science”; he was praised for “his ability to translate the cultural significance of science and technology to a broad audience”.

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