Philosopher shares ‘tools’ for better thinking

Daniel Dennett is one of the world’s top thinkers. In his latest book, he shares his mental toolkit of ‘apps’ he has downloaded to his ‘necktop’. But is the mind really just like a machine?

With his jolly manner, expansive belly and big white beard, philosopher Daniel Dennett could be mistaken for Santa Claus. In fact, however, the 71-year-old is perhaps the most famous philosopher alive today, and certainly one of the most controversial. Over a fifty-year career, his ferocious intellect has torn holes in debate opponents and philosophical rivals – anyone he sees as standing in the way of clarity and truth.

Now, with his latest book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, he wants to share some simple tools that have helped him become the thinker he is today.

What is a ‘thinking tool’? Anything that helps humans think better. At the most basic level, even simple words are thinking tools. Once you have a new word, you have a new concept – a concept that you can use to better understand the world. Humans have been using words for around one million years. In that time we have become the planet’s dominant species. Our brains have not changed much. But we have learned how to think.

Over the centuries, we have added more and more tools to our mental toolboxes: mathematical ideas, logical principles, philosophical techniques. This is where Daniel Dennett comes in with a few of his own. What about, he says, a thinking tool called the ‘surely klaxon’? When someone arguing with you says the word ‘surely’, it should make an alarm go off in your head. ‘Surely’ really means ‘I’m not completely sure but I don’t want to argue about it.’ That is probably where the weakest part of their argument lies.

Or how about a ‘deepity detector’? ‘Deepities’, says Dennett, are statements that sound true and deep because they have two different meanings. One of the meanings is true, but only the other meaning is deep. Once you know what a deepity is, you know how to spot one.

Then there is the whole category of tools he calls ‘intuition pumps’. These are little philosophical dramas designed to cast a difficult question in a new light: to produce a new intuition about a problem. Making these up is a speciality of Dennett’s – he tells stories about zombies, rigged lotteries or swamp men, to cast light on some of the deepest philosophical questions around.

Overthinking it

There are 77 tools for thinking in Dennett’s book. The best thing about them? All you have to do is read about them and they will be ‘downloaded’ straight to your mind, or your ‘necktop’ as Dennett jokingly calls it. With these philosophical ‘apps’, anyone can learn to be a better thinker.

That is all very well, some will reply, but is thinking really what life is all about? Dennett sees us all as thinking machines, but aren’t feelings the things that really make us human?

You Decide

  1. Would you choose to become a great thinker if the price was giving up your emotions?
  2. What do you think is the world’s most important philosophical question?


  1. Try to make up your own ‘deepity’ – something that sounds deep and true but cannot be both at the same time.
  2. What do you think is the most useful idea you know? Write 200 words explaining what it is and why it matters.

Some People Say...

“The only “thinking tool” philosophers need is a good slap.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is the best way to become a better thinker?
One way is to study philosophy. Philosophers tackle the hardest questions about life; they test the most fundamental assumptions; they dig into the roots of morality and ethics; probe the nature of consciousness and free will; push at the boundaries of human understanding.
Then will I be able to think myself into a great job and a happy life?
Don’t count on it. Philosophers ask hard questions but they don’t get many answers. In fact, too much philosophy can be a swift route to what marketing experts call FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt.
That sounds terrible!
Some of the world’s best philosophers have indeed been famously miserable. On the upside though, they were always interesting!

Word Watch

Most controversial
Daniel Dennett is often counted as one of the ‘New Atheists’: public intellectuals who have made a point of challenging religious belief, and associated ideas like creationism and intelligent design. The most famous (and fiercest) is biologist Richard Dawkins.
Dominant species
Dennett has a nice illustration for this, something called the Macready Explosion. Ten thousand years ago, humans and their domesticated animals made up just 0.1% of the world’s biomass counting only land-dwelling vertebrates (so no fish or insects). Today, that figure is 98%. If you piled up all the terrestrial vertebrates on earth, almost all of that pile would be humans or animals domesticated for human use.
Mathematical ideas
Psychologists have long been puzzled by something called the Flynn Effect: over the last century at least, average IQ scores have been steadily getting higher. This, says Dennett, is not because brains are changing but because more people now know about simple mathematical ideas like probability or percentage.
Philosophical techniques
One of the oldest philosophical thinking tools is called Occam’s Razor. Simply put, it says that all other things being equal, the simplest solution to a problem is usually the correct one.
Dennett has a nice example: ‘Love is just a word.’ It is true, he says that “love”, the word, is just a word – true but obvious. Love without quotation marks, however, is not a word but a feeling – the statement is obviously false.

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