Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking begins by presenting a number of tested approaches to sense-making. Here are a few that I would consider practical tools for personal knowledge mastery. He starts by discussing the value of trying to make mistakes.
“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 … Of course, in general, people do enjoy correcting the stupid mistakes of others. You have to have something worth correcting, something original to be right or wrong about … if you are one of the big risk-takers, people will get a kick out of correcting your occasional stupid mistakes, which shows you’re a regular bungler like the rest of us. I know extremely careful philosophers who have — apparently — never made a mistake in their work. Their specialty is pointing out the mistakes of others … but nobody excuses their mistakes with a friendly chuckle. It is fair to say, unfortunately, that their best work often gets overshadowed and neglected …”
On how to criticize, by first learning (Rappaport’s Rules).
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says. “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Dennett includes a short chapter on Sturgeon’s Law, concisely expressed as, “… ninety percent of everything is crud …”.
“… when you want to criticize a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form, … don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone.”
He discusses Occam’s Razor, as well as ‘Occam’s Broom’, an ‘anti-thinking tool’ which is the tendency to sweep away facts that do not align with our theories.
“Conspiracy theorists are masters of Occam’s Broom, and an instructive exercise on the Internet is to look up a new conspiracy theory, so see if you (a non-expert on the topic) can find the flaws, before looking elsewhere on the Web for the expert rebuttals … in the heat of battle, even serious scientists sometimes cannot resist ‘overlooking’ some data that seriously undermine their pet theory. It’s a temptation to be resisted, no matter what.”
‘Jootsing’, coined by Doug Hofstadter, stands for ‘jumping out of the system’, which is like ‘thinking outside the box’, but if we remove all constraints, then we also lose creativity.
“When an artistic tradition reaches the point where literally ‘anything goes’, those who want to be creative have a problem: there are no fixed rules to rebel against, no complacent expectations to shatter, nothing to subvert, no background against which to create something that is both surprising and yet meaningful. It helps to know the tradition if you want to subvert it. That’s why so few dabblers or novices succeed in coming up with anything truly creative.”
This final observation shows why the art of sense-making is a discipline that takes time and practice to master. To be continued …
Related article on Open Culture: 7 Tools for Critical Thinking