Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

This book is a loose collection of examples drawn from many different fields, held together under the premise that you’ll improve your thinking by understanding the real meat of the arguments here. It’s definitely a pop-philosophy book, with all the expectations and drawbacks that entails.

The emphasis on clear thinking and seeking the truth over seeking to validate our own intuitions or hopes is fantastic. However, I feel like that lesson’s been so thoroughly drilled into me at this point that a few more examples were never going to do all that much. It is good to be reminded that real progress is being made on consciousness, free will, and the like.

It includes fairly lengthy interludes into computer science (including introducing a simple programming language for a register machine) and evolutionary biology (with many well-chosen examples painting a picture of “competence without comprehension”). However, most of this material was background and is better-explained elsewhere, making these sections seem something like filler. There aren’t as many intuition pumps presented as there could have been.

My favorite example is probably the “prime mammal”. Roughly, the argument rests on the premise that the mother of every mammal is a mammal. So if there’s any mammal at all, we encounter an infinite regress—there are infinitely many mammals (or none at all). Therefore, mammals cannot exist. This example captures some of our human need to draw a bright line between topics: sometimes we really can’t do that, and have to accept that there really is no first mammal, just a slow changing from non-mammal to mammal with a huge number of gradations in between.

Some of the non-intuition-pump tools presented are pretty clever. I especially liked the recommendation to present material for lay audiences as a way for experts to demonstrate the fundamentals as they understand them, without risk of insulting experts by talking down to them directly. There are also straightforward mindlessly-applicable pattern-matching ideas: the “surely” operator is the “¿Por qué no los dos?” of philosophical thought.

I find myself somewhat less enthralled by books like this with each passing year. If you’d handed me this book ten years ago, I would have absolutely loved it. Perhaps I’ve grown? I sure hope so.