Stepping In Contemplative Bullshit

In an excerpt from his new book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett offers guidelines for sound thinking, which includes a wariness of what he calls “deepities”:

A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.

An example:

Love is just a word.

Oh wow! Cosmic. Mind-blowing, right? Wrong. On one reading, it is manifestly false. I’m not sure what love is – maybe an emotion or emotional attachment, maybe an interpersonal relationship, maybe the highest state a human mind can achieve – but we all know it isn’t a word. You can’t find love in the dictionary!

We can bring out the other reading by availing ourselves of a convention philosophers care mightily about: when we talk about a word, we put it in quotation marks, thus: “love” is just a word. “Cheeseburger” is just a word. “Word” is just a word. But this isn’t fair, you say. Whoever said that love is just a word meant something else, surely. No doubt, but they didn’t say it.

Norm Geras submits a few of the deepities he’s encountered:

Some deepities I have grown to love and laugh at are these. There’s no such thing as an enduring human nature. Oh, you reply, so human beings don’t need to eat or rest? There aren’t common abilities like the use of language and such? Comes back the reply: we didn’t mean that by human nature; we meant that not all humans are greedy, or power-loving, or interested in unlimited wealth. So it turns out that the denial of an enduring human nature amounts to some changeable or non-universal features of the human character not being unchangeable. What else is new?

In a tutorial I used to run on the Modern Political Thought course at Manchester, I would sometimes ask students if there are any biologically-based differences between men and women. You’d be surprised how many of them answered ‘No’. What?! How about the ability to bear children? Oh… we thought you meant differences like being cleverer or more fit to govern. So there are possible differences then? Yes, perhaps.

Julian Baggini talked to Dennett. On Dennett’s engagement with science and philosphy:

He may not be crudely scientistic, but it is true that these days Dennett spends more time around scientists than other philosophers. “I find the discoveries in those fields mind candy, just delicious,” he says. “If I go to a scientific conference I come away with a bunch of new things to think about. If I go to a philosophy conference I may come away just having learned four more wrinkles in the debate about something philosophers have been thinking about for all my life.”

But Dennett also maintains that we need philosophy to protect us from scientific overreach. “The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don’t learn that history you’ll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they’re very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart.”

Recent Dish on Dennett’s tips for arguing here.